7. Mackenzie Delta and Porcupine Flats


Gwich’in Nation – North-Northwest Canada and Alaska

Arctic Domus team-members Dr Peter Loovers and Dr Rob Wishart have conducted fieldwork in northern Yukon Territory and Northwest Territories with Gwich’in. In particular, they worked in the communities of Fort McPherson and Old Crow. The medium-size town of Fort McPherson lies along the Peel River which is a tributary of the Mackenzie River and is home to  the Teetl’it Gwich’in. There are two shops with gas stations, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Health Clinic, School, Tourist Centre, Hamlet Office, Tribal Office, Government buildings etcetera. The smaller settlement of Old Crow lies across the mountains where the Crow River joins the Porcupine River,  a tributary of the Yukon River, and is home to the Vuntut Gwich’in.  Together with other Gwich’in communities scattered across northern Alaska and Canada they comprise the Gwich’in Nation. The land is a mixture of rivers, creeks, wetlands, lakes, boreal forests, and mountains. The Porcupine Caribou herd is of a pivotal importance for the Gwich’in for their livelihood and identity. At the same time, a number of Gwich’in continue to trap furbearing animals whilst a large number of Gwich’in engage with fishing and picking berries. The Teetl’it Gwich’in primarily fish for whitefish, inconnu, loche, and in the past herring. The Vuntut Gwich’in primarily fish for whitefish and salmon.

During the first period of fieldwork (January-February 2013, May 2013- July 2013), Loovers investigated the relations between dogs, the Gwich’in, fish and caribou. Until the 1980s, the Teetl’it Gwich’in were using so-called ‘working dogs’ for transport and procurement of food and goods (e.g. through the trade in furs and meat). The ‘working dogs’ were a hybrid of many breeds of dogs including huskies, German shepherds, and wolf-dog hybrids. Strength and endurance have been traits that were highly valued and a common saying is that “the dogs worked for us, and we worked for them”. During interviews and spending time out on the land, it has become apparent that this aspect of working entailed fishing throughout the year for the dogs. A large quantity of herring and white fish were stored and processed in different ways to secure enough dog feed for the winter. At the same time, meat would be given to the dogs during successful hunting trips. Whilst the ‘working dogs’ had also been important in Old Crow, an early shift to ‘racing dogs’ occurred in the 1960’s and 1970’s. A number of Vuntut Gwich’in became famous regional dog mushers winning at Territorial and International competitions. Unlike the ‘working dogs’, the ‘racing dogs’ were smaller build and bred to be racing long distances. Salmon, rather than herring and white fish, was the main food source for the dogs in Old Crow.  

During the same period Wishart conducted archival and ethnohistoric research investigating the role of fish and fishing in the establishment and fluorescence of the fur trade. Key to this research has been investigations of animal-human relationships but also economic models and practices of advances and provisions. In this research fish can be understood to be directly connected to the economics of hunting and trapping while at the same time forming a set of practices that are important for sociality and which are cherished by the Gwich’in themselves. It challenges the lack of attention that fish have had in the literature and helps in providing a historic background for Wishart’s future ethnographic research plans in 2014.     

The current research of both Loovers and Wishart concerns the ethnohistory of dogs and fish in relation to the fur trade, fishing, and hunting. Investigating the dog trails between Old Crow and Fort McPherson, amongst many other trails, connects the Gwich’in communities economically and kinship-wise. Besides this, the research has also been interested in the concept of designing dogs, training and handling dogs, and the technology that dogs enabled (e.g. fishing technology and travel technology). Dog mushers or dog team owners have been speaking about the different ways of seasonal feeding to shape the dog as well as the crafting of dogs through breeding and training. At the same time, the Gwich’in speak of dogs as intelligent and sensitive with whom they establish mutual emotional relations. The research, thus, goes beyond orthodox anthropological ‘hunter-gatherer studies’ and rather discusses the way aboriginal people relate with a wide variety of animals in particular ways whilst also investigating the relations between animals (e.g. dog and fish).