Where the River Ends

Contested Indigeneity in the Mexican Colorado Delta

Where the River Ends

Book Pages: 240 Illustrations: 11 photographs, 1 map Published: May 2013

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Chicanx and Latinx Studies, Environmental Studies

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.


“Muehlmann offers a thought-provoking, well-written, and important ethnography. This book is recommended particularly for upper-level undergraduate and graduate students, and for the interested public. It is supplemented with helpful and clear figures and maps.” — Emma S. Norman, Environmental History

 “This well-researched and illustrated depiction of global forces at work in particular places (with excellent maps and images), is at the crux of the work as ‘political’ but it is not categorically aligned with a particular ideology. This is positioned ethnography—the writing is ‘witness’ to powerful process (63) with a focus on everyday conditions. . . . This methodological expansiveness is paired with succinct and relevant reviews of conceptual literature and rich ethnography often through vignettes. Being also a slim volume, the book would be a valuableaddition to upper level undergraduate and graduate coursework in environmental anthropology, indigenous studies, and methods courses.” — Sally Babidge, Anthropological Forum

"An eloquently argued and ethnographically grounded critique of the general understanding of tradition as fixed heritage, and of indigeneity as inhering in unchanged language, livelihoods, and practices." — Franz Krause, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

"Persuasively shows the many ways  in which Mexi co's indigenous people respond to the many threats to their traditional livelihoods and cultures."  — Maria Cruz-Torres, European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies

"Muehlmann’s book is a remarkable work of ethnography…it fully demonstrates the genre’s continued relevance as a unique way of understanding the complex ways that social issues intersect and intertwine in contemporary society." — Magnus Hansen, Social Anthropology

“I believe that the book will work well in the classroom, not only for its vivid stories but because of the way that Muehlmann brings the scholarly literature to bear in every argument, showing which ideas she brings along and where and how she has to modify and develop ideas. In this way, the book can be used to teach about fieldwork and analytic methods as well as provide a strong lesson in ‘how environmental conflicts are never just about “the environment”’ (p. 172).”

— Stephanie C. Kane, PoLAR

"This is a timely and important book that will interest indigenous activists, scholars,and policymakers concerned with preserving the ecological health of the Colorado River basin. Muehlmann’s work also provides a powerful comparative tool for those interested in understanding the ways that native communities can and should play a prominent role in preserving global ecological borderlands like the lower Colorado delta." — Natale Zappia, Hispanic American Historical Review

"[Muehlmann’s] rich and nuanced ethnography of a Cucapá village gives an intimate portrait of this community. The reader gets to know her interlocutors as real, reflexive, active, and flawed people struggling to survive in abject conditions." — Randall H. McGuire, American Ethnologist

"Muehlmann challenges us to read between and beyond the lines of law—to understand who is left out and why — and to consider how environmental knowledges and subjects are made illegitimate and invalid through statecraft." — Katie Meehan, Latin American Research Review

"A vivid portrait of the double-bind that traps growing numbers of native people who are denied ancestral rights and legitimacy by outsiders' criteria for ethnic difference. In stories laced with humor and insight, this highly readable ethnography shows how identity coalesces in unexpected places as the Cucapá cope with narcotrafficking, celebrate women's leadership in contrast to Mexican machismo, and cultivate expert vocabularies of indigenous swear words." — Beth A. Conklin, Department of Anthropology, Vanderbilt University

"Shaylih Muehlmann's richly peopled, intimate ethnography explores matters of identity and recognition, structure and agency, resistance and complicity as they emerge through the events, predicaments, and dilemmas of daily life. The characters at the center of her account are neither victims nor heroes, but reflective and often flawed subjects, engaged in struggles over resources, meanings, and the pragmatic business of survival. Where the River Ends leads us into their world. It is a lively read. Highly recommended." — Tania Murray Li, author of The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics


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Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

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

Table of Contents Back to Top
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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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5445-1 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5443-7
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