Sovereignty for Survival: American Energy Development and Indian Self-Determination

Allison III, James Robert, Department of History, University of Virginia
Russell, Edmund, Department of History, University of Virginia
McMillen, Christian, Department of History, University of Virginia

This dissertation explains how American Indians reclaimed control over their natural resources. During the 1970s "Energy Crises," tribes possessing minerals crucial to America's quest for energy independence resisted large-scale, federally-supported mining projects that threatened the survival of their indigenous communities. Out of this local resistance, tribal leaders recognized the need for a nationally coordinated movement to provide their governments with the institutional capacity to responsibly manage reservation land. To do so, they forged innovative partnerships with federal agencies tasked with increasing domestic energy production, creating the Council of Energy Resource Tribes that promised energy for the nation and desperately needed revenue for the tribes. Unfortunately, antiquated federal laws hindered energy tribes' efforts to develop reservation resources. Passed during the Progressive Era and embedded with notions of Indian inferiority, these laws placed federal "experts" in position to direct reservation mining, denying tribes the right to shape the pace and scale of development. Tribal leaders, however, had just spent the previous decade expanding their institutional capacities, and they now demanded the authority to exercise their newly acquired capabilities. Working with industry representatives, federal officials, and members of Congress, energy tribes thus constructed a new legal regime – anchored by the 1982 Indian Mineral Development Act – that recognized tribal, not federal, control over reservation development. Importantly, these momentous efforts to restructure federal law also reshaped Indian Country. As tribes altered their governments to better manage resources, intense internal debates erupted over culturally authentic forms of indigenous governance. The III resolution of these conflicts often established new tribal governing structures, but left reservation communities deeply divided over whether these new forms adequately represented their shared values. In the end, the process to increase tribal capacity and secure legal authority over reservation resources produced both a new federal regulatory regime and new tribal governing structures and values.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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