In this week’s episode, host Daniel Raimi talks with Andrew Curley, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona and a member of the Navajo Nation. Curley works on how Native nations and the US government manage water and energy resources in a complex social, political, and geographic landscape. They discuss water and energy issues in the Navajo Nation where Andrew lives, and how history, politics, economics, and social factors affect the decisions that relate to the governance of these essential resources.
Listen to the Podcast
- Native nations lack representation in Congress: “States have representatives [in Congress]. Tribes don’t. When it comes to water rights, you have to negotiate with states who already have a much greater advantage in the forum where the water rights are eventually solidified into law.” (8:58)
- Infrastructure funding plays a role in negotiations over water rights: “On paper, you can have all these rights to water or claim you have all these rights, but you can’t actualize that water until you have the money necessary to build infrastructure: the pipelines, canals, pumps—whatever is needed to bring the water to the household, the business, industrial site, or whatever you envision the water being used for. You need to have the capital to spend to make that water work for you. Those are the nuts and bolts of the water settlement.” (19:04)
- The closure of the Navajo Generating Station needs context: “I can’t see the closure of the plant and its demolishment as anything to celebrate. It’s an indication of a loss of the environment, the landscape for 40-plus years of the mining, and the water that was used … Then you have the loss of the jobs, the income, and the revenues for the Tribal government. It’s nothing but loss for us with the closure of that power plant and the mine. To look at it and celebrate it is to look at it ahistorically. The closure forces us to answer difficult questions as a Tribe, but it definitely isn’t something to be celebrating.” (30:57)
Top of the Stack
- “Our Winters’ Rights: Challenging Colonial Water Laws” by Andrew Curley
- Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait by Bathsheba Demuth
- Carbon Technocracy: Energy Regimes in Modern East by Victor Seow
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I’m your host, Daniel Raimi. Today, we talk with Dr. Andrew Curley, Assistant Professor in the School of Geography, Development, and Environment at the University of Arizona and a member of the Navajo Nation. Andrew does fascinating work on how Native American people and governments manage water and energy resources in a complex landscape.
In today’s episode, we talk about water and energy issues in the Navajo Nation, where Andrew lives, and how history, politics, economics, and social factors affect decisionmaking about the governance of these essential resources. Stay with us.
Andrew Curley, welcome to Resources Radio.
Andrew Curley: Thanks for having me.
Daniel Raimi: We’re going to talk about your work on Native American communities—specifically, on water and energy issues, where you’ve done fascinating stuff. But before we get into that, we always ask our guests how they got interested in working on environmental issues, whether their interest started from a young age or they came to environmental issues later in life. How did you get into working on these topics?
Andrew Curley: I was interested in questions of development and inequality in college. That was a topic I started to develop a larger interest in. I took sociology classes in New Mexico, then elsewhere, and I was eventually afforded the opportunity to do some research internationally.
I went on a trip with people who did research in the area in Nicaragua on small-scale coffee farms and looked at coffee farming that was going towards fair trade markets. Then, I eventually started to try to replicate some of this kind of work in Tanzania and Ghana around other kinds of fair trade commodities like coffee, chocolate, and the base material of chocolate.
I started to think about commodities, commodity chains, and how things that are produced in one location get transferred into some sort of product and commodity with value added in other places. When I finished college and went back to the Navajo Nation to do work, which was my intention all throughout college, I started to think, What are our commodities that we produce? What is the basis of our economy here in the Navajo Nation? I looked around me and at the politics on the ground, and everybody was talking about coal and the future of coal mines. That’s how I got interested in energy questions and environmental questions, because those were the ways we were framing the conversation.
Daniel Raimi: That’s a perfect lead in to the next question I wanted to ask you, because there are a couple important terms that I think we should define at the outset of our conversation. You mentioned the Navajo Nation, but there’s also an important term, which is “Diné.” Can you explain for our listeners what the difference is between the word “Diné” and the word “Navajo”?
Andrew Curley: “Diné” is a word that we use in our language; “Diné Bizaad” basically means who we are. It refers to us, whereas “Navajo Nation” is the name of our Tribal government and the spatial configuration, the reservation, whose jurisdiction the Tribe maintains. That’s the Navajo Nation.
“Navajo” is not a word in our language. It’s an approximation of a Tewa word, which is a Puebloan language along the Middle Rio Grande Valley. When Spanish colonialists came in and tried to understand who we were, referring to us out in the hinterlands from their perspective, the Pueblo people used “Navu.” I don’t know exactly what they said. It’s really hard to track that down, but the Spanish approximated that to “Navajo,” and then that stuck. That’s why we were called “Navajo.”
When Anglocolonialists came in, they tried to replace the “J” sound, which in Spanish sounds like an “H” in English; they tried to replace “J” with “H.” Even today, in our Tribal code, we are very strict about having the “J” there. It’s “Navajo” with a “J” and not an “H,” even though it’s not even our language in our words.
That’s where the term “Navajo Nation” comes from. Before that, we used to be the Navajo Tribe, and then in 1968 we became the Navajo Nation; we rebranded ourselves Navajo Nation.
Daniel Raimi: There’s so much rich history in those two words to try to unpack. I’m sure we could spend an entire hour or longer talking about them. I
Andrew Curley: Thought that’s what we were going do. I thought that’s what this episode was about.
Daniel Raimi: Oh, no. (Laughs)
Andrew Curley: Just kidding. Wait, am I in the wrong place? (Laughs)
Daniel Raimi: No, it’s not etymology radio. It’s Resources Radio.
Andrew Curley: Oh, okay.
Daniel Raimi: I’m going to steer you away from etymology, and we’re going to move towards water instead. As I mentioned, you’ve done fascinating work on water, as well as on energy, and we’re going to try to talk about both today. We’ll start with water.
You wrote a paper in 2019 called “Our Winters’ Rights: Challenging Colonial Water Laws,” in which you talk about the Little Colorado River as a case study. Can you help us understand how Native nations such as the Navajo Nation are allocated water rights in the West and help situate us a bit? What are water rights? How do they get assigned, and why are they important?
Andrew Curley: That’s an important question, and it’s a big question, so I’ll try to summarize quickly.
Our rights are reserved from a Supreme Court decision in 1908, Winters v. United States, that’s often called “Winters.” That’s where the name comes from in the title of the paper. Tribal leaders, community groups, and activists will refer back to the Winters’ rights. This is part of US law, advanced through the courts and determined by the courts. The water rights are reserved from the Supreme Court decision. Figuring out what the water rights are has been the question since then—more than 100 years ago.
Often, these water rights have to conform with existing allocation and existing agreements, not only within communities or within state water codes, but also between states and international agreements. When we’re looking at the Colorado River, there’s an agreement between the United States and Mexico on how much water will eventually reach Mexico. Then there’s an agreement between what are considered the seven Colorado River Basin states. This was agreed to 100 years ago, in 1922 in Santa Fe, where representatives of the states divided the river in half, approximated how much water goes through that half, and gave all of that water to the states.
To this day—at least in the Southwest and in the Colorado River Basin, because of decades of Supreme Court rulings and other kinds of legislation over the years—Indian water rights, or Tribal water rights, come out of the state’s apportionment of the Colorado River. So, how much of the river that a state was guaranteed, Tribal water rights will come out of that state’s budget—whatever agreement the state makes with the Tribal governments.
That sometimes creates inherently adversarial relationships between states and Tribes over water rights. They expose political inequalities between the states and Tribes, especially when you’re trying to conform these rights through the legislative process, through Congress. States have representatives there. Tribes don’t. When it comes to water rights, you have to negotiate with states who already have a much greater advantage in the forum where the water rights are eventually solidified into law. That’s the nature of the politics that I’m looking at with water rights, especially in Arizona, but also along the Colorado River.
In that particular paper, I was looking at not just the way I was describing that understanding—the way that the law has rendered the river—but also how people think about rights to the river beyond what the Supreme Court has said: as an inherent, aboriginal occupancy right that is somewhat unarticulated in federal colonial law, because the colonialists don’t want to acknowledge aboriginal rights. That’s a different kind of right than what is guaranteed in Winters’ rights. Those are the differences and tensions I’m looking at with water rights, water settlements, and water litigation that are between the Tribes and the states right now.
Daniel Raimi: The next question, hopefully, will dig us down a level deeper on some of the inequalities that you mentioned and the failure to acknowledge the inherent rights of occupancy that you referenced.
You talk a lot in the article about a group of Diné activists who opposed the Little Colorado Water Settlement; I think they opposed parts of it, at least. What were some of their core critiques, and how did they bring them to bear in the process of the negotiation between the state and the Tribe?
Andrew Curley: It’s almost a particular history, because at that time the state of Arizona, with the former senator John Kyl as the face of the state, was trying to wrap up two big and important issues into one agreement between the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe, and the state of Arizona.
The first issue was the extension of the Navajo Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant along the Colorado River that used water from the Colorado River to cool its generators and for other kinds of water it needed. The second was the water settlement for the Little Colorado River. How many acre-feet of water would the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe be satisfied with? This included surface and aquifer waters that they were entitled to and some money for infrastructure and development.
All of this was wrapped up into one package, and a lot of Diné activists immediately noticed not only what they saw was a lessening of the amount of water that they felt the Tribes ought to be entitled to, but also the combination of the water settlement with the extension of a power plant lease.
For Diné activists who have been working on closing down coal-fired power plants for years at this point—for decades in some cases—when they see an agreement tied to a water settlement that extends the life of the power plant for 25 years, they become wary and then think that this is another example of colonial chicanery: “You need water to survive, so we’re going to tie up this extractive industry to the water settlement.”
From their perspective, the agreement was a colonial technique to get at the inherent natural wealth of the reservation. They were saying, “This is another example of naked colonialism.” I think that was particular to that settlement. I can’t think of any other water settlement that tied an extension of a power plant to it.
Eventually, those things were separated, and then we could examine the water rights on their own terms and the extension of the coal-fired power plant lease on its own terms. But, initially, these things were presented together, and that raised a lot of red flags for people.
Daniel Raimi: I have one question for clarification: When this was happening, I know you were traveling with at least some of these activists during the negotiation process. Did you consider yourself an activist in that process, or did you consider yourself an observer? Or how did you think about yourself then, and how do you think about yourself now when looking back on that experience?
Andrew Curley: That’s an important question. Honestly, I did not consider myself an activist, although I imagine other people reading my positionality might read me as an activist, or they might read me in other ways: as somebody who’s undermining the work of environmental groups or environmental justice groups.
That is a tricky part of doing this kind of field work. When you’re working within a location and joining a social network and a social fabric, inevitably you inherit or develop a social identity around that. Who you’re interacting and traveling with has bearing on how people read you. In this case, coal workers would notice that I would be friendly or friends with people who were environmental activists or who considered themselves environmental activists. It goes the other way, too, even though I haven’t heard that directly. Because I was prioritizing in my research the position or the perspective of coal workers, I was seen as not contributing to the larger politics of the environmental group.
So, the positionality is an important question. When I was in these spaces, not only was I in those two positions, but I also had family in Tribal government who were making these decisions at the time or who were on both sides of the water rights settlement. I had people who I was related to either through blood or marriage that were on both sides of the water settlement, promoting it or decrying it. When you’re doing this kind of work as a member in a community like the Navajo Nation, it can become tricky; you can be read in a lot of different ways.
Back to your question—I didn’t consider myself an activist as much as I had my political opinions. I was skeptical of the water settlement, and since then I’ve become a little bit more forthright with my understanding of what I think should be happening with water distribution in the Southwest. But I wasn’t sure at that point; I was still learning a lot and interviewing not only the Tribal workers, but also the attorneys who were working on the water settlement. I interviewed a couple of senior attorneys working for the Navajo Nation on water rights litigation, and they were super helpful. I could not have written this article without their insights and understanding of water law. Everything I know comes from the Navajo water-rights attorneys.
Daniel Raimi: In engaged social research, thinking about one’s role can get really complicated and, sometimes, muddy.
You mentioned the tying-up of the extension of the coal-fired power plant with the water rights. Aside from the intermingling of those two issues, what were some of the biggest differences between the goals of the activists who you talked about and the goals of the Navajo Nation government, as they were negotiating with the state?
Andrew Curley: It became clear for me with a different part of my research, which was on the mining of the coal, what the interest of the Tribal government was. In that case, they wanted to preserve revenues—I mean, it’s not that they were unconcerned about the loss of jobs and livelihood. They were concerned, but an important feature of the mine and the land leases for the power plant was the amount of money that it contributed to the annual coffers of the Navajo Nation government.
In the case of the water settlement, the Tribe was also not interested in monetary benefits, but in infrastructure development. This is usually the carrot that’s tied to water settlements. The state government will put funding for a pipeline for some sort of water infrastructure that’s needed to bring water to a community in the legislation required to enact the settlement.
This is described by water attorneys as “wet water.” They’re saying, “We actually put water into use. We bring you the tangible water rather than abstract ‘paper water.’” On paper, you can have all these rights to water or claim you have all these rights, but you can’t actualize that water until you have the money necessary to build infrastructure: the pipelines, canals, pumps—whatever is needed to bring the water to the household, the business, industrial site, or whatever you envision the water being used for. You need to have the capital to spend to make that water work for you. Those are the nuts and bolts of the water settlement. You need to have the infrastructure funding; that’s what the Tribal government is thinking about. The activists and the community organizers were focused on the time—the foreverness of suspending water.
It’s like modern day treatymaking. When you’ve settled final boundaries for reservation, you’re stuck with those boundaries. At the time, in the late 19th century, you’re under a lot of pressure. Settlers are coming in. There’s a lot of violence directed against you. You want to have some sort of safety and guarantee in the form of a reservation boundary. 150 years later, there are huge shortcomings with where the boundaries are. You’re losing sacred sites, traditional burial grounds, and all sorts of things that you were willing to not deal with at the time, but now are sad that you didn’t deal with those issues.
This understanding of deep history and the way that colonialism plays out informs the perspective of organizers and activists. They’re saying, “We’re suspending our rights forever. We are telling the state that we are agreeing to this forever.” This “forever” language is one of the first things that you read within a settlement. Forever is a long time. It’s easy to say, “Let’s sign it now,” but what are the long-term ramifications?
That’s where the activists and organizers are asking more questions than positing answers. They’re not saying, “Here’s what we need and what we want.” They’re saying, “Let’s sit down and have a dialogue about this. What do we want with the water feature? Let’s tie this water feature to a larger sense of community planning and nationness and a larger conversation that we need to be having.” It becomes tied up with other social, cultural, and political issues beyond just the water divided from the land.
Organizers and activists are thinking about water in a fundamentally different way from the way water attorneys were thinking about it. One of the points of the article is to say that they are looking at this question in fundamentally different ways. The water attorneys are drawing upon a long lineage of law that divorces water from land and surface water from subsurface water. We’re able to dissect the landscape, quantify it, and give it things akin to property rights, access rights, water rights, or however you want to put it. They know that language well, and they advocate for the Tribe as hard as they can. We’re not undermining what they’re doing, but it’s a fundamentally different perspective from that of the community organizers, activists, and former Tribal leaders.
Many of these people were former Tribal leaders; they’re not people that are from a Sierra Club–type organization or are outside agitators. Peter McDonald, former chairman of the Navajo Nation, was against the water settlement. Other former leaders of the Hopi Tribe were against the water settlement. These are ingrained, embedded critiques of the whole process. They were saying, “We need to think about this alongside some of these other long-standing issues that haven’t been discussed.”
It was interesting to be there at that time and observe how these two conversations were parallel but not intersecting. Each side had their own perspective and blinders on, but they weren’t able to get into the other perspective. That was part of the reason why you had two sides going in different directions on this. That’s the nature of politics. When you’re trying to advance a political position, you end up focusing on your perspective more than the larger political landscape.
Daniel Raimi: There’s so much richness here, and this is why your work is fascinating, because you’re helping us get into that second and third cut of detail on such complex topics.
There are so many follow-up questions I want to ask you, but I’m going to stick to the script and turn to this topic of coal, which you’ve mentioned several times. It’s an important economic issue for the Navajo Nation, and, as many listeners probably know, the Navajo Generating Station did close roughly two years ago.
Many environmental advocates and advocates on the reservation, Diné people, celebrated that as a win. But you’ve documented in your work the range of perspectives that people have about the pros and cons of shutting down coal mining and coal-fired power on the reservation. Can you talk about what you’ve learned about different perspectives on the topic of coal?
Andrew Curley: There was a long-standing critique of coal that goes back to the 1970s when coal mining started to open up, especially on Black Mesa, where we had the Navajo Mine and the Kayenta Mine open up. People were concerned about the damage it was doing to the landscape: unearthing the ground, creating a permanent disfiguration on places that they’ve known for a long time, and, in some cases, possibly contaminating it forever.
There have been multiple incidences over the years of livestock getting tangled up with coal or somehow drinking water and getting sick or dying. You can see instant effects of it on not just people, but on life on the mesa and around it. There has been a long-standing understanding of coal as something that has negative health and environmental impacts on people.
At the same time, it was providing hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in revenue, and it was a good place for Diné workers. It was gendered labor; primarily men worked there, but not exclusively men. There were women who worked in the industry, but, because extractive industries tend to offer gendered work, the mines tended to favor men or people who identified as male as workers.
They could come out of high school or, in this case, return from Vietnam. It was a place where you can build skills. You learn skills on the job, and those skill sets are transferable to other kinds of work, depending on what you’re doing. In the popular imagination, mine work sometimes is seen as just being a coal seam with a pick ax or underneath the ground with a hard hat on. But there’s a lot of industrial work—welding, truck driving, and other auxiliary work—around the actual mining itself where people learn different skills. In some ways, it’s like a college that a lot of people can get into and that’s not exclusive and turning people down, like our other colleges. It’s a working-class job, and people built their identities around it.
Daniel Raimi: It was a pretty good-paying job, too, right?
Andrew Curley: It was really good. This was part of the challenge of doing field work: I was a poor graduate student trying to entice coal workers who made three or four times as much money as I did to sit down for an hour or less of their time and answer questions. To them, I’m not worth their time. They already know what they’re thinking, and I am giving them small rewards here and there to sit down and talk.
You have to understand that it is a good-paying job in a place where there are not that many jobs available. Some people estimate around 50 percent unemployment. There are some problems with that statistic, but, nevertheless, it’s hard for people to find jobs in the reservation.
That’s something the coal workers would say often: “I got to stay close to home. I got to work near where I’m from.” It was much better to have that working environment than to have to travel two or three hours to a border town or, if you’re in construction, even further. Your construction site moves around, even across the country, and you can be gone from home for a long time.
These are the real costs of working-class labor. The advantage of coal work was that you’re there. The coal doesn’t move around. It has this fixity. How hard it is to transport also is part of the reason for its decline in some ways, too. But that was their perspective, and some of these people had been working in coal since the 1970s.
Then, environmental groups start to understand the impacts of coal on the larger planet environment and the climate, coal’s contribution to what we’re calling climate change. That critique is more recent with the national environmental movement, as it is with the Diné or Navajo environmental movement. We were also asking ourselves questions: “What is our contribution to global warming and climate change, and how are we exacerbating the problem with the continuation of these industries?”
There were some groups that celebrated the mine closing, but a lot of people, including the environmental activists, realize that the closure of the mine and the demolishment of the power plant are another tragedy. It’s like that saying about a rock and a hard place. You’re stuck with two difficult options. I can’t see the closure of the plant and its demolishment as anything to celebrate.
It’s an indication of a loss of the environment, the landscape for 40-plus years of the mining, and the water that was used. Aquifer water was used to slurry coal from what was the Black Mesa Mine to Mohave Generating Station; there’s the loss of that aquifer water over the years. Then you have the loss of the jobs, the income, and the revenues for the Tribal government. It’s nothing but loss for us with the closure of that power plant and the mine. To look at it and celebrate it is to look at it ahistorically. The closure forces us to answer difficult questions as a Tribe, but it definitely isn’t something to be celebrating.
Daniel Raimi: There are many more questions I would love to ask you, but we are out of time. So, I’m going to ask you the last question we ask all of our guests, and I know you have lots of opinions on media for us to enjoy. We ask everybody to recommend something that’s at the top of their literal or metaphorical reading stack. It can be something you’ve read, watched, or heard that you think is great, would like to share with our listeners. I know you could talk about this for a really long time, but I’m going to ask you just pick one or two things.
Andrew Curley: At the top of my reading list, there’re a couple books that I’ve been reading that I like. They’re in the genre of environmental history. I was inspired by the beautiful writing style of Bathsheba Demuth’s book, Floating Coast, which I’m always promoting. It takes place up in the Arctic, but it has a layered history of not only the history of life and animals in that area, but also extractive industry. I imagine many of your listeners would be really interested in that.
There’s another one that I’m working my way through that’s really good. It’s called Carbon Technocracy: Energy Regimes in Modern East Asia, by Victor Seow. This came out this year, and it’s a history of coal mining in Manchuria, I believe. It’s a good book.
Daniel Raimi: They both look absolutely fascinating. Great recommendations, great conversation, great work, Andrew. Thank you so much for coming on to the show today and sharing it with us. We really appreciate it.
Andrew Curley: Take care.
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