Against colonial grounds: Geography on Indigenous lands

In this response to a provocation from Natalie Oswin, “An Other Geography,” Sara Smith and I write in “Against colonial grounds”, that we need to critically rethink institutions of higher learning. We need to examine how disciplines and universities are complicit in the reproduction of colonial histories and myths of white supremacy.  We argue that if we take indigenous geographies seriously, we’d conceptually have the tools to think though many of today’s pressing moral, ethical, and political problems, from border walls to environmental sustainability. We also reflect on our location as participants in this system within a university in the U.S. South and how this adds to racism and anti-Black violence. The abstract below does a better job a summarizing the commentary.

“In this response to Natalie Oswin’s provocation, ‘An other geography’, we consider how we might work against settler narratives and structures from our situated positions in the discipline and in a specific academic institution in the US South. Following Diné student Majerle Lister, we ask what it would mean to consider giving the land back: what does that entail? The academic institutions we inhabit were built to insure white futurity, on fictive histories. Can they be retrofitted in the present to enable the futurity of Indigenous people and theorizations? Can we turn our discipline’s history of erasure inside out, to center the land, people, and practices that were both crucial to and absent from it except as shadowy and metaphorical presences? We draw on our own teaching, and from scholarship in Indigenous and Black Studies, to consider what it might look like to return land and reconfigure relations among those who have been cast aside by white patriarchal settler structures, but in incommensurate ways.”

“Our Winters’ Rights”: Challenging Colonial Water Laws

Publication Cover

Much of the scholarship on Indigenous water rights in the United States focuses on legal and political rights awarded or denied in water settlements. This article highlights the voice of settlement opponents within Diné communities over the proposed Little Colorado River Settlement in 2012 between the Navajo Nation and Arizona. Using interviews with key actors, observations of water hearings, and a mini focus group with settlement opponents, my research finds that the proposed water settlement produced contradictory logics, practices, and frameworks that combined two “traditions of Indigenous resistance,” one rooted in the language of self-determination and sovereignty and the other in emerging notions of decolonization. This hybridity of seeking increased water recognition within colonial law, while advocating for decolonial waterscapes, speaks to the complicated and fundamentally entangled political landscapes of Indigenous peoples. Ultimately, in opposing the water settlement, Diné opponents and community members demonstrate that they seek to rectify the injustice of ongoing settler colonialism and realize their collective capabilities as nations, not “Indians,” “tribes,” or “minorities” within and against the authorities of the colonial state.

New Geoforum article

Screenshot-2017-11-22 A failed green future Navajo Green Jobs and energy “transition” in the Navajo Nation

I am happy to share a link to my latest article, ” A failed green future: Navajo Green Jobs and energy ‘transition’ in the Navajo Nation” (this link is good for 50 days, 11/22/2017).

The article is a product of many years of work, starting with research in 2008 and concluding with my dissertation research in 2013.

This article questions how we think about development, energy production, and sustainability in the Navajo Nation and in tribal communities more generally. It was a hard article to conceptualize and I actually wrote several versions of it before settling on this format.

My main point is that proposed energy transitions need to be grounded in the practices and politics of a community in order to gain legitimacy among the people they are suppose to benefit.

A difficulty in writing this article was communicating the internal workings of tribal governments to an audience less familiar with these issues. I felt that focusing on our internal politics and showing their complicated processes was a way to enhance peoples’ understanding of our tribal sovereignty. Readers can’t just gloss over our internal issues of governance and pretend our motivations and viewpoints are simplistic.

I also tried to cite Native scholars as much as I could and – importantly – scholarship emergent from Native communities. It is not just to say someone is Native, but that their work is grounded and in dialog with their communities. This includes work from The Dine Policy Institute, The Red Nation, and other influential online formats. These are not traditional forms of scholarship for academics, but the work featured on these sites are just as theoretical and empirical as anything found in academic journals.

Thank you very much for considering my work and I happy to answer any questions about my work:


Closing Navajo Nation’s coal plant is not justice

Closing Navajo Nation’s coal plant is not justice

6/29/17 – My take on the proposed replacement lease for the Navajo Generating Station recently published in High Country News. My main point is that it’s not energy that is the problem, although this is a problem. It is the relationship between the tribe and the state that needs addressed. It sounds convoluted and parts of it are, but the situation is complex and obviously there is a lot to consider. Here are some of the most important considerations I think.


Intervention – “Water is Life and Life is Sovereignty: Context and Considerations for Critical Geographers”

Water is Life and Life is Sovereignty: Context and Considerations for Critical Geographers

Andrew Curley
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

On 4 December 2016, the Army Corps of Engineers denied the owners of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) the necessary permit to drill beneath the Missouri River and bring more oil to the international market. This is a great victory for indigenous people and should be treated as such. A small tribal government, saying mni waconi or “water is life”, took on the most powerful industry in the world in the interest of our collective sustainability and they won. It’s clearly not a total victory. But it is a sizeable achievement. The tribe had to challenge: state and local authority; thuggish police; regulators in league with oil interests; the harassment of the US Republican Party; and the indifference of the US Democratic Party. In terms of political…

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12/28/16 Obama declares Bears Ears a National Monument; upcoming book highlights the story to win the designation

Today President Obama designated the Bears Ears, an important cultural and spiritual site for Native peoples in Utah, a U.S. national monument. This was an important step in preserving this land and its indigenous ancestral ruins for future generations. This victory was the result of tireless work from a range of actors. Some were Native environmentalists and organizers. Others were students and residences wanting to preserve the lands where they grew up. And finally non-Native allies who valued the history of the land and its cultural sites provided invaluable work.


But there are still challenges in preserving the land and gaining Native control over it. First, the monument size was much smaller than what advocates had wanted. Second, the incoming Trump administration might attempt to roll back these designations. Finally, we are unsure on what kind of influence tribe’s will have over the park. These are serious considerations.


In Jacqueline Keeler’s forthcoming edited volume, “Edge of Morning: Native Voices Speak for the Bears Ears,” Native activists, academics, and organizers consider the meaning of Bears Ears for Native people. Writing from the standpoint of a researcher in the Navajo Nation, I contributed a small essay on how national monuments can assist tribal land claims. The book is a timely and resourceful account on Bears Ears and the campaign to designate it a national monument. It will be available in the spring of 2017 from Torey House Press.