Aleutian Islands TypeMap.png

The Aleutian Islands typemap

This was the next map I did after the Silk Road Map and is part of the same series of typographic maps. I made it after a trip to Alaska (though not to the Aleutians). Both before and after the trip, I was interested in purchasing a map of Alaska as a record of our journey. Whenever I saw a map of Alaska, I remember thinking that the arc of the Aleutian Islands was quite beautiful. Sometime after I made the Silk Road Map, I saw the map of Alaska again and decided that the Aleutians would make a nice map.

To build this map, I grabbed source maps from Microsoft Encarta (it was pre-Google Earth). I followed the arc from Russia to the mainland of Alaska and then tiled them together into a base map. It is difficult to see from this image but in the final map, the entire arc of the Aleutions is made up of type. There are no outlines of the islands. The first version of the map was dark type on a white background. But I later changed it to the deep blue background and reversed the type to make it look less like a traditional map. The angled white line cutting across the map is the path of the International Dateline.

The other detail that is hard to see at this image size is the color of the island names. The names of the Aleutian Islands are a mix of native Aleut, Russian and American names. It is clear that certain islands were renamed under American rule while others were renamed by the Russians when they claimed Alaska. The majority of the names are Aleut names. In this map, Russian place names are red, American names are blue and native Aleut names are brown. I wonder if there is a map somewhere that has all Aleut names for the islands (as they almost certainly had before they were colonized).

The islands follow an arc that appears to connect the Russian and the Asian Continent to North America. Knowing that North America was originally settled by a mass migration from Asia and down through Alaska, it is tempting to think that the path was across the Aleutians but this is not the case. The actual path was across the land bridge, north of the Aleutians that came and went several times in-between various ice ages. So what is interesting about the Aleutians is that although they were settled by people originating in Asia, they were actually settled from East to West... from the Alaskan peninsula in North America westward and back towards Asia.

This map, as well as the Silk Road Map got me wondering, who gets to name a place. Why do cartographers (or more typically colonial powers) sometimes keep the name used by the local population and sometimes change it. Sometimes place names are retained, sometimes they're changed and sometimes they are translated. For instance, an English map of a colony might label "Black Mountain" as literally Black Mountain, or use the local word for Black or just rename it entirely and call it King George Mountain. Maps show signs of all these cases and there is probably a story behind every decision.