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SALMON RELATIONS: Mapping Tlingit Cosmologies through Embodied Stories of Returning

2019/20 Performance Lecture Series


Concept & Creation: Katelyn Stiles
Performed at: Performance Studies Mini Conference UC Davis 2019 and "Body as Archive" Conference hosted by AIIC at UC Santa Barbara 2020


My multimedia performance-lecture “Salmon Relations” illustrates the significance of Tlingit Stories of Returning as world-making. Mapping through drawing, movement, and projection, my work is a process of (re)relating to the seemingly dissonant influences on my life as all flowing into, and emanating out of, what it means to be Tlingit. 

Salmon subsistence is central to Tlingit ways of knowing, being, and worlding. Every year the salmon return to the riverbed in Sitka, Alaska to continue their life cycle to spawn and die in the place where they were born. Through what I am calling “Salmon Relations,” Tlingit people shape their Indigeneities, survival, and kinship. Haa atxaayí haa kusteeyíx sitee / ‘our food is our way of life.’ From migrations to daily actions, Tlingit songs and dances follow the movements of Salmon. These relations are not metaphoric, but are rooted in material and metaphysical realities of responsibility and reciprocity with Salmon People. Colonial processes such as losses of hunting and cultural rights, boarding schools and assimilation, paralleled with cultural tourism and colonial concepts of property, continue to impose the again-ness of inter/generational traumas for Tlingit People. Yet the salmon return and embodied knowledges survive. 

By performing my own narrative of ‘returning,’ I replace colonial narratives of erasure with an archive of embodied knowledges, movement vocabulary, and drawn memory. Methodologically, my work is in conversation with Kanaka Hawai’i scholar Renee Paulani Louis’s concept of “Performance Cartography,” where Indigenous Epistemologies are mapped through dance, as well as Diana Taylor’s theorizations of the body as archive. When my body is an archive, are my drawings a new skin? Is the video I took of salmon last summer, a gesture? This performance-lecture is part of a process of claiming a generative documentation process that includes the body and extends to the past and future. 

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