An 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 Historic Hunt

While the Inupiat and Inuvialuit were whalers and fishermen along the coast as well as hunters of caribou, it was the interior mountain people, the Gwich’in, 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 wasted nothing.

Drama 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.

A 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.

Managing 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.