From June 25-29, I was in Tsiigehtchic, Northwest Territories for the Gwich’in Gathering, where 15 communities come together to assert their governance every year. When we drove off the short ferry onto this side of the Mackenzie River, we found a small village on the bluff where two mighty rivers converge, Arctic Red River and the Mackenzie. Nearly every home has a boat, and likely a fish trap where they can fetch fresh coney, a kind of grouper, in an instant.
Here’s Richard Andre, an avid hunter and craftsperson, showing me how it’s done:
This may seem a luxury to some, but for the Gwich’in Nation, it’s survival. A stroll through the general stores of Tsiigehtchic, or Inuvik N.W.T. or Venetie, Alaska will display price tags on foods like frozen pizza and chicken strips upwards of $15. A frozen chicken may be $20, a 4L jug of milk more than $15.
Fighting to protect the caribou
Gwich’in communities are placed strategically along the porcupine caribou migration route from Alaska to N.W.T, as this herd has served communities with a sustainable source of food for thousands of years. This is critical North of 60, since the winter months bring temperatures of minus 50 degrees centigrade, and colder.
Every ounce of the caribou serves its purpose, from the skin to the sinew. The caribou are harvested sustainably, so grand children and great grand children can taste the same meat. As Chief James John of Arctic Village, Alaska put it: “If I see two caribou, I only shoot one.” Many have expressed frustration at recreational hunters that leave parts behind, in some cases the entire caribou, left to perish on the land.
The Gwich’in have gathered to speak for the caribou, as they point out these animals can’t speak for themselves. Although they are one of the last remaining healthy herds in Canada, they are threatened. The Bureau of Land Management of the United States, upon order from the President, is aggressively moving forward to permit the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where the herd calve their young, for oil and gas development. This has been attempted for decades, but lawyers in the community say the bureau has condensed a five year permitting process into just one.
Gwich’in hunters know how development can impact the caribou. As some have pointed out, even seismic testing can alter migration routes.
They also know what it is to need work. Elder John Norbert, shown above, pointed out to me that people in the communities struggle when job opportunities dry up. At the same time, he’s concerned about low water levels in the river, which he believes comes from a legacy of old dams, built by resource developers to cross creeks decades ago that were never remediated.
Still others have said that when it comes to oil and gas development on the U.S. side of the border, the risks to a staple food source outweigh the good.