Where the River Ends: Contested Indigeneity in the Mexican Colorado Delta

Where the River Ends: Contested Indigeneity in the Mexican Colorado Delta

by Shaylih Muehlmann

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Living in the northwest of Mexico, the Cucapá people have relied on fishing as a means of subsistence for generations, but in the last several decades, that practice has been curtailed by water scarcity and government restrictions. The Colorado River once met the Gulf of California near the village where Shaylih Muehlmann conducted ethnographic research, but now, as a result of a treaty, 90 percent of the water from the Colorado is diverted before it reaches Mexico. The remaining water is increasingly directed to the manufacturing industry in Tijuana and Mexicali. Since 1993, the Mexican government has denied the Cucapá people fishing rights on environmental grounds. While the Cucapá have continued to fish in the Gulf of California, federal inspectors and the Mexican military are pressuring them to stop. The government maintains that the Cucapá are not sufficiently "indigenous" to warrant preferred fishing rights. Like many indigenous people in Mexico, most Cucapá people no longer speak their indigenous language; they are highly integrated into nonindigenous social networks. Where the River Ends is a moving look at how the Cucapá people have experienced and responded to the diversion of the Colorado River and the Mexican state's attempts to regulate the environmental crisis that followed.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822354451
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 05/23/2013
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Shaylih Muehlmann is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Canada Research Chair in Language, Culture and the Environment at the University of British Columbia.

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Where the River Ends



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ISBN: 978-0-8223-5445-1




Topologies of Invisibility on the Colorado River

We are here. We eat, we dance, we fish. Here we are and we still live. No éramos, somos. (It's not that we were, we are.)


DON MADELENO OFTEN REPEATED the refrain "We're still here." The first time I heard him say this, I interpreted it as a triumphant declaration of survival. In this instance, Don Madeleno was narrating the history of the Cucapá people in the delta: a history of war, conquest, disease, water scarcity, the criminalization of fishing, and the rise of the narco-economy. After everything his people had experienced, they were still there carrying on with their lives.

I heard Don Madeleno use the phrase in this sense on many other occasions: in interviews, at festivals, and in informal conversations. Because it was part of his personal narration I was struck when I first heard him use the phrase in a much more literal sense in the context of maps. Every so often I would bring Don Madeleno a map of the delta from books or archives to elicit his reactions to these representations of the land he knew so well. Every time I brought him a map we went through the same routine: he would look over the page slowly and meticulously and start pointing to all of the places it was missing. He would comment on whether or not the map showed the Cucapá village, the fishing grounds, and the Sierra Cucapá. He would also bring up the places that were almost always missing—Las Pintas, Pozo de Coyote, and a dozen other sites important to Cucapá history. Then Don Madeleno would irritatedly declare, while pointing at the absent places, "Estamos aquí" (We are here). Once or twice he went on to emphasize his point by saying, "Somos aquí" (We are this place).

In this context, "We are here" took on a meaning that is central to the issues I explore in this chapter. What Don Madeleno meant was that while you would not know it from looking at any official map of the area, the Colorado delta is a terrain rich with the traces of his people's presence: their places, stories, and history. And by saying "Nosotros somos aquí" he invoked an even stronger connection to place, drawing on the distinction in Spanish between the two verbs for "to be": ser and estar. Whereas estar is used to describe the current state of something and is almost always used to describe a location in space, ser is used to describe the unchangeable nature of something. By emphasizing "somos aquí," Don Madeleno was arguing that his people were not just occupying the delta but that they were the delta and that their very being was inseparable from that space.

This statement is not just a strategic invocation; it is also indicative of Don Madeleno's personal experience of the changing landscape. He was born on February 16, 1934, one year before the construction of the Boulder Dam (later renamed the "Hoover"), the first of the large dams on the river. His life has spanned exactly the time frame in which the Colorado River has been siphoned off from the lower part of the delta where his village is located. Since the first dam went in, about eighty dams and diversions have been built on the rivers of the Colorado watershed (Reisner 1993: 40). In the process, the flow of the Colorado to the delta and the Gulf was completely cut of.

In this chapter I analyze how maps, literature, and media coverage collude in a representation of the Colorado River that erases the Colorado delta and its inhabitants in northern Mexico. Therefore, this chapter provides the historical background and upstream context for why the river no longer reaches the sea. I argue that the rhetoric around the construction of these dams, and in particular the central concept of "beneficial use," promoted a particular water logic that carries through to present-day politics. Whereas in later chapters I examine how people experience the material efects of this water logic, in this chapter I examine how they experience the political and ideological erasure that results from it. In doing so, I trace a landscape that has been made invisible in representations of the river. This is a landscape filled with the places people navigate on a daily basis—their homes, the river, el monte (the bush), el zanjón (the fishing grounds)—as well as the places at a greater distance but still intimately connected to everyday routes in and out of the village: Cerro Prieto, nearby colonias, and el Valle de Guadalupe.

The narrative will also visit, if only in stories, places that no longer exist: colonias wiped out by floods; fishing grounds long evaporated as a result of the dams upstream; the Colorado River itself, now whisked off" in canals along the border. And we visit the places that feature in legends and creation myths: where Coyote first shared water with the people, the mountain of the eagle where the spirits go after death, the mountain range that a giant carved into the shape of houses and windows. I conclude by analyzing a mapmaking project that attempts to redraw the map of the Colorado delta and the Cucapa territory.

The Mirage on the Map: The Makings of a River without a Delta

The idea that space is made meaningful is familiar to anthropology, which has long recognized that the experience of space is socially constructed. Several authors have pointed out that a key concern in the politics of place making is the question of who has the power to make spaces and what is at stake in the process (Braun 2002; Gordillo 2004; Gupta and Ferguson i992). This is a particularly important consideration in the context of environmental disputes, which construct places in specific ways. Constructions of place that focus on nature, regardless of whether this focus is in nature's "defense," can participate in colonialist erasures of native people from political geographies (Braun 2002). These erasures are often accomplished through powerful representations of place, which are used to legitimate specific institutional policies and practices (Carbaugh 2001; McElhinny 2006; Muhlhausler and Peace 2006; Myerson and Ryden 1996). Maps, media coverage, and educational materials on the Colorado River are a vivid example of exactly such strategic representations.

Gupta and Ferguson (i992) have emphasized that "the presumption that spaces are autonomous has enabled the power of topography to conceal successfully the topography of power" (8). Tsing (2000: 330) has voiced a complementary concern by pointing out that the recent fascination with global flows obscures the material and institutional components through which powerful and central sites are constructed. The dangers of both an assumption of autonomy and fluidity in spatial imaginaries is apparent in the case of the Colorado delta. Here a discourse of free trade, migration, and movement has obscured the very real friction that the border creates: the river barely makes it down across the border to Mexico, and migrants are increasingly prevented from making it up across the border to the United States. Ironically, this very friction is facilitated by a parallel assumption of autonomy. The lands and people across the border in Mexico are over and over again represented as a blankness on maps from agencies in the United States and are rarely mentioned in many of the major literary and historical works on the Colorado River.

Before exploring the geographies made invisible by the representations of global flows, it's helpful to look at how those powerful sites and flows became constituted in the first place. This is the central question that guided my archival research upstream in the Bureau of Reclamation in Boulder, Nevada, and the Cline Library's archive on the Colorado Plateau in Flagstaf, Arizona. In these archives, I sifted through dozens of documents on the construction of the dams and the litigation of the Colorado River: water compacts, explorers' accounts, treaties, and educational as well as promotional pamphlets. The archival material I analyze here was published in the decades around the Boulder Canyon Project, which was completed in 1935. Most of these documents were produced in association with the Bureau of Reclamation, an agency under the US Department of the Interior. The Bureau of Reclamation oversees water resource management, specifically the oversight and operation of water diversions, and hydroelectric power generation projects that the bureau has built throughout the western United States since the beginning of the twentieth century.

Because maps are the most obvious representations of land and water, I paid particular attention to them. The two defining features of maps of the Colorado River are that they show the river running through land it no longer reaches and that they almost always represent the river as the lone detail south of the border, running through a featureless and vacant landscape (see map 1.1). By showing the river flowing where it no longer exists, these maps deny the fact that the Colorado's water is almost entirely appropriated for use in the United States and that the strongly diminished flows that cross the border are appropriated by the Mexican border manufacturing or agricultural zone. The blankness represented south of the border also implies that it does not matter if the water does not reach there anyway, since there is ostensibly no life in the area. Note that in map 1.1, all of the major dams, reservoirs, states, and state lines in the United States are represented but that none are represented in Mexico. These features depoliticize the overuse of water upstream both by obscuring the extent of overuse as well as providing a potential justification for this water not reaching Mexico.

The consistency of these features on maps from the Boulder Dam Commission, the Department of the Interior, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs illustrates the extent to which the Bureau of Reclamation has defined the geography of the American West. Other agencies concerned with the distribution of water follow suit in their representation of the river. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a map of tribal lands along the border that also showed conspicuously little detail below the border (see map 1.2 [Environmental Protection Agency 1998]). What is even more striking is to find the river represented as reaching the sea by an agency concerned with environmental degradation. Federal environmental agencies have certainly no jurisdiction across international territories, but as many environmentalists have pointed out, ecosystems do not obey borders, hence environmental problems cannot be treated in national isolation (Kiy and Wirth 1998).

The material effects of these representations are that they underwrite decades of policy that effectively cut off the delta, both literally and graphically, from the rest of the river in the process of its development upstream (Fradkin 1981). As Bergman has argued (Bergman 2002), since the Hoover Dam was completed on the Colorado River in 1935, the delta has been a "blind spot" in the American imagination.

Maps are a particularly obvious case of how representations of place can be used as instruments of persuasion and power rather than impartial tools of reference (Hanks i999b; Wood and Fels 1992). However, maps are not the only tools that experts use to represent the river in particular ways and for particular purposes. Engineers and ranchers in the United States draw on an expert discourse, colloquially identified as "waterspeak." Waterspeak is famous along the Colorado River for its extensive and often opaque vocabulary. For example, a common unit of measurement for the river is an "acrefoot," or 326,000 gallons (approximately enough water to sustain a family of four for a year). Another common term is "waterdebt," which refers to when one country or state has used more than its allotment of water ("waterdebt" is measured in "acrefeet").

At a tribal water summit in Flagstaf, Arizona, in August 2005 that brought together tribal members along the Colorado River in the United States, several people argued that waterspeak itself forms an exclusive discourse which controls access to the river. In the summit dialogue and in my interviews with some of the attendees, it was repeatedly expressed that waterspeak constitutes an exclusive language understandable only to water engineers, lawyers, and ranchers. Indeed, waterspeak is further legitimated by the legal framework through which the river is allotted, a framework known as the "Law of the River": a massive collection of treaties, compacts, and court decisions stipulating the conditions under which water is distributed.

One of the most interesting and prevalent concepts found in the intricate vocabulary of waterspeak is the idea of 'beneficial use." Peter Culp, an environmental lawyer, argues that this is the unifying concept in the Law of the River (2000). According to the Bureau of Reclamation, "beneficial use" is the use of a reasonable amount of water necessary to accomplish the purpose of appropriation without waste. The uses that are considered beneficial according to the Colorado Compact are "water applied to domestic and agricultural uses," where domestic use "shall include the use of water for household, stock, municipal mining milling industrial and other like purposes" (quoted in Culp 2000: 14).

It is important to clarify how "waste" is used in this context. In most parts of the United States, "wasting water" refers to using too much water or using water for frivolous purposes (e.g., long showers, golf courses). On the Colorado River, however, "wasting water" refers to letting any drop escape human use. "Wasted water" is water not diverted out of the river and used. Another important aspect of the concept of "beneficial use" is that an exclusive set of uses is delineated as "beneficial." Significantly, water used to maintain ecological habitats is not included; indeed, it was not until recently that environmental groups have lobbied for environmental considerations to be stipulated with water allotments.

The principle of "beneficial use" and the idea that any drop not used is "wasted" are reflected in the blank space we find on maps, emphasizing that water really would be wasted if it reached the barren land void of a civilization across the border. This logic can also be traced to the rhetoric around the construction of the first dams on the river.

As the Colorado River Flows Merrily out to Sea ...

[In] no part of the wide world is there a place where Nature has provided so perfectly for a stupendous achievement by means of irrigation as in that place where the Colorado River flows uselessly past the international desert which Nature intended for its bride. Sometime the wedding of the waters will be celebrated, and the child of that union will be a new civilization.


When the preceding passage was written in 1900, the building of the great dams on the Colorado River was just beginning to be imagined, but the idea that the river would be "useless" past the international border was clearly already firmly established. One of the ways the concept of "waste" was articulated in the early literature on the Colorado River was through the idea that nature, left to its own devices, was inherently wasteful. For example, in "The Story of a Great Government Project for the Conquest of the Colorado River," an informational pamphlet published by the Boulder Dam Association in 1928, the Colorado River was characterized in the following way: "Today the Colorado, on the one hand, is an ever increasing flood menace and, on the other, a notorious waster of its precious cargo of water so desperately needed in that region through which it passes" (Boulder Dam Association 1928: 1).

The idea here that the river wastes its own water simply by letting it flow its course is replete throughout the literature on the dams. William Smythe (quoted in the epigraph for this section), who was the chairman of the National Irrigation Congress in 1900, further develops the idea of nature's wastefulness by way of an economic metaphor: "dark, deep water [flows] uselessly to the ocean past an empire that has waited for centuries to feel the thrill of its living touch. It is like a stream of golden dollars which spendthrift Nature pours into the sea" (Smythe 1900: 288).

By suggesting that Nature is "spendthrift," spending "money" extravagantly and wastefully, Smythe elaborates another important sense of "waste" by drawing on the analogy between water and money. Versions of this metaphor are still rampant in the West. A famous saying in the southwestern United States is that "in the West, water runs uphill towards money," and metaphors of water as "liquid gold" or as a "liquid asset" are strikingly naturalized among many residents of the Colorado's watershed. Therefore, Smythe's metaphor foregrounded the controversy on the river over whether water should be treated as a commodity, owned by individuals, or a commons, that communities have rights to (Reisner 1993; Shiva 2002; Worster 1992).

Excerpted from Where the River Ends by SHAYLIH MUEHLMANN. Copyright © 2013 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Illustrations and Maps ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1

1. "Listen for When Your Get There": Topologies of Invisibility on the Colorado River 25

2. The Fishing Conflict and the Making and Unmaking of Indigenous Authenticity 55

3. "What Else Can I Do with a Boat and No Nets?" Ideologies of Work and the Alternatives at Home 83

4. Mexican Machismo and a Woman's Worth 118

5. "Spread Your Ass Cheeks": And Other Things That Shouldn't Get Said in Indigenous Languages 146

Conclusions 171

Notes 181

References 189

Index 215

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