Text by Liz McKenzie and Photos by Richard Nelson
Caribou have always been extremely important for many Alaskan and Canadian native communities, along the arctic coasts and in the boreal forest farther inland. For at least 11,000 years, caribou have sustained people in northern Alaska providing food, clothing, shelter, and material for sleds, snowshoes, boats and other necessities. They have often been essential for survival in the unforgiving environment of the far north.
These animals are still critical to the people living in many Alaskan and Canadian communities. Even today—in villages where there is regular air service, modern houses, schools, and television—caribou are still essential for the subsistence economy and the perpetuation of cultural traditions.
For example, Alaska's largest caribou herd—the Western Artic herd which has about 350,000 caribou—is used by the people living in 40 villages in the northwestern part of the state. Farther east, the Porcupine Caribou Herd, whose calving grounds lie in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge, provide food for 15 Gwich'in Indian and Inupiaq Eskimo villages in Canada and Alaska.
Wrapped in Fur
Traditionally, caribou were essential not only for food, but for clothing and shelter as well. Before other materials became available, caribou hide was at least as important as the meat. Caribou provided an essential source of winter clothing because the hide is extremely warm and lightweight. Caribou hide parkas, pants and boots are warmer than any manufactured clothing available today.
Traditional clothing is used much less today, but people still make caribou skin parkas, especially for fancy dress and for special occasions. Mittens are also made today, both for special occasions and especially for driving snowmachines in extremely cold weather.
However, caribou skin boots are still much better than manufactured boots, because they're both warmer and lighter than any manufactured footgear. There just isn't a man-made material that can equal it. The boot leggings—which come up to just below the knee—are made from caribou leg skin with the beautiful fur facing outside. The shoe part is made of hide from the body of the caribou, often with the fur removed so it is very pliable leather.
But the warmest traditional boots have soles made with thick hide from the bull caribou, fur left on and turned inside. People often wear caribou skin socks with the fur on the inside. This footwear—socks and boots worn together—is warm even during midwinter cold snaps with temperatures falling to -50 or -60 degrees F.
Meat from the Land
Just as caribou has been a staple food source traditionally, it still is today. In Alaskan Inupiaq Eskimo villages, for example, caribou meat is eaten in stews or is boiled or fried. People often prefer to eat raw and frozen meat, called quaq. Small pieces are cut with a knife or traditional ulu, then dipped into seal oil—a bit like putting butter on bread—it has a rich and delicious taste.
Along with the meat, villagers enjoy eating many other parts of the caribou, including the fat, some internal organs, and even the bone marrow.
The most important time to hunt for caribou is during the fall migration, when caribou are in the best condition of the year. Bulls are prime just before the mating season or rut, because while mating is underway the bulls stop eating, so they lose fat and the meat loses quality.
Knowing when and where caribou will cross rivers is extremely important for hunters from the villages along or near the rivers.
For example, the Western Artic herd is known to cross the Kobuk River at certain places, including one called Onion Portage, or Patitaaq in the Inupiaq language. Stories told by elders, as well as archaeological excavations, show that people have hunted caribou crossing here for thousands of years.
People from Kotzebue to the upper part of the Kobuk River travel by boat to this place, set up camps, and intercept caribou entering or leaving the river. Hunting upstream of home is a smart strategy, as a boat laden with caribou meat and hides goes faster and uses less fuel when it's going downstream with the current.
Caribou often spend the winter along the Kobuk River Valley, so hunters from villages will hunt caribou through the cold months and into springtime. In earlier years, they hunted by dog team, but now people use snowmachines.
Even with modern rifles, it takes considerable skill and knowledge of caribou behavior to be successful. Men may hunt alone but usually travel in groups of 2-5, watching for fresh tracks and sometimes scouting for caribou from hilltops.
If there is more than one group of animals, hunters assess which are the best to hunt, taking into account the size and makeup of the herd, the direction of travel, behavior of the animals, places for cover, and wind direction. As with most hunting, it's always best to avoid going upwind from a herd, so the human scent doesn't drift toward them.
Once the hunters decide which band is best to approach, they have ingenious ways of getting closer:
"To reach an advantageous spot often requires running in a low crouch for hundreds of yards over hummocky ground and crawling over marshy areas, always being careful not to move upwind of the animals. If the caribou are resting, the hunter watches the ears and antlers for any movement that indicates an animal is awake and about to raise its head. If he sees movement, he lies quietly until the caribou looks away, or sleeps again. He must also watch closely for cows with fawns because they're much more alert to danger than are bulls."
-from Kuuvanmuit Subsistence: Traditional Eskimo Life in the Latter Twentieth Century
Sometimes, a hunter must try to approach a herd without benefit of cover. Again, the genius of knowledge from many generations of observing caribou behavior, and perfecting hunting skills, is put to use:
"In this case he can take advantage of their response to certain kinds of silhouettes. A low, stalking profile would resemble a wolf or other predator, but the outline of another caribou grazing peacefully causes no alarm. The hunter may extend his arms or two sticks above his head to resemble antlers and then copy a caribou's leisurely, zigzag grazing route as he approaches the herd. If there are two men, one may crouch behind first to give the appearance of a single animal…
…Another ruse can be used to attract single caribou within shooting range, especially during the rut. The hunter holds his arms above his head and makes short dashes back and forth, while he also imitates the hoarse coughs of the doe calling its fawn. Both adult and calf caribou may be drawn close by doing this odd little dance."
-from Kuuvanmuit Subsistence: Traditional Life in the Latter Twentieth
Caribou, Culture, and Community
Caribou are not just a source of food and hide; they are at the core of village economies, they are a fundamental part of people's identity, and they create a deep sense of connection to the land. Caribou are essential to Alaska's Eskimo and Athabascan cultures—people from indigenous communities define themselves as hunters and for many of these communities, caribou hunters above all else.
The way Eskimo and Athabascan people understand their world is in knowing that they are going out and doing the same things their ancestors have done for many thousands of years—hunting, processing, preparing, sharing, eating, wearing and celebrating the caribou.
In explaining how non-native people use the land compared to the way villagers do, one Eskimo elder put it this way: "For them, it's the playground. For us, it's the supermarket."
Food goes way beyond the way we understand it in western culture. Even if they could get other meat, like chicken or beef, in their villages and could afford it, they would continue to eat caribou.
These people would not feel that they were Athabascan or Eskimo if they did not eat the food from the land that they hunted and prepared, from the animal they had shown respect to.
Another Eskimo elder explained: "Look at my skin, it's dark. If I don't have my caribou meat, I won't have my dark skin. " In other words he was saying, if I don't eat caribou, I will not be this way anymore: I won't be Eskimo anymore.
Caribou are at the center of an ongoing debate: oil, gas and coal development versus environmental protection. Native people from Alaska and Canada have spoken out for the protection of the caribou herds and especially the calving grounds on the coastal plain of the Artic National Wildlife Refuge and the far western part of the North Slope in the National Petroleum Reserves Alaska. Calving grounds for the Porcupine River herd (on which Gwhich'in people in Alaska and Canada depend) and the Western Artic herd (critical to Eskimo and Athabascan natives) have been targeted for petro chemical development.
Anderson, Douglas B. et al. Kuuvanmiut Subsistence: Traditional Eskimo Life in the Latter Twentieth Century. 1998, GPO (1998-692-915): 206-7. Print.