The Cucapá means the “river people,” so aptly named as this indigenous tribe lives on the Colorado River Delta. However, currently this name is more ironic than it is accurate: aggressive use of the river upstream causes the Colorado to run dry by the time it reaches the Gulf of California. Once a flourishing region of up to 5,000 Cucapá members, the numbers have dwindled to a mere 300, with the younger generation leaving the village to find jobs elsewhere. Additional political moves have worked against the tribe, causing displacement and loss of water rights. But while the river has dried up, the passion and culture of the Cucapá has not. Elders of the community still remember the roaring Colorado, rich in fishing and spirit. The water has come and gone, but the elders continue to educate the next generation and fight for their rights.
It’s no surprise that water is the minimum requirement for life, but as the Colorado River dries up, the culture and economy of the Cucapá is also at risk. Fishing is traditionally done by hand with woven baskets and is the primary source of food and economy of the settlement. The river feeds life into their culture, as the Cucapá’s history, festivals, and identity revolve around the river. Without the river bringing floods and nutrients, the fisheries such as the Gulf corvina and totoaba declined, as did the Cucapá people. In addition, the 1993 designation of the Colorado River Delta Biosphere brought strict restrictions to fishing without regarding indigenous people, including the Cucapá. However, through international collaborations and social movements, temporary pulses of water rushed through the Colorado delta in 2014, reviving the ecosystem, community, and political fight of the Cucapá.
While politics played a heavy hand in the displacement of the Cucapá, it has also brought promise for a returning river. Collaborations between American and Mexican scientists have fought for delta restoration--not just for the environment, but for the people as well. Researchers are analyzing the results of the 2014 release of water, and future river runs are being discussed among officials. This data is utilized not just for scientific endeavors and fisheries management, but also plays a prominent role in the legal battle for the Cucapá’s rights. Though the delta has drastically changed from a wetland to farmland, the Cucapá continue to fight for the survival of the ecosystem and their culture.