Contested water settlements inflamed the Navajo Nation’s health crisis

Link to full article here:

“The Navajo Nation is at the center of the worst global pandemic in recent memory. Although the total number of COVID-19 cases is small compared to national hotspots, the rate of infection is among the nation’s highest.

Today, national media is focused on Navajo water insecurity — a clear threat to Diné people during the pandemic. About 30% to 40% of reservation residents do not have regular running water. But behind this statistic lies a history of racism and underdevelopment. Even as white communities benefited from decades of expensive water infrastructure, Diné communities were denied the rights and resources necessary to access the same water.

Water settlements between tribes and states are a source of much of this continued underdevelopment. For Indigenous people, these settlements also represent colonial dispossession, because they often suspend allocation of water rights and funding for water infrastructure until tribal leaders give in to the state’s demands. In 2005, for example, then-Arizona Republican Sen. Jon denied the Navajo Nation 6,411 acre-feet of water until it resolved its claims to the Colorado River with the state of Arizona.” ….

A Matter of Degrees Podcast

Julian Brave Noisecat interviewed Wahleah Johns and I about the history of coal extraction and energy transition in the Navajo Nation. The episode is called, “Episode 7: One Navajo’s Fight for a Just Energy Transition.” In this interview I supplement Wahleah’s interview with regional historical context. The podcast generally focuses on the the politics of climate change and practices of energy transition. Check out the other episodes on Apple Podcast or Spotify. I really enjoy this podcast and listen to it walking the dog, washing the dishes, or whenever I’m doing chores and I want to think about things.

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.

T’áá hwó ají t’éego and the Moral Economy of Navajo Coal Workers


My article on the meaning of work and livelihood for Diné coal workers. The article is Open Access through the Annals of American Association of Geographers website. Here is the link: T’áá hwó ají t’éego and the Moral Economy of Navajo Coal Workers.


The development of coal mining in the Navajo Nation, the largest Indian reservation in the United States, is understood as a consequence of economic dependency, resource curse, modernization, cultural contradiction, and so on. Missing from these frameworks are the perspectives of indigenous actors who participate in these industries. This article draws on ethnographic fieldwork and interviews conducted with Navajo coal workers and community members during a 2013 lease renewal to analyze how a moral economy of Navajo coal workers accounts for the mobilization of Navajo labor in support of the industry, despite years of exploitation and environmental damage. This article’s central argument is that the moral economy of Navajo coal workers is built on a subsistence logic, summarized in the Navajo idiom t’áá hwó ají t’éego, which emphasizes notions of “hard work” on one’s “traditional” land and is produced in the collective conditions of a worker’s union. Even as the future of coal looks bleak, understanding how this folk ideology mobilizes Navajo workers in support of a declining industry gives us a better understanding of the integration of indigenous peoples into capitalist processes. Key Words: coal, indigenous geography, moral economy, Navajo, resource geography.

New Geoforum article

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

This article considers the Navajo Green Jobs effort of 2009, an attempt to “transition” energy production from coal to wind and solar for the largest tribe in the United States, the Navajo Nation. Through ethnographic “revisits,” in 2008 and 2013, I argue that Navajo Green Jobs contained two problematic hybrid neoliberal assumptions about governance and development: (1) it decentered governing authority from the tribe to “the community” while undermining the legitimacy of the tribal government, and (2) it promoted private entrepreneurship over public investment as the vehicle for energy transition. Ultimately, the Navajo Nation rejected Navajo Green Jobs and re-appropriated its temporal language in order to justify a reinvestment in coal in the form of a new energy company, NTEC. This article concludes that consideration of the spatial and social embedded nature of energy production is vital for understanding energy transitions today.

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.