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Mapping the Navajo Nation: Uranium Mining and Militarization

by Traci Brynne Voyles

Beginning in the 1930s with the Navajo Soil Erosion Control Project, Navajo land and people became the subjects of intense federal scrutiny; in subsequent decades, this project and others such as those run under the Defense Minerals Procurement Agency and the Atomic Energy Commission catalyzed massive cartographic projects in the four corners region to grid and rationalize the landscape, chart possibilities for mineral exploration and mining, and develop strategies for industrializing the Navajo economy. The knowledge created through these programs—regarding not only Navajo land and its resources, but also about Navajo politics, culture, economic systems and ecological traditions—quite literally mapped the course of military industrialization during the uranium booms of the latter half of the 20th century.

Uranium is the raw material of nuclear weaponry and nuclear power. During World War II, the Cold War arms race, and subsequent “atoms for peace” nuclear energy programs, as much as 90% of the millions of tons of uranium mined in the US came from indigenous land, much of it from the famed Grants Uranium Belt in the four corners region of New Mexico. Upon development of atomic technology, a federal program called the Defense Minerals Procurement Agency, operating under the Atomic Energy Commission, threw the heft of the federal government behind a massive uranium-prospecting scheme, designed to find so-called “domestic” uranium resources in order to reduce reliance on foreign imports.
The Defense Minerals Procurement Agency was the bureaucratic nephew of another federal program within the Department of the Interior, a program intimately linked to the colonization of indigenous peoples, lands, and resources in US colonial history: the US Geological Survey, which had since its inception in 1879 been in the business of mapping the landscapes of “manifest destiny,” attending closely not only to surveys and maps, but also to key resources, to the perceived usefulness (or uselessness) of the land, and to places of potential slippage in the US’s desired sovereignty over the land and its peoples. Surveyors working for the USGS’s predecessor, the Geographical Survey consistently described southwest landscapes as “barren” and “worthless,” a perspective that came to dominate hegemonic treatments of this region.

This kind of representation led to what Valerie Kuletz calls the “wasteland discourse,” which is the colonial explanatory framework that justified the militarization and environmental destruction of entire desert regions by virtue of their perceived agricultural unproductivity and the misrepresentation of desert landscapes as also deserted, and that they are therefore highly peripheral and isolated from the US’s population centers. Novelist Don DeLillo poetically describes militarized deserts as the blank spaces on maps; my concern here is with the massive amounts of colonial energy and resources that went into producing that space as blank, and as empty of human and nonhuman importance. I am particularly interested in how these seemingly objective cartographic projects of federal agencies from the 1930s to the 1960s were actually steeped in racial and heteronormative constructions of value and productivity of the land and its peoples.

These cartographic projects took place under the auspices of extending colonial conceptions of proper gender, racial, and sexual orders (and a properly extractive relationship to land) to this frontier space. The southwest has been naturalized as the common sense “home” of militarization, a warping of time and space that makes it seem as though this region always already existed as a military sacrifice zone, by virtue of this presumed emptiness and worthlessness. However, quite to the contrary, militarization occurred precisely through the vehicle of being constructed as empty and worthless. At the heart of this argument is the notion that landscapes and ecologies are themselves constructed and inscribed with social meaning. As argued by a number of feminist geographers and indigenous theorists, US frontier spaces in particular were differentially constructed as savage, as feminine, and as rapable.

These landscapes were seen as inherently nonheteronormative: racially, sexually and reproductively resistant to white agricultural settlement. In the case of the Navajo Nation, this nonheteronormative construction that would later serve as the foundation of military industrialization was solidified during the 1930s, when the US Bureau of Indian Affairs and other federal bureaucracies became intensely interested in something they called the “Navajo problem,” which was shorthand for a complex web of social-cultural-economic-ecological issues on the Navajo Nation.

During the 1930s, when this concern about the “Navajo problem” arose, the southwest region as a whole experienced a massive draught, compounded by the economic hardships of the Great Depression. In the Navajo Nation these conditions were made significantly more intense by federal restrictions of their land base and consistent underdevelopment of critical infrastructure (such as roads, irrigation systems, etc.). However, the blame for economic and ecological problems was placed squarely on the shoulders of the Navajos themselves, who were told they were overpopulating and overgrazing their land with potentially devastating results. Indeed, many federal actors during this time, including Senator Dennis Chavez, predicted the potential extinction of the Navajo people if the so-called “Navajo problem” was not alleviated by federal intervention.

Malthusian bureaucrats pointed to “overpopulation” as the primary culprit in the persistence of poverty on the reservation, and federal ecologists saw perceived ecological imbalances in the region as being the fault of a pathological relationship of Navajos to their land. The “Navajo problem,” in brief, was understood as a problem of overstocked and overpopulated landscapes. Thus federal discourse around this “Navajo problem” presented the problem as being racially, ecologically, and reproductively (thus sexually) aberrant, at times almost willfully so. Because the Navajo people and land did not easily fit US assimilationist models of racial integration and conservationist models of environmentalism, both people and land were perceived and represented as deviant, perverse, and pathologically un-reproductive (in the case of the land) or hyper-reproductive (in the case of the people and their livestock).

The solution to this Navajo problem, by overwhelming consensus among federal actors, was a need to rationalize and grid the landscape—in short, to map the land itself into modern, “civilized” political-economies in order to “civilize” its people. As a result, the Navajo Nation during the 1930s and the 1940s was subject to a veritable flood of federal “experts” on the Reservation, ranging from ecologists, conservationists, agronomists and cartographers, to sociologists, anthropologists and economists. Eighteen Soil Conservation Districts were parceled out of the larger Reservation to study the effects of scientific range development practices run by the Soil Conservation Service.

Mapping constituted a major part of this larger effort. The Reservation was photographed by plane, painstakingly surveyed, and mapped according to scores of different criteria: carrying capacity, watershed, erosion, grazing patterns, agriculture, metals and minerals, timber, the list goes on. There were maps of what had been mapped, maps of what was currently being mapped, and maps of what yet needed to be mapped in the endlessly self-referential custom of colonial bureaucracies everywhere. Federal sociologists roamed the reservation taking notes on numbers of blankets woven, numbers of family members, money spent at trading posts, etc. and photographers set up “before and after” shots of rangeland and livestock to demonstrate the successes of carefully controlled federal irrigation practices. And most devastatingly, and notoriously, livestock deemed excessive to the land’s scientifically determined carrying capacity were slaughtered by the hundreds, to the despair of their owners who had no other economic resources.

This decade of intimate federal rationalization of the Navajo landscape set the stage for uranium mining industry and military industrialization in the 1950s largely—and ironically—because it failed to alleviate poverty on the Reservation or to change Navajo relationships to the land into heteronormative, “properly” proprietary ones. The solidification of the gendered construct of Navajo land as “barren,” as pathologically un-reproductive, as well as the construct of Navajo’s relationship to the land as “maladjusted” set the stage for military industrialization when uranium was discovered near Grants, New Mexico in July of 1950. Military industries did not occur spontaneously in this region, nor was the Navajo Nation a “natural” home for the devastation of uranium mining—it was naturalized through this process of intimate federal mapping.

Sources Used:
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