Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The Gwich'in of Alaska and Canada

Fifteen villages and small towns scattered across northeast Alaska and northwest Canada are the home of approximately 7,000 Gwich'in - the most northernly location of all Indian nations.

For Millenia, the Gwich'in have occupied the southern slopes of the Brooks Range in Alaska. The climate of this interior subarctic environment is characterized by long, cold winters and short, warm summers. Except for the periodically flooded islands and lowlands of the Yukon River Flats, the land is covered by boreal forest. Overall, the terrain varies from the rugged Brooks Range to the broad river valleys of the middle Yukon and Mackenzie. At the time of first Anglo-European contact, the Gwich'in were grouped into nine or ten regional bands, each associated with the drainage area of a major river.

Gwich'in means 'people of the caribou," an apt name for a cultural group that largely relies on this mammal for a major part of its economic sustenance. Although the Gwich'in could not have survived over many centuries without the exploitation of smaller mammals, birds, and fish, caribou have always been the predominant feature of their way of life - culturally as well as economically.

This cultural affinity also has deep spiritual roots. Stories of ancient times describe how northern people lived in "peaceful intimacy," with all animals. When they became differentiated into distinct cultural groups, it was agreed that the Gwich'in would hunt the caribou. The modern day manifestation of this spiritual belief is that "every caribou has a bit of the human heart in him; and every human has a bit of caribou heart." As such, humans will always have partial knowledge of what the caribou are thinking and feeling; and equally, the caribou will have a similar knowledge of humans. Thus, at some times, hunting the caribou is very easy; while at other times, it is very difficult. In the hunting process, all creatures are to be respected. But with the exception of the bear, none are given higher recognition than the caribou.

Today, Gwich'in community members continue to rely on the caribou to meet both their subsistenceand spiritual needs. The hunting and distribution of caribou meat also enhances their social interaction and cultural expression. When fresh meat is available, caribou will be consumed three or four times a day; the meat being shared throughout the community and region by a network of gift-giving arrangements as well as in trade for other goods. Caribou skins are used for winter boots, slippers, purses, bags, and other items of Native dress. Bones continue to be used as tools. Songs, stories, and dances, old and new, reverberate around the caribou further strengthening Gwich'in cultural life.

Gwich'in villagers most closely associated with the Porcupine caribou herd live in Arctic Village, Venetie, Fort Yukon, and Chalkyitsik in Alaska; and in Old Crow, Fort McPherson, Inuvik, and Aklavik in northwest Canada. The two villages of Arctic Village and Old Crow are most centrally located to the herd. Thus, they carry the greatest responsibility for sharing and trading the caribou with other villagers.

The historical respect for the animal reflected in stories and legends included the importance of using all parts of the animal (avoiding waste) cooperation, and sharing. This traditional caribou management belief system has continued into the present by legislating modern game management practices among themselves and through the establishment of an International Porcupine Caribou Commission [IPCC]. The members of the Commission represent the villages of ArcticVillage, Venetie, Fort Yukon, and [Inupiat] Kaktovik in Alaska; andOld Crow in the Yukon Territory.

The resolution in establishing the Commission sets out the important nuitritional, cultural and spiritual needs of the people which are by the Porcupine Caribou Herd, and cites article I of both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the InternationalConvenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which reads in part: "In no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence." The charge of the commission was "to take immediate and continuing action for the long-term conservation of the Porcupine caribou and their habitat." The first priority was to establish an international treaty and an implementing authority. In March, 1984, the Canadian domestic agreement on the management of the Porcupine Caribou Herd and its habitat was signed between the federal government, the Yukon Territory, The Northwest Territories, and three affected Native groups - COPE [Inuvialuit, i.e., the western Canadian Inuit]; the Council of Yukon Indians; [CYI]; and the Dene-Metis. Once this in-Canada agreement was signed, Canada publically called for a U.S.-Canada agreement to protect the Porcupine Caribou Herd.

On the American side, any international caribou negotiations were strongly affected by the politics of proposed oil and gas development in the calving grounds. Nevertheless, in 1985 and 1986, the United States and Canada renewed discussions that led to the present International Agreement. This agreement establishes an eight member International Porcupine Caribou Board, four members appointed by the United States and four by Canada, to "make recommendations and provide advice. " The recommendations and advice are understood not to be binding on the parties, but managers must explain in writing if they decide not to implement a recommendation.

The Gwich'in involvement with the U.S.-Canada Porcupine Caribou Agreement has regularly sought to encourage greater communication and cooperation between the two sides in protecting the caribou herd. In promoting this endeavor, they have urged that a new model for conservation be adopted- that of a "bio-cultural reserve" or "caribou commons." This envisioned caribou commons would include the entire range of the Porcupine Caribou Herd in Canada and Alaska, with firm protection for the calving and post-calving grounds, and other critical wildlife habitats. It would also be dedicated to meeting the continuing subsistence and economic needs of the indigenous Gwich'in and Inupiat Eskimo cultures by means of a World Heritage listing or as a Biosphere Reserve. The longterm prospects for such a venture remain unclear. What is clear is that the conservation efforts of the Gwich'in have firmly established them as active participants in the political landscape of the North American Arctic.