Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Gwich'in Traditional Management Practices

Richard Caulfield, in his 1983 report to the Division of subsistence of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Fairbanks, described the traditional Gwich'in managment practices as follows:

"[I]n March of 1981 a majority of Arctic Village residents in a general meeting approved limits on the harvest of caribou and procedures to be followed in processing and transporting caribou meet. These written rules, which were designed to apply to all persons hunting in the vicinity of Arctic Village, were said to mirror longstanding unwritten conventions. Copies of these written rules, which were reexamined and then affirmed once again in a general meeting held in January of 1982, were sent both to other communities in the region and to air taxi operators involved in transporting meat. The text of the rules [signed by 46 Arctic Village residents] is as follows:

A. CARIBOU MEAT MUST NOT BE SOLD
B. LIMITS
I. Non-residents

2 caribou. Hunters will have a guide from the village. Hunters will register with Council. This does not include special events [e.g. potlatch, etc.] request.

II. Residents
5 caribou. Caribou meat must be butchered properly before transporting to vilage, and [hunters must] clean butchery area. Meat will be contained in boxes or bags when shipped by plane. Hunters will use high powered rifles. All caribou must be brought into the village.

Residents of Arctic Village report that prescriptions about butchering in the field and the 'cleaning' of the kill site by covering it with fresh snow stem from beliefs about the proper treatment of caribou 'spirits'. Limits on non-residents apply to all persons who do not live in the community, and are designed to control the harvest activities of, and number of caribou taken by, persons visiting the community. Arctic Village households are limited to five caribou during one hunting trip, in the belief that this is a reasonable number to be properly butchered and transported at one time."

Although not formally codified, additional tradition rules continue to be practiced:

Other rules relating to the harvest of caribou in Arctic Village pertain to prohibitions against feeding caribou meat to dogs, with the exceptions of bones, scraps, or unused meat. Furthermore, when caribou first appear near the community, customary law prescribes that the first group of caribou are to be allowed to pass by without interference. The belief is that once caribou migrate through without being killed, others will follow believing the route is safe. The failure of caribou to appear near the community during one fall in the late 1970s was attributed by local elders to a violation of this customary law by one individual.

Further evidence of this...element of customary law was documented in Venetie in November of 1981. Caribou had been observed north of the community by a community resident traveling on a scheduled flight between Venetie and Arctic Village. Venetie's village council chief called a general meeting of all community residents, at which time a consensus was reached that hunting should not begin until greater numbers of caribou were observed in the area.About three weeks later considerable more caribou were observed, and the village council approved the harvest. The next morning two hunters on snowmachines left in search of caribou."

Shortly thereafter, a unified Venetie/Arctic village tribal government formally codified traditional principles of caribou management into tribal law. Commented on this step, the anthropologist Stephen Langdon wrote in a 1984 article summarizing Alaska Native Subsistence Practices "...that the Venetie [and Arctic Village] community has taken the step of reifying these traditional spiritual concepts and behaviors into secular law is evidence of both the resiliancy of the traditional cosmology and behavior and its ability to be flexibly incorporated into contemporary institutions and practice."