Inescapable Temporalities: Chinook Salmon and the Non-Sovereignty of Co-Management in Southwest Alaska

By William Voinot-Baron, University of Wisconsin at Madison §

For several weeks after midsummer arrives along the lower Kuskokwim River, even as the days begin to shorten, the long, boreal light of dusk makes for a brief night. People travel by boat to the tundra to pick berries and upriver to swift flowing tributaries to rod-and-reel for salmon and trout, and tribal employees put in extra hours on infrastructure projects to take advantage of the extended daylight. People express relief that Chinook salmon are mostly processed and put away for winter—that the labor of “taking care of fish” is nearly complete. In recent years, in the face of declining Chinook salmon returns, federal fishing regulations have required of Kuskokwim River tribes an additional kind of labor—the labor of “conservation.” The labor of conservation coincides with the labor of catching, cutting, cleaning, and drying salmon, and it is carried on even as peoples’ focus turns from “taking care of fish” to harvesting berries. In the summer of 2017, during this season of prolonged light and transition, a group of tribal leaders and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) officials gathered in the tribal administration building of a Kuskokwim River village to talk about fish. A tribal elder recited the Lord’s Prayer. An official portrait of Barack Obama still hung on the wall below an image of the crucifix.

Kuskokwim River. Photo by author.

Nearly fifty years ago, Congress extinguished Alaska Native tribal autonomy over hunting and fishing through a land claims settlement. In the past five years, the position of Kuskokwim River tribes in relation to the federal government has advanced through the establishment of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (KRITFC) and the formalization of a “co-management” partnership between tribes and the USFWS. Both the KRITFC and the USFWS have committed to developing a “unified management strategy that is informed by traditional ways of knowing and science that is biologically, environmentally and culturally sound.”[1] Both parties have also agreed to negotiate in order to reach consensus on a majority of management decisions during fishing seasons.

While, by many accounts, the formalization of a “collaborative” partnership between KRITFC tribes and the USFWS marked an important step taken toward Alaska Native self-determination, this relationship has not translated to greater tribal autonomy. Alaska Native tribes still cannot adjudicate on matters related to fish.[2] As a further matter, the management partnership between tribes and the USFWS has reproduced in new ways a colonial structure that continues to deprive Indigenous peoples in southwest Alaska of self-determining authority over their lives. My concern in this piece is with how federal managers erroneously view the opportunity for Alaska Natives merely to fish as a self-evident good, and specifically, as a correlate of sovereignty. This equation disregards both the ecological time of Yupiaq peoples’ relationships with Chinook salmon and a definition of sovereignty that exceeds the practice of fishing itself.

In recent years, subsistence fishing for Chinook salmon has been restricted under federal management to sporadic temporal allotments—typically six-, twelve-, or twenty-four-hours in length. While both the USFWS and the KRITFC manage for “escapement”—for a specific number of salmon to return to their spawning grounds each year—with the stated goal of sustaining the Chinook salmon population, this management strategy is hardly unified. For reasons that I discuss below, many Yupiaq peoples critique escapement goals, and the primary methods used to achieve these goals, as at odds with conservation and Indigenous self-determination, both of which are purportedly objectives of the “co-management” agreement.

Similar to human-animal relations among other Indigenous peoples in the circumpolar North (e.g., Brightman 1993; Langdon 2007; Nadasdy 2007; Todd 2017), many Yupiaq peoples relate to salmon as more than units of a population and as more-than-human beings who are aware of human action and presence. “Fish have minds like people,” people taught me during the fourteen months that I conducted ethnographic fieldwork in the Yupiaq village of Naknaq between 2016 and 2018.[3] That humans and salmon are of similar minds manifests in a reciprocal relationship in which salmon offer themselves to humans on the condition that humans treat them properly.

When I asked an elder about the proper way to act toward Chinook salmon, he instructed me: “Murilkelluku.”

The Yup’ik word murilke- means not only “to watch” but also “to be attentive,” and as my Yupiaq teachers and friends taught me, proper “attentiveness” to Chinook salmon requires catching salmon when they return. As one Yupiaq woman explained, when salmon are caught at the proper time, “they know to keep coming back to you and your net.” The return of salmon each year is the outcome of generations of properly watching salmon and of catching salmon when they are ready to be caught. Given this historical perspective, many people see the relatively recent emphasis on escapement as deeply contradictory and as threatening the longevity of human and salmon relations. Simply put, many Yupiaq peoples explain proper treatment of fish not in terms of how many fish “escape” being caught, but rather in terms of fish that they catch.

The indifference of dominant fisheries management models to social relations among salmon and Yupiaq peoples is evocative of a mode of care that Lisa Stevenson (2014) characterizes as “anonymous.” When life is managed at the level of the population, Stevenson writes, care is depersonalized. Care becomes “invested in a certain way of being in time,” standardized to the clock, and according to the temporal terms of the caregiver, rather than in time with the subject of care herself (ibid.: 134). Stevenson identifies care at the population level as anonymous because it focuses exclusively on survival—on metrics of life and death—rather than on the social relations that make the world inhabitable. Thus, it is not namelessness that marks “anonymous care” as such, but rather “a way of attending to the life and death of [others]” that strips life of the social bonds that imbue it with meaning (ibid.: 86; my emphasis).

Dominant modes of fisheries management that fit subsistence fishing into blocks of limited time—and that focus merely on metrics of salmon survival—are similarly indifferent to the social claims that salmon make on fishers to be caught. At the same time, conservation, carried out anonymously, ignores not only the temporality of Yupiaq peoples’ relations with fish, but also the human relations that human-fish relations make possible. Yupiat in Naknaq critique conservation measures for disregarding relations that ensure not only the continuity of salmon lives but also the duration of Yupiat lifeworlds (see Jackson 2013). Life is doubly negated.

Gillnet with Chinook salmon. Photo by author.

For Yupiaq peoples in southwest Alaska, fishing and its attendant practices are not only forms of bodily labor, but also modes of sociality that foster temporally deep material and affective attachments to kin and to the Kuskokwim River that are constitutive of well-being (e.g., Fienup-Riordan 1994; Hales 2016). By disentangling human and salmon lives by isolating matters of salmon survival from matters of the social, dominant forms of fisheries management efface much of what matters to Yupiaq peoples in Naknaq in everyday life and in the futures they imagine. As Yup’ik scholar Theresa Arevgaq John (2009) writes, cultivating relations both with ancestors and fish, among other more-than-human beings, is a critical part of young peoples’ psychological and social development—to cultivating a child’s awareness of the world and her place in it. These relations are also vital to sustaining a sense of one’s place in the world. In other words, the futures that Yupiaq peoples imagine depend on not only a particular orientation to salmon in the present, but also an orientation to the past that salmon mediate.

For instance, it was while fishing and processing fish that people often—and in some instances only—shared stories about deceased family members. While some of these memories involved fishing itself (“My ap’a took me fishing when my father died”), others were not about fishing at all (“That was the worst thing in my life, losing her right in front of me.”). These moments, among others, suggest how Yupiat relations with salmon extend beyond the physical act of fishing in the present, as well as memories of fishing in the past, and transpire also in shared feelings of loss and longing that attenuate grief. Fish make fertile ground for hope. Yet when fishing is permitted only sporadically, it is painfully difficult for families to “take care of fish” together, such as when family members cannot get time off work during fishing openers, and when family members are called away from fish camp to care for sick relatives. Relations with living kin and ancestors, along with salmon, are made tenuous.

While I have touched primarily upon reasons for which Yupiaq peoples critique population-based models of fishery management, at bottom, it is not the models themselves, but rather the inability of tribal governments to employ the models on their own terms, that bears the greatest critique. In fact, historically, the KRITFC has managed for the most conservative escapement goal relative to the State of Alaska and the federal government. Neither are all tribal citizens in Naknaq entirely opposed to fishing with an escapement goal in mind. For instance, tribal leaders in Naknaq have in previous years recommended an allocation-based system. Such a system would be based on percentage of historical Chinook salmon harvest wherein tribes would have greater leeway to monitor fishing on their own terms and in their own time. Each tribes’ allocation of Chinook salmon would account for escapement goals, and fishing would not be limited to sporadic blocks of time. When I asked people why federal fishery managers are resistant to implementing an allocation system, people explained the issue as one of trust: “They don’t think we can count our own fish.”

This lack of trust is thinly veiled, perhaps, when federal fishery managers make overtures of incorporating Indigenous “traditional knowledge” into management decisions. Indigenous knowledge about salmon is often represented as if using it to inform management decisions embodies Indigenous self-determination. But “Indigenous thought is not just about social relations and philosophical anecdotes,” as Métis feminist scholar Zoe Todd (2016: 17-18) writes, drawing upon Indigenous legal theorists such as Val Napoleon and Tracey Lindberg. Rather, Indigenous ways of being and knowing also represent “legal orders through which Indigenous peoples throughout the world are fighting for self-determination.” In short, “cherry-picking” Indigenous thought is a hollow form of recognition that falls short of honoring tribal sovereignty (see also Nadasdy 2003). People in Naknaq know this: often, as a fishing partner would motor his boat away from the village to his traditional fishing grounds during a fishing opener, he would proclaim, cynically, “See! I’m exercising my sovereignty!”[4]  There is a sense in which, if one must announce one’s sovereignty, it is not really sovereignty.

Despite the making of a “co-management” agreement between KRITFC tribes and the USFWS, the management partnership has, thus far, revealed how, as Yellowknives Dene scholar Glen Coulthard (2014: 156) writes, drawing upon Mohawk political scientist Taiaiake Alfred and Anishinaabe feminist scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, “contemporary colonialism works through rather than entirely against freedom.” Kuskokwim River tribes have good reason to believe that the federal government continues to conceive of Indigenous peoples’ relationships with Chinook salmon as threats not only to the survival of Chinook salmon, to say nothing of the survival of the settler economies that depend on salmon, but also to the very legitimacy of federal management itself.

Chinook salmon dry in the boreal light. Photo by author.

Breaking the silence that followed the meeting’s invocation, a senior USFWS official asked tribal leaders and elders if other species of salmon might fit into subsistence needs, implying that chum, sockeye, and silver salmon could substitute for Chinook salmon in times of conservation. One tribal elder promptly replied that Chinook salmon are richer in nutrients than other salmon species; Chinook salmon are without substitute. Following suit, others pointed out that by the time chum and sockeye salmon are plentiful, and by the time silvers arrive in August, the season is wet, and fish dry slowly on wooden racks, spotting white with mold and maggots. People clarified that foul weather also presents challenges for drying Chinook salmon when fishery closures in late May and June prevent people from filling their smokehouse until the middle of July.

In response to these concerns, the same USFWS official proposed that low Chinook salmon numbers and early-season fishery closures could require figuring out new ways of drying fish altogether. But this recommendation is already a reality for some people on the river, with painful consequence. “I had to break the style,” one woman remarked, recalling her family’s attempt to dry fish with an electric fan; “it was hurtful.” As I have discussed briefly, the hurtful reality of drying Chinook salmon with an electric fan indicates more than a broken “style” of processing fish and the nuisance of maggots and mold; it is symptomatic of a ruptured temporal orientation to salmon and to humans that is vital both to Yupiaq well-being and Indigenous self-determination.


I would like to thank my friends and fishing partners in Naknaq. Quyana. This piece also benefited from the comments and encouragement of my fellow panelists at the annual meeting of the AAA in San Jose in November 2018.


[1] “Memorandum of Understanding between United States Department of the Interior, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Alaska Region, and Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission,” 2016.

[2] While the KRITFC represents thirty-three Yupiaq and Athabaskan tribes, the USFWS maintains exclusive management authority over waters adjacent to public lands, and all non-federal waters fall under state jurisdiction. This piece focuses strictly on federal (USFWS) management, specifically within waters of the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.

[3] Naknaq is a pseudonym.

[4] I owe a debt of gratitude to Larry Nesper for drawing my intention to the implication of this claim.

Works Cited

Brightman, Robert A. 1993. Grateful Prey: Rock Cree Human-Animal Relationships. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Coulthard, Glen. 2014. Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Fienup-Riordan, Ann. 1994. Boundaries and Passages: Rule and Ritual in Yup’ik Eskimo Oral Tradition. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Hales, Molly. 2016. “Native Sovereignty by the Numbers: The Metrics of Yup’ik Behavioral Health Programs.” In Metrics: What Counts in Global Health. Vincanne Adams, ed. Pp. 125–143. Durham: Duke University Press.

Jackson, Michael. 2013. Lifeworlds: Essays in Existential Anthropology. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

John, Theresa Arevgaq. 2009. “Nutemllarput, Our Very Own: A Yup’ik Epistemology.” Canadian Journal of Native Education 32(1):57-72.

Langdon, Stephen. J. 2007. “Sustaining a Relationship: Inquiry into the Emergence of a Logic of Engagement with Salmon among the Southern Tlingits.” In Native Americans and the Environment: Perspectives on the Ecological Indian. Michael E. Harkin and David Rich Lewis, eds. Pp 233–273. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Nadasdy, Paul. 2003. “Reevaluating the Co-Management Success Story.” Arctic 56(4): 367-380.

Nadasdy, Paul. 2007. “The Gift in the Animal: The Ontology of Hunting and Human–Animal Sociality.” American Ethnologist 34(1): 25–43.

Stevenson, Lisa. 2014. Life Beside Itself: Imagining Care in the Canadian Arctic. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Todd, Zoe. 2016. “An Indigenous Feminist’s Take On the Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ is Just Another Word for Colonialism.” Journal of Historical Sociology 29(1): 4-22.

Todd, Zoe. 2017. “Fish, Kin and Hope: Tending to Water Violations in amiskwaciwâskahikan and Treaty Six Territory.” Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry 43: 102-107.

William Voinot-Baron ( is a PhD candidate in cultural anthropology. He was raised on the traditional homelands of the Duwamish, Puget Sound Salish, and sdukʷalbixʷ, and he lives currently on the traditional homelands of the Ho-Chunk, Peoria, Sauk and Meskwaki, Miami, and Očeti Šakówiŋ. His dissertation is an ethnographic examination of the ways in which salmon are central to both understandings and practices of care in an Alaska Native (Yupiaq) village in southwest Alaska, and the consequences of State of Alaska and federal fishing regulations for tribal sovereignty and well-being. He holds an M.A. in Anthropology from Columbia University and a B.A. in Anthropology and Environmental Studies from Bowdoin College.

This post is part of our thematic series: Ecological Times.