April 4, 2023
For almost fifty years, coal dominated the Navajo economy. But in 2019 one of the Navajo Nation’s largest coal plants closed. Carbon Sovereignty offers a deep dive into the complex inner workings of energy shift in the Navajo Nation. Geographer Andrew Curley, a member of the Navajo Nation, examines the history of coal development within the Navajo Nation, including why some Diné supported coal and the consequences of doing so. He explains the Navajo Nation’s strategic choices to use the coal industry to support its sovereignty as a path forward in the face of ongoing colonialism.
What first sparked your interest in telling the story of the coal plant development and closure?
I became interested in the Navajo coal economy when working at Diné College from 2007-2008. At that time, the tribe was trying to build a power plant on the eastern end of the reservation. There was a lot of opposition from grassroots groups to the plant while at the same time the tribal government promoted it. I thought it revealed a tension around coal in the reservation that needed explaining. The politics around coal fell into two camps, either promoting it or opposing it. I wanted to find out more about these ideas and why they developed the way they did around this industry. I was especially interested in the voice of Diné coal workers whose perspective I thought was missing from the conversation. These people had an intimate relation with coal. They also suffered some of the immediate health impacts from the industry. Why did they participate? What did they think about it? How did coal align or not align with traditional values? This was something I was interested in.
Why do some Diné continue to support coal energy?
I think there are a couple of main reasons. The first, it provides revenues for the tribal government. We don’t have a lot of other sources of income and the monies that come from coal and other resources give the tribe opportunities to do things for the people that the federal and state governments don’t provide. Money from coal leases goes directly into the tribal budget and pays for scholarships, salaries, even the maintenance of basic infrastructure. In a place with a harsh environment, these little bits of money go a long way. Coal was originally sold to the Diné people as a first step toward development and modernization. The modernization narrative is intoxicating and easy to sell because it always promises things in the future and never in the present. In the 1960s, coal was promoted as a first step toward industrialization in the reservation, toward future growth and the basis of life that reflects the rapidly developing cities in the west. This future never was realized in the way that it was initially promised. Nevertheless, hundreds of jobs were created in the reservation around coal work. People could afford basic things for their families and extended relatives. The tribal government also got money to tackle important problems within the reservation. Coal did a lot for the tribe. It’s wrong to ignore its positive impact.
What do you mean by “carbon sovereignty”?
It is a kind of sovereignty, or sense of both political authority and sense of self-determination, derived from tribal activities around fossil fuels, particularly coal in this case. Our actions and experience shape how we understand abstract ideas. In the case of the Navajo Nation, tribal experiences around coal helped us to understand how we think about sovereignty. It plays out in not only how we think about development and the exploitation of natural resources, but how we internally guard these activities against outside threats, how we think or rethink the federal government’s so-called ‘trust responsibility’ with tribes and the inequality found in early contracts between the tribe and private companies. In other words, sovereignty as institutional practice in the Navajo Nation reflects the history of coal mining and development over the past 60 years.
What is the role of Diné youth in energy transition?
Diné youth try to redefine and at times challenge these relationships. They want to change the conditions that they inherit, especially if they disagree on some of the major premises, such as the premise that coal is good for the Navajo Nation. I don’t want to paint a broad brush, to say there is even generational agreement on this. Younger people like all generations have varied opinions. But it is especially among younger Diné members where we find greater support for energy transition and different ideas of economic development in the Navajo Nation. There are a lot of factors that contribute to this difference. Some of this difference is attributed to global shifts in energy production and the decline of coal on a national level. But others can be understood as changing socioeconomic conditions for Diné people in particular. The value of low-skilled work is in decline, for better or worse. Today, extensive training and education is required for most kinds of work. Younger Diné generations, including myself, have taken advantage of tribal scholarships – derived from coal revenues – and look for work in very different kinds of industries, like in education, health, business, law, etc. This doesn’t speak for everyone, and there are many Diné youth who’d excel in work that you can get right out of high school and that trains you as you go along. That was the nature of coal work, and unfortunately many of those kinds of jobs are now found far from the reservation.
What is your current research project and/or next book?
I’m interested in the history of water infrastructure, both physical and legal, in the State of Arizona. I’m researching the origins of our water law and trying to understand specifically how tribes were excluded from almost all the water development in the west over the past century. It’s a big project that needs grounding in some ways. But I’m still in an exploratory phase.
Andrew Curley is a member of the Navajo Nation and an assistant professor in the School of Geography, Development & Environment at the University of Arizona. He has studied the social, cultural, and political implications of coal mining in the Navajo Nation, and his latest research is on the environmental history of water diversions on the Colorado River and the impact of colonial infrastructures on tribal nations.