Episode 5: Language of the Caribou People - Gwitchin

This episode is about the Gwitchin people of Old Crow, Yukon and their plight to save their culture and language through their efforts to protect the Porcupine Caribou Herd, which is vital to the Gwitchin way of life. Every year 75 or more members of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation also known as the 'Caribou People' travel from Old Crow, Yukon to Porcupine River where they wait for the herd of caribou. This is not just a hunting ground, this harvest is directly related to the Gwitchin people, their culture and their language, without the caribou the Gwitchin would cease to exist, and without the Gwitchin the caribou would be gone.


season 2 episode 5Every year more that 100,000 caribou migrate from their calving grounds in Northern Alaska to the more protected regions in Eastern Yukon, and the NWT where they will spend the winter. For thousands of years the caribou have always crossed the Porcupine River and for generations this is where the Gwitchin people have hunted. Today the traditional way of life is being threatened by oil and gas companies that want to develop the territory that is part of the Vuntut Gwitchin culture.

In 1959 U.S President Eisenhower created a refuge along the Arctic Ocean, but did not prohibit oil and gas development in theseason 2 episode 5 area. In the late 1970's then U.S president Jimmy Carter, double the size of the range to 7.8 million hectares (19 million acres) and restricted development. However, 600,000 of those hectares were set aside for further study by geologist, unfortunately those 600,000 hectares are the calving grounds for the caribou.

Old Crow is a remote village of 300 people, about 100 km north of the Arctic Circle. The people of Old Crow live a traditional way of life, the Caribou Porcupine Herd Crossing is one such tradition. This hunt will give them plenty of food to survive the winter but this is not the only important aspect of the hunt; tradition, culture and language is a vital part of the hunt, a tradition the Gwitchin Nation will fight hard to keep.

season 2 episode 5Part 1

This first part of the episode looks at theVuntut Gwitchin tradition hunt of the caribou. We see how members of Old Crow set about getting ready for this event and talk with elders and their families on the importance of what the caribou hunt means to their culture and language. The caribou not only provides food for the winter, but also brings the Gwitchin people closer to their families and ancestors.

We travel to the land of the Porcupine Caribou herd and film the hunters practice their traditional hunt. We will also take a look at the way elders teach the young the importance the caribou are to the Gwitchin people and how the Gwitchin are important to the caribou. We look at how the two are intertwined in their survival.

As part of this section, we also looks at how the community of Old Crow is doing to preserve their language amongst the young people. We examine the programs that the school system uses to promote the language.

season 2 episode 5Part 2

This section looks at the Gwitchin Nation's overall view of their battle to preserve the Caribou calving grounds through their tireless efforts of media and lobbying. For over 15 years, the Gwitchin have been sending representatives to lobby grassroots people as well as Senators and members of the House of Representatives in the U.S. The Gwitchin vow to continue lobbying until the day comes when the refuge and the caribou are completely protected. They have also been involved with many other organizations and associations to keep oil and gas companies from developing this sacred place.

In 1988, for the first time in a hundred years, the Gwitchin Nation was called together by its chiefs to meet. The Gwitchin Steering Committee was established "to protect our people, caribou, land, air and water." Their primary goal is to establish Gwitchin culture survival as a major issue in the debate over oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.season 2 episode 5

The Gwitchin have been successful in making contacts with people throughout the world in order to share their deep concerns about the possible threats to their culture and lifestyle. One unique approach is the use of the Internet, which has given the Gwitchin an opportunity to reach people they were unable to reach through their travels. The site was created through the efforts of many people, young and old, to gather information and let the world know about the Gwitchin and the Porcupine Caribou herd.

season 2 episode 5Another organization is the Porcupine Caribou Management Board, formed by an agreement signed in 1985 by the Canadian Government, native organizations and the Yukon and NWT government. The mandate of the Board is to ensure continuance of the caribou. We talk with members of the board and get their outlook of what is happening in their fight for the caribou and its preservation.

Sandra Newman, a spokesperson for the Caribou Management Board and acouncilor for Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation is the designated lobbyist for the Gwitchin people. She has been involved in speaking to the international audience to bring the concerns of the Gwitchin and the caribou herds. Through her efforts she has been successful in getting the message out.