Gwichʼin family outside home, c.1899
|Regions with significant populations|
|Northwest Territories, Yukon (Canada)|
|Alaska (United States)|
|Gwich’in language, English|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Alaskan Athabaskans and other Athabaskan peoples|
The Gwich’in (sometimes rendered as Kutchin or Gwitchin), literally "one who dwells" or "resident of [a region]", are a First Nations of Canada and an Alaskan Native Athabaskan people of the Athabaskan-speaking ethnolinguistic group who live in the northwestern part of North America, mostly above the Arctic Circle. The Gwichʼin were also known by the French name of Loucheux ("squinters") in historical documents, as well as the Tukudh, a term used by Anglican missionaries. Gwich’in often refer to themselves by the term Dinjii Zhuu instead of Gwich’in. Dinjii Zhuu literally translates as "Small People," but figuratively it refers to 'Indians', not just Gwich’in.
The Gwich’in men are well known for their crafting of snowshoes, birchbark canoes, and the two-way sled. The women are renowned for their intricate and ornate beadwork. They also continue to make traditional caribou-skin clothing and porcupine sewing using porcupine quills, both of which are highly regarded among Gwich'in. Today the economy is mostly a mix of hunting, fishing, and seasonal wage-paying employment.
Few Gwichʼin speak their indigenous Gwich’in language, which is in the Athabaskan language family. There are two main dialects of Gwich’in, eastern and western, which are delineated roughly at the United States-Canadian border. Each village has unique dialect differences, idioms, and expressions. The Old Crow people in the northern Yukon have approximately the same dialect as those bands living in Venetie and Arctic Village, Alaska. According to the UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, Gwich’in is now a "severely endangered" language, with fewer than 150 fluent speakers in Alaska and another 250 in northwest Canada. Innovative language revitalization projects are underway to document the language, and to enhance the writing and translation skills of younger Gwich'in speakers. In one project lead research associate and fluent speaker Gwich’in elder, Kenneth Frank, works with linguists which include young Gwich'in speakers affiliated with the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks to document traditional knowledge of caribou anatomy.
Gwich’in tribes and clans
The many different bands or tribes of Gwich’in include but are not limited to: Deenduu, Draanjik, Di'haii, Gwichyaa, K'iitl'it, Neetsaii or Neets’it, Ehdiitat, Danzhit Hanlaii, Teetl'it, and Vuntut or Vantee.
Three major clans survive from antiquity across Gwich’in lands. Two are primary clans and the third has a lower/secondary status. The first clan are the Nantsaii, which literally translates as "First on the land", the second clan are the Chits'yaa which translates as "The helpers" (second on the land). The last clan is called the Tenjeraatsaii, which translates as "In the middle" or "independents". This last clan is reserved for people who marry within their own clan, which is considered incestual To a lesser degree it is for children of people who are outside of the clan system.
In ancient times this would also refer to the children of Naa'in, people who were expelled from the tribe due to committing a crime. It also applied to the children of mothers who simply fell outside of the clan system. Prior to 1900, being a Tenjeraatsaii automatically placed a Gwich’in at the third-lowest rung of the social ladder. They were to some degree ostracized. The second-lowest rung was reserved for war-captured slaves. The lowest social status was that of a banished Naa'in or bushman. The clan system is no longer well known or used among the Gwich'in.
Location and Population
- Northwest Territories
- Aklavik (Ehdiitat Gwich’in)
- Fort McPherson (traditional name, Tetlit Zheh, Tetlit Gwich’in)
- Inuvik (largest of the four Gwich'in communities in the Gwich'in Settlement Area (GSA), English is the main language spoken, though schools teach and a handful of local people still speak Gwich’in.)
- Tsiigehtchic (formerly Arctic Red River) (Gwichyaa Gwich’in)
The Gwich’in have a strong oral tradition of storytelling that has only recently begun to be written in the modern orthography. Gwich’in folk stories include the "Vazaagiitsak cycle" (literally, "His Younger Brother Became Snagged"), which focuses on the comical adventures of a Gwich’in misfit who, among other things, battles lice on a giant's head, plays the fool to the cunning fox, and eats the scab from his own anus unknowingly. Gwich’in comedies often contain bawdy humor. Other major characters from the Gwich’in oral tradition include: Googhwaii, Ool Ti', Tł'oo Thal, K'aiheenjik, K'iizhazhal, and Shaanyaati'.
Numerous folk tales about prehistoric times all begin with the phrase Deenaadai' , which translates roughly as "In the ancient days". This is usually followed with the admission that this was "when all of the people could talk to the animals, and all of the animals could speak with the people". These stories are often parables, which suggest a proper protocol, or code of behavior for Gwich’in. Equality, generosity, hard work, kindness, mercy, cooperation for mutual success, and just revenge are often the themes of stories such as: "Tsyaa Too Oozhrii Gwizhit" (The Boy In The Moon), "Zhoh Ts'à Nahtryaa" (The Wolf and the Wolverine), "Vadzaih Luk Hàa" (The Caribou and the Fish).
The Gwich’in historically had a religious tradition similar to that described as animism. The way of viewing the world was strongly steeped in a natural mysticism. Magical, and mystical, knowledge to traditional Gwich’in is considered natural and not requiring belief by anyone for its inherent truth. Communication with animals for mutual benefit among the Gwich’in is widely acknowledged. Traditionally the Gwich’in had no concept of K'eegwaadhat, or God. Everything in the world: air, stone, water, fire, plant, or animal, possesses spirit or a life-force. Time, mortality, and space are often manipulated according to traditional Gwich’in religion.
Common spiritual foes of the Gwich’in shaman in ancient times, and who were considered to be especially powerful as spiritual people, were the Inupiat of the Kobuk River valley, and the Cree of Canada. This division has since been mended, with little conflict in modern times. Great distance and isolation did not hinder their communication or mutual animosity, according to Gwich’in oral tradition. A common example of low level Gwich’in power is the Gwich’in hunter who has been known to dream of an animal in a specific place; when he goes to this place, the animal will be there waiting for the hunter. Among the Gwich’in, this is considered a somewhat common incident. In recent times, important figures in who have represented traditional belief structures are: Johnny and Sarah Frank, Sahneuti, and Ch'eegwalti'.
Caribou are an integral part of First Nations and Inuit oral histories and legends including the Gwich'in creation story of how Gwich’in people and the caribou separated from a single entity. There is a stable population of woodland caribou throughout a large portion of the Gwich’in Settlement Area and woodland caribou are an important food source for Gwich’in although they harvest them less than other caribou. Gwich’in living in Inuvik, Aklavik, Fort McPherson, and Tsiigehtchic harvest woodland caribou but not as much as other caribou. The Gwich'in prefer to hunt Porcupine caribou or the barren-ground Blue Nose herd, who travel in large herds, when they are available. Many hunters claimed that woodland caribou that form very small groups, are wilder, both hard to see and hard to hunt. They are very smart, cunning and elusive.
The caribou vadzaih is the cultural symbol and a keystone subsistence species of the Gwich'in, just as the buffalo is to the Plains Indians. Elders have identified at least 150 descriptive Gwich'in names for all of the bones, organs, and tissues "Associated with the caribou's anatomy are not just descriptive Gwich'in names for all of the body parts including bones, organs, and tissues as well as "an encyclopedia of stories, songs, games, toys, ceremonies, traditional tools, skin clothing, personal names and surnames, and a highly developed ethnic cuisine."
Traditionally the Gwich’in afterlife consisted of a country where the flora and fauna were plentiful. Even the flowers were thought to sing in the afterlife. The eternal life was reached by emptying oneself of all possessions: mental, emotional, physical, historical and spiritual. Failing to behave appropriately in a system similar to karma was commonly considered the main hindrance to people's attainment of an afterlife. Positive deeds could help a person become empty in preparation for death. When a person dies, the individual faces a series of tests to pass in order to attain admittance into the afterlife; otherwise he/she is stuck on earth, possibly to be reborn again. If a person has any attachment, possibly only negative attachment, to the qualities of their personal life, he or she will not pass the tests. Only individuals can determine if she is ready to move on. The Gwich’in did not believe in any spiritual intermediaries such as priests. Each person is responsible for their own spiritual enlightenment, and spiritual interpretation of experiences. Dinjii Dazhan (magical humans or shamans) were considered humans who were exceptionally gifted and thereby powerful in some aspect of life. They were held in high regard and, in some cases, were greatly feared. Contemporary belief structures have changed Gwich’in society, however.
The introduction of Christianity in the 1840s throughout Gwich’in territory produced spiritual changes that are still widely in effect today. Widespread conversion to Christianity, as influenced by Anglican and Catholic missionaries, led to these as the two dominant Christian sects among the Gwich’in. Notable figures in the missionary movement among the Gwich’in are Archdeacon Hudson Stuck, William West Kirkby, Robert McDonald, Deacon William Loola, and Deacon Albert Tritt. The Traditional Chief, an honorary and lifetime title, of one Gwich’in village is also an Episcopal priest: the Rev. Traditional Chief Trimble Gilbert of Arctic Village. Chief Gilbert is recognized as the Second Traditional Chief of all of the Athabascan tribes in Interior Alaska through the non-profit Tanana Chiefs Conference.
The Takudh Bible is a translation of the entire King James Bible into Gwich’in. The Takudh Bible is in a century-old orthography that is not very accurate, and thus hard to read. In the 1960s Richard Mueller designed a new orthography for Gwich’in, which has now become standard.
On 4 April 1975, Canada Post issued two stamps in the Indians of Canada, Indians of the Subarctic series both designed by Georges Beaupré. One was Ceremonial Dress based on a painting by Lewis Parker of a ceremonial costume of the Kutchin tribe /Gwich'in people. The other, Dance of the Kutcha-Kutchin was based on a painting by Alexander Hunter Murray The 8¢ stamps are perforated 12.5 and 13.5 and were printed by Ashton-Potter Limited and the Canadian Bank Note Company.
Caribou is traditionally a major component of their diet. Many Gwichʼin people are dependent on the Porcupine caribou which herd calves on the coastal plain in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Gwichʼin people have been very active in protesting and lobbying against the possibility of oil drilling in ANWR, due to fears that oil drilling will deplete the population of the Porcupine Caribou herd.
For similar reasons, Gwich’in have also actively protested the development of oil in the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, and a proposed land trade from the United States Wildlife Refuge system and Doyon, Limited.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Gwich'in.|
- Gwichʼin Council International
- Vuntut Gwitchin web site (Yukon)
- Gwichʼin Tribal Council web site (Northwest Territories)
- Gwichʼin Social and Cultural Institute
- Gwichʼin Renewable Resource Board
- Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in
- Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments
- Gwich’in Steering Committee
- "Loucheux". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.