“Interior” by Design

The US Department of the Interior is one of the federal government’s neatest rhetorical tricks. Built largely to manage land in the American West that had become “interior” to the United States only recently, through the colonial logic of Manifest Destiny, the department’s name serves to legitimize US territorial expansion. Interior’s role in expanding, managing, and obscuring American empire, however, does not stop at the California coast. Megan Black, an assistant professor of history at the London School of Economics and Political Science, has a new history of the Interior Department out that traces the department’s leading role in America’s pursuit of mineral resources around the world. Her book, The Global Interior, is a crucial contribution to our understanding of the the hidden ways American power functions around the world. I spoke with Dr. Black over email about her book and the role Interior has played in the construction of American foreign policy.

Sam Ratner: What brought you to the international history of the Interior Department as a topic for close study? Is there something about Interior in particular that speaks to your broader project as an historian?

Megan Black: I came to study the Interior Department’s global mineral pursuits in a circuitous way. In graduate school at George Washington University, I was interested in connections between US policies toward indigenous peoples and US policies toward Third World nations. Minerals became one prism through which those connections were visible. For example, I encountered the dynamic and controversial activism of an organization that claimed histories of mineral exploitation linked American Indian nations and Third World nations: the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, which self-labeled as the “Indian OPEC.” I filed this history in the back of my mind while searching for evidence of interwoven mineral histories.

Then at the National Archives, quite by chance, I stumbled onto these educational mineral films produced by the Interior Department and members of industry, like Sinclair Oil and Phelps Dodge Company. The films had surprisingly complex narratives that linked Native Americans to an array of foreign peoples from developing nations through their supposed shared inability to properly manage minerals around the world–the makings of the resource ideologies I would later identify as “resource globalism” and “resource primitivism.” I quickly discovered that these films circulated to nations like Afghanistan, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Egypt, Israel, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Thailand, to name just a few. What allowed these films such a wide-reaching circulation? The answer, as I came to find out, was that Interior Department personnel were venturing to these nations to supervise strategic mineral programs, along with an array of other projects more closely associated with international development, including hydroelectric dams.

As some officials joked, the Interior Department was decidedly exterior. However, other Interior officials made it clear that the Department’s global portfolio was a natural extension of its historical duties managing “frontiers”, a history that underwrote its management of natural resources and indigenous affairs. What initially appeared as a contradiction was quickly revealed to be anything but.

It was a legacy of Interior’s origins in settler colonialism in the wake of the Mexican-American War to incorporate expropriated territory into the national fold.

What struck me about Interior’s twentieth-century mineral programs, in particular, was that they were such political liabilities in a time of growing anti-imperialist sentiment in the United States. As the federal government sought to avoid associations with the worst kind of empires, its ongoing desire for minerals posed a problem: how to go about pursuing minerals without the negative optics that might inspire?

The Interior Department had long helped the US government and allied corporations smooth the process of extraction in new locales by offering not just technical expertise in surveying and mineral development, but also a civilian counterpoint to military power–one that could maintain a greater appearance of benevolence. The end result, however, was much the same. The American state and allied corporations had privileged access to low-risk overseas investment opportunities in ways that furthered unequal distribution of resources and tolls associated with extraction, a dynamic at play under imperial structures backed by military rule.

Thus, my historical curiosities encompassed not just connections between US settler colonialism and US global reach, of which the Interior Department is one part; they intersected with longstanding debates about the nature and consequences of American exceptionalism, the idea that the United States was, by virtue of its anti-colonial origins and anti-imperialist credentials, a nation fundamentally different from and superior to other nations. The Interior Department, I came to believe, helps us to discern some mechanisms of the projection of American power but also helps us to account for the invisibility of that projection.

SR: You write, in part, about the US government’s process of redefining “interior” ever more broadly in terms of the department’s territorial remit. When did that process begin, what, broadly, did it entail, and just how far has Interior’s reach extended?

MB: The Interior Department’s remit expanded with US overseas imperialism in 1899, as the department’s geologists arrived on scene in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba to conduct surveys. This began a more systematic role for the department more broadly in territorial governance. In the New Deal, Interior became the federal center of territorial management, a role it still maintains today in places like the Marshall Islands. At different moments and in different locales, Interior personnel helped embed American power, for example in wartime strategic mineral programs in Latin America and in postwar international development throughout the “underdeveloped” world–all while maintaining a role negotiating mineral leases on Native American reservations.

Yet the department’s personnel also had important roles in different and unexpected venues, including the oceans and outer space. As one dramatic example, in 1968, Interior scientists who had been pushing to develop technologies that might access mineral bounty in the deep ocean floor, an international zone beyond the national shelf territory that the department also had come to superintend, set a world record living the longest in an underwater vessel. Interior leaders also took the lead role in calling for and developing a technology that could prospect minerals from outer space, Landsat, which launched in 1972 and quickly became a favored tool of oil and mining companies. These acts are indicative of the surprising outer limits of the department’s remit.

SR: You convincingly demonstrate that the effect of Interior’s expansive mandate was to extend American empire, but you also show that Interior was a major site of American anti-imperial thought and ambitions. What role does Interior play in the history of American anti-imperialism, and vice versa?

MB: The Interior Department became for American officials a consciously civilian antidote to military power associated with imperial projection. This is evident in its nineteenth-century origins and development, like with former senator and Treasury Secretary Robert Walker promoted bringing Indian Affairs under Interior to promote “Christianity, knowledge, and civilization.” But it was also the rationale provided with the creation of the Division of Territories and Island Possessions (DTIP) in the Interior Department. The renowned anti-imperialist journalist Ernest Gruening became the first director of DTIP, at the request of Franklin D. Roosevelt, on the basis that involving those nominally against empire could ensure a softer version on the path, in some cases, toward independence. The argument did not hold out, as violence and coercion remained even under the Interior Department’s watch.

Later involvements in mineral programs overseas also roused a great deal of anti-imperialist concern, in part because minerals had become such recognizable symbols of the worst form of imperial land grabs. Interior officials, like Bureau of Mines director James Boyd and Bureau of Indian Affairs commissioner John Collier, were quick to condemn figures like Cecil Rhodes and King Leopold of Belgium whose lust for raw materials underscored bloody imperial regimes. In the postwar years, when self-determination ruled, Interior personnel involved with unearthing minerals in Third World nations sought to square the circle by portraying the action as “technical assistance” meant to develop “global resources” for the benefit of all–thus deemphasizing the unilateral strategic mineral desires of the United States and the national sovereignty that protected foreign minerals. In the era of decolonization, when territorial borders were no longer being redrawn in service of expansionism, Interior personnel adopted a set of tactics that allowed for similar ends with different means. In doing so, they helped the United States and associated corporations maintain key benefits of empire–access to raw materials–without the burden of playing the imperialist villain.

SR: One of the main methods you describe for expanding Interior’s reach around the world is the public-private partnership, usually between Interior and extractive industries. How do public-private partnerships abroad extend American national power?

MB: Mineral extraction on a scale that moved beyond needs of local subsistence and toward international trade was both capital intensive and dependent on infrastructure to connect to nodes of the global market. A key and consistent strategy in international development was the involvement of private industry to absorb those capital costs, initiating a cycle that consistently siphoned profits of extraction to distant coffers. Public-private partnership was consistently fractious, even as it was undoubtedly a partnership.

This point is important because the same collaboration that facilitated the production of mineral knowledge or the unearthing of mineral themselves overseas could easily be de-emphasized by both parties. This is part of a broader trend in neoliberalism that portrays a chasm between politics and economics, government and corporations.

The story of the Interior Department, however, shows that partnership between government and corporation is a more accurate description, even if these partnerships only become visible in the wake of major ruptures like the Teapot Dome scandal of the 1920s, involving an Interior Secretary colluding with oil executives over naval reserves, and the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, enabled by Interior’s permissive regulatory regime toward multinational firms.

SR: You write about some efforts to push back against Interior’s mandate over mineral resources, in particular the Council of Energy Resource Tribes–colloquially, Indian OPEC. What was Indian OPEC, and was it successful as a method for American Indian tribes to push back against US imperialism?

MB: The Council of Energy Resource Tribes was founded in 1975 by charter members including but not limited to Navajo, Jicarilla Apache, Crow, and Laguna Pueblo nations to pool together strategies and resources for challenging federal and corporate misconduct with respect to their energy rich lands. Interior geologists began reporting in the mid-1970s that an estimated 50 percent of the nation’s uranium, 33 percent of its low-sulfur strippable coal, and 1-2 percent of its oil and gas reserves were under indigenous reservations (these figures were exaggerated, but the reserves were indeed significant). The coalition challenged the unfair leasing practices that had locked tribes to abysmal royalties in perpetuity in court rooms and in dialogue with the Carter administration. In 1977, the coalition added to its legal strategies the media ploy of self-labeling as the “Indian OPEC,” on grounds of a shared history of mineral exploitation. Leader Peter MacDonald, the chairman of Navajo Nation, even initiated talks with OPEC representatives in the summer of 1977 and hired Iran’s former minister of finance and oil to be their economist in 1979. Doing so helped elicit national attention and federal funds, including for the opening of offices in Washington, DC, and Denver, CO.

By constructing this transnational imaginary, the Indian OPEC was able to place a spotlight on the history of Interior’s mismanagement of tribal lands and resources as well as the way this story was part of a much bigger one entailing the global reach of American and capitalist institutions. The organization ultimately fell victim to some of its own successes, like its support for President Reagan’s cuts to government services on reservations. This seriously undercut tribal economies in the early 1980s, a time when the stabilizing of the global energy market lessened the value of the Council of Energy Resource Tribes’ holdings.

SR: We’ve heard a lot about the personal malfeasance of former Interior secretary Ryan Zinke, but comparatively little about the recent record of the department as a whole. What indicators should people watch to understand how Interior is being used in the Trump era?

MB: Zinke is indicative of a much longer trend in the department’s history, as its leaders struggled to maintain a proper balance between advancing public and private interests, between promoting and regulating capitalism. Zinke’s personal profits are those attracting attention, much like Teapot Dome scandal secretary Albert Fall, the first cabinet member to go to jail. However, I think we should pay attention to the bigger picture, the seemingly mundane instruments by which public wellbeing is undercut by policies in Interior and other departments, especially the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency that both partially spun out of Interior, that intensify extractive capitalism.

The New York Times reported on the 78 policy recommendations and changes under Trump that have undermined the environmental conditions of national monuments, air quality, drinking water, and vulnerable ecological webs, including endangered species that sustain them. Some examples include the canceling of requirements that oil and gas companies report methane emissions, slackening of restrictions on toxic effluent from major industrial polluters, opening coal leases on public lands, lessening firms’ obligations to pay federal government for leases on federal lands, relaxing rules for environmental review process, and revoking a rule preventing coal companies from dumping tailings into local streams.

Basically, Zinke’s actions warrant public scrutiny and, almost certainly, legal censure, but the actions of one corrupt official should not distract from the broader pattern of departmental struggles to maintain its commitments to public health and safety in the face of powerful oil and mining interests–interests that donated profusely to the current administration and clearly have its ear.

SR: Let’s close with some reading recommendations: what’s the best thing you’ve read recently, on this or any other topic?

MB: There’s too much to say, so I’ll limit myself to the works I see at the intersection of environmental history and the US and the world:

Traci Brynne Voyles’ Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country; Kate Brown’s Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters; Ian Tyrrell’s Crisis of the Wasteful Nation: Conservation and Empire in Teddy Roosevelt’s America; Andrew Needham’s Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest; Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor; Bartow Elmore’s Citizen Coke: The Making of Coca-Cola Capitalism; and Thomas Robertson’s The Malthusian Moment: Global Population Growth and the Birth of American Environmentalism.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Megan Black is an assistant professor in the Department of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Sam Ratner is a contributing editor at Zitamar News, where he covers security issues in southern and eastern Africa.

One thought on ““Interior” by Design

  1. Pingback: The United States Must Support a Non-American World Bank President – Fellow Travelers

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