Andrew Curley, Ph.D.


First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) is pleased to launch a new online series of essays that focuses on Native justice. With generous support from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), First Nations invited multiple experts to discuss the root causes of Native injustice and highlight possible frameworks to move forward toward Native justice.

This essay by Dr. Andrew Curley, assistant professor at the University of Arizona, focuses on Native justice and economic development. He argues that tribal leaders have worked for decades “within the limitations of colonial structures” to ensure the economic survival of their people and communities. In this essay, Curley discusses the various strategies tribes have employed over the years to sustain their governments and economies.

Although tribes have faced numerous challenges, and at times, setbacks, he firmly states: “Our people are much closer to economic justice than the colonial societies dictating our nations. We should continue to work toward this goal of economic justice despite these challenges.”

About Dr. Andrew Curley

Andrew Curley (Diné) is an assistant professor at the University of Arizona. Broadly speaking, his research focuses on Indigenous incorporation into colonial-capitalism, or forms of exploitation linked to resource extraction and underdevelopment. From 2012-2014, he conducted ethnographic fieldwork within the Navajo Nation regarding the future of the Navajo Generating Station. This research is featured in his forthcoming book, “Carbon Sovereignty,” from University of Arizona Press.

His current research is more historical and archival. It investigates the colonial nature of Arizona’s access to the Colorado River. This work critiques infrastructure like the Central Arizona Project, and legal regimes, such as the Colorado Compact.

Economic Justice in Indian Country

By Dr. Andrew Curley

Indian country is experiencing profound change. COVID deeply impacted our communities. It robbed us of our elders and many young people, too. We’ve also witnessed the United States elect a far right-wing president, followed up with a more traditional social Democrat. The ideological polarization in the United States is a tired and clichéd talking point on nightly news, but there is some truth to it.

The question for us, as members or citizens of Indigenous nations, is how do we achieve our goals of sovereignty, self-determination, and economic well-being while still subject to the whims of American politics?

In this essay, I will consider the concept of economic justice alongside broader goals of sovereignty, self-determination, and environmental justice. What does the idea of justice do for us? How is it rooted in an American political experience, and how might we make it work for Indigenous peoples or in the Native context?

Indigenous nations are among the most assaulted people on the planet. Our ancestors witnessed violent military campaigns, removal and forced internment, boarding schools, undersized “reservations,” and much more. The history of this violence is well-known to us and less known to the American public ‒ many who actively downplay or deny this history of violence. However, survivability is a condition of our nations. Indigenous academics, like me, come up with long words to describe this reality, like “survivance” (Vizenor 2008). In these conversations, we don’t just define what is going on, but also, we theorize the possibility of these ideas and actions.

Justice is an elusive concept. Meaning, it’s something that Western thinkers have been trying to define and advocate for a long time (Sen 2009). The idea comes out of the European experience and eventually made its way to the United States and elsewhere with colonialism and imperialism. Why point out this fact? Because I think it’s important to highlight that justice is responding to a sense of inequality, to a broader social problem of injustice rooted in European discrimination. In other words, it’s based on the social history of a people who created vast differences in wealth and power between themselves and those they eventually invaded and violently tried to suppress.

Because injustice exists, we need a concept of justice. Although white slave-owning plantation owners and early industrialists in the United States thought about justice as something defined and practiced through the nation’s political institutions, such as through the Bill of Rights and the U.S. court system, Black, Indigenous, Hispanic, Asian, women, and others faced overt discrimination in the U.S. political system for centuries after the founding of the country (Dunbar-Ortiz 2014, Estes 2019, Mays 2021). Black people were dehumanized and then disenfranchised; Indigenous peoples were made wards of the state; and Asians faced immigration discrimination and racism. All these are examples of injustices.

It has been the work of social movements to redefine justice as something that is broader and grounded in the conditions of the people. It is something that is, at root, belonging to everyone and in response to many more forms of inequality between people, not just equal access to the state’s institutions. This might include smaller examples of power difference between people who have a lot of esteem and people who are not as well-known, but have good ideas. It is about people with different sexual orientations, or people with diverse abilities and language backgrounds. There is a wide range of justice issues and all are important.

The history of our modern and expanded concept of justice is squarely rooted in campaigns for racial justice, starting in the 1940s and extending into the 1960s. Racial justice is linked to the Black civil rights movement (Pulido 2017). At the time, Black organizations and community leaders felt it was time to dismantle discriminatory voting laws and laws against racial intermixing common in former slave-owning states. These laws that survived in the U.S. institutions of justice, such as the state and federal court system, were seen as unjust to people impacted by them or observers from the outside. In other words, while the courts upheld the laws, the laws themselves were unjust.

Racial discrimination was legal in the United States and U.S. institutions of justice preserved racial inequality far into the 20th century. Racial justice became a way to talk about the undoing of these laws and practices. Eventually, through the advocacy of social movements, in this case the Civil Rights Movement, the Supreme Court reversed early decisions it made and found that state laws separating people based on race were unconstitutional, or inconsistent with part of the Constitution and its many amendments. In addition, Congress passed civil rights legislation in the 1960s that made discriminatory practices against Black voters illegal. The laws were flipped, but the broader social meaning of justice and injustice remained. It is from this tradition that we build on the idea of economic justice.

Economic justice forces our attention to a very different kind of discrimination, one found in the material conditions found between people and classes. These are two big words, “material conditions” and “classes,” so let’s break them down to better understand them.

Material conditions refer to real things at your disposal, such as livestock, income, or even money in your bank account (Reiff 2013, Roberts 2017). In sociological understandings, it is an idea that isn’t limited to the particulars of one person, but to a broader set of people, on a social or societal scale. What are the material conditions of the reservation? What are the things people do to sustain themselves and what kind of wealth do they have at their disposal? How do our economic practices, linked to our material conditions, impact ideas of economic justice? These are questions we will keep in mind as we move to the next major idea, class.

Class is another abstraction, but it is useful. It helps us to understand different kinds of social experiences, opportunities, and limitations linked particularly to people’s well-being or their material conditions. Following historian EP Thompson’s notion of class, we can say it is a social category of people and how they relate to one another in terms of wealth, status, and political power (Thompson 2002). It is not an absolute thing that can be quantified, but rather, relational and changing, and structures people’s limitations and opportunities.

Depending on where you are looking, class takes on different names ‒ “lower class” or “working class,” “elite or upper class,” or the all-encompassing “middle class,” a class that seems to include everyone, and thereby takes the politics out of class agitation. This is a particular U.S. phenomenon, where anyone can claim to be middle class. In other places, class might take on pseudo-religious or cultural designations, like the caste system in India or racial attributions in settler colonial states in North and South America. In some places, there are language distinctions between people from rural and urban origins associated with class distinction. Class takes on a broad meaning and is a very fungible idea, but it’s useful for us to think through economic injustice and economic justice.

What are the classes that exist in reservations? How do these differences contribute to social and economic inequality between members of the same tribal nation? Ultimately, what can the tribal government, or members of the nation do to address these questions (i.e., what does economic justice look like in Indian Country)?

We can now start to think through economic justice and think through its application in Indian Country. Economic justice is rarely explicitly mentioned in tribal meetings, or in legislation designed to improve the living conditions of reservation residences. This is largely because it’s an abstract idea academics and others use and define in their work, but not necessary or even useful for tribal lawmakers. For them, the specific people impacted and the specific remedy are what is important. But it doesn’t mean the meaning of economic justice doesn’t exist in everyday tribal practices. It is largely implied, and that’s how we will understand it in our analysis here.

Let’s now turn toward the question of economic development and we will tie that to implied notions of economic justice working in Indian Country.

As we are all aware, tribes are marginalized places in U.S. capitalism. This is a phenomenon of economic underdevelopment. The colonial United States and its subdivisions, state governments, cities, and counties have created an economic system that has centralized power and wealth, what Cherokee scholar Courtney Lewis characterizes as economic violence (Lewis 2023). As a result, the value of reservation lands in U.S. capitalism is less than the value of lands outside of the reservation. We are further away from major sites of settlement and infrastructure, and consequently, things become more expensive to buy and sell. We are disadvantaged in the capitalist system, created through colonialism. It’s a long history, but in short, we are forced to participate in the U.S. economy, and we are at the same time kept far away from its most profitable places.

Indigenous nations in remote places, far from major urban areas, are nevertheless tied to a global capitalist economy. Traditional agriculture, livestock, or hunting is prevented or severely curtailed. We are dependent on things we no longer produce. These include the groceries we buy at big-box stores, like Wal-Mart, or the everyday household goods we purchase at these same stores.

In the Navajo Nation, we have both a money drain and a brain drain, affecting the ability of the tribe to function. These economic inequalities create the conditions for social and political inequalities between tribes and states, or reservation communities and border towns (e.g., Owens 1976, Estes 2021, Bennett 2022). These conditions produce economic injustice. As a result, tribal leaders have worked for decades, and centuries in some cases, to preserve the prosperity of the people – to work within the limitations of colonial structures and ensure economic survival.

To protect tribal members and equally share the wealth, tribal governments have taken two basic approaches. The first is to ensure the general welfare of tribal members by funding programs seen as helpful to most reservation residences. For the remainder of the essay, I will focus on the Navajo Nation as it is, where I have the most experience.

For the Navajo Nation, the tribe has created several “funds,” where monies earned in land leases, water leases, sales taxes, and mineral leases are centralized and placed into accounts that fund specific programs, like college student scholarships, veteran assistance, elderly assistance, or government services.[1] This is a social, democratic model of development and wealth redistribution. All this works within a capitalist system and is subject to the whims of capitalism.

When oil prices are down, royalty rates decrease, and less money is available for social spending. If the stock market suffers, tribal investments lose value, and less money is available for distribution to these programs. The sources of these revenues are controversial because they often come in the form of coal contracts, oil and gas leases, and gaming. These industries proliferate in Indian Country because of economic marginalization. For remote reservations, raw materials are sometimes the only thing of value in these lands, through a capitalistic lens. In a subsistence economy, the Navajo Nation, for example, is more ideal than Phoenix, with moderate weather, better access to water, and range for livestock and planting.

It is only participation in a capitalist system that devalues the land and makes subterranean resources more valuable than the land itself, incentivizing extraction. Despite these limitations, tribes like the Navajo Nation, with large land bases and membership, pool their revenues and try to fund the most strategic programs or infrastructure likely to employ people, bring jobs, or serve some crucial need for the community. This is the ideal scenario.

But the implementation of this strategy is rife with problems. One, we are impatient for results. We will invest money and time organizing in one project, only to abandon it after the next tribal election, when new leadership with fresh ideas takes over. Secondly, power concentrates in these distribution networks.

In the Navajo Nation, a controversial program of discretionary funds was started in the Navajo Nation Council in 2006. Today, it is remembered as pure corruption (Rosser 2021), but at the time, it was justified as a populist program. The council delegates in leadership positions said the discretionary funds program would release monies concentrated in the machinery of the tribal government directly back to the people. Under existing arrangements, money from revenues goes to investment funds that earn money from the tribe in money markets. The earnings from these funds are then spent on the special-interest groups for which the funds are designated, such as the elderly, veterans, and students. Very little money goes back to “the people” under this arrangement, and it contributes toward a cynicism toward tribal government.

New leadership in the council branding a grassroots governing rhetoric said, “Let’s bring this money back to the people.” In its annual budget meeting, it took money earned from the tribe’s various activities (i.e., revenues and taxes) and divided it equally among 88 council delegates. The delegates could then issue financial relief to community members directly.

It was a flawed idea and abused immediately. It also created a patronage system, where delegates could earn political reward through access to money. The corruption narrative has been well-covered, but I want to ask the question: What does this program say about economic justice?

There was an underlying premise to the program, undiscussed and unarticulated. What the program implied was that everyday community members should have the right to the collective resources of the tribe. Even critics of the program assumed this logic when they argued that the people’s resources were mismanaged and wasted on corrupt interactions between delegates.

At the heart of the controversy was a Diné idea of economic justice. For proponents of the discretionary fund accounts, the argument that poor Diné people struggling to keep their heads above water was key. Not all the checks from the discretionary accounts went toward family members of council delegates. Much of these monies went toward everyday Diné people in the form of small-scale financial relief. It paid for firewood, late vehicle payments, or funeral expenses. Additionally, the fact that Diné people needed this money and this form of relief speaks to the degree we’ve been incorporated into capitalistic processes.

Where do these vehicle payments originate? Who is calling in a paycheck loan? Who owns and operates mortuaries that Diné people rely upon for burials? They are all businesses, many of them national corporations, with branches in border towns. The money from discretionary fund accounts, whether it went to a family member of a council delegate or someone in dire need, eventually made its way into the coffers of businesses and corporations in surrounding towns and cities.

Another approach is per-capita distribution, which is more controversial. When the revenues are many, and tribal enrollment is small, each member gets more money. So there is an incentive among tribal members to limit membership. Examples exist of governments removing members to increase the revenue going to the remaining members of the tribe (Galanda and Dreveskracht 2015). What’s more, many tribes with per-capita distribution are involved in industries that feed on addictions, like gaming or tobacco. Not to say there are a lot of examples of ethical industries in capitalist economies, but gaming and tobacco are exceptionally predatory.

At the core of this approach, however, is a sense of economic justice – to redistribute revenues among community members that help them survive as Indigenous peoples against the difficulty of economic and political marginalization inherent in U.S. colonialism. Per-capita income increases standards of living. Tribal members with access to these kinds of resources can buy homes on or off the reservation, make car payments with less difficulty, or afford college. Depending on the geography of their reservation, they may still have to deal with rural underemployment and economic underdevelopment, but they have material resources to assist with their lives.

Western capitalist countries maintain no standard of economic equality for their citizens. At best, they will create programs for economic “opportunity,” with the assumption that society is inherently competitive, and some people are allowed to lose, we just need to ensure everyone starts at the same starting line.

Tribes, on the other hand, have deep ethics of responsibility for all members. As was suggested in this essay for many tribal governments, redistributing wealth is an objective of governance. How this is done takes on many forms. Some of these programs breed petty forms of corruption, are controversial, or have the opposite effect of their intended purpose. We often focus on these negative aspects of tribal politics and development to point out how bad things are on reservations or to critique the colonial origins of tribal institutions. Whole research programs advocate for less social distribution and more capital incorporation, putting tribal members into a competitive and individualistic system that emphasizes rights over responsibilities (Lemont 2006, Jorgensen 2007, Cornell, Kalt and Begay Jr 2008). All this works toward economic inequality and economic injustice.

Social advocates are initiating campaigns across Indian Country to remedy past and ongoing injustices. These campaigns are led by grassroots social movements, organizers, or sometimes nongovernmental organizations. Land back, water back, and other kinds of material restoration are at the heart of some of these campaigns. Also implied in these movements is a call for economic justice, for the means of survival and social reproduction to be returned to the people, the living descendants of those whose resources and homelands were stolen.

In tribal communities, already existing governing practices operate on the same logic, to ensure social and economic equality among Indigenous nations, often using contemporary structures of governance and visions of “economy.” In other words, there isn’t always a call to return to the subsistent life colonizers worked hard to undermine, but to produce products in industrial settings, to maintain divisions of labor, and work in money economies. These goals of social equality and modernization might be mutually exclusive in the end.

Really, there isn’t yet a modern form of production that is sustainable. All economies have every increasing cost on the planet and some wonder if traditional Indigenous resource governance, sometimes called traditional ecological knowledge, is the only long-term solution worth considering.

These are hard questions to answer in the course of one essay. But suffice it to say that despite the colonial challenges and the extreme inequality tribal members face, we still maintain governing values distinct and sometimes opposite of Western states. It’s my belief that we should hold on to these values and build institutions and practices around them. Our people are much closer to economic justice than the colonial societies dictating our nations.

We should continue to work toward this goal despite the challenges.




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