Kathleen P. Chamberlain. Under Sacred Ground: A History of Navajo Oil, 1922-1982. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000. xii + 177 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8263-2043-8.
Reviewed by Christopher K. Riggs (Division of Social Sciences, Lewis-Clark State College)
Published on H-AmIndian (October, 2001)
Oil and the Transformation of the Navajo Nation
Oil and the Transformation of the Navajo Nation
Over the past several decades, a growing number of scholars--such as Melissa Meyer and Brian Hosmer--have examined the transformative impact of economic development activities on Native American societies. Such studies have tended not only to look at the impact of non-Indian actions on Native people, but also on how American Indians have worked to shape and direct the course of economic events that have affected their lives. Kathleen P. Chamberlain's Under Sacred Ground stands out as a substantive addition to the literature on this important subject.
Chamberlain, a historian at Castleton State College, examines the development of the oil industry and its consequences on the Navajo (Dine) reservation from the early 1920s to the early 1980s. The author tells her story in a chronological fashion, beginning with a brief introduction and a discussion of Navajo history and culture before the 1920s. The next three chapters--which constitute about one-half of the book--focus on the 1920s and early 1930s, when meaningful oil drilling and extraction on Navajo lands first began. The machinations of various oil companies competing for leases and efforts by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to promote oil development are discussed in some detail here. The fifth chapter focuses on the decline and resurgence of the oil industry during the 1930s and 1940s, while the sixth chapter deals with the expansion of oil drilling in the 1950s. The last chapter gives an overview of developments from 1960-1982, especially efforts by the Navajo Nation to exert greater control over the development of its oil resources.
The author persuasively argues that "oil brought significant changes to every aspect of Navajo life" (p. x). Such changes proved particularly noticeable in regard to Navajo politics. Under federal law, the BIA had to get Native American approval before a lease could be granted to an oil company to drill on Indian land. In the early 1920s, no tribal government existed to represent the entire Navajo Nation. The local Navajo councils that the BIA dealt with initially were dominated by elder "traditionalists" and generally endorsed far fewer and far less extensive leases than BIA and oil company officials wanted. In response, the Department of the Interior oversaw the development of a reservation-wide tribal council in 1923. The new organization proved far more willing to approve oil leases. This state of affairs stemmed, at least in part, from the fact that BIA officials often appointed council members.
The creation of the council constituted a significant development because there had never before been a governmental entity that represented the entire Navajo Nation. In addition, younger, boarding-school-educated Navajos dominated the new council, thereby shifting political power away from elders. Although initially created to facilitate non-Indian access to Navajo oil, the tribal council sought to insure that oil revenues be used to purchase land, establish scholarships, and otherwise benefit the Navajo Nation.
Oil helped to fuel social as well as political change, according to Chamberlain. The oil industry made some wage work available to Navajos. Typically, however, the jobs were low-paying and reserved for men. Hence, when the federal government reduced the Nation's stock herds in the 1930s, women-who had traditionally been responsible for the herds-found their economic and social status undercut. On the other hand, oil revenues made it possible for the Navajo Nation to offer college scholarships for both men and women. Thus, oil offered women an alternative path to status and power.
While Chamberlain clearly shows that oil brought substantial change to the Navajo reservation, she might have expanded her discussion of certain points. For example, the author mentions, but never goes into great detail about, the environmental damage done by oil extraction and how such damage violated Dine religious and cultural views regarding the land. To be sure, no author can realistically cover everything and still keep her book a manageable length, and even limited references to such issues can serve to inspire research by other scholars. Given the importance of the topic, the lack of a longer discussion is unfortunate, if understandable.
Such concerns are not meant in any way to disparage Chamberlain's research, which is actually quite impressive. She examined more than thirty archival collections, U.S. government and Navajo tribal documents, about eighteen newspapers, numerous published books and articles, and several theses and dissertations. She also conducted a dozen interviews. The book includes several maps and illustrations, too.
Under Sacred Ground stands out as a worthwhile contribution to scholarly knowledge about Native Americans and economic development. In addition, anyone interested in the history of the oil industry, the Navajo Nation, and Native American history in the twentieth century would benefit from examining this book. We should hope that other scholars follow the lead of authors like Chamberlain and work to illuminate the complex relationship between natural resource development and social, political, and economic change among American Indians
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Christopher K. Riggs. Review of Chamberlain, Kathleen P., Under Sacred Ground: A History of Navajo Oil, 1922-1982.
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