Narratives of Progress and Declension in Environmental History

TRACI BRYNNE VOYLES. Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2015. Pp. 304. $25.00. Paperback. ISBN: 978-0-8166-9267-5.

WILLIAM CRONON, “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative, Journal of American History 78, 4 (March, 1992): 1347-1376.

RICHARD WHITE, “Trashing the Trails,” 26-39, in Trails: Toward a New Western History, ed. by Patricia Nelson Limerick, Clyde A. Milner II, and Charles E. Rankin. Lawrence: The University of Kansas Press, 1991. Pp. 295. $19.95. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7006-0500-2.

The readings for this week address the topic of contested narratives about the environment, and how these narratives affect both the writing and unfolding of western history. Short, theoretical  pieces by historians William Cronon and Richard White explore how different narrative structures have guided the construction of environmental history in general, and western history in particular, throughout the twentieth century. Despite their different vocabularies, these authors both recognize a distinction between how most narratives about the American West used to be told, and how they are more often told in the present. By contrast, the revised dissertation of Ethnic Studies scholar Traci Brynne Voyles offers an in-depth case study for how contested narratives shaped the history and legacy of a very particular region in the American west.

In his short contribution to the co-edited volume Trails, White reflects upon key differences between two defining schools of western historiography. These schools are the “Old Western History” of the late nineteenth and early-to-mid twentieth century—epitomized by Frederick Jackson Turner and Walter Prescott Webb—and the “New Western History” that began around the 1980s—epitomized by writers like Donald Worster, Richard White, Patricia Limerick, and William deBuy. To White, the “Old Western History” is an “essentialist narrative” based upon an idea of the American West as a homogenous landscape with a receding frontier line that serves as a divider between opposing stereotypes of “nature” and “culture.” The “New Western History,” by comparison, is a “relational narrative” based on analyses of how different groups of people see the land, as well as the structures of power that inform their contests over how that land will be used.[1]

In his JAH article “A Place for Stories,” Cronon does not discuss two schools of environmental historiography; but he does analyze works about the Great Plains in order to break western history into two opposing, narrative structures. He calls these narratives of progress and narratives of tragedy or declension. Interestingly, while most of the progress narratives fall into White’s camp of “Old Western History,” with Turner and Webb, Cronon makes it clear that narratives of progress and narratives of declension are not necessarily confined to White’s respective time periods. The Crow memoirist Plenty Coup offers a tragedy narrative of the Great Plains as early as 1930, while the historian Paul Bonnifield offers a progress narrative as late as 1979. Overall, Cronon and White both emphasize the unique power of narratives to pre-determine the structure of an historical work, and also to guide the course of historical events themselves. As Cronon states, “the stories we tell change the way we act in the world. They are not just passive accounts.” [2]

These theoretical discussions about contested narratives and their relationships to historical events and landscapes find specific expression in Wastelanding. Voyles analyzes the history and legacies of American uranium mining and milling operations in Navajo Territory of the American Southwest from roughly 1942 to the mid-1980s. The setting of her work is the arid, Navajo homelands of the Diné Bikéyah, located in the Four Corners region of the United States, where Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado meet. The narrative takes readers from the prehistory of Navajo-government relations in the early twentieth century, through the history of government uranium extraction during the Manhattan Project, to the present day, a time when activist groups like ENDAUM struggle to prevent the reactivation of abandoned nuclear sites and obtain redress for radiation-related diseases that affect people in the community.

Wastelanding is a case-in-point for Cronon’s claim that stories are not just “passive accounts” that writers construct for merely academic purposes. Voyles demonstrates how America, defined as the “settler colonial nation-state,” constructed narratives and maps about Navajo people and their lands that justified “environmental racism.” Voyles coins the term “wastelanding”—“a racial and spatial signifier that renders landscapes [and the bodies inhabiting them] pollutable”—to characterize these narrative and cartographic constructions. Basically, wastelanding is a discursive process that allowed American interests to convince themselves that their acts of resource extraction were actually helping the Navajo and Pueblo people rather than hurting them. In reality, native peoples were hurt through such means as forced stock reduction, land appropriation, economic exploitation, cultural stereotyping, and the “forced choice” of working in extremely hazardous milling and mining conditions.[3]

To use the language of White and Cronon, Wastelanding is definitely a “New Environmental History” because it does not ignore Native Americans, and it focuses on contested narratives of land use among the Diné (Navajo) people and white Americans. However, the narrative is not necessarily a story of clear-cut progress or declension. Instead, it is a mixture of both. As Cronon states, “In the most extreme cases, if the tale is of progress, then the closing landscape is a garden; if the tale is of crisis and decline, the closing landscape…is a wasteland.” In the case of Navajo Territory, however, a garden for Navajos was perceived by whites as a wasteland, and that perception was self-fulfilling. In partnership with structures of power, that narrative resulted in a story of general progress for both white Americans and the America nation and declension for Native Americans. But Voyles makes it quite clear that the narrative is far from over, and the land is still contested. Like the white settlers of Webb’s plains history, Navajo activists are up against insurmountable odds. But their successes in protesting renewed mining applications, for example, demonstrate that the ending of the narrative, and the final mapping of the Four Corners, is yet to be either written or drawn.[4]


[1] Richard White, “Trashing the Trails,” 26-39, in Trails: Toward a New Western History, ed. by Patricia Nelson Limerick, Clyde A. Milner II, and Charles E. Rankin (Lawrence: The University of Kansas Press, 1991), 27, 28, 31, 33, 35-36.

[2] William Cronon, “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative, Journal of American History 78, 4 (March, 1992): 1352, 1375.

[3] Traci Brynne Voyles, Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 6, 9, 110, 115.

[4] Cronon, A Place for Stories,” 1370; Voyles, Wastelanding, 213-214.