In the developed world, we are accustomed to grocery stores, drive-through windows and internet access providing instant gratification and an abundance of resources at our beck and call. Modern conveniences are fantastic and easily taken for granted. However, there are still communities on this tiny planet whose survival is tightly enmeshed with survival of the local wildlife.
The Gwich’in are the northernmost Indian Nation living in fifteen small villages in an area extending from northeast Alaska to the northern Yukon and Northwest Territories in Canada. Nine thousand Gwich’in people make their home on or near the migratory route of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, and have depended on caribou (Rangifer tarandus) for more than 10,000 years, according to their oral history. Caribou still provide food, clothing, tools, and are an important component of the spirituality for Gwich’in. The word “Gwich’in” means “people of the land.”
Domesticated caribou are also known as reindeer. Well designed for Arctic conditions, caribou have a double-layered coat, one layer with straight tubular hairs known as a guard coat and another wooly undercoat. Caribou usually have dark legs and a dewlap and long white hair along the throat. They possess large, concave hooves that function as snowshoes and also spread widely to provide support in tundra and serve as paddles while swimming. They are the only cervidae (deer species) in which both the male (bull) and female (cow) grow antlers, though the bulls possess much larger, even massive, antlers than females. Cows shed their antlers later in the season than bulls, in theory so they still have them for protecting calves. Only cows still have antlers as late as December. (So all of Santa’s reindeer are probably cows.)
The world population of caribou is five million and approximately 950,000 wild caribou live in Alaska. Caribou range includes North America, Greenland and Northern Europe to Northern Asia in habitats including the Arctic tundra and adjacent boreal forest. However, the Gwich’in are dependent specifically upon the Porcupine Caribou Herd, which is distributed in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge, Yukon and the Northwest territories of Alaska.
The Porcupine Caribou Herd numbers approximately 123,000 and is named for the major river within its range. The herd migrates twice per year to its traditional calving grounds, a 700 mile round trip to and from the arctic coastal plain. The specific route the caribou take depends on snow and weather conditions.
Pregnant females reach the calving areas along the coastal plain by early June and give birth. The remaining herd joins the cows and calves soon afterwards. Here, the herd remains for most of the summer because the coastal plain is integral to survival for two main reasons. First, there are far less predators such as brown bears, wolves and golden eagles. Secondly, the vegetation in the coastal plain is abundant and readily meets the nutritional needs of pregnant and nursing cows.
The Gwich’in call the coastal plain “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit” (The Sacred Place Where Life Begins). The Gwich’in formed the Gwich’in Steering Committee in 1988 in response to proposals to drill for oil in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Recognizing that oil development threatened the caribou calving grounds, the Gwich’in people called upon the chiefs of all Gwich’in villages to come together for the first time in more than a century. At this gathering, it was decided unanimously to speak with one voice against oil and gas development in the birthing and nursing grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd.
The Gwich’in Steering Committee has presented testimony in front of the US Congress, the United Nations Special Rappatoire on Indigenous Peoples, and public hearings. Their activities have helped in the ongoing preservation of calving grounds to date. You may witness the 2011 testimony of Sarah James, Board Member and Spokesman of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, during the 2011 House Committee hearings on jobs and drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge at the C-Span Video Library.
But the Gwich’in are helping to protect far more than caribou. The Arctic Refuge possesses an unrivaled diversity of habitats and abundance of wildlife. The coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the northernmost destination of millions of birds from more than 130 species and comprises the most important onshore denning habitat for the entire Beaufort Sea polar bear population. Musk oxen, wolverines, foxes, golden eagles, and snowy owls gather on the coastal plain to hunt and den every year.
In the film, The Sacred Place where Life Begins- Gwich’in Women Speak, several generations of females in the Gwich’in tribe eloquently remind us how every living thing is connected and how they intend to protect that precious balance. With continued activism by the Gwich’in and other environmental stewards, these grounds will remain protected for many more generations.