Honors Program


Document Type


Date of this Version

Spring 2023


O'Brien, A. (2023). Wakara's Waterscapes: Storytelling, Cartography, and Rhetorical Sovereignty on the Shores of the Green River. Undergraduate Honors Thesis. University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


Copyright Abbey O'Brien 2023.


In the mid nineteenth-century, Wakara, a prominent Ute leader, witnessed the invasion of his homeland by Mormon settlers and mountain-men. He met the scouts and explorers who were sent out to examine the land and waterscapes, and who drew maps along their way. It was those same maps which were eventually used as tools to justify colonial expansion all across the Utah territories, Wakara’s home. But Wakara resisted. Employing his understandings of the roles that cartography and the written word played in Mormon and settler discourse, Wakara created his own maps in order to assert his Indigenous authority over the territory. In 1849, he drew a map on the shores of the Green River for a lost explorer named William Lewis Manly, in an act of writing and storytelling. In 1851, he corrected the anglicized names for lakes etched onto famed explorer John C. Frémont’s map. And in 1854, he argued against the Mormon’s constructions of fortifications—physical manifestations of borders—near the Ute’s sacred waterscapes. In his cartographical responses to settler hegemony, Wakara employed a unique form of mapping, which adhered to the settler colonial culture’s values of the written word, but simultaneously incorporated elements of Ute oral narrativity. Wakara’s maps were stories, an acknowledgement of the agency of rivers and lakes that settler-constructed maps failed to represent. By telling stories in his cartographic representations of waterscapes, Wakara asserted his—and his Ute contemporaries’—rhetorical sovereignty.