The Way Of the Caribou People

BEFORE speaking, the elderly Indian squinted through his spotting scope and studied the mountain that loomed in the distance above the stands of black spruce, layers of willow, and white carpets of Arctic cotton. "Nothing," the old Athabascan said. "But soon now. Pretty soon the caribou comes. Then the mens go into mountains to hunt."

My wife and I met the 81-year-old hunter last summer while teaching in Alaska in a Migrant Education Program. After driving from our Montana home to Fairbanks, we boarded a twin Otter and watched as myriad lakes flashed backward. We flew north about 200 miles from Fairbanks to Arctic Village, north of the Arctic Circle. Here, we watched for weeks on end as the summer sun dipped toward mountains that towered 10,000 feet in the sky but never quite touched them. Here, we met grand women and men, like old Ja mes Gilbert. And here we learned about a culture and a tribe determined to remain independent of the wider society and to do so on their own terms.

"Self determination," they sometimes said. Other times they said, "Nakai' t'in'in," a native word for "Do it yourself."

Arctic Village edged into existence in about 1910 when a band of Neets' aii Gwich'in (a tribe within the Athabascan Nation) erected several cabins along the east fork of the Chandalar River, a tributary of the Yukon River. Here, the band hunted successfully, relying on the abundant moose, the Dall sheep - and the migratory habits of caribou.

Today, the village consists of about 30 log homes, a post office, a school, a general store, a community freezer built in 1989 for storing and preserving game, and about 130 residents separated into eight major families. These families, and those from other villages further south, elected not to sell their land during the Alaska Native Claims Act of 1971.

Unlike many other Alaska natives, the Gwich'in were determined to remain subsistence hunters. To do so meant they would forego modern housing, preferring to gather firewood and chop river ice to reach water in air temperatures as low as minus 70 degrees F. But by so doing, they would keep their land (now the Venetie Indian Reservation), their pride, and so remain a Caribou People. At the time, the decision appeared to be a wise one, for it appeared that game would always be plentiful.

Still more recently, Arctic Village residents demonstrated their resolve to preserve their integrity by banning alcohol from the village. Liquor among natives has been anathema, and the Gwich'in knew their social fiber was being eroded. Fetal alcohol syndrome was rampant; violence was common. Several years ago, on a wintry night when the sun never rose, a drunk fired a volley from a high-caliber rifle into the schoolhouse. Five rounds pierced the exterior wall and passed through the children's metal lock ers. The incident led to the ban.

Today, they maintain a stern vigilance over the village, sparing no one of harsh punishment. Last summer when a resident abused the "No Alcohol" ruling, the man was given a "blue card." The card meant the offender was banned from Arctic Village, forever.

To Arctic Village residents, self-determination means they must also involve themselves in the education of their youth, providing through the process a blend of the new and the old. Said village elder Kias Peter, "If the children believe the old ways, later they can go anywhere and work with pride."

ONE day, Kias Peter took our class into the field and showed us an ancient trail and the ways of his people. "Our people used this trail," said Kias, a man more comfortable in his native tongue. "They were good hunters." Then Kias showed them how to set a snare; how to set a fish trap; how to dig for roots and survive in an area that offers no second chances.

"Ground root," Kias said. "Trap, fish, and dig ground root, and you will never starve."

Kias continued, stopping along the ancient trail where it passed through a stunted growth of black spruce. "Look at the fire ring. It was small, used by our grandfathers on way up mountain to hunt caribou."

Then he added, "Our men were strong. Good hunters. Remember. We are Caribou People. We are the best hunters."

Arctic Village residents begin hunting at an early age. One day, my wife and I walked by Timothy Sam's cabin. Robert, his 11-year-old son, had returned from the hills on his four-wheeler with a large bull caribou that had been wandering ahead of the main herd. Eight miles from the village, Robert had shot the animal, then quartered it as perfectly as might our local butcher. Then he had returned home, passing over the tussocks, the tundra, ponds, and permafrost.

Later, Robert and his father had roasted a caribou head over a fire and explained how every last bit of the animal is used, even the small intestine and stomach, which we now know tastes a bit like fried chicken.

Not all residents of Arctic Village dwell exclusively on their caribou culture. For instance, Trimble Gilbert, son of James Gilbert, is not only the Episcopal minister, but also a talented musician sought over much of Alaska and Canada for his lively fiddle playing. And Lincoln Tritt, the village postmaster, who once worked in Vietnam as a radio operator, is now an emerging writer whose stories have appeared in an Alaskan anthology of native writers.

Gideon James, chief of the entire Venetie Reservation, has more traditional interests. Each winter he battles the elements, operating a trap line in deep-freeze temperatures.

For Gideon, hunting is the good life, the way of the past, the present, and the future. And so it is for most village residents - just as it once was for old James Gilbert. As Gwich'in posters and T-shirts say, "Caribou is our life."

Indeed, caribou are the life blood of the Gwich'in. Arctic Village residents depend on caribou, specifically the Porcupine Caribou Herd. Twice a year, the gigantic herd streams through the surrounding mountains as they migrate to and from calving grounds along the Beaufort Sea.

For tens of thousands of years the herd has passed through this area seeking refuge, provided by the sea's snow melt and the endless winds, from the insect hordes. But the animals' future is uncertain. Petroleum companies want to drill for oil in the calving grounds. They say they can drill and erect oil rigs in a way that won't disturb parturition. Perhaps they can, though many biologists don't think so. Neither do the Gwich'in.

"When the prairie in your country was converted to farmland," said village chief Trimbel Gilbert, "the buffalo and the plain's culture disappeared. The people drifted in a bad way. Our ways will die, too, if the caribou are reduced."

Perhaps. But their ways will die hard, for caribou is the Gwich'in's pulse of life: the old way as well as the new.

Late in the summer, I passed old James Gilbert's cabin. Gilbert was sitting on his porch, enjoying the late August sun, peering through his spotting scope. Lifting his hands to his brow, Mr. Gilbert placed his thumbs on his forehead and extended his fingers to indicate a large set of antlers. "Caribou come," said Gilbert. "Look."

Yes, the herd was in motion, trudging through the tussocks, the carpets of Arctic cotton now gone to seed. Tomorrow the "mens" would go into the mountains to hunt, just as they had now for almost 10,000 years.

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