Global Interior: A Conversation with Megan Black About the U.S. Interior Department in the American World Order

During the middle of a troop and advising “surge” to Afghanistan following the election of Barack Obama, U.S. Defense Department officials and Afghan President Hamid Karzai made a blockbuster announcement: Afghanistan, formerly best known for its export of opium, was said to be on the brink of becoming the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a rare mineral essential for the production of modern computers and smartphones. American geologists had stumbled onto dusty old Soviet maps of the country produced during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Their quality was not terrific, but they hinted at enormous mineral deposits hitherto untapped that could turn Afghanistan from a large net recipient of foreign aid to a state flush with extraction-based revenues, like neighboring Turkmenistan, or Caspian Sea oil and gas giant Azerbaijan. American geologists soon conducted aerial surveys of Afghanistan that allowed them to photograph the interior of the Central Asian state. Thanks to American-made “advanced gravity and magnetic measuring equipment,” the U.S. had produced “a three-dimensional profile of mineral deposits below the earth’s surface” and “the most comprehensive geologic survey of Afghanistan ever conducted.”

The announcement, made in 2010, seemed like good news for the Afghans. But beyond obvious ongoing questions about when (if?) security conditions in Afghanistan will ever permit mining corporations the confidence to make major investments in that country, the episode also raises questions about the role of the United States in th world and the nature of sovereignty in which access to mining data may be just as crucial as political sovereignty over the piece of real estate in which this niobium deposit or that lithium bed might be located. What does political sovereignty mean for a post-2001 Afghan state if its main real hope for self-financing comes from the interface of U.S.-produced data with an international bidding process over which an Afghan people may have only limited say? While the contradictions are perhaps particularly vivid in the case of Afghanistan, the drama of how extractive industries are entangled with the sovereignty of less powerful states and nations—not least Indigenous Peoples—is an ongoing story. Recent events such as the Standing Rock protests make this ever more clear.

Megan Black, author of “The Global Interior” and our latest guest to the Global History Forum

The work of our most recent guest to the Global History Forum, Megan Black, makes clear the history behind episodes like these. A Lecturer in History at Harvard University and a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History, Black studies the United States Department of the Interior as an institutional prism through which to see a new history of U.S. global reach since 1890. Often misunderstood as an obscure branch of the U.S. government, the Department of the Interior, in Black’s account, turns out to be a crucial agent of American power toward the outside world in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Rather than seeing Interior as a mere manager of that which was already “inside” the U.S. polity, she sees it as the crucial actor in a process of “interiorization” whereby resources once external to the American homeland (whether in the North American West or anywhere in the world) were made legible and potentially extractable.

While one might expect Interior’s mission to have ended once the frontier was closed and the American West swelled with settlers, Black’s account shows how Interior reinvented itself as a crucial agent for the discovery and management of “strategic minerals” around the world — first in nearby theaters in the Americas, and later globally. Studying the rise and fall of the Department of the Interior and the logics of “interiorization” it relied upon, then, constitutes not just a lens to understand the nature of American hegemony in the 20th century. It’s also a crucial story for understanding how what it meant to be sovereign changed in light of the discovery of new aerospace, computing, and nuclear technologies, and the complex mineral chains required to maintain them. While our conversation with Black therefore provides a lens into one of the most dynamic historiographical literatures today—namely that of U.S. foreign relations—it also provides a terrific example of what it might mean for scholars of global history to take minerals and mining more seriously as subjects for investigation. Outgoing Toynbee Prize Foundation Executive Director Timothy Nunan recently sat down with Dr. Black to discuss her research as well as her forthcoming book manuscript, The Global Interior.

We begin our conversation with Dr. Black by asking about the ways in which her childhood and early educational experiences shaped her interests. Black was born in Kearney, Nebraska, a town that she jokes continually vies for the title of being at the geographical center of the continental United States. “Being at ‘the middle’ of things was a big part of growing up,” she reflects. However, it was once she arrived as an undergraduate at the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln that she “really began asking questions about the global. Of course, as a child, we were framed by issues like 9/11, and there were influxes of refugees, so the global was always present.” But it was at Lincoln that two strands of interest intersected. One was Native American history and culture. Black took courses in Indigenous history and literature, and participated in a Pow-Wow group run out of a local state penitentiary. At the same time, she took courses in the history of U.S. foreign relations with scholars like Thomas Borstelmann, and she became fascinated by possible confluences between the one field of study and the other. Already at the time, scholars like Brian Delay had begun to publish on the possibilities of integrating Native American history into studies of the U.S. in the world, and there was a sense of possibility.

Encouraged by an interdisciplinary set of scholars like Borstelmann, Steve Buhler, Fran Kay, and Wheeler Winston-Dixon, Black thus decided to enter graduate school to pursue these interests further. She studied at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. with Melani McAlister, pursuing a PhD in American Studies. But she initially thought that she would pursue a topic more obviously rooted in cultural studies than nuts-and-bolts history, much less diplomatic history or international history. Conveniently but a few miles away from the National Archives and Records Administration in Maryland, Black followed her initial seminars on U.S. history with trips to the archives, looking for potential objects or files that would spur interest. She was surprised, she notes, by a set of popular educational films produced in the 1940s and 1950s on “strategic minerals” like bauxite or uranium, or films with titles like “Arizona and its Natural Resources.” Looking more closely, she noticed, these films were produced by the Department of the Interior. Black was interested in how minerals were being imagined. But, she notes, “I was struck by the kind of global view within these films — how, in spite of being produced by Interior, they made reference to places all over the world.” And looking more into the distribution of the films, she found that just as many were being sent to places like Afghanistan or Brazil as they were Arizona.

The logo of the United States Department of the Interior

Why did these films have such global reach? The short answer, Black found, was that Interior Department officials were traveling all over the globe in the 1940s and 1950s to provide technical assistance to governments. A branch of the government that she had assumed to be insular or self-contained, turned out to be quite sprawling. To take the example of Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, she notes, “his papers are completely global in orientation, with trips to Mount Kilimanjaro following trips to Japan.” This seeming contradiction between the “exteriority” of the Interior Department and its “interior” appelation became one of the core concerns at the center of what became Black’s dissertation. Over time, she envisioned a project centered around this moment of global expansion in the 1940s that she had identified, but bookended by a large pre-history of the Department since its founding in the months after the Mexican-American War (1849); and a kind of post-history of an Interior Department as a major arm of an American state with huge room for global action during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. She freely notes that many of the materials she used for the dissertation (Department of the Interior records at NARA plus several private papers) were not new per se, but that it was rather her orientation toward the material that mattered most. (Readers here may note similar themes to our interview with Black’s Harvard colleague, Stuart Schrader, who also spoke about reading “against the grain” in our recent Global History Forum conversation.)

Finally, on issues of methodology and professional training, we ask Black what advice she would offer female historians looking to break into a field like U.S. diplomatic history. “I do think,” she notes, “that there’s something particularly legible about female historians taking on subjects that spotlight women as historical actors, or processes that are gendered, in the enactment of U.S. foreign relations. We have learned so much from this scholarship, which has shown the global reach of American women as missionaries, intellectuals, activists, and consumers, as well has how ideas about masculinity and femininity were cornerstones of U.S. imperialism. Yet something that happened in the course of my scholarship is that, even though I’m interested in placing gender at the center of understandings of power, women were not particularly central to shaping U.S. mineral policy or extracting minerals on the ground. Ultimately, the historical process that I wanted to understand and critique was not obviously rooted in my identity as a woman—even though important scholarship, including feminist critiques of capitalism, has long revealed the gendered dimensions of extraction, for which a presiding metaphor has been the “rape” of “virgin” land.”

Her advice? “Write about the topic that you want to write about, but be aware that I think we still live in a world where there reigns the assumption that work is more ‘logical’ when it’s rooted in your identity. Women at SHAFR still face that, although that is not just a problem confined to the field of diplomatic history. That all said, my colleagues in this field have taken me just as seriously when I say something about U.S. minerals as if I were to pursue a more consciously ‘gendered’ topic. I’ve received terrific support, for example, from male colleagues studying U.S. mineral policy.”

Having discussed her intellectual path to the book, we move to discuss some of the main themes in The Global Interior with Dr. Black. The story begins in the 1890s, when, according to noted American historian Frederick Jackson Turner, the American frontier had finally been closed. Turner famously proposed in 1893 that the closing of the frontier would pose challenges to a society that had supposedly drawn much of its dynamism from the relentless push to fill “empty” spaces west of the Mississippi. More prosaically, however, the closing of the frontier posed institutional challenges for a Department of the Interior whose work had itself established the ending of the frontier. (The 1890 U.S. Census, conducted by the Department, established that population distributions had so changed that it was no longer meaningful to speak of a demographic frontier in the American West.) Since 1849, the Department had, explains Black, “dutifully disposed of land and resources and managed Indian affairs, advancing America’s reach over a continent that it technically but incompletely owned.” But with increasingly little “foreign” land to interiorize, one could plausibly argue for the dissolution of a Department that otherwise performed a grab bag of functions.

For much of the early twentieth century, Black explains, this seemed the likely fate for the Department. Now that so much land had been disposed of—exposing the limits to seemingly inexhaustible expansion—conservationist lobbies began to argue that the government’s proper role ought to be the conservation of select tracts of land. “Throughout this recalibration of national interest,” she explains, “Interior’s actions quickly shifted from being understood as dutifully serving the common good to selfishly cutting against it.” American forester and politician Gifford Pinchot sought to devolve control of the nation’s forests from the Interior Department to the Department of Agriculture, and commissions appointed by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt sought to place a spotlight on a supposedly profligate and pointless Department.

The Department sought to reform its way out of these criticisms, but only half-succeeded in doing so. Arguably, this was because it remained a prisoner of a kind of colonial logic. “Since the department began with the mission to ready dispossessed lands for utilization, its future foretold a termination point with the end of expansion.” If remaining Native American tribes were granted sovereign status by the Supreme Court and their reservations accorded special status via treaties, and if more and more lands were delegated as “conserved” national park areas, Interior would have less and less to do. The Department hit rock bottom in the early 1920s, when the Secretary of the Interior was jailed in the wake of a spectacular bribery case, the Teapot Dome Scandal.

Yet one potential way out of this seemingly inevitable creep toward irrelevance was a reframing of “the frontier” less as an actual place (the real estate in the western half of the American continent) and more as a kind of process that could be remapped elsewhere around the planet. The First World War had offered one potential vista. The Department had established a Bureau of Mines in 1910 to regulate mine safety, analyse the production of commodities in the United States and the world, and to regulate the production and sale of helium for government purposes. When the War came, international mining supply chains froze up, revealing how dependent individual governments could be on the world economy for scarce materials. This meant another potential realm of activity for Interior — how to ensure the safety of scarce materials beyond just helium for the functioning of the world’s largest economy and, if need be, the American war machine?

Harold L. Ickes, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, 1933-1946

As the Department recovered from the Teapot Dome Scandal, its new Secretary, Harold Ickes, sought to reshape its mission. The blows against the Department continued to mount. Interior had lost its jurisdiction over forests and related biological resources, and critics mocked it as the “Department of Everything Else.” The solution emerged through a combination of bureaucratic and discursive shifts. Not long before Interior lost control of grazing resources in the United States, it became in 1934 the home to a new Division of Territories and Island Possessions meant to “give bureaucratic and narrative coherence to decades of America’s slapdash and haphazard conquests overseas.” While not often placed alongside Euro-centric histories of a “scramble for Africa,” by the early twentieth century the United States had acquired a formidable overseas empire of its own: places like Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines, and a host of strategically important guano islands and other possessions. This was not to mention perhaps the most obvious examples of overseas or extraterritorial holdings, namely the former Kingdom of Hawaii and the formerly Russian Alaskan territories (neither of which were states until much later).

Administering these territories in a coherent way gave Interior something to do, at last. But for determined Interior officials like Ernest Gruening, the point was that the United States would not merely exploit these areas as vicious European colonialists had done to their colonies in Africa and Asia. For Gruening, the initial Director of the Division of Territories, America had to remain a proud anti-imperialist nation. Nor were these empty convictions: Gruening had been a critic of U.S. interventions into Latin American countries, and had authored perhaps the most authoritative English-language book on Mexico (notably, he was later one of only two Senators to vote against the Resolution that authorized U.S. military activity in Vietnam). In a 1934 article for The New York Times titled “Our Era of ‘Imperialism’ Nears its End,” Gruening explained how the period of territorial acquisition and annexation was giving way to an era of equality between sovereign states. European control of foreign lands had “as often proved a liability rather than an asset,” he explained, and besides, it was morally illegitimate. As Black sees it, Gruening “maintained a belief in the supremacy of America’s brand of democracy, but also upheld that the sources of the best democracy for a given place emerged in situ, and not from the contrivances of outsiders. “

But how to reconcile these highfalutin moral beliefs with millions and millions of acres of territory stretching from the Palmyra Atoll to American Samoa, from Kingman Reef to Denali? The answer for figures like Gruening was to embrace a specifically global vision of scant and important resources like chromium, tin, tungsten, and platinum. By 1939, the Department had drawn up an official list of so-called “strategic minerals” defined as those “essential to the needs of industry for the manufacture of supplies for the armed forces and civilian population in time of a national emergency. “ The category was designed politically to ensure support from Congress to grant the Department of the Interior resources to administer the extraction of those resources within America’s territories as well as to ensure their availability in situations of conflict. To be clear, moreover, there was nothing “natural” about the category of “strategic minerals.” The elements on the Department’s initial list had no unifying chemical or physical features to unite them.

This move had important political and intellectual consequences, argues Black. One was a shift from emphasizing the “exchange value” of rare materials to the “use value.” Rather than behaving like the caricature of a Cecil Rhodes-type colonialist interested only in extracting diamonds or rubies from impoverished African countries to sell them on world markets, Americans dealing in “strategic” minerals were interested in using them for the national interest. “If exchange values, were associated with monetary greed,” adds Black, “use values, the instrumentality of a thing, could appear comparatively disinterested and apolitical. What mattered was that minerals manifest into airplanes, machine guns, and tanks, which were necessary to fight fascism for a ‘wider humanity.’” In doing so, she explains, actors like Gruening could “circumvent the troubling associations between minerals and imperial greed, and to forge new associations as the material bulwark against national emergency.”

The second key move behind the concept of “strategic minerals” was to remove labor as a factor from the production and employment of such minerals. In spite of being affiliated with the New Deal, Interior leaders like Ickes and lieutenants like Gruening spoke of the minerals themselves as the real workers and soldiers behind American victory in the emerging global conflict of the late 1930s and early 1940s. Ickes noted that if he had to “pin a medal on the one element that…has made the most important single contribution to the inevitable downfall of our enemy” it would ‘without hesitation’ be natural crude oil, as well as coal, iron ore, aluminum, manganese, and copper.” Yet such valorizations of the bravery of tungsten, as it were, obscured who was doing the actual mining of these materials. As Black explains, “such personification ultimately covered over the ongoing arrangements of racialized labor that produced minerals in the first place. Precisely how strategic minerals that won the war were harnessed remained carefully concealed from view. “

But perhaps the most important fact about “strategic minerals” was not their use value or their divorce from actual relations of production, but rather the fact that they were increasingly defined as minerals not within the United States or its territorial holdings. Throughout the 1940s, Congressional funding allowed prospecting teams to scour the dirt of places like Alaska, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico for minerals like chromium and manganese. But with Filipinos clamoring for eventual political independence and the Japanese threatening to occupy the archipelago (as they eventually did), there was an obvious question in the background. Could, or would, a supposedly anti-imperialist United States ever grant political self-determination to territories that had “strategic minerals”? And if such materials were really so important, how could Interior secure long-standing access to them in a world of independent nation-states? After all, even Alaskans felt that they had become a fiefdom of the Department and resented Ickes as the “Lord of Alaska” with little concern for their lives, so long as mining extraction could continue.

Denali, the highest mountain in North America and—after Alaska’s admittance to the Union—the United States

As later chapters of The Global Interior show, the Department came upon a number of solutions to this issue. In the most extraordinary cases, like Alaska, U.S. territories were simply granted statehood and brought into the fold of the American political interior. That, however, was obviously not in the cards for places with strategic minerals like Bolivia, Brazil, or Mexico — all crucial test sites for Interior’s international assistance programs. With Mexican oil nationalization in 1938 and Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh’s attempt to do the same in 1951, it increasingly became clear in the postwar context that American and European multinational resource corporations could not simply expect to boss around nationalists indefinitely. Interior thus faced the challenge of how to integrate the process of raw material exploitation—something once seen as a sine qua non of the old style of discredited imperialism—with supposedly newer, softer forms of American influence around the world under President Truman Point Four’s program.

The solution was to embrace what Black calls “resource globalism” — the idea that certain materials, in particular oil and the aforementioned “strategic materials,” were really the property of all mankind rather than nationalist governments. The sister concept to this was what Black dubs “resource primitivism,” namely the idea “that multitudes across the globe dangerously misunderstood and undervalued resources. This supposition,” she adds, “derived from the Interior Department’s condescending supervision of Native Americans through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and often conflated Native Americans at home with peoples of the developing world on grounds of their alleged resource mismanagement.“ Here was yet another example of how logics of exploitation and disappropriation formerly deployed in places like North Dakota or Oklahoma could be redeployed against a new “global interior” of nation-states like Colombia, Saudi Arabia, or Afghanistan. If resources were truly global and necessary to the defense of freedom, so suggested Interior’s cultural products during this period, then it was truly insane for Native Americans to use petroleum for initiation ceremonies or mystic rites that were superstition in any event.

Backed by these ideas and U.S. economic hegemony, teams from the U.S. Geological Survey fanned out to willing post-colonial governments to conduct resource surveys and to collect samples of locally produced materials that could then be analyzed in U.S. labs or (later) a series of remote sampling labs in Cuba, Nepal, Egypt, and Israel. The collection of this data soon allowed U.S. mineral extraction companies to know with great precision both the amount of given minerals in, say, the Hejaz region of Saudi Arabia or underneath Buddhist shrines in Afghanistan’s Logar Province. Governments in Riyadh or Kabul agreed to these surveys because they offered them, in theory, a way to connect themselves to financial inputs from Western corporations. Together with a shift to the so-called Termination Era within the United States, Interior’s portfolio—once assumed to be in irreversible decline—was bigger than ever. Just as Interior scoured the post-colonial abroad for strategic minerals, it became complicit in a process of further dispossession of indigenous lands as Native Americans were “relocated” to urban centers and many of their lands were turned over to exploitation for atomic resources. As a result of such processes, Black argues, the fate of non-Americans living in resource-rich countries became linked, through Interior, to the fate of Native Americans made subjects of the Department’s writ.

Whether home or abroad, the production (and, often, monopoly) of data about minerals by the United States raised very uncomfortable questions about the meaning of sovereignty and legitimacy in an anti-imperialist age. What did it mean to nationalize resources if post-colonial nationalist governments did not have access to the technical means to extract oil or manganese, much less to sell it to world markets under the threat of Western boycotts? What did political sovereignty mean if it required partnership with a United States that possessed a nuclear arsenal, a global network of military bases, and emerging partnerships between Interior’s agencies and massive resource extraction companies? One of the questions raised by Black’s work is whether these kinds of shifts involved in the “interiorization” of a post-colonial world amounted to the failure or realization of the vision of figures like Gruening. In doing so, The Global Interior taps into broader debates about whether to understand American foreign policy as just another form of imperialism, or a successful kind of imperialism that succeeded precisely by producing “imperialism without imperialists.” Such questions became only more intense as the technologies needed to produce high-quality data migrated to the heavens; by the 1970s, Interior was involved in projects to use satellites stationed in outer space to scan the soils and interiors of countries like Sudan, all without requiring the permission of governments like Khartoum.

The shallow blue seas: resource-rich continental shelves pictured here as cyan or light blue

Once assumed to be over, this process of “interiorization” seemed to be accelerating in the 1960s and early 1970s. Bureaucratic power plays allowed the Department to add to its portfolio administration of the Continental Shelf, “an annex of mineral-rich terrain nearly the size of the Louisiana Purchase. “ Under Interior’s guidance, offshore oil exploration on the U.S. continental shelf expanded dramatically, remaking the economy of northern Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico (the two largest such offshore deposits). Pushing internationally, under President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Department was envisioned as a key agent in the planned International Decade of Ocean Exploration. (Until the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, it was unclear how much offshore territory states could claim for themselves beyond the continental shelf — potentially of enormous significant, given the growing depth to which offshore oil platforms could be built in the 1970s.) Ironically, however, it was an oil spill off the shore of one the United States’ most pristine coasts that nearly derailed the Department’s initiatives. What was then the biggest oil spill in U.S. history took place off the shore of Santa Barbara, California, dumping nearly 100,000 barrels of oil into the California waters and coating untold numbers of birds, sea lions, and seals with petroleum.

Arguably, only a coalition of indigenous activists and the ideological successors to the New Dealers that had rebuilt Interior in the first place put an end to the trajectory detailed in Black’s work. As Termination-Era parties wrecked Indigenous communities in the United States, activists in these communities increasingly connected their fates to those of resource-rich populations outside of the United States. Once the Interior Department discovered hitherto-untapped resources under the areas of the American West whither it had resettled Native Americans, it planned another round of deportations to gain access to more uranium, low-sulfur strippable coal, and oil and natural gas. Pushing back, however, The Global Interior explores (in Black’s words) how “indigenous activists founded a pan- tribal coalition, the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, and began forging symbolic and institutional ties with the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).” Seeking technical aid to tap “their” resources from any part but Interior, they hired Iran’s former oil minister, Ahmed Kooros as their chief economist. In short, by the mid-1970s, the ideological kit of “strategic minerals” and “resource primitivism” that had done such tidy work of the American West and the global was under assault from Native Americans who recognized the ways in which their forebearers’ fates had, to some extent, been replayed on the “global interior” of the 1950s and 1960s.

The oil spill from the BP oil rig Deepwater Horizon, viewed from outer space

What Native Americans began, bureaucratic infighting and the Reagan Revolution finished. A Department of Energy (formed to respond to the oil crisis and founded in 1977) gutted Interior’s control of the United States’ “mineral technocracy.” And once Ronald Reagan was elected to the Presidency in 1980, his appointees brought about a revolution at once commercial and military to Interior’s domains. “This was all symbolized best by the appointment of James Watt to the position of Secretary of the Interior,” explains Black. “Watt had himself spent much of his career battling Interior, and once he was appointed to lead the Department, he sought to bring it down from within. In many ways, he replayed arguments made in the nineteenth century, saying that it should be closed, or really only dispose of public lands for private use. As consequence, much of this speed and trajectory that was built up around institutional growth in the mid-twentieth century was undercut. This is not to say that Interior disappeared from American governance. You can see its presence in the management of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico – permitting oil exploration while at once regulating it.” The episode in Afghanistan mentioned at the beginning of this piece also constitutes another example of how Interior and its agencies continued to sprawl globally.

Broadly, though, for Black, the shift is away from civilian state efforts to secure minerals and toward the use of the U.S. military to do so. “The classic example here would be the Persian Gulf War, or, later, popular explanations that the 2003 War in Iraq was about securing U.S. energy interests.” However, Black says, it’s perhaps less obvious examples like U.S. support for military regimes in settings like Nigeria (the world’s sixth-biggest oil producer for much of the 1980s) that illustrates the ways in which U.S. energy interests were secured in different and more militarized ways from the 1950s. Still, Black adds, “But in many ways, the Persian Gulf War constitutes the end to this story – it’s a place where there is very little hesitation to use U.S. military force in order to secure the global energy economy.” While Interior had finally been rolled back (if only partly, as the BP and Afghanistan examples remind), the fact that it managed to outlive its original naysayers and the passing of the American frontier by some one hundred and twenty years is no small feat, if also one that has gone unobserved until Black’s investigation.

As our conversation comes to an end, we ask Dr. Black about her continuing research agenda. While she is still in the process of revising The Global Interior into a book manuscript, she notes that in a future project she would be interested in examining the inflection indigenous social movements with global intellectual history. While there has been much work on the history of human rights in recent years, she notes, much of this work remains grounded in unproblematized notions of “natural territory,” rather than taking account of the ways in which dispossession of indigenous territories was a kind of pre-condition for the field in which human rights projects were seated. Similarly, moreover, even as historians of Marxism or alternative intellectual traditions are reconstructing how state socialist regimes embraced ideas of “human rights” for their own ends, Black notes that many indigenous activists viewed these ideologies of anti-imperialist resistance as Western and therefore themselves artifacts of European and American dominance over indigenous peoples.

In contrast, indigenous rights activists such as Russell Means operated from a different tradition, arguing for not only resistance against the United States government but also reforms to internationalism itself to accommodate indigenous peoples. Means helped to establish an International Indian Treaty Council with both North and South American Indigenous Peoples, which secured recognition as an NGO at the United Nations in 1977. Likewise, members of the Iroqouis League have attempted to travel internationally on their own Iroqouis passports, rather than submitting (as they would see it) to the sovereign claims implicit in traveling on a US passport. Black’s next project, she hopes, will engage these myriad ways in which Indigenous activists imagined human rights and international order. She envisions using a wider array of archives for this project, as well, drawing not only on U.S. state archive but also collections of papers from Indigenous activists, the United Nations, and, possibly, the archives of states such as Nicaragua and Bolivia where Indigenous claims met violent regimes and/or extractive economies.

Interior-led drilling operations as part of the Point Four program in Egypt circa 1954. From the National Archives and Records Administration.

When not revising The Global Interior or sketching out ideas for the next project, Black still manages to find time to read other historical works for inspiration. She mentions three works as particularly generative: firstly, Kate Brown’s Plutopia, a book that “pushes across disciplines as ethnography and history.” She cites in particular the way in which Brown’s work shows how two seemingly “local” places (Richford, Washington and Ozersk, Russia, both plutonium-producing sites in the USA and USSR) were embedded in large processes of energy extraction and in fact in “utter union” with one another, in spite of their apparent opposition as two high-security sites on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain.

Black also cites Andrew Needham’s Power Lines as a source of inspiration for her work. A study of how electricity produced from coal-burning plants in Arizona turned Phoenix, Arizona from a sleepy agricultural town to a major city, Power Lines stands out to Black for underlying the ways in which indigenous history has to be thought through seemingly domestic or non-indigenous themes. “[Needham’s book] seems very domestic in focus,” explains Black, “but it does important work to think about the history of America’s postwar metropolitan growth that relied upon a colonial structure. In particular, Needham shows the Navajo Nation as a crucial supplier for the energy resources that the American Southwest would rely upon for its monumental growth.” Black also highlights the work of Andrew Friedman, Brian DeLay and Paul Rosier as scholars whose work provides outstanding examples of how to wed abstract concerns about sovereignty and power with a tight view from the ground. However, she jokes that the field of American foreign relations today is so productive that she is bound to forget several names in the above list.

Of course, part of this surge in great works on U.S. foreign relations is due in no small part to Megan Black’s work itself. In our conversation with her, we have ranged across a number of topics, showing the ways in which the “nitty-gritty” of “domestic” U.S. politics connects with the entire world, whether in the form continental shelves, petroleum reserves, or bauxite mines. Her work has also helped us to get a better sense of the connections between resistance to U.S. state power at home—in sites like Standing Rock—to more “outward” forms of resistance elsewhere. And with a lifelong oil and gas executive having recently taken over the reigns of the U.S. State Department under a President Trump, many of the concerns in Black’s work are unlikely to disappear—for better or for worse. We thank her for the conversation, and we look forward to seeing The Global Interior on bookshelves and reading lists soon.

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