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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


November 29, 2003 - Issue 101


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Those Who Live Off the Land Offer Important Lessons

by Dorreen Yellow Bird Grand Forks Herald

CaribouAs I write this column, I know that oil drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is not in the federal energy bill, which Congress is considering. For that, I am thankful. I also am grateful to the Vuntut Gwich'in people who met with me about their stand against the oil companies and gave me a better understanding of the people, caribou and their land.

Last week, the Alaska Coalition's Jay Heeter, freelance photographer Jess Berrie and Moses Lord, Gwich'in from the Old Crow village in the Yukon Territory, visited with me.

As I leaned forward to listen to the soft-spoken Lord, I found it hard to picture him as a person who lives 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle. If he were sitting on a bench in the White Shield, N.D., community center, I probably wouldn't have noticed he was an outsider.

His arctic land isn't rolling plains and nearly treeless like parts of the Dakotas as I imagined at first. It is wilderness with the "wild" in caps. The land is the snow-covered Brooks Range and wetlands - rough, rugged land, and judging by videos and photos, a most beautiful country.

If you follow one of the many rivers, you'll see they've done a good job of cutting deep into the broken, jagged rock. They are, perhaps, what the Grand Canyon looked like centuries ago. The rivers that created these paths through the land are clear and blue. Lord told me that they can walk to the Porcupine or Crow rivers, dip their cups in and drink. His village is at the confluence of these two rivers.

The water is pure, he said.

Their lives revolve around the gray or light brown or white Porcupine Caribou herds. In the Gwich'in creation story, the elders say the Gwich'in came from the caribou. When there was a separation of humans and animals, there was an agreement between the caribou and the Gwich'in: The Gwich'in would retain a part of the caribou heart, and the caribou would retain a part of the Gwich'in heart.

The caribou can't speak for themselves, so the Gwich'in travel far from their villages to advocate for them.

The caribou come to the village in the spring and fall. They stand about 5 feet tall at the shoulders and weight between 130 and 170 pounds. About 120,000 of them will graze just a short distance from the village, Lord said. I couldn't image that many untamed animals so close to the people. The village was built on the caribou's migration trail on purpose.

How important is the caribou to the Gwich'in way of life? It is 70 percent of their food source, but they also eat moose, ducks and other things they hunt, Lord said. They use every part of the caribou. They boil the caribou hooves down, and it makes a jelly of sorts. They cook the bone marrow for food and use the bones for many things. One of the delicacies is the head, which is made into soup for special occasions.

The skin is used for moccasins, boots, mitts and hats, he said. His mother, who is 69, used the skin for clothing when she was young. She also spoke Gwich'in. People are not using the language as much anymore, he said.

I asked him about vegetables for their diet. "We have a store in the village," he said with a little edge to his voice. They have satellite televisions, though Lord said he doesn't watch much television. They also have a sawmill that makes furniture.

They are facing an out-migration of young people, as in North Dakota. There are few jobs for the young people, so they go to the oil fields to work. So, some also support the oil companies, he said.

But the Gwich'in always have lived off the land. That will be more difficult if the oil companies take the birthing places of the caribou, he said.

The Episcopal church came to their community many years ago and taught them their religion. Now, most of the people belong to the church, but there are a few who practice the Gwich'in way, he said.

To get to the Crow Village, you have to fly in. There are no roads. Lord said he likes it that way. Roads bring in outsiders and the likelihood that they'll lose more of their culture.

As I listened to him, I couldn't help but think about the Native people in the lower 48. There are many similarities. We have lost much of our culture, language and ways to the whites. Perhaps, it is inevitable; people move forward forgetting the old ways. But there are lessons to be learned from the people who live off the land. They have respect for all things and live in balance with the land. Embrace the new, yes, but don't toss away the past.

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