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A Nation Within: Navajo Land and Economic Development


Ezra Rosser (@EzraRosser) is a Professor of Law and Associate Dean for the Part-Time and Evening Division at American University Washington College of Law.

This post introduces a symposium on Ezra Rosser’s A Nation Within: Navajo Land and Economic Development. Read the rest of the posts here.


On December 18, 2020, explosive charges brought down Navajo Generating Station’s three massive, 775 foot tall smokestacks. For almost half a century, from when they were built until when they were demolished, the smokestacks had stood as the tallest manmade structures in Arizona. Originally built with the support of environmental groups, Navajo Generating Station provided cheap electricity to cities such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Phoenix, and the energy required to pump Colorado river water to the state’s booming southern cities. Located above Lake Powell and fed by a dedicated train carrying coal from Kayenta Mine, one of two sprawling strip mines that operated atop Black Mesa, the power plant had been one of the largest single sources of carbon emissions in the four corners region and, notably, contributed to air pollution affecting the Grand Canyon. Navajo Generating Station and Kayenta Mine also provided both well paid jobs to Navajo workers and substantial revenues to the Navajo Nation government.

At roughly the same time as Navajo Generating Station was winding down, Navajo Transitional Energy Company (NTEC) purchased two coal mines in Wyoming, one in Montana from a bankrupt company, and also acquired ownership over a fourth mine, Navajo Mine, located on the reservation. NTEC is a quasi-public, quasi-private entity, a corporation backed by the Navajo Nation itself. These moves were controversial: traditional energy companies were uninterested in acquiring these mines and NTEC not only made significant financial commitments on behalf of the tribe without first getting approval from the Navajo Nation government but also agreed to partially waive tribal sovereign immunity and, in the case of Navajo Mine, release the prior owner from liability associated with future cleanup costs. Even as market forces were moving against coal and tribal environmental activists were envisioning a future not dependent on extractive industry, other forces within the tribe were digging in their heels, doubling down on coal instead of walking away.

The path forward for the Navajo Nation is unclear; a just transition involves both correcting for past wrongs and creating the conditions for Diné (the word in the Navajo language for members of the tribe, which means “the people”) to thrive on Navajo land. My book, A Nation Within: Navajo Land and Economic Development, begins with a history of the tribe, emphasizing how demand for land and natural resources fundamentally shaped both the development of the Navajo Nation government and the relationship between the tribe and non-Indian interests.

It is worth providing a brief, and incomplete, sketch of the history described in the book in order to better situate both the position of the tribe and the challenges facing the Navajo Nation. After the U.S. military engaged in a scorched earth campaign in which orchards and crops were destroyed and water wells poisoned, Diné surrendered in masse and were forced, through what is now called “the Long Walk,” to leave their lands. After a four year internment marked by crop failures and hardship, tribal leaders negotiated the 1868 Treaty of Bosque Redondo, which allowed Diné to return to their homeland. The treaty was a monumental achievement, and the period following witnessed the tribe make tremendous advances. At a time when most tribes were losing land to allotment, Diné moved beyond the 1868 reservation borders, and their land claims were recognized through successive federal actions. Today, the Navajo Nation is roughly the size of West Virginia thanks to the generations of Diné who insisted on their right to claim space within the tribe’s four sacred mountains.

The modern Navajo Nation government dates to 1921, when the U.S. government created the “Navajo Tribal Business Council.” The Council’s primary order of business at first was to approve oil leases involving reservation land with non-Indian corporations, but the Council evolved over time. During the New Deal, scientists working with the federal government concluded that the Navajo reservation was overgrazed. The “solution” forcibly imposed by Washington was livestock reduction; Diné families were often forced to watch as animals they considered part of their families were killed. Livestock reduction lasted until World War II and caused families to lose much of their wealth and their sense of economic security. But livestock reduction also became a catalyst for the Navajo Nation government to move beyond its origins. Through its resistance to livestock reduction, the Council assumed an increased role both in governing life on the reservation and in advocating Navajo positions with non-Indian governments.

The Second World War demonstrated not only the contributions of Diné soldiers to the war effort, most famously of the code talkers, but also the power of the atom. With the discovery of accessible uranium, mining companies began operating on the reservation. Although the dangers associated with mining were known, Diné mine workers, not given the right equipment and subject to unsafe practices, were treated as expendable. Little was done to protect the rest of the community either, with children left to play on unmarked uranium tailing piles and families unknowingly allowed to use uranium when mixing concrete for the floors of their hogans (the traditional eight sided Diné house). Early death and disease followed. And the fight is not over yet. Though market forces led uranium mining on the reservation to grind to a stop by 1986, leaving behind over 500 abandoned mines whose cleanup remains incomplete, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission renewed a private company’s license to mine uranium just outside the reservation in 2016. Though the Navajo Nation banned uranium mining in 2005, many of the workers at a mine sited in such proximity to the reservation would be Diné, effectively carrying the exploitation forward.

The next extractive wave that hit the Navajo Nation was coal. Coal-fired power plants, connected by high voltage power lines to major cities in the Southwest, along with their associated strip mining operations, gave the Navajo Nation the resources it needed to become the major reservation employer and a modern administrative state. However, the royalty rates that companies paid for Navajo coal were depressed because of collusion between corporate interests and the U.S. government, in violation of the federal government’s trust obligations to the tribe. Moreover, not only did strip mining operations leave deep scars on the land and power plant emissions contribute to climate change, but coal is also associated with a long list of other externalities, from depletion of Black Mesa’s water table to visible air pollution.

Photo credit: Ezra Rosser.

There is a long tail associated with each of these forms of natural resource use and exploitation. The trauma of livestock reduction diminished the Navajo Nation’s ability to set in place land use policies that would both account for the rights of grazing permittees and permit the construction of homes near urban areas. Oil, gas, uranium, and coal revenues fueled the growth of the tribal bureaucracy but also, arguably, facilitated political corruption. Yet, while A Nation Within provides a land-centered history of the Navajo Nation, the story it tells is neither a pessimistic account nor a prescription for what the tribe should do going forward.

There is no one right answer for what the Navajo Nation should do to encourage economic growth. Many of the policies promoted by Washington are based on assumptions either derived from or borrowed from neo-classical economics. And contrary to many stereotypes about tribes, the idea that property rights matter is not a foreign concept even if the nature of such rights varies across tribes. But as professors Robert Miller and Angela Riley, as well as scholars associated with the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, have argued, policies that are not good matches with an Indian nation’s history and institutions are unlikely to succeed.

Theories of economic development imported into Indian country, for example, may fail to account for the deep family and clan obligations prevalent among Diné. Moreover, overly simplistic notions, such as the idea that the Navajo Nation should simply privatize the reservation if it wants to spur economic growth, fail to account for the ways in which neo-classical reasoning has historically been used to reduce tribal land holdings. Theory wielded without appreciation of the Navajo Nation’s unique status and of the importance of preserving space for Diné lifeways to thrive may be logically tight, but they can cause more harm than good if applied uncritically. There is no single right approach. Some Diné will find answers and a way forward in neo-classical models while others will gravitate towards Marxist understandings. There is no singular Navajo way of looking at questions of growth versus other values, but it would be wrong to insist on either the wholesale introduction of a particular economic model or the complete rejection of lessons that can be drawn from such models. The Navajo Nation’s future depends, in part, on its ability to select from among competing economic models.

As my book highlights, Diné certainly face challenges, including how to assert meaningful control over the land and questions regarding the relationship between local and national governance within the Nation. But as a people, Diné survived an effort by the U.S. government to conquer them and ongoing efforts by non-Indians and non-Indian governments to weaken them. Despite such assaults on their way of life, on their humanity, and on their independence, the Navajo Nation has managed to create space for what Charles Wilkinson called “measured separatism.” That is a remarkable achievement that as a non-Indian I can celebrate without possibly fully understanding.

Indeed, the main message of A Nation Within is a hopeful one: that Diné have the power, through their elected leaders, as well as through other forms of activism, to assert even greater control over the reservation. Non-Indians will have to learn to respect the tribe enough to allow Diné to set their own course. For while it is true that the Navajo Nation’s status will almost certainly remain that of a “domestic dependent nation,” even within that framework, the Navajo Nation can, and I believe should, aggressively use its governance authority to improve the lives of Diné families. The economic development challenges facing the Navajo Nation—many of which are tied to the history and present day obstacles surrounding land use—will not be solved overnight, but I am optimistic about the tribe’s future.

Let me end just with a note of thanks and an acknowledgment. This book would not have been possible without the fabulous work of countless scholars and authors, Native and non-Native alike, whose contributions can be found on every page. I also am grateful for the contributors to this symposium for engaging with the book and, more importantly, with the issues raised in the book. Finally, as with all my writing on Navajo issues, I need to acknowledge that I am a non-Indian. In the book’s preface, I outline my connection to the Navajo Nation, but my motivation for working on this book is my hope that, in some small way, scholarship can help improve opportunities for those living on Navajo land.

Cover art by Jared Yazzie of OXDX Clothing.