The importance of the Porcupine herd to the Gwich’in people

[by Charlie Swaney and Peter Mather | photos by Peter Mather]


Thin, tall, and not so young anymore, Charlie and I talk caribou. It’s our favorite subject. Charlie is one of the most relied upon hunters of Arctic Village, a small Gwich’in community of a couple hundred people in northern Alaska. Nestled into a fairy-tale valley, hundreds of miles from the nearest road, the village is on the traditional migration route of the 200,000-strong Porcupine caribou herd.

Today we are at the biennial Gwich’in Gathering, and I’m listening to Charlie talk about his people and their connection to the caribou. He explains why they held the first Gwich’in Gathering in Arctic Village 28 years ago, when the calving grounds of the Porcupine herd were under threat from proposed oil and gas development in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR.

Elder Kenneth Frank warming up before the 2014 Gwich’in Gathering that was held in Old Crow, Yukon.


In the old days. People they respect the caribou. Everything they had, they respect caribou with. This particular time it was in the fall. We walk up the mountain to look around for caribou. We end up staying there that night. We didn’t have no tent that night. We didn’t really need no tent. It’s warm out, you know.

Well the next day, we went up to the top, and we look all over. We look everywhere, and we see some caribou, but they’re way back. Way too far. So we walk all the way along the edge of this mountain, all the way to the other end. When we got to the other end, we sat down and there is a mountain over there, they call it “Duchanlee.” We see a caribou coming down. We start walking over that way. We get up there and…well. I didn’t know that my rifle sight was off that time…that caribou pop out in front of me. I shot four times, what was in my magazine, and I reloaded and I shot five more times. That caribou took off. My sight was that far off.

Well I thought that caribou is long gone. But something just tell me, just go over that ridge and just go over and check. Well what do you know, I went over that ridge and check, and I’ll be darn, if that caribou didn’t turn around and start coming back towards me and turn sideways. I was able to shoot it and I knock it down. Well…we skin it and gut it right there.

The Porcupine caribou herd on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

When we got back to the village we heard that just at that moment when that caribou turn around and come back, there was an elder from here, well his wife passed away. I tell everybody about this caribou that it turned around and come back to us…just like it gave itself to us. It’s almost like it sensed that we lost an elder, so that caribou turn around and come back and give himself to us…’cause on a normal basis, if you shoot nine times at a caribou, well it’s gone. But it just so happens that this caribou came back, and I shot it.

The caribou really are connected to communities that they go through. You know somehow it knew, that caribou just knew…and it’s just like this gathering that’s happening. The first day, the caribou showed up, and I talk to some of the elders and they say, “They know; they know exactly what’s going on here. There is a celebration happening here, and they come to be with us.” They, the elders, look at us and the caribou as one…’cause we roam this land together. That’s the way it was in the old days too.

A camera trap captures a unique image of the Porcupine caribou’s migration across the Blow River in northern Yukon.
Esther Lord roams the streets of Old Crow and flies her kite.

That is one particular story that always stick with me; I always think about. I never seen, a moose or caribou or anything come back to me like that, and just at that particular time that elder pass away.

For thousands of years, the caribou took care of people here. And then all of sudden in ‘88 when they want to develop oil, well the caribou needed help. And that’s what all these Gwich’in communities did, they got together here so they can do the best they can to help the caribou. That first Gwich’in Gathering, that’s how it started…because if they drill up there in their calving grounds, there is going to be a disaster.

The Gwich’in call this place Izhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, meaning the “Sacred Place Where Life Begins.”

“As a woman, I know what it is like to give birth, to bring another being into this world…and we need a refuge.” Princess Daazhraii Johnson in Arctic Village with her son, speaking on the importance of defending the calving and nursing grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd.
Dana Tizya tells stories as the sun rises during the 2016 Gwich’in Gathering in Arctic Village.


The late elder Agnes Neyando of Fort MacPherson, Northwest Territories, spent her summers living in a wall tent and fishing whitefish well into her nineties.

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