Colin West interviews Shaylih Muehlman

Muehlmann, Shaylih. 2012. Rhizomes and other uncountables: The malaise of enumeration in Mexico’s Colorado River Delta. American Ethnologist 39(2): 339-353.

Dr. Muehlmann’s article is a wonderful and compelling account of how three distinct processes of enumeration interact to create a crisis narrative regarding the people, language, and ecology of the lower Colorado River Delta of northern Mexico. I have to admit that I was rather skeptical from the outset. I know a lot about the area and have personally interacted with many of the researchers who work in the region. I initially thought to myself, “C’mon now! How could counting residents, birds, fish and native language speakers really have negative consequences for people struggling to assert local control over natural resources?” As I read the paper, I got sucked into the story by Muehlmann’s clear prose and vivid imagery. Like all really good ethnographies, I felt like I was there. I felt like I was talking with Don Madeleno, catching birds in nets with Christian, or listening to the radio with Cruz’s family. So, my skepticism faded away and I became convinced that counting does matter.

I also work among indigenous fishing communities of a river delta and encounter many of the same issues. For five years, I have conducted ethnographic fieldwork among Yup’ik and Cup’ik First Alaskans in the Yukon-Kuskokwim River Delta (Y-K Delta) of Western Alaska. People in the Y-K also struggle with fishing regulations that undermine their subsistence way of life. They are likewise frequently surveyed by health officials, census workers, fish and game managers, or anthropologists like myself. Some community members decline to be interviewed and tell me, “We’ve been surveyed to death!”  Unlike the Colorado Delta, however, the Y-K Delta region remains a stronghold of Yup’ik language vitality. Moreover, Alaska Native groups have formally recognized political rights and actively participate in conservation decisions through management boards. The Y-K Delta region struggles but is far from a state of environmental or social crisis as the Mexican Colorado River Delta.

Nonetheless, reading “Rhizomes and other uncountables” has made me wonder the degree to which my own work among residents of the Y-K Delta may be inadvertently contributing to a similar form of countdown. I thank Shaylih Muehlmann for writing an article that compels all of us as ecological anthropologists to reflect on the myriad types of enumeration we routinely do as part of our fieldwork. We should ask ourselves if all our counting ultimately relegates the people we study and their experiences to “a realm that simply does not count” (p. 340).


Hi, Shaylih. I’m Colin and I really enjoyed reading your article. Congratulations on receiving the A&E Junior Scholar Award!

Thanks Colin! It’s nice to meet you.

I really was struck by your writing. You are able to blend anthropolo

gical theory and ethnographic material into an extremely compelling account. Could you talk a little bit about how you go about writing ethnographically?

For me the process of writing and the process of analyzing my material have always been necessarily inseparable. It’s very rare that I start out writing already knowing how to make sense of the ethnographic material I intend to address. So my descriptions of people and events are placed in the way they are in the text less for stylistic reasons and more as a result of my own process of trying to think through the issues that those people and events are raising. I find that if I begin with the ethnographic accounts as the basis of my writing it’s easier to start untangling the theoretical and political issues they speak to.  This was particularly the case in writing “Rhizomes and Other Uncountables” because the issue of enumeration wasn’t one that I had ever considered before noticing peoples’ reactions to counting practices in my field-site. So trying to understand those reactions involved really thinking through and considering the ethnographic examples carefully.

Your paper discusses the ways in which enumeration undermines local struggles for control over natural resources, language, and livelihoods. But you also point out how it can simultaneously help and become a basis for demanding greater rights. Counting is such a simple thing but you illustrate its potential power. I was wondering how you first became drawn to counting as an important and illuminating theme?

Enumeration practices are such a taken for granted feature of both qualitative and quantitative research that it actually took a while for me to realize that they were particularly significant in the Colorado delta.  I remember that after submitting the first draft of my dissertation, as a graduate student, my supervisors asked me to include the population of the village in the introduction. They wanted a number, which is of course standard.  I hadn’t included that number because I had already encountered the hostility among villagers towards counting practices and especially the question of how many people lived there. But I didn’t know how to justify the omission of that information because I still hadn’t fully understood what the hostility and discomfort was about.  So it was over the next several years, during my postdoctoral work, that I started paying more specific attention to the issue and deliberately collecting more examples of how counting practices were being experienced by local people over several different contexts.

In several passages you specifically write about your personal experiences while conducting research that really did make me feel like I was there in the Colorado Delta. Could you just briefly describe a typical day of fieldwork?

I spent most of my fieldwork in the delta following people around. In the extended field period when I was staying with local families I would wake up and spend the first few hours of the day hanging out and visiting with people. Then I would try to join in on any organized activities that were related to my research themes – fishing, meetings with local river users’ association, work projects, environmental workshops, and cultural events – those sorts of things. But most days were less eventful and I spent a lot of time just talking to friends and neighbors, eating, helping with the kids and sitting around.

Congratulations again, Shaylih. I see that you have several other articles about your work in Cucapá villages (I’m intrigued by your 2008 “Spread Your Ass Cheeks” paper . . . ), one book that is coming out soon by Duke University Press, and yet another in the works with the University of California Press. With all these publications, what’s next? Do you see yourself continuing to work in the Colorado Delta for the foreseeable future? What new directions do you see yourself going in?

Thanks again Colin. As for what’s next, that’s still an open question. I’ve already started to roam a bit farther from the delta in my more recent fieldwork projects but I’m sure I’ll always go back to the area. It’s a fascinating part of the world and I feel attached to the landscape as well as many of the people I’ve become close too over course of my research there. I also have a lot more to write about the delta and the river so you certainly haven’t heard the last from me on that intriguing region where the Colorado River used to meet the sea.

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