John Flynn, Digital Matters/American West Center Graduate Fellow, Fall 2020 – Spring 2022

John Flynn is a PhD student in history. His research focuses on environmental history and the American West. Before coming to Utah, he worked as a journalist in Austin, writing about science and the environment. He graduated with a master’s in history from Brown University, where he worked on digital humanities projects at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage. As a graduate fellow at the American West Center, he works with Professor Gregory Smoak on Native Places Atlas, an Indigenous maps project in conjunction with Digital Matters.


Briefly describe your project and the challenges, lessons learned, and obstacles overcome in the execution of it. What were the professional, academic, and personal motivations underlying your project?

Native Places: An Indigenous Atlas of Utah and the Intermountain West is an interactive map of the intermountain west that restores Indigenous placenames to geographic features. Set against a backdrop of USGS names, the project is a response to a history of settler colonialism where Euromericans imposed their placenames on the land, effectively erasing the history and culture of Native peoples. Native Places restores indigenous placenames to their original geographic features, resource sites, and populated places through historical research, tribal consultation, and digital mapping.

There were a great number of challenges that faced this project. One of the immediate major challenges was deciding which software to use to develop the project. Originally, an early version of the map was created using JavaScript, but many technical challenges prompted the project to move to ArcGIS. While ArcGIS is proprietary, we have made the datasheet accessible so that users may see the citations and notes. Another issue was the categorization of placenames, and whether to use linguistic, political, or cultural boundaries. This is an ongoing discussion, and the map has the flexibility to evolve as engagement with Native groups of Utah helps shape the project.


How did the Digital Matters Graduate Student Fellowship dovetail with your academic pursuits? What interested you in applying for this fellowship?

I have a keen interest in the ways that digital tools can enhance humanities projects that are accessible and engage with larger audiences. My joint fellowship with Digital Matters and the American West Center was the perfect combination of public history and digital humanities. The cast of scholars and researchers I collaborated with introduced me to new tools and ideas, as well as challenged me in productive ways.


What insights have you gained in regard to your specific field as a result of your project and fellowship experience?

I have discovered the vast potential that digital mapping has for historical scholarship. Maps and GIS are not only a historical research interest of mine, but they can also serve as research tools that open new and interesting questions. Maps are also an engaging way to convey information to general audiences. I also discovered that while digital humanities can be a great tool for research, it carries its own set of conceptual and ideological dilemmas. The conversations had at DM meetings contented to challenge my perceptions of how to best utilize digital tools.


What would you tell potential fellowship applicants to help them shape their own digital scholarship project?

Do not think you must be an expert in GIS, coding, or any digital tool to apply. Digital Matters rewards innovation and creativity, and there is ample opportunity to learn the skills you need to complete your proposed project. With the ability to collaborate across disciplines, I feel that DM is a great way to learn the tools of digital humanities while getting hands-on experience.


What do you see as the upcoming important issues surrounding digital scholarship in your field? What areas/issues could students and scholars investigate to extend the knowledge in this area?

Using digital tools, especially mapping can help historians analyze historical documents and see trends and patterns in new ways. The power of mapping and data visualizations is not new, but its adoption by historians can be increased. Many historical documents transfer well into excel sheets (or CSVs), and the power to digitize documents, and making them easily searchable will help facilitate future research. But digital scholarship transcends academia. Moreover, as I am interested in public history, data visualizations are a valuable way to engage with larger audiences.

What prompts or inspires you to continue the project you’ve been developing over several semesters now?

The map is constantly growing as we gather more data. We now have more than 500 data points, and as we attempt to build more relationships with local Tribes, that number hopefully will continue to increase. We are also open to feedback from users, and continue to shape the map for a seamless user experience, adding in filters and search features. I have also been inspired to explore new ways for users to understand Native presence in the Intermountain West through digital tools. The map has new features, such as an overlay of different historical maps, that allow a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the history of the Intermountain West. Users can also use local GPS coordinates to search for nearby data points. The hope is to offer numerous ways for users to explore the data.


How has the project evolved, both in its purpose and execution? Has anything surprised you about the continuation of this research?

The project has gone through various iterations. The current version, while true to the spirit of the original idea, looks different both in scope and technology than original drafts. The map is built on ArcGIS. After testing a series of different GIS technologies, we found that ArcGIS best served the needs of the project. The map is also shaped by user feedback, and we have discovered new purposes based on these conversations. Different groups have pointed to the numerous ways they can use the map, whether it be cultural heritage, language preservation, public history education, or crafting land acknowledgments. Meeting with scholars, historians, state agencies, and Native Tribes across Utah has continued to excite me to further develop the map.


Native Places restores indigenous placenames to their original geographic features, resource sites, and populated places through historical research, tribal consultation, and digital mapping. 

–John Flynn, Digital Matters/American West Center Graduate Fellow, Fall 2020 – Spring 2021