Ancient Caribou-Human Bond Continues Today
It is difficult
for people outside the North to understand how deeply northern people’s
survival and identity are linked to the caribou. Evolving over thousands
of years, the caribou hunt is still central to the Gwich’in, Inuvialuit,
and Inupiat way of life in 15 communities on both sides of the Alaska/Yukon
border. Whereas Plains Indians have mythical stories of great buffalo
herds and hunts, the aboriginal peoples in this remote corner of North
America sustain themselves culturally and physically on a caribou herd
that still survives today.
the Inupiat and Inuvialuit were whalers and fishermen along the coast
as well as hunters of caribou, it was the interior mountain people,
who relied almost exclusively on caribou. As many as ten caribou per
family per year provided food, clothing, shelter, tools and weapons.
Hides were tanned, sewn and sealed to make shelters; winter hides with
thick hollow-shafted hairs provided winter clothing, sleeping pads and
blankets; light summer hides were used for bags, drums and summer clothing.
Caribou antlers were used for tools and weapons while sinew was spun
into thread for sewing, suturing and snaring rabbits and birds. The Gwich’in
and ingenuity characterized Gwich’in caribou hunts — by ambush at stream
crossings or more commonly, by using a large corral or ‘surround’.
Shaped like a keyhole and delineated by wooden posts, 8km wide entrances
narrowed to a 2.5 km round keyhole. In the corral, caribou were snared,
shot with bow and arrow, or speared. People traveled to camps in August
to process meat and hides. Artifacts from these ancient hunting grounds
and camps are still evident on the landscape and likely to be observed
on Leanne and Karsten’s current-day caribou migration.
Reliance on the Herd that Continues Today
Walking the dirt
streets of the Yukon village of Old Crow, one feels how integral caribou
still are to the Gwich’in way of life, despite encroachments of
modern civilization. Beside the satellite dishes are caribou antler fences
and drying racks. Behind the techno music on teenager’s headphones
are the drumbeats of the traditional dances that continue in the community
today. Prized caribou slippers sit beside the latest Nike shoes, and
stories of a boy’s first caribou hunt circulate the streets with
concerns of a US-Iraqi war. On the table of each and every community
member, caribou meat is consumed, three times a day. The alternative
in such remote, fly-in villages is foreign and costly: a freezer-burned
steak at the local store costs $20! Caribou in these remote northern
communities is the basis of everyday life.
Use of the Herd
With the advent
of snow machines, airplanes and high-powered rifles and the threat of
oil and gas development looming, aboriginal groups have taken the future
of the Porcupine Caribou Herd into their own hands. In Canada, the Porcupine
Caribou Management Board, the Gwich’in Steering Committee, and
Renewable Resource Council in each community have been set up to ensure
the long-term survival of the herd. These native-led organizations facilitate
research, set and track harvest levels, monitor the health of the herd,
advise governments on management practices, and lobby for conservation
of key caribou habitat. According to the Porcupine Caribou Management
Board, harvest levels by both native and non-native hunters continue
to stay within the sustainable range of 3%-5% of the total population.
Increased disturbance and a drop in caribou productivity because of development,
however, could easily upset this delicate balance.