Indigenous people's attitudes to their land are complex and nuanced. University of Arizona Professor Andrew Curley explored these intricacies as he spoke about tribal sovereignty, access and use of resources last Tuesday.

The Navajo Nation member shared research and testimonies which he collected through ethnographic research detailed in his recently published book “Carbon Sovereignty: Coal, Development, and Energy Transition in the Navajo Nation.” The book provides new context on the issue of tribal revenue from carbon. Carbon Sovereignty follows the relation between Navajo people’s ties to fossil fuels and uranium, which generate both income and issues of colonialism for Native American peoples, according to Curley.

Scholars of political science and environmental studies gathered to hear the presentation in Scott Hall. Curley, a human geography professor, was moved by the invitation from the Northwestern Department of Political Science.

“I was happy to hear that they wanted to hear me. It was a chance to speak to a different scholarly community," he said.

Curley is one of 10 Indigenous scholars that have spoken at NU this past year, according to the Center for Native and Indigenous Research. This is, in part, due to efforts like that of Dr. Kimberly Marion Suiseeya, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science.

“The more that we can break open interdisciplinary spaces, the better, if we want to address contextual global challenges,” Suiseeya said about her motivations in inviting Dr. Curley.

Assistant Professor of Global Health Studies Dr. Beatriz Reyes, also an Indigenous faculty member, said Curley’s work adds dimension to scholarly understandings of Native sovereignty.

“His work challenges peoples’ assumption that Native people are not functioning in a settler society driven by racial capitalism," she said in a statement provided to NBN. “I learned a lot from his talk and the information he shared raised important questions for my teaching."

In his discussion about Indigenous experiences, Curley primarily focused on carbon usage because he said it was a source of contention for Navajo decision-making. While coal-mining takes away Indigenous land and contributes to its pollution, it is also an important source of revenue for many people, the researcher said.

According to Navajo nation revenue data, in 2012, 24 percent non-federal revenue came from coal mining. At the same time, there is “land loss because of contamination from strip mining,” Curley noted.

“You have impassioned speeches about, ‘I worked in a coal mine for 40 years, I was able to feed my family this way’ or environmental activists saying, ‘I lost my land, my sheep were poisoned when they started drinking from water that was contaminated.’ These are the frontlines of this debate,” Curley said.

Curley said, according to the testimonies he collected, those on both sides of the issue utilized traditional Indigenous rhetoric to justify their experiences.

“‘T’áá hwó’ ají t’éego, it's going to be up to you to be something,’ is what a coal worker was saying to defend his work and industry,” Curley said.

The proverb is well known to Navajo members, or Diné, Curley said.

However, he said there are contradictions with indigenous values for the land and coal-mining’s pollution of it. Curley attributed this conflict to the colonial capitalist context.

Although Curley’s introduction of these experiences presented a conflict, Dr. Beatriz Reyes, fellow Indigenous scholar, emphasized the necessity of them. The experiences counter stereotypes and encourage discussion at NU, the Global Health Studies professor said.

“There’s a stereotype that Native people have a special spiritual connection to nature, instead of recognizing it as Traditional Knowledge, because of Disney films and pop culture,” Reyes said. “While we love the land, we also have to live in a society that doesn’t love the land. Choices are made that complicate who we are supposed to be," she said.

Thumbnail courtesy of Andrew Curley.