This interview was conducted over email with Andrew Curley, a member of the Navajo Nation and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, by Miranda Gershoni, a second-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute.

Andrew Curley studies coal and development in the Navajo Nation. His latest publications highlight the consequence of colonial water laws on indigenous nations and the political economy of green transition within reservation economies. His current work is on extraction, energy, and notions of resource curse among tribal governments.

His talk, “What is a Resource Curse: Energy, Infrastructure, and Climate Change in Native North America” will be held on Wednesday, February 5th at 5:00 PM with a reception at 4:30 PM in Smith Warehouse, Bay 4, Ahmadieh Family Lecture Hall. 

Miranda Gershoni (MG): Can you tell me a little more about yourself? 

Andrew Curley (AC): I am a member of the Navajo Nation and I focus on questions related to indigenous environmental governance, resources, development. I have paid particular attention to the decline of coal mining in the Navajo Nation. This has helped me to consider political issues we are discussing today, such as the Green New Deal and energy transition. I have also looked at the way western water law limits the possibility of indigenous sovereignty over water resources.

MG: Your talk is about “the resource curse.” Without giving too much of your lecture away, can you explain this concept?

AC: The idea of the “resource curse” references a development paradox. It was a term coined by development economists to describe what they observed as the underdevelopment of nations with bountiful resources like oil and coal. They asked why the nations with the richest national endowments tended to have poorer standards of living? This feels like a naïve explanation, given that most of these places that are viewed as poor and underdeveloped were at one point violently colonized. In the case of indigenous nations, we still remain colonized.

MG: How did you begin your work in the field of coal and development as it relates to the Navajo Nation?

AC: I started my research on issues of development and dependency in Africa. I studied the impact of coffee on farmers in Tanzania and cocoa in Ghana. When I returned to the Navajo Nation in 2007, I recognized that the same structuring and colonial forces at work in Africa existed in Indian country around industries like coal and oil. I decided to follow energy like a commodity chain and find out what that revealed about our social-political conditions in places like Arizona and New Mexico.

MG: How does your identity contribute to your scholarship? How do you find that those aspects of yourself intersect?

AC: I think growing up in the area where I do research has helped me a lot to reflect on the deeper meaning of the industries I examine. I lived on the reservation when coal was in its boom. I saw the industrial lighting and the people working. I didn’t see it as contradictory to being an indigenous person or being a Diné person. But when I read about these industries in scholarship, especially from people who had come to the Navajo Nation from elsewhere, I realized that there remained something crucially missing in their accounts. They often talked about the exploitative nature of coal, but not the sense of meaning, both good and bad, that it produced among people who worked in the industry or who organized to oppose it.

MG: Is there a takeaway from your talk that you find particularly meaningful?

AC: The central point I intend to convey is that the resource curse is a colonial curse and that we can’t understand the nature of energy and extraction within and around indigenous nations without thinking about the ways in which these nations were structured into disadvantageous states of dependence around these industries.

MG: What do you hope students, faculty, and community members glean from your lecture?

AC: That questions of environmental governance are complex in Indian country and we have to remain attuned to the structural nature of colonialism that still exists today. It does not simply manifest in the forms of land dispossession, but also political marginalization in the form of leasing agreements, water rights negotiations, and in the nature of federal-Indian law.