The purpose of this page is to tell you a story. A true story of our people who, to this day, live off of the land and coexist with the great Porcupine Caribou Herd the way our ancestors did 20,000 years ago.
The Vuntut Gwitchin is the name of our people which in our language means “people of the lakes.” We live in the northernmost community of Old Crow located 128 km (80 miles) north of the Arctic Circle at the confluence of the Crow and Porcupine Rivers in Canada’s Yukon Territory. We, the Vuntut Gwitchin, are one of 19 communities spread out across the US State of Alaska, and the Canadian territories of the Yukon and western Northwest Territory. These 19 villages and cities are inhabited by over 7500 people which together form a nation of people: the Gwitchin Nation.
Strategically placed by Gwitchin elders to overlap with the seasonal migration routes of the 150,000 to 180,000 strong Porcupine Caribou Herd (so-called because of the herd’s crossing of the Porcupine River during its fall and spring migrations) the Gwitchin villages still depend on this magnificent herd for food, clothing, and various crafts. The Porcupine caribou are the centre of Gwitchin culture.
The Vuntut Gwitchin of Old Crow make up a community of approximately 300 people. A community with no road access to the rest of the world, one can only reach this village by boat in the summer, snow machine in the winter, or plane year-round. This isolation is a blessing for our people, for it enables us to preserve our language, traditional pursuits such as fishing, trapping, snow shoeing and hunting particularly hunting the Porcupine Caribou Herd.
The land of the Vuntut Gwitchin is the land of the Porcupine Caribou Herd. Each spring (April / May) and autumn (August / September) the caribou pass through the lands of the Vuntut Gwitchin, north to the arctic coastal plain to calve in the summer months and south of Old Crow in the autumn to its wintering range. We set up camps out on the land and hunt the caribou, which we then take back to our camps to prepare.
Once back at the camp, the meat of the caribou is cut up and prepared in many ways: Smoked, dried, boiled, fried, and frozen. From the caribou we make roasts, dry meat (a kind of ‘caribou jerky’) and chizi (pemmican). The bones are also used in such meals as soups and stews, the bone marrow from inside of the bone is also cooked and then eaten.
All parts of the caribou are used, from the head to the hooves. The head is saved to either roast over a fire or to make head soup - a delicacy reserved for special feast days, while the hooves are either boiled down into a jelly and eaten or else hung and dried so as to be tied to hunters belts becoming caribou chimes that clatter together and imitate the sound of walking caribou, masking the sound of the hunters steps through the snow in the spring and over the tundra in the autumn.
The hair and the skin of the caribou is used to make numerous traditional crafts and clothing, which are still used and worn today, particularly in feasts and other celebrations. Moccasins, gloves, mittens, caribou skin and canvas boots, baby slippers, tea pot and coaster sets, beaded baby belt, jackets / parkas, vests, purses, dresses, and hair accessories are just some of the items made to this day by the Vuntut Gwitchin and the Gwitch’in Nation. Every part of the caribou can be used. The Vuntut Gwitchin live today as they have for tens of thousands of years. And they want to continue to practice their traditional way of life.
Threat to the Vuntut Gwitchin, Gwitch’in Nation, and the Porcupine Caribou Herd.
Today, this traditional way of life is being threatened. Oil and gas companies want to develop and thus invade such sensitive areas as the calving grounds and the wintering grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd.
The calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd lie primarily in the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain or ‘1002 lands’* of the 19.3 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge located in the northeastern corner of Alaska. Each summer this relatively small area often referred to as the biological heart of the Arctic Refuge is inhabited by the 152,000 to 180,000-strong Porcupine Caribou Herd, which travels to this area during its annual spring migration. It is here that over 50,000 calves are born every summer. The Caribou prefer the coastal plain, for its flat open area makes it easier to watch for predators. Also the cool breezes from the Arctic Ocean give nursing mothers and newborn calves some relief from the ever-present mosquitoes. Not only the birthplace of the Porcupine caribou and the culture of the Gwitch’in, this coastal plain is home to denning polar bears, wolves, grizzly bears, and in the summer months, over 135 different species of migratory birds.
Often compared with the African Serengeti, this area is truly America’s ‘Last Great Wilderness.’ Considering the existence of Ivvavik Park and Vuntut Park on the Canadian side of the boarder in the Yukon, if the coastal plain was also permanently protected, this international area would be a complete, protected arctic ecosystem, preserved and intact. Our goal is to see all of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, including the 1002 lands kept TOTALLY WILD FOREVER.
Who opposes permanent protection of the coastal plain (‘1002 lands)?
Both the oil industry and the ‘Alaskan congressional delegation’ ( made up of Alaskan US House Representative and the two Alaskan Senators ) want to go into this truly sacred area to seek out any oil it may be able to find.
Why do they want to get into the Refuge?
The oil industry is, as always, searching for greater and greater profits, while the Alaskan politicians seek re-election on a platform of higher annual dividend payments to Alaskans through the oil-funded Permanent Fund. This fund was created back in the 1970s by the state of Alaska to create a savings account from oil revenues. Each year a portion of the interest from that fund is paid out in dividends to every man, women, and child of Alaska. In 1998, each Alaskan resident was paid USD. The Alaskan congressional delegation argued that the coastal plain must be opened up to development as an issue of national security, citing the Middle East OPEC crisis back in the 1970s which affected the world. However, this argument has no basis, as this same delegation pushed through legislation that now allows Alaskan oil to be exported to Asia. Further; the latest scientific reports state there is a less than 50% chance of finding commercially viable oil in the region.
Who proposes permanent protection of the coastal plain?
In a recent US poll, 70% of Americans called for permanent protection of the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain. The coastal plain makes up 5% of Alaska’s coast not slated for oil development; the remaining 95% is slated for development. Oil development would be severely devastating to the land and the animals that live there, for with an oil field comes an airstrip, roads, pipelines, drill pads, refineries, worker’s residences, sewage facilities, garbage dumps, etc. Development of this scale in a 1.5 million-acre area teeming with wildlife is unthinkable!
What can you do to help:
Ever since this area became truly threatened back in 1987, the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation has been on the front lines, battling for permanent protection of this area. For the Porcupine Caribou Herd is the centre of the Vuntut Gwitchin culture and life; we still live in the traditional way, hunting the caribou for food and traditional clothing. Nothing is wasted. For the Vuntut Gwitchin, the caribou are our life. In a Vuntut Gwitchin General Assembly Resolution back in August of 1995, we created the Caribou Coordination Department a Vuntut Gwitchin Government Department that deals exclusively with the ‘1002 issue’ as well as any threat to the entire range of the Porcupine Caribou Herd’s range, including its wintering grounds. Among its numerous functions and duties, this department coordinates Gwitchin public education tours in the US and creates educational materials on this issue.
To help the Vuntut Gwitchin in its efforts to protect its way of life and the range and survival of the Porcupine caribou herd, or for more information, Please contact the Caribou Coordination Department.