People of the Caribou

Summary Stop what you are doing now, and do what your ancestors did.

People of the Caribou

Stop what you are doing now, and do what your ancestors did.   (extract from Resurgence 256 by Laird Townsend)

Arctic Village, Alaska is a quintessentially American place. Located in the southern foothills of the Brooks Range, it is an Indigenous Gwichi’in Nation community, part of an Athabaskan territory that stretches across interior Alaska and north-west Canada. According to most scientists, the site of Arctic Village was home to an ancient Beringian ice-age culture, mother of almost all Native American cultures to the south. With cultural remains nearby dating back at least 15,000 years, Arctic Village may occupy the oldest place of habitation in all the Americas.

In the harshest of climates, the Gwichi’in have managed to flourish in the area for about 5,000 years, their lives based on an intimate relationship with lake-dotted river valleys full of roots, berries, whitefish, muskrats, ducks, and other animals, but it is the vadzaih, the caribou, that has become synonymous with their culture. Arctic Village caribou hunters like Jimmy John and Charley Swaney carry on a tradition that has sustained the Gwichi’in through seventy-below-zero winters, has provided clothing, shelter and tools, and has supplied potlatches, funerals and other ceremonies for millennia.

In 1988, members of the Gwichi’in Nation, ‘the people of the caribou’, gathered to prevent oil drilling on caribou calving grounds in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, “the sacred place where life begins”. Now, having deterred oil drilling, the people of the caribou face another threat.

From 1980 to 2001, the head-count of the Porcupine Herd dropped from 189,000 to 120,000 – some experts guess it’s now low as 100,000. Respected wildlife biologist Dave Klein, professor emeritus of the University of Alaska, attributes the decline to climate disruption. And most of the adults in the village will report the consequences in detail themselves, adding that the elders began observing and predicting this decades ago.


WHAT IF WE non-Indigenous people staked our future on the Gwichi’in’s ability to hunt on their land for another 5,000 years? To prolong the Gwichi’in’s ancient cycle of sustenance, we could no longer drive, burn coal and live off industrial excess the way we do. We know that has to stop. And so maybe the only way to save our own future is to save the caribou’s future. The caribou’s survival is our responsibility to ourselves, to our own progeny. We simply acknowledge, finally, that our destinies are entwined.

Sarah James, the tenacious leader of the fight against oil drilling in Alaska, makes this point exactly. “We have to work together. There is a solution. It’s not the end of the world yet. The elders think we can turn this around. One thing we have to do is gain back respect for the animals, for all Nature. We pray and give thanks to everything that we use. But if it’s going to work, it has to be both Western and traditional. We have to meet halfway and we need to find balance.”

To James and the Gwichi’in hunters, that balance will require renewable energy, but also another kind of adaptation. To learn to live with the land as it changes, to eat what’s there, and to reconcile the killing of the caribou with reciprocity and prayer. To think inter-generationally and listen to the elders. To respect some of the old ways. To “stop doing what you’re doing now,” as one Gwichi’in elder put it, “and do what your ancestors did.” •

Laird Townsend directs Project Word, which facilitates the publication of ethnically diverse writers and stories about Indigenous communities.