The Gwich’in are the northernmost Indian Nation living in fifteen small villages scattered across vast area extending from northeast Alaska in the U.S. to the northern Yukon and Northwest Territories in Canada. There are about nine thousand Gwich’in people who currently make their home on or near the migratory route of the Porcupine River Caribou Herd in communities in Alaska, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories. The word “Gwich’in” means “people of the land”, and it refers to a people who have lived in the Arctic since before the political boundaries that now transect the Gwich’in homelands were drawn on maps dividing Alaska and Canada. Oral tradition indicates that the Gwich’in have occupied this area since time immemorial, or, according to conventional belief, for as long as 20,000 years.
Map Showing Primary Habitat of the Porcupine Caribou Herd and Traditional Homeland of the Gwich’in.
The Gwich’in nation spans Alaska, the Yukon Territory, and the Northwest Territories.
Alaska: The Gwich’in in Alaska live in nine communities, Arctic Village, Beaver, Birch Creek, Canyon Village, Chalkyitsik, Circle, Eagle Village, Fort Yukon and Venetie. Their communities are organized under tribal governments with elected chiefs and councils. The Council of Athapaskan Tribal Governments is a consortium of the Gwich’in and two Koyukon tribal governments to address regional concerns as directed by the tribes.
Yukon: Vuntut Gwitchin is the name of people who live in the settlement of Old Crow, Yukon. The name in the Gwich’in language means “people of the lakes”. Old Crow is the northernmost Yukon community, located at the confluence of the Crow and Porcupine Rivers.
Northwest Territories: The Gwich’in communities Fort McPherson (Teetl’it Zheh), Tsiigehtchic, Aklavik and Inuvik in the Northwest Territories are located in the region of the Mackenzie Delta.
For thousands of years, Gwich’in have relied upon the Porcupine River Caribou Herd to meet their subsistence needs. Each spring they 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 are caribou people. The birthplace of the Porcupine River Caribou Herd is considered Sacred. The Gwich’in call it “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit” (The Sacred Place Where Life Begins). The Porcupine herd is named after its spring and fall crossings of the Porcupine River, during its annual migration. The Porcupine Caribou herd consists of approximately 129,000 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 Arctic coast plain of northeastern Alaska and Yukon. 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.