More than an historic resource for Gwich’in people, caribou is a metaphor for the community itself.
Spread across the Northwest Territories, Yukon, Canada, Alaska and beyond, Gwich’in have the challenge of maintaining a sense of community.
“If we identify as being caribou people, we need to always keep in touch to work together,” said Bobbie Jo Greenland-Morgan, president of the Gwich’in Tribal Council.
She was recently in Old Crow, Yukon, for Caribou Days, a celebration of all things caribou.
In addition to enjoying the festivities, which involved caribou skinning, a fashion show and a lot of caribou meat, Greenland-Morgan and GTC vice-president Jordan Peterson had the opportunity to meet formally with Gwich’in leadership in the Yukon for the first time.
“Although we have different challenges – we’re dealing with different governments and we have a different land claim – we are still the same people in terms of culture and language, and we need to stick together to advance ourselves as a nation,” said Greenland-Morgan.
As leaders, the GTC and equivalent organizations in Gwich’in communities need to work out problems and make sure their people are healthy, just like the herd, she said.
“We’re always worried about the herd and the health of the herd, but we have to put even more emphasis into the health of our people,” said Greenland-Morgan.
She pointed to social wellness as a big issue and said Gwich’in communities all seem to face similar challenges, but also have enjoyed similar successes.
“We need to make more of an effort to stay connected, talk more often and help each other, because that’s what our people traditionally did,” said Greenland-Morgan.
Just like the caribou, if the Gwich’in scatter, people will fall behind, she said.
A mutual agreement among Gwich’in communities is protection of important wildlife grounds.
“Gwich’in, we aren’t anti-development, but when it comes to areas like calving grounds and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, we’ve always had the position that that area must not be developed,” said Greenland-Morgan.
Besides the formal leadership meeting, the GTC representatives got to enjoy the fun and festivities of Caribou Days, where traditional knowledge and skills are shared between elders and youth.
The event celebrates the time of year when the ice breaks up and caribou return to the area.
“Besides the excitement of the ice moving and the caribou returning, it’s a time for the community to come together and show an appreciation and recognition to the caribou, being thankful they got through another cold winter, welcoming spring,” said Greenland-Morgan.
“It’s a good feeling, just all this positive energy. For a few days, everyone can forget about all the challenges and stresses that come with politics and leadership.”
She hopes similar events can be held in Gwich’in communities in the future to bring people together.
“Traditionally, our ancestors, the caribou sustained our people for thousands of years, so it’s an honour to be part of a celebration like that, because it really reminds you the importance of the caribou,” said Greenland-Morgan.