Scholar calls for end to ‘colonial’ system in tribal energy industries

Native peoples continue to be exploited by the legacy of colonialism, scholar Andrew Curley, a member of the Navajo Nation, said during a campus talk Oct. 9.
Scholar Andrew Curley delivers a talk at Yale on October 9, 2018.
Andrew Curley (Photo credit: Susan Gonzalez)

As they attempt to shape their own futures around energy resources on reservation lands, Native peoples continue to be exploited by “colonial” infrastructure and ideology, scholar Andrew Curley, a member of the Navajo Nation, said during campus talk Oct. 9.

Curley, an assistant professor of geography at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, spoke at a tea at the Timothy Dwight College Head of College House in celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. During his talk, titled “What Is a Resource Curse: Energy, Development, and Indigenous Sovereignties in Native North America,” he shared his research on resource conflicts for First Nations tribes, particularly for the Navajo. His research focuses on coal mining in the Navajo Nation, along with indigenous geography, energy water rights, land, tribal sovereignty, and Diné studies.

Noting that many Native economies in the western United States are reliant upon industries such as coal mining and oil and gas extraction due to the prevalence of these resources on their lands, Curley said such extractive industries produce complicated and harmful “colonial entanglements” for the tribes.

Five years ago, he pointed out, Navajo coal workers mobilized to convince their tribal council to vote to keep open the coal-powered Navajo Generating Station, despite the environmental degradation caused by mining and the impact of coal-burning plants on climate change. The Navajo economy is dependent upon the plant (which it doesn’t own) for both revenues and jobs; thus its closing (now planned for 2019) will create hardship, said Curley. The plant is operated by the Salt River Project, which holds a lease with the Navajo Nation.

Before coal became the major extractive industry for the Navajo, uranium mining sites were common on the reservation during the 1940s and 1950s, when the federal government was building its nuclear arsenal. Lax regulation led to high rates of cancer among the indigenous mine workers, and the sites remain contaminated today, Curley told a packed audience.

He said that while the federal government’s 1934 Reorganization Act allowed tribal governments to organize into tribal councils, these councils are “fundamentally a colonial relationship” because “even though these are lands where we’ve never relinquished our sovereignty, under the logic of the federal government, [it] maintains the title to these lands and allow[s] us to live there.” He likened the relationship between tribal members and the federal government to bears at Yellowstone Park, which — like reservation lands — is overseen by the U.S. Department of Interior.

The Navajo people are divided in their views about extractive industries, Curley noted. Many Native coal miners, for example, see themselves as following in the footsteps of ancestors who taught them that “good things will come” to those who work hard in their jobs and contribute to progress. In this “progress narrative,” Curley said, miners see their labor as part of their indigenous identity.

Tribal councils, meanwhile, believe that such industries contribute to the tribe’s modernization and economic development, said Curley — which he called the “assimilationist narrative.”

Navajo activists and environmentalists are challenging those narratives, however, while they attempt to “reconceptualize” tribal identity, advocating for green technologies such as solar and wind power along with a return to a subsistence way of living by growing indigenous crops, for example, he said.

Curley noted that just one day before his talk, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report that warned that “rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes” are necessary to avoid levels of global warming that would be disastrous to the planet.

With that in mind, he said, he hopes that his own research about the harm of extractive industries to Native peoples “will help us think through these conversations” about tribal relationships to energy resources and industries.

Change should mean decolonization, respect of treaty rights, and enhancement of indigenous ideas of sovereignty,” concluded Curley. 

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