The Seduction of Desert Spectacles: Talking “Arid Empire” with Natalie Koch and Andrew Curley

“You cannot divorce domestic empire from international empire. Those histories created one another.”

The desert lands now controlled by the United States were cast by early settlers as empty places, a tabula rasa, and as no one’s land, terra nullis. Almost five years ago, when we first began discussing our common interest in the colonial history of Arizona, we puzzled about the politics of these two concepts of tabula rasa and terra nullis. How did American settlers arrive in the desert Southwest—a place so rich with culture, history, and meaning for countless Indigenous communities—and see it as “empty”? And what was the role of these images of the empty desert in actually creating a desert emptied of Indigenous people, claims to sovereignty, and alternate modes of relating to the land? Our individual work has approached these questions from different angles, but in this conversation about “arid empire,” we reflect on some of our long-running conversations about the global history of US colonialism in Arizona.

Andrew Curley (AC): What inspired you to write Arid Empire? And when did you start drawing connections between settler colonialism in America and imperialism in the Arabian Peninsula?


Natalie Koch (NK): I have been researching different desert places as a geographer for a long time, and I grew up in the Arizona desert. But despite spending so much time in deserts in the US Southwest, Central Asia, and the Arabian Peninsula, I had never really thought about how interconnected their colonial histories are.

We often forget that early Anglo-American settlers in the Southwest had no idea how to deal with the desert. After the Mexico-American War, they added huge swathes of territory to the United States. But in order to actually properly take over that territory, they had to master the climate and the physical geography. In the early days, it was a conceptual challenge as much as a material one. Often, they relied on imaginings of the desert originating from the Bible, from old world deserts. Early arid empire was thus built on a cultural system of takeover, colonization, and extraction, that drew from the Middle East. They brought over animals like camels, and plants like date palms. And so much more. So, in this sense, empire in the US was always transnational.

Researching this book helped me to see that you cannot divorce domestic empire from international empire. Those histories created one another. This is what I was trying to capture with “arid empire”—the idea is partly about the political, scientific, military, and cultural systems that were needed for American settlers to take over the desert Southwest, but also how this arid-lands expertise was then sold abroad in the service of US empire-building in the Middle East. So it starts with domestic empire-building, but it doesn’t end there. In the broadest sense, then, arid empire is about how the desert itself becomes a narrative resource that people bring to life and use for many purposes.

But I wanted to ask you about this theme as well. Your own book, Carbon Sovereignty, will be coming out soon. How you are thinking the colonial relations that unfold in the story that you tell?


AC: It started out as an ethnography of Diné and Navajo coal workers. It quickly morphed into a more wide-ranging, historical project about extractive industries decimating indigenous landscapes. Today’s water infrastructure, for example, is designed to benefit certain communities, mainly Phoenix and Tucson, at the expense of the Navajo Nation’s water rights. So, what started out as a narrow ethnography uncovered a larger colonial apparatus.


NK: That ties into your great article—I mean, just the title alone is fantastic—“Resources Is Just Another Word for Colonialism.” Could you say more about the so-called “resource curse”?


AC: I was inspired by Zoe Todd’s article “An Indigenous Feminist’s Take on the Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ Is Just Another Word for Colonialism,” which is in part about how indigenous ideas get appropriated into philosophical and social science debates without proper attribution. I wanted to focus on the ontology of resources themselves, how they become a kind of governing logic, not only for the state, but also for tribal governments. The Office of Indian Affairs or Bureau of Indian Affairs have departments of natural resources that advocate participating in global capitalism in a way that is said to be beneficial for us but is really beneficial for outside interests. By using the term resources we are already interacting with the natural world in a way that is colonial and exploitative.

The title Carbon Sovereignty builds from Timothy Mitchell, and others on Twitter, who are thinking about carbon democracy. It was useful for me because it helped to explain the mindset of proponents of coal in the Navajo Nation. The scholarship and popular discourse construes resources as dependency, as a cause of underdevelopment and inevitably a curse. I wanted to show that it is a governing practice that informs a way of thinking about self-determination for indigenous nations vis-à-vis the colonial state. Even though you are using a colonial way of thinking, you are trying to do it in a way that challenges other kinds of intrusions into the landscape. In the 1960s, for example, the Navajo Nation used their coal deposits to challenge the state of Arizona and prevent the state from developing water energy projects without its consent or benefit to the tribe. They felt they needed to take advantage of coal before it was outpaced by nuclear power. If the Navajo Nation didn’t act quickly, it might be left with nothing. That was how coal mining got started, and it represents a way of thinking about assertions of rights with resources common to colonized or formerly colonized nations over the past 50 or 60 years.

“The settlers who took over these lands envisioned somebody like me growing up and living in Arizona, and that is really troubling. People like me … have to push back against these romantic fantasies of the Wild West.”

AC: We have both done research on land grant universities. What did you learn in your research about the University of Arizona helping to expand the reach of arid empire?


NK: When we think about colonialism, there tends to be a focus on unambiguously negative and spectacular forms of violence and extraction. But as it turns out, the University—an institution usually associated with positive social forces—is one of the most important colonial agents in Arizona. It had existed on paper only until the late 1880s, when the regents of the University figured out they could get money through the Hatch Act, which was tacked on to the Morrill Act (the latter famously known as the Land-Grant College Act). They realized they could receive $15,000 if they set up an agricultural experiment station, and overnight created one on paper that, of course, didn’t exist in reality. But in establishing the UA’s Agricultural Experiment Station and receiving that federal money, the university’s boosters were able to simultaneously entice new white settlers from the East Coast and develop Arizona’s niche in arid land studies and desert farming. Eventually, these efforts expanded and new labs started, like the Environmental Research Laboratory in the 1960s, which was part of the early effort to export UA researchers’ expertise internationally, first in Mexico and later in the United Arab Emirates, Iran, and elsewhere. When this all started to get scaled up internationally, it was difficult to track exactly who was actually benefiting from these projects. But the university and its arid lands researchers wasted no time in finding their way through different legal landscapes to make a profit from what I’ve described as the spectacle of settler science in the desert.


AC: Yeah, from the 1960s onward the Navajo Nation in Arizona was definitely incorporated into the arid empire project. What I call carbon treaty making determines legal access to certain kinds of resources, negotiated between indigenous nations and today’s settler colonial states. It looks different from land grabs, colonial displacement, or genocidal violence, but it is its own kind of insidious. It comes with positive, forward-facing PR spin. In the case of the Navajo Generating Station, those agreements limited our ability to have our own labor laws on the site. It prevented the Navajo Nation from accessing 34,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water. These kinds of contracts are being signed by indigenous nations all the time. Leases, negotiation, and contracts are analogous or equivalent to treaties from the 19th Century.


NK: A great example of that is the Colorado River Compact. There is still this sense that we just need to bring the tribes into it in the right way, rather than outright blow it up, as you’ve suggested in our previous discussions. But to me, it’s telling of how arid empire continues to exert its power through these legal lock-ins: that tribes are given a small chance (if any) to join legal debates, but aren’t allowed to propose tearing them down entirely. No one—neither settlers nor Indigenous groups—is allowed to imagine the possibility of an alternate legal landscape. We can only imagine a world in which we are still bound by these colonial frameworks.


AC: Yeah, that is a challenge in the western states that I think is exposing a contradiction in capitalism that maybe speaks to the heart of an idea of aridness, which is like this deficit of water and water resources, or this perceived deficit, and the way that infrastructures and institutions are designed around them and so like for these things to exist, for the settler colonial project to exist the way it does in Arizona, and for this empire building to exist, these kind of frameworks probably have to maintain themselves.

I have a related, counterfactual question: what would arid empire look like without the water regime that currently rules the Southwest?


NK: I think the empire is built on that water regime, right? It is a system that is not oriented toward communal use. It is not oriented toward justice. Challenging that water structure would mean challenging the imperial project. To me they have to go together.

AC: Where do you see the imagined future of arid empire?


NK: For me the primary goal of the book was, first, to make it visible. We are all descendants of this colonial vision, right? The settlers who took over these lands envisioned somebody like me growing up and living in Arizona, and that is really troubling. People like me have to start being able to see it and to challenge it, to push back against these romantic fantasies of the Wild West. You have the future-facing reenactment of these narratives in relation to climate catastrophe. You know, let’s then just go colonize Mars, the billionaire space race. Why doesn’t Elon Musk actually fix water infrastructure in Arizona instead of flying these rockets?


AC: Do ask for that, he might try!


NK: Yeah, okay, we will ask for it!

But in all seriousness, what does it actually look like to enact concrete change in opposition to the system? My work has shown me that when the imagination is colonized, we don’t necessarily even know how to imagine political possibilities outside of the colonial system.


AC: Arizona, California, New Mexico, and others are claiming monopolies over limited resources, the limited water available in the region, and we can challenge that because the Colorado Compact was made in a way to limit our access. In this case, we are not beholden to it because we were not made a party to it. The shows us what we can do as an indigenous nation. Instead of sitting at the table with states, we sit at the table with ourselves and come up with an alternative form of governing of water. Quite honestly I think most of the people living in the region would agree with it. We have our own philosophies about the natural world that are part of our governing laws, not just abstract ideas. The idea of natural law exists in our codes, and it might not be what you think the indigenous relationship with the environment might be—the almost caricaturized depiction in popular media—but actually deeper than that. Colonial capitalism is very exploitative and unsustainable, as most of us recognize, and Indigenous people who have lived in the region for centuries offer a counter to that prevailing ideology. And I think even non-Indigenous folks living in the region are yearning for an alternative. We could come together and propose an alternative form of water governance, one that is geared toward responsibility instead of rights. Of course, suspending our negotiations with the state government and coming up with completely different operating plans from the Colorado Compact is not going to solve all the problems, but that is one way of beginning.

I wanted to end by asking you about the book’s cover. The imagery that you selected was purposeful, right? It could be a settlement on Mars, very sci-fi. Tell me about it?


NK: It actually comes from a 1975 magazine cover of Arizona Highways. And in it, they spotlight new technologies that are going to be developed in Arizona. I think it really encapsulates the way that ideas of arid empire transform over time. If you look really closely at the picture you can see images of a cross. It’s this classic savior vision mixed with techno-futuristic fantasy. But what I find fascinating about this image is that even though that cover was produced in 1975, its image of techno-fantasy could just as well be produced today. It is remarkable how violent colonial relations in the desert get recast as celebrated scenes of colonial salvation. Over decades, and around the world, they just get repeated over and over and over again. It’s uncanny, really.


AC: Yeah, and as you said, that violent vision of desert utopia is just a half step away from space colonialism. icon

This article was commissioned by Ben Platt. Featured photographs courtesy of Natalie Koch and Andrew Curley.