Your are what you eat: The Caribou People in an age of declining subsistence activity

Lead Author Steven, Dinero
Institution Contact Carter & Fran Pierce Chair for the Liberal Arts College of Science, Health & the Liberal Arts Philadelphia University School House Lane & Henry Avenue Philadelphia, PA 19144 USA
Theme Theme 3: Local and Traditional Knowledge
Session Name 3.1 Arctic Human-Rangifer Communities: Vulnerability, Resilience, Adaption to Global Changes
Datetime Wed, Sep 14, 2016 03:45 PM - 04:00 PM
Presentation Type Oral
Abstract text The Nets’aii Gwich’in Indians of northeast Alaska have hunted caribou as their primary food source for millennia. Known colloquially as the “Caribou People,” the Gwich’in self identify with this animal is considerable. Their history, local mythology, and sense of identity as a whole all coalesce around this rangifer. Indeed, not only can it be said that the animal has sustained the people in a physical sense but, as this paper will argue, the “caribou” is the Gwich’in signifier and totem, an icon fetishized at times, perhaps, in ways surprising to the outside observer.
Within this context, this paper will analyze nearly two decades of quantitative and qualitative data gathered within the Nets’aii community. The data was gathered through a series of household surveys, as well as interviews with elders. Participant observation was also used throughout the period of study.
The evidence collected, it will be argued, suggests that in general, interaction and physical survival which rely upon the caribou is in steady decline. Outmigration to urban areas such as Fairbanks (especially among the youth), increased consumption of store-bought foods, less hunting and gathering (again, especially among the younger generations), climactic changes, and other socioeconomic shifts all have led to decreased dependency upon this animal for daily sustenance. And yet the symbolic, totemic relationship with the Caribou, remains.
Thus, the paper will conclude by problematizing this dynamic, raising a worrisome question: the caribou have always been central to Gwich’in culture, identity, and survival. Once the caribou are removed from the relationship, who will the Caribou People become?
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