Caribou People

Nine thousand Gwich’in people make their home on or near the migratory route of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, and have depended on caribou for their subsistence way of life for thousands of years. Today, as in the days of their ancestors, the caribou is still vital for food, clothing, tools, and are a source of respect and spiritual guidance for the Gwich’in.

Primary Habitat of the Porcupine Caribou (click map to view larger)

Each spring the Gwich’in watch first the pregnant cows, and later the bulls and yearlings leave their country in their northern migration to the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the caribou birthing place and nursing grounds.

The Gwich’in people prepare for the caribou harvests much in the same way that their ancestors did thousands of years ago. When the caribou are late, the general level of anxiety in the village rises and conversations quickly become about where the caribou might be, what condition are they in, and so on.  Imagine if the caribou were never to come at all?

The Gwich’in call the coastal plain “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit” (The Sacred Place Where Life Begins), yet it remains vulnerable to development and has been proposed for oil drilling.

The Porcupine caribou herd consists of of about 169,000 animals. Each spring they migrate from their winter range in the boreal forests of the Chandalar, Porcupine and Peel Rivers, north to their spring calving and nursery grounds on the coastal plain of northeastern Alaska and Yukon.