“What remained was coal: decay hardened into an essence, into carbon so pure it burns. The hills to the west, in the direction we are walking, are rich with ancient death.” Past Underfoot in The Point, vol. 18
In recent years, rivers in New Zealand and Australia have been given legal rights, with the same protections and duties as a person. This conception of a watershed having human-equivalent rights – and what it means to endow a non-human space with such rights – is the inspiriting question for my second book, set along the Yukon River watershed. The Yukon reaches nearly two thousand miles from its origins in British Columbia, through the Yukon Territory, and drains into the sea along the Alaska coastline. Yukon: A Biography of a River, which will examine how rights and the river have evolved in tandem over the past three hundred years.
The Yukon’s watercourse is home to multiple indigenous nations, including the Yup’ik, Gwitch’in, and Denaakk’e, each with distinct ways of mediating relationships with the non-human world. By the 1800s, trade from the British and Russian Empires and eventually their attempts to rule came overland and from the Pacific, bringing European conceptions of rights. In the nineteenth century, imperial methods gave way to nation-state division between the United States and Canada.
Indigenous, imperial, and state polities all had ways of imagining rights, conceptions that layered and contested with each other. Yukon will examine how these intellectual traditions and their practical applications influenced – and were influenced by – the nonhuman context of the Yukon, from salmon to sled dogs. By examining the places and bodies involved in formulating rights claims, I hope to illuminate what it means to give and bear rights beyond the human – and what it means to define something in those terms, rather than other concepts for value, reciprocity, and agency.