Depending on an upland or lowland habitat, the 9 or 10 regional bands concentrated on moose hunting or salmon fishing, though caribou, captured in impressive corrals, were available to all bands.
Gwich'in (formerly Kutchin), the northernmost of all North American Indians, occupied a broad sweep of territory located primarily North of the Arctic Circle and extending across the Mackenzie drainage and northern tributaries of the Yukon River into northwest Alaska. Their northern boundary abuts Inuit land. They speak an Athapaskan language, unintelligible to all other Athapaskans except possibly the Han (see Aboriginal Languages of Canada).
Depending on an upland or lowland habitat, the 9 or 10 regional bands concentrated on moose hunting or salmon fishing, though caribou, captured in impressive corrals, were available to all bands. Even though big game supplied the greater part of their food and hides for clothing and shelter, the Gwich'in also caught whitefish, hare and other small game. Gwich'in knowledge of their environment was extensive; one anthropologist recorded 400 Gwich'in names for plants and animals. Gwich'in technology was similar to that of other subarctic Athapaskans, with distinctive western elements, including large metal knives with double recurved handles, sleds, chair-style birchbark baby carriers, partially decked-over kayak-canoes, and portable domed caribou-skin tents. Adults and children alike wore V-tailed summer shirts decorated with red ochre, dentalium (beads made with mollusc shells) and dyed porcupine quills. Women tattooed their chins and, on ceremonial occasions, men coiffed their hair with red ochre mixed with grease and sprinkled with down.
A pair of same-sex siblings with their nuclear families customarily formed a household. Several households related to one senior person or "chief" made up a local band, which worked together to build caribou surrounds and large fish traps, but sometimes larger groups met to hunt. Several local bands formed a regional band, maintained through intermarriage and other interactions between constituent families within a single geographic area. Regional bands assembled for annual festivities and ceremonies. Gwich'in identity was achieved through language. Cross-cutting the band structure were three matrilineal clans which regulated marriage.
The Gwich'in world view included beliefs in animal spirits, spirit beings, bushmen (wild Aboriginal people with supernatural attributes) and the culture hero-trickster Raven (crow), recorded in culture hero myth cycles and raven myths.
History Since Contact
In 1789 the Gwich'in, locally named "Loucheux," were contacted by Alexander Alexander Mackenzie south of the Mackenzie Delta. Within two decades they were trading extraterritorially at posts on the Mackenzie River, and, in 1840, Fort McPherson was built on the Peel River. The Hudson's Bay Company established Fort Yukon, Alaska, in 1847. The Gwich'in had been intermediaries in trade between the coastal Inuit and interior Aboriginal communities and between the Mackenzie and Yukon and resented establishment of European trading posts in their territory.
During the 20th century Old Crow progressively became the focal point and then the only Gwich'in town in the Yukon. Gwich'in suffered severe setbacks early in the 20th century due to epidemics, especially influenza. The current Gwich'in population is approximately 2800 persons, with slightly more than half living at Old Crow, Fort McPherson (which the Gwich'in call Tetlit Zhee, holds the greatest number of Gwich'in of any single settlement) and Tsiigehtchic or in the relatively large mixed Inuit/First Nations/non-Aboriginal communities of Aklavik and Inuvik. The remainder live in Alaska. Although communities have regular air service, only a few can be reached by road, such as Fort McPherson and Tsiigehtchic.
Well-known personages among the Gwich'in include Wally Firth, who became the first Aboriginal member of Parliament in 1972, and recipients of the Order of Canada Mary Simon (Fort McPherson), Edith Jose ("here are the news," Old Crow) and Charlie Peter Charlie (Old Crow). Today many Gwich'in students are following post secondary studies, mainly at colleges in Whitehorse and Inuvik. The Gwich'in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement was affirmed in 1992 opening new avenues for local industry and commercial development and employment, and for political, social and cultural fulfillment. The Agreement includes over 22,000 square kilometers of land in the Northwest Territories and over 1,500 square kilometers of land in the Yukon; harvesting rights and rights for commercial wildlife activities; representation to manage wildlife, land, and water regulation, within the public institutions; transfer of monies to the Gwich'in Tribal Council.