Anthropology and Environment Society
Oral Presentation Session
Twenty-five years ago, the anthropologist Ann Fienup-Riordan noted that Yupiaq peoples in southwest Alaska associated personhood with the capacity of young children to ellangeq, or “become aware.” Her interlocutors described “becoming aware” as “peeling back the skin of an animal,” suggesting that a particular kind of human-animal relation conditions the possibility of human life. Based on fourteen months of ethnographic fieldwork in the Yupiaq village of Naknaq, this paper builds upon Fienup-Riordan’s important contributions, examining how the capacity to “become aware”—or as some Yupiat say, to “wake up”—is made possible by relations with and knowledge about salmon. In the face of histories of Indigenous dispossession and a persistent settler present, when Yupiat in Naknaq imagine what it means to “be well again,” they speak of reproducing particular relations with salmon that are, at the same time, relations with one’s human kin and ancestors. Yet in the contexts in which Yupiaq fishing practices are criminalized, and in which salmon stocks are declining, people see the capacity for children to “become aware” of the world, and to be awake to the world as Yupiaq, as threatened. In turn, in this paper, I examine the process, precarity, and (im)possibility of “becoming aware” and “waking up,” and how these experiences obtain in relations with salmon. I argue that the experience of “becoming aware”—and of making the world inhabitable—occurs not only as a childhood transformation, but as a continuous “peeling back” in relation to salmon beings throughout one’s life.