“Since the beginning of time, the caribou travelled this country and people killed the caribou and was dependent on it for food.” (Vuntut Gwitchin Elder Edith Josie: The Land Still Speaks)
The Porcupine Caribou herd migrates through this region and provides a plentiful subsistence lifestyle that has endured, as the Gwich'in say, "forever". The north-central Yukon was able to support a larger human population than the much warmer south because the caribou supplied food, clothing, shelter and a variety of tools.
Before guns were introduced by the fur traders in the mid 1800s, Gwich'in hunters travelled long distances using snowshoes and dog teams to follow the herd. Hunters built caribou drift fences to divert and corral the migrating caribou. Three or four families worked together to maintain the fences.
Hunters, tourists and scientists now have easy access to the Porcupine Caribou herd on the Dempster Highway. Consider the high cost of food and the nutritional value of caribou meat and it is understandable why hunters from communities across Yukon and Northwest Territories consider this a precious resource.
“When we killed caribou, we gave meat to everyone in the camp. People took care of each other. People still practice this today.” (Vuntut Gwitchin Elder Dick Nukon: The Land Still Speaks)
The Porcupine Caribou herd is one of the largest herds of migratory caribou in North America. Scientists have identified a 40-year cycle for caribou populations. The Porcupine Caribou herd population peaked around 1987 and is currently in decline.
Hunting is only one of the factors affecting the herd although caribou remains a staple of the Gwich'in diet. The annual spring and fall migrations provide meat for the whole year. Aboriginal hunting rights are protected in First Nation final land claim agreements and can only be restricted for conservation and public safety reasons.
The Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation is recognized as a leader with the Gwich'in Nation for their role in protecting the Porcupine Caribou herd calving ground.
Caribou provide a high quality lean meat with more protein per kilogram than beef, pork or poultry. In the spring and fall, the meat is cut into large, flat sections and hung on curing racks over a smoky fire. This dried meat (Nilii Gaii) supplies nutrients in a concentrated form. Meat from the rump, neck and leg is roasted and pounded to tenderize, then mixed with melted fat, and sometimes berries, and rolled into balls to make ch'itsuh, a type of pemmican.
The heart, kidneys and liver supply a large range of vitamins and minerals. Eating caribou liver, chewing the soft ends of bones, boiling bones to make soup, or eating tongue, blood and intestines provide a healthy diet. Caribou heads are a delicacy either roasted over an open fire or made into head soup. Bone marrow is extracted, cooked and eaten. Bone grease is rendered out and used as a dip for meat.
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