Former Grand Chief Clarence Alexander, Ecotrust Indigenous Leadership Award ceremony, Portland, Oregon, 2004
|Regions with significant populations|
|Canada (Northwest Territories, Yukon)||3,275|
|United States (Alaska)||1,100|
|Related ethnic groups|
and other Athabaskan peoples
Gwich'in are well known for their crafting of snowshoes, birchbark canoes, and the two-way sled. They are renowned for their intricate and ornate beadwork. They also continue to make traditional caribou-skin clothing and porcupine quillwork embroidery, both of which are highly regarded among Gwich'in. Today the economy is mostly a mix of hunting, fishing, and seasonal wage-paying employment.
Their name is sometimes spelled Kutchin or Gwitchin and translates as "one who dwells" or "resident of [a region]." Historically, the French called the Gwich'in Loucheux ("squinters"), as well as the Tukudh, a term also used by Anglican missionaries. Gwich'in often refer to themselves by the term Dinjii Zhuu instead of Gwich'in. Dinjii Zhuu literally translates as "Small People," but figuratively it refers to all First Nations, not just Gwich'in.
The Gwich'in language, part of the Athabaskan language family, has two main dialects, eastern and western, which are delineated roughly at the United States-Canada border. Each village has unique dialect differences, idioms, and expressions. The Old Crow people in the northern Yukon have approximately the same dialect as those bands living in Venetie and Arctic Village, Alaska.
Approximately 300 Alaskan Gwich'in speak their language, according to the Alaska Native Language Center. However, according to the UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger, Gwich'in is now a "severely endangered" language, with fewer than 150 fluent speakers in Alaska and another 250 in northwest Canada.
Innovative language revitalization projects are underway to document the language and to enhance the writing and translation skills of younger Gwich'in speakers. In one project lead research associate and fluent speaker Gwich'in elder, Kenneth Frank, works with linguists which include young Gwich'in speakers affiliated with the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, to document traditional knowledge of caribou anatomy.
The many different bands or tribes of Gwich'in include but are not limited to: Deenduu, Draanjik, Di'haii, Gwichyaa, K'iitl'it, Neetsaii or Neets'it, Ehdiitat, Danzhit Hanlaii, Teetl'it, and Vuntut or Vantee.
Three major clans survive from antiquity across Gwich'in lands. Two are primary clans and the third has a lower/secondary status. The first clan are the Nantsaii, which literally translates as "First on the land", the second clan are the Chits'yaa which translates as "The helpers" (second on the land). The last clan is called the Tenjeraatsaii, which translates as "In the middle" or "independents". This last clan is reserved for people who marry within their own clan, which is considered incestual. To a lesser degree, it is for children of people who are outside of the clan system.
In ancient times this would also refer to the children of Naa'in, people who were expelled from the tribe due to committing a crime. It also applied to the children of mothers who simply fell outside of the clan system. Prior to 1900, being a Tenjeraatsaii automatically placed a Gwich'in at the third-lowest rung of the social ladder. They were to some degree ostracized. The second-lowest rung was reserved for war-captured slaves. The lowest social status was that of a banished Naa'in or bushman. The clan system is no longer well known or used among the Gwich'in.
The Gwich'in have a strong oral tradition of storytelling that has only recently begun to be written in the modern orthography. Gwich'in folk stories include the "Vazaagiitsak cycle" (literally, "His Younger Brother Became Snagged"), which focuses on the comical adventures of a Gwich'in misfit who, among other things, battles lice on a giant's head, plays the fool to the cunning fox, and eats the scab from his own anus unknowingly. Gwich'in comedies often contain bawdy humor. Other major characters from the Gwich'in oral tradition include: Googhwaii, Ool Ti', T?'oo Thal, K'aiheenjik, K'iizhazhal, and Shaanyaati'.
Numerous folk tales about prehistoric times all begin with the phrase Deenaadai' , which translates roughly as "In the ancient days". This is usually followed with the admission that this was "when all of the people could talk to the animals, and all of the animals could speak with the people". These stories are often parables, which suggest a proper protocol, or code of behavior for Gwich'in. Equality, generosity, hard work, kindness, mercy, cooperation for mutual success, and just revenge are often the themes of stories such as: "Tsyaa Too Oozhrii Gwizhit" (The Boy In The Moon), "Zhoh Ts'à Nahtryaa" (The Wolf and the Wolverine), "Vadzaih Luk Hàa" (The Caribou and the Fish).
Caribou are an integral part of First Nations and Inuit oral histories and legends including the Gwich'in creation story of how Gwich'in people and the caribou separated from a single entity. There is a stable population of woodland caribou throughout a large portion of the Gwich'in Settlement Area and woodland caribou are an important food source for Gwich'in although they harvest them less than other caribou. Gwich'in living in Inuvik, Aklavik, Fort McPherson, and Tsiigehtchic harvest woodland caribou but not as much as other caribou. The Gwich'in prefer to hunt Porcupine caribou or the barren-ground Blue Nose herd, who travel in large herds, when they are available. Many hunters claimed that woodland caribou that form very small groups, are wilder, both hard to see and hard to hunt. They are very smart, cunning and elusive.
The caribou vadzaih is the cultural symbol and a keystone subsistence species of the Gwich'in, just as the buffalo is to the Plains Indians. In his book entitled Caribou Rising: Defending the Porcupine Herd, Gwich-'in Culture, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Sarah James is cited as saying, "We are the caribou people. Caribou are not just what we eat; they are who we are. They are in our stories and songs and the whole way we see the world. Caribou are our life. Without caribou we wouldn't exist.":70 Traditionally, their tents and most of their clothing were made out of caribou skin, and they lived "mostly on caribou and all other wild meats.":68 Caribou fur skins were placed on top of spruce branches as bedding and flooring.:22 Soap was made from boiled poplar tree ashes mixed with caribou fat.:25 Drums were made of caribou hide.:28 Overalls were made from "really good white tanned caribou skin".:39
Elders have identified at least 150 descriptive Gwich'in names for all of the bones, organs, and tissues. "Associated with the caribou's anatomy are not just descriptive Gwich'in names for all of the body parts including bones, organs, and tissues as well as "an encyclopedia of stories, songs, games, toys, ceremonies, traditional tools, skin clothing, personal names and surnames, and a highly developed ethnic cuisine."
In 2001, Gwich'in Social and Cultural Institute, the Aurora Research Institute, and Parks Canada co-published a book entitled Gwich'in Ethnobotany: Plants Used by the Gwich'in for Food, Medicine, Shelter and Tools in collaboration with elders, in which they described dozens of trees, shrubs, woody plants, berry plants, vascular plants, mosses and lichens, and fungi that the Gwich'in used. Examples included black spruce Picea mariana and white spruce Picea glauca, Ts'iivii which was used as "food, medicine, shelter, fuel and tools." Boiled cones and branches were used to prevent and to treat colds.:17
The introduction of Christianity in the 1840s throughout Gwich'in territory produced spiritual changes that are still widely in effect today. Widespread conversion to Christianity, as influenced by Anglican and Catholic missionaries, led to these as the two dominant Christian sects among the Gwich'in. Notable figures in the missionary movement among the Gwich'in are Archdeacon Hudson Stuck, William West Kirkby, Robert McDonald, Deacon William Loola, and Deacon Albert Tritt. The Traditional Chief, an honorary and lifetime title, of one Gwich'in village is also an Episcopal priest: the Rev. Traditional Chief Trimble Gilbert of Arctic Village. Chief Gilbert is recognized as the Second Traditional Chief of all of the Athabascan tribes in Interior Alaska through the non-profit Tanana Chiefs Conference.
The Takudh Bible is a translation of the entire King James Bible into Gwich'in. The Takudh Bible is in a century-old orthography that is not very accurate, and thus hard to read. In the 1960s Richard Mueller designed a new orthography for Gwich'in, which has now become standard.
On 4 April 1975, Canada Post issued two stamps in the Indians of Canada, Indians of the Subarctic series both designed by Georges Beaupré. One was Ceremonial Dress based on a painting by Lewis Parker of a ceremonial costume of the Kutchin tribe /Gwich'in people. The other, Dance of the Kutcha-Kutchin was based on a painting by Alexander Hunter Murray The 8¢ stamps are perforated 12.5 and 13.5 and were printed by Ashton-Potter Limited and the Canadian Bank Note Company.
Caribou is traditionally a major component of their diet. Many Gwich'in people are dependent on the Porcupine caribou which herd calves on the coastal plain in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Gwich'in people have been very active in protesting and lobbying against the possibility of oil drilling in ANWR, due to fears that oil drilling will deplete the population of the Porcupine Caribou herd.
Bobbi Jo Greenland Morgan, who is head of the Gwich'in Tribal Council, along with the Canadian government, the Yukon and Northwest territories and other First Nations, expressed concerns to the United States about the proposed lease sale in the calving grounds of a large cross-border [Porcupine caribou herd] to energy drilling, despite international agreements to protect it." In December, the United States "released a draft environmental impact study proposal for the lease sale with a public comment period until February 11, 2019.Environment Canada wrote in a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Alaska office,[Notes 1] that "Canada is concerned about the potential transboundary impacts of oil and gas exploration and development planned for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Coastal Plain."
For similar reasons, Gwich'in also actively protested the development of oil in the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, and a proposed land trade from the United States Wildlife Refuge system and Doyon, Limited.
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