Landscapes of Power: Politics of Energy in the Navajo Nation

Landscapes of Power: Politics of Energy in the Navajo Nation

by Dana E. Powell


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In Landscapes of Power Dana E. Powell examines the rise and fall of the controversial Desert Rock Power Plant initiative in New Mexico to trace the political conflicts surrounding native sovereignty and contemporary energy development on Navajo (Diné) Nation land. Powell's historical and ethnographic account shows how the coal-fired power plant project's defeat provided the basis for redefining the legacies of colonialism, mineral extraction, and environmentalism. Examining the labor of activists, artists, politicians, elders, technicians, and others, Powell emphasizes the generative potential of Navajo resistance to articulate a vision of autonomy in the face of twenty-first-century colonial conditions. Ultimately, Powell situates local Navajo struggles over energy technology and infrastructure within broader sociocultural life, debates over global climate change, and tribal, federal, and global politics of extraction.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822369882
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 01/05/2018
Series: New Ecologies for the Twenty-First Century Series
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Dana E. Powell is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Appalachian State University.

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Extractive Legacies

The following is a passage from The Emergence, the phase of the Diné peoples' journey in Creation as they travel into the penultimate Fourth World:

In those early times dark ants dwelled there. Red ants dwelled there. Dragonflies dwelled there. Yellow beetles dwelled there. Hard beetles lived there. Stone-carrier beetles lived there. Black beetles lived there. Coyote- dung beetles lived there. Bats made their homes there. Whitefaced beetles made their homes there. Locusts made their homes there. White locusts made their homes there. Those are the twelve groups who started life there. We call them Nilch'idine'é. In the language of Bilagáana the White Man that name means Air-Spirit People. For they are people unlike the five-fingered earth-surface people who come into the world today, live on the ground for a while, die at a ripe old age, and then leave the world. They are the people who travel in the air and fly swiftly like the wind and dwell nowhere else but here....

The surface of the fourth world was unlike the surface of any of the lower worlds. For it was a mixture of black and white. The sky above was alternately white, blue, yellow, and black, just as it had been in the worlds below. But here the colors were of a different duration. In the first world each color lasted for about the same length of time each day. In the second world the blue and the black lasted just a little longer than the white and the yellow. But here in the fourth world there was white and yellow for scarcely any time, so long did the blue and black remain in the sky. As yet there was not sun and no moon; as yet there were no stars. ...

The white ear of corn had been transformed into our most ancient male ancestor. And the yellow ear of corn had been transformed into our most ancient female ancestor. It was the wind that had given them life: the very wind that gives us our breath as we go about our daily affairs here in the world we ourselves live in! When this wind ceases to blow inside of us, we become speechless. Then we die. In the skin at the tips of our fingers we can see the trail of that life-giving wind. Look carefully at your own fingertips. There you will see where the wind blew when it created your most ancient ancestors out of two ears of corn, it is said. (Zolbrod 1984: 36, 45, 50–51)

The story recounts the vitality, folly, and creativity of the people as they ascend each threshold of the lower, subterranean worlds. In the Fourth World, the people spent eight winters, enduring the separation and eventual reunification of the sexes and the influx of a great flood, escaping the rising water by climbing inside a hollow reed and up its growing stalk, ultimately emerging into the present — this Fifth and Glittering World. The twin sons of the supreme deity, Changing Woman (Asdzáán Náádlehe), heroically cleared the landscape of monsters, making the world safe for the five-fingered beings. This final emergence established a more extensive clan system, enabling the travelers to become earth-surface people, knowing themselves as Diné in a homeland they called Dinétah. Travel and emergence through these consecutive worlds, with their attending colors, animals, celestial beings, and various human dramas, establish the ontological difference many Navajo people understand to constitute what is distinctly Diné. And although the present Glittering World does not come close to mapping temporally or spatially with Western modernity, its landscape shimmers with subsurface agents that have fueled global imperialism and late industrial capitalism: energy minerals have, quite literally, transformed the politics and ecology of the Navajo Nation.

In this chapter, I approach the emergence of the Navajo Nation through the history of energy extraction on the reservation, showing how settler interests in energy minerals helped fuel the formation of what became the largest American Indian nation in the United States in both population and territory. Indeed, energy extraction is far less legitimate than the Diné emergence story for a discussion of Diné ontology. However, foregrounding mineral extraction illustrates the close relationships between Navajo Nation ecology and the trans-local political economy that gave rise to contemporary tribal nation building. I discuss how the history of energy infrastructure on the Navajo reservation mirrors transformations in governance, establishing the Navajo landscape as a rich source of oil for domestic industrial expansion, then a source of military power for global expansion (through Navajo uranium-turned-plutonium) and of electrical power for national capitalist expansion (through Navajo coal-turned-electricity). I show how each of these subterranean materialities figured into the transformation of the Navajo political body over the twentieth century, setting the stage for friction to emerge within tribal leadership and among Diné citizens. In addition to oil, uranium, and coal, I address livestock and sheep, in particular, as another crucial, targeted power resource in Navajo landscapes that was irrevocably affected by a Depression-era federal policy to reduce Navajo-owned herds.

I argue that the outcome of these decades of intensive extraction was the establishment of a carbon-based export economy, in which the environmental and public health of Diné people — the true body politic — was put at risk as a subsidy for urban development, elsewhere. By the late twentieth century, coal anchored the Navajo economy, bringing in more than 50 percent of its annual revenue and establishing a sociopolitical and economic context in which the proposal to build Desert Rock could emerge in 2003 as a seemingly reasonable plan, just as coal became increasingly unstable nationally under the rise of concern over climate change and federal moves toward carbon taxing and reduction. Long-standing legacies of extraction thus have not only intimately shaped the Navajo Nation as a modern political entity but also transformed the political economy and political ecology of reservation territory, entangling Diné people and politics through distribution, consumption, and financing into regional and global landscapes of power. The landscapes-of-power heuristic requires that we keep in mind both emergence and extraction as we undertake a partial history of Dinétah.

Knowing Navajo: Emergence and Extraction

To begin this partial history is not necessarily to begin with a map. Rather, it is to ask how and through what relations of power and knowledge has "Navajo" been known and produced. What particular political ecological and epistemological practices have contributed to this production? Rethinking locality through relations and politics, we might endeavor to locate and know something about Navajo (as a people and a place) through the stories that are located in particular mountains, rivers, forests, canyons, and mesas across Navajo homelands. People relay stories of emergent beings and their traces, as well as stories of energy minerals. Animated ecologies are vibrant, alive with the drama of things past while also informing how contemporary threats and environmental events are interpreted and acted on. Even very partial, limited knowledge of these landscapes confirms their power as cartographies of communication across time, space, species, and nonhuman matter. Time and again, in conversations about energy extraction, people would invoke the metaphysics of the landscape, with stories of suffering and renewal sometimes locatable in the nineteenth century and other times in a world that came before the Fifth and Glittering World.

Energy itself is at the very heart of the Navajo Nation's political existence. Notably, many might also argue that energy, in its ethical-cosmological modality of power, is the heart of the Diné peoples' existence as earth-surface people. Energy as it is extracted, processed, converted, and circulated (as electrical and industrial power in the case of coal and oil or as nuclear weapons capability in the case of uranium) through and beyond Navajo territory has become a defining issue not only for the tribal government, but also for a multitude of political actors. In the Navajo Nation, energy is politics. The political, however, must also be rethought as a realm of imaginative work, multiple conversions of materials and subjects, conjured through extractive legacies that, in turn, produce new engagements with knowledge and ethics. With this expanded notion of the political in mind, we can see how energy development, rather than being an apolitical process of strictly economic and technical development of natural resources, has become an ongoing process of networked negotiations, producing distinct histories, knowledges, and subjects of the region, as well as competing visions of the future. These negotiations are not spatially bounded. Rather, they are networked into wider conversations with other indigenous groups in the Southwest, across the United States, and beyond; with institutions and political bodies that govern and act trans-tribally and trans-locally, such as the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), the United Nations, and the Inter-American Human Rights Commission; with scholars and artists working on these issues from a distance; and more intimately, in particular communities across the reservation, through kinship, chapter house meetings, and professional affiliations.

Many kinds of energy stories illuminate the rich, relational, and embattled nature of landscapes in Navajo cosmovision. Diné landscapes are sites of extractive and generative practice that often call on gendered, generational, and other restricted forms of knowledge in the context of particular ecologies. In Navajo cosmovision, the Chuska Mountains (northeastern Arizona) are male, and Black Mesa (northwestern Arizona) is female; a light, sparse rain is female while a heavy, storming rain is male; the earth is female, and the sun is male; and hogans are male or female, depending on building materials and design. In Diné thought, the sun, rain, snow, and wind connect this material world to a metaphysical world governed by deities that do not dictate morality for human life but affect human well-being and prosperity. The male sun is known as the consort of Changing Woman, who was discovered as a turquoise-colored female newborn on a mountaintop under the flash of lightning and rainbow. With the help of First Man and First Woman (already too old themselves to bear children), wind breathed life into Changing Woman, transforming her into a living deity. Impregnated by the sun, her Hero Twins (the Monster Slayers) destroyed the many monsters roaming the earth, safely securing existence for the human beings. Wind not only empowered Changing Woman but remains the "in-standing" force animating all forms of human and nonhuman life, moving through bodies — visible in the whorls of human fingerprints — and, although not directly causal of human action, wind is foundational for human thought and behavior (McNeley 1981).

Through this "in-standing wind" and the primacy of deities, humans can be understood as "participating directly in supernatural powers rather than as identifying with them indirectly through symbolic processes" (McNeley 1981: 4). From observation and identification to direct participation in certain localities and landscapes of power, humans may coproduce territories that exceed modernist (Marxist or capitalist) notions of land value as determined by commodity markets or labor. Places are important because "the landscape is part of the 'text,'" and "they are where people have performed the activities that keep Navajo life going and because stories go with them" (Kelley and Francis 1994: 2, 39). Returning to energy stories: the wind and sun, among other weather elements, imbue Navajo landscapes of power as they are understood through these participatory relations and through the ways in which these energetic elements, particularly wind, form the basis for understanding Navajo subjectivity. Thus, our understanding of wind, solar, and coal power in the history that this chapter describes cannot be understood only as "natural resources" or "energy alternatives" in Navajo landscapes of power. To the extent that Diné perceptions of the land are part of a broader, gendered, and material cosmovision for Diné people, the polyvalent nature of power impacts how these technologies figure (or fail) in nation-building projects of economic and energy development.

The Navajo Nation, as a modern political body, is another kind of creation story. Dinétah, the Navajo homeland, far exceeds the boundaries of the reservation's current borders. Of the approximately 325,000 people who identify as Diné, roughly one-quarter reside off the reservation, in a global Diné diaspora in urban areas that range from the reservation border towns of Gallup, Flagstaff, Farmington, and Albuquerque, to more distant metropoles, such as Phoenix, Los Angeles, and beyond. Lived territoriality, for many Diné people, is not constrained by the legal boundaries of the contemporary reservation; for many who reside off the reservation, the Diné homeland remains a constant moral compass; a reference point for past, present, and future. Clan relations and their proper identification are paramount, defining formal introductions among strangers, calling on both oral histories of the Navajo emergence and written histories of encounters with other Southwestern populations. It is often said that individual personhood is defined through the clans to which one is born, and for which one is born, with one's given name being only a "label." Belonging, and its shifting meanings, remains deeply marked by clan relations and by fluency of language, as sound and voice (Jacobsen-Bia 2014). In terms of legal recognition, although the Navajo Nation officially requires a minimum of one-quarter certification of "Indian blood" for citizenship — among the stricter blood-quantum requirements in native nations today — the majority of self-identified Diné people are one-half or greater. The racialized politics of being a cultural insider or outsider are thus marked by ancestry but also, as Jacobsen-Bia (2014) shows, by the performative aesthetics of belonging. In the case of (former) Miss Navajo Radmilla Cody, this enabled a person with an African American father to be perceived as quintessentially, authentically Navajo through voice, music, and language. Belonging is further complicated by the fluid borders of the nation, with migrations and diasporas of people traveling off- reservation to work, attend college, join the military, or relocate with new families. Many people express this experience as participating, with varying degrees of cultural proficiency, in "two worlds," while others challenge this simple dualism, posing an ontological predicament of belonging and recognition that is not easily bifurcated.

Whether these worlds are one or many, the affect of Diné belonging is further shaped by a collective reservoir of distinguishing memories. Perhaps most important, in the violent relocation in 1864 known by Diné as "the Long Walk," federal agents first lay siege to Navajo landscapes (burning peach orchards, destroying livestock, massacring families) before forcibly marching the majority of the Diné from their homeland to an incarceration camp at Fort Sumner (known by the Diné as or Bosque Redondo or Hwééldí) in New Mexico territory. Many eastern native peoples were also removed from their original land bases and displaced westward to "Indian Territory" in the 1830s. Much of this land, like the Navajo homeland, turned out to be — in an accident of colonial planning — vast and rich in natural resources. Yet these landscapes (of invisible, subterranean power) were notably considered wasteland frontiers during the United States' nineteenth-century removals of native peoples. After four years in the Hwééldí prison camp — and unlike most displaced indigenous peoples — Navajo survivors returned to their homeland in 1868, following a treaty between Diné leaders and the federal government. The Treaty of 1868 established the trust responsibility of the settler state to the Diné people: a patrimonial provision for education, health care, and other amenities, following the ambiguous acknowledgment of "limited sovereignty" for "domestic dependent" nations that was established in the 1830s in the Marshall Trilogy court cases in the U.S. Southeast. As part of the treaty negotiations, the Diné peoples' territory was redefined by the federal government as a "reservation," increasing in size over the decades as Navajo leaders successfully gained control over larger parcels of contiguous and noncontiguous land, to the present-day size of 27,425 square miles. The federal government holds Diné lands in trust, like all federally recognized tribal lands, yet Navajos maintain the rights to subsurface mineral resources. Diné elders in particular frequently invoke the Long Walk and the peoples' suffering and return home as points of reference for locating and analyzing other events of the past. More recent distinguishing memories include the military service and global fame of U.S. Marine Navajo Code Talkers of World War II, revered for developing an undecipherable code based on (but not an exact mimicry of) the Navajo language. At most public events, elderly Code Talkers are recognized and celebrated with applause and a palpable sense of pride, and nostalgia, suggesting the complex relationships among Diné people, the Navajo Nation, and the United States' global imperialism.


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Table of Contents

Preface. Arrivals  xi
Acknowledgments  xvii
List of Abbreviations  xxi
Introduction. Changing Climates of Colonialism  1
Interlude 1. Every Navajo Has an Anthro  19
1. Extractive Legacies: Histories of Diné Power   26
2. The Rise of Energy Activism  64
Interlude 2. Solar Power in Klagetoh  108
3. Sovereignty's Interdependencies  113
4. Contesting Expertise: Public Hearings on Desert Rock  149
5. Artifacts of Energy Futures  187
Interlude 3. Off-Grid in the Chuskas  230
Conclusion. Conversions  236
Epilogue. Vitalities  253
Notes  257
References  283

What People are Saying About This

Jennifer Nez Denetdale (Diné)

"In this masterful study Dana E. Powell weaves a rich narrative that intertwines Navajo leaders' efforts to reverse a depressed economy with the complexities of the political atmosphere, tribal sovereignty, the imperative to address environmental justice and climate change, and Navajo concerns about land use. Landscapes of Power is indispensable to the study of Native nations, their relationships to energy and development projects, and to understanding the Navajo nation's twenty-first-century history."

High Stakes: Florida Seminole Gaming and Sovereignty - Jessica R. Cattelino

"Expertly tracing the legacy of the thwarted Desert Rock project, Dana E. Powell identifies an ethical project among Navajo activists that signals politics beyond straightforward environmentalism—a politics that matters for Navajo sovereignty, territory, and ethical ways of life, as well as for energy activism and policy everywhere. As with #NoDAPL and Standing Rock, the Desert Rock struggle goes to the core of what politics look like within, across, and in solidarity with Indian Country. This is essential reading."

High Stakes: Florida Seminole Gaming and Sovereignty - Jessica R. Cattelino

"Expertly tracing the legacy of the thwarted Desert Rock project, Dana E. Powell identifies an ethical project among Navajo activists that signals politics beyond straightforward environmentalism—a politics that matters for Navajo sovereignty, territory, and ethical ways of life, as well as for energy activism and policy everywhere. As with #NoDAPL and Standing Rock, the Desert Rock struggle goes to the core of what politics look like within, across, and in solidarity with Indian Country. This is essential reading."

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