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About the Tribe
Gwich’in are Indigenous Athabaskan Dene peoples who have inhabited the areas of the interior region of Alaska in the U.S.A, and the Northern Yukon, and Inuvik Region of the Northwest Territories, Canada; since time immemorial. Gwich’in are commonly referred to as just ̧Gwich’in» due to the English translation being «The people of a certain area», so saying, «the Gwich’in people» would be similar to saying «the people» twice. Gwich’in are also known as Dinjii Zhuh, which refers to a person as a whole, rather than the area in which they inhabit. Gwich’in are known by many different names including ‘the caribou people’. Today, Gwich’in are settled in 11 different communities and ten different bands across northern Alaska and Canada, still to this day practicing ancestral traditions such as hunting, fishing, trapping, moose hide tanning, and sewing. The land, animals, language, and culture are very important to us with many different organizations and initiatives aimed towards autonomy. The Gwich’in language is considered critically endangered as approximately out of 9,000 or so Gwich’in, only 500 people still speak the language. Although the Gwich’in language is taught in the primary and secondary school system, the number of language speakers continues to decline. Organizations that exist to combat language decline include the Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute, the Gwich’in Language Revival Campaign #SpeakGwichinToMe, and the Yukon and Alaska Native Language Centers.
Importance of Animal Products
As a young girl I travelled throughout the land with my father learning about the importance of the caribou (vadzaih), being taught how to identify animal tracks and different food sources of the caribou and being taught stories and proverbs. One such is a rite of passage for manhood in Gwich’in culture, which is when a boy hunts his first caribou, which then must be given away and shared with community members, specifically elders. Another is that half of our Gwich’in heart is that of a caribou, as our reliance on the animal is so large, that we cannot exist without them. Gwich’in were originally a semi-nomadic people, following the caribou, which we depended on for food, shelter, clothing, tools, and weapons. My aunty vividly remembers living on the land with her grandparents for months at a time and all of her clothing being made out of caribou hides, from her shirt to her jacket to her pants, and even her toboggan, and watching her grandfather make snowshoes from caribou sinew and willows. Other animals and plants harvested for Gwich’in sustenance were and still are big game such as moose, waterfowl such as ducks, geese and swans, as well as small game like ptarmigans, rabbits, and grouse, including an abundance of beloved berries such as cranberries, blueberries, and cloudberries. No part of an animal is ever to be wasted and there is to be no disrespect when it comes to harvesting and handling an animal, including when it comes to the care of the land. The decline of the caribou due to over-hunting, climate change, mining exploration and development, inefficiency and or absence of harvest management and land-use planning, are all grave threats to the survival of the caribou, and therefore also us Gwich’in. Critical calving grounds inside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are threated by development in Alaska. Different caribou dishes loved and enjoyed include caribou marrow, ribs, heart, intestines, soup, stew, and dry meat (nilii gaih). Two different recipes that I would like to share are itsuu (pemmican) and nilii gaih (dry meat).
I have chosen these two dishes for their cultural and personal significance. Itsuu is traditionally a ceremonial dish, gifted during a period of mourning and nilii gaih is a personal favorite of mine, prized for its taste and unique flavor. Both dishes are prepared seasonally by either men or women, and predate flour. They are also favored due to their convenience when travelling long distances. Itsuu is more commonly known by the Cree word ‘pemmican’ and is a traditional Gwich’in ceremonial dish. Itsuu is a sweet tasting and filling comfort food and the animal fat in the dish is very sustaining. Traditionally, Itsuu is made with frozen caribou fat mixed with left over caribou dry meat with local berries. A contemporary way to make itsuu is with boiled caribou meat, grounded up with added sugar and berries with melted margarine then formed into meatballs and frozen. A story that I have about itsuu is when my uncle’s common-law partner passed away, my father gifted him itsuu and this was one of my first traditional Gwich’in teachings. Nilii gaih, or dry meat is another beloved delicacy made by slicing any wild meat (specifically caribou meat) very thinly and then drying it on a rack, turning it over periodically. Some people prefer to pound the meat to make it softer.
Importance of Plants
An abundance of beloved berries such as cranberries, blueberries, and cloudberries.