People

They, the elders, look at us and the caribou as one… cause we roam this land together.
- Gwich’in hunter Charlie Swaney

 

That’s where our stories are – in the caribou…that is our language; that is our culture.
-Anastasia Qupee

 

Caribou have long been vital to the survival of Indigenous peoples in the north; the First Nations, Inuit, and Metis. There is archaeological evidence linking people and caribou in Yukon as early as 25,000 years ago. That connection is not just historical, but something that continues to the present day. The caribou have particular meaning to the Indigenous cultures of northern Canada. Caribou contribute food, clothing, tools, and more. When caribou were plentiful, people did well. When they were scarce, people starved. There are people alive today who remember starvation events caused by a scarcity of caribou. The relationship with caribou is deeply embedded in the cultural practices of many northern peoples, and there is a deep spiritual connection also. Several traditional stories talk about caribou that transformed into people. The Gwich’in say a lack of caribou meat has been known to change people’s behaviour, and put them in a bad mood. As one Indigenous knowledge report puts it, “people are caribou and caribou are people”.

The importance of caribou to people can be partly gauged by the many traditional place-names across the north that refer to caribou directly. Many other place names refer to caribou indirectly, for instance indicating places to fish and travel while people were out in pursuit of caribou.

Acknowledgement

We acknowledge in this site that there is a wealth of information on Caribou held by Indigenous peoples of northern Canada, much of it deeply embedded in their own languages. We do not have the capacity on this site to adequately represent it, and also acknowledge issues of ownership of that information that mean it is not always supposed to be shared, especially outside of its original context. The information here is intended as an introduction to the knowledge of caribou held by northern Indigenous peoples.
 Indigenous names for caribou

  • Ekwe (North Slavey)
  • Vadzaih (Teetł’it Gwich’in)
  • Etthën (Denesọłiné)
  • לekwö (Tłį Chọ)
  • Atihk (Cree)
  • Tuktuit [plural] (Inuktitut)
  • Tuktu (Inuvialuitun)
  • Qinianaq or Tuktuinal (Innuinaqtun [spoken in Cambridge Bay, Kugluktuk, Gjoa Haven, and Ulukhaktok] for Peary Caribou)
  • Tuktuaraaluit (Siglitun [spoken in Paulatuk, Sachs Harbour, and Tuktoyaktuk] for Peary caribou)
  • Tuttunguluurat (Ummarmiutun [spoken in Inuvik and Aklavik] for Peary caribou

 

In Aboriginal languages, there is detailed terminology for all stages of the lifecycle. For example, there are distinct names for bulls and cows during the first, second, third and fourth years (which may correspond to size – translation unknown) as well as for mature and immature bulls and cows (e.g. young bulls, breeding bulls, young cow, pregnant cows, cows with calf).

From Traditional Knowledge: Barren-ground Caribou in the Northwest Territories

Subsistence

Many of the Indigenous peoples who traditionally subsisted on caribou are finding the current scarcity of caribou very difficult. In most cases, food bought from the shop is very expensive and incomes are typically quite low, especially in the smaller communities. For instance, statistics show the median income of Inuit living in Inuit Nunangat (the four Inuit regions: Inuvialuit; Nunatsiavut; Nunavik; and Nunavut) was $23,485 in 2015. For that same year, the median income for non-Indigenous Canadians was $34,604. Already high rates of food insecurity in the north are made worse by the absence of caribou, either because of hunting restrictions, or because there are simply no local caribou to hunt. Quantifying the value of the caribou harvest to people in economic terms is difficult, but has been done for some herds. For instance, a study for the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq Caribou Management Board put the annual net economic value of the caribou harvest from both herds at more than $20 million, based on the estimated harvest for 2005-2006. The social and cultural implications of an absence of caribou are deeply felt. People worry about their ability to pass on elements of their culture to other generations, in terms of caribou hunting and handling traditions, and associated activities. Bonds within families and communities that were once centred on the sharing of caribou must find new expressions, or wither away.

Hunting methods have changed significantly. The original methods involving spearing the caribou, or hunting them with bows and arrows. Caribou would sometimes be herded into corrals, using wood fences or rock piles to guide them in. Water crossings were often a favourite place to hunt, as the water bunched up and slowed the caribou. Sometimes people would hunt on the water, using canoes or kayaks and spears.

For many northern peoples, the best caribou hunting period is late summer to fall. This is when the caribou have the most fat, and their hides are at their best for making clothing. However, bulls are usually avoided during the fall rut (breeding period) as hormones make the meat taste less pleasant. Caribou is eaten in a variety of ways, stewed, dried, roasted, fried, raw and frozen. It provides a wide range of nutrients if all of the parts are eaten. The only essential nutrient that is not found in caribou is vitamin D. 

Drying meat was often used as a method of preserving the meat through long northern winters. Sometimes the meat was smoked as well as dried. In the past, dried meat was often made into pemmican, a nutritious storable food. The meat would be pounded until it was fine, then mixed with fat and berries. Dry meat is still popular, but now people mostly use freezers to keep their meat.

Some Indigenous people say they have noticed changes in the consistency and taste of the caribou, changes that they attribute to changes in the environment.

Culture

In addition to their often central place as a food resource, caribou contributed and continue to contribute much more to the material culture of Indigenous peoples. Caribou tents provided shelter. Clothing is often made from their skins, and the skins are also used for bedding. It has been estimated that a Netsilik Inuit family living on the Arctic coast west of Hudson Bay needed about 30 caribou to supply all of the clothing and bedding requirements for a year. A book of Gwich’in knowledge about caribou lists 17 different uses for caribou hides, noting that this represents just a fraction of the traditional uses for the hides. Amongst other things, they could be used for sails, for drums, for dog whips, and for dolls.

Peoples who live with the caribou have several rules regarding how caribou should be treated, both before and after death. The sale of caribou meat has long been a divisive subject. Some people believe caribou meat should never be sold, only shared. Others argue that they need to sell the meat to cover the increasing costs of hunting, such as buying gas for snowmobiles or other vehicles, ammunition, and other hunting supplies.

 

 

 

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“We’re Made Criminals Just to Eat off the Land”: Colonial Wildlife Management and Repercussions on Inuit Well-Being

This academic article looks at management of the Mealy Mountain Herd of woodland caribou in Nunatsiavut (Labrador), and the impacts of the management on Inuit in the nearby community of Rigolet. While the herd is not not covered by this site, the article raises issues of the exclusion of local people from meaningful input into management of the herd that have echoes across the northern caribou range. It concludes, "...the multi-generational and enduring negative effects of exclusionary and discriminatory Western management policies, enacted with little to no Indigenous involvement or consideration, is clear in this research, and illustrates not only the limitations of many western approaches to wildlife management, but the need for rectification and redress."
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Report to the Hunters of the Lorillard Caribou May 2020

A brief report from the Northern Contaminants Program on contaminants in the Lorillard herd. The animals were sampled in 2018. The report concludes, "Although it is difficult to come to any firm conclusions based on only four animals, we can say that contaminant levels in the Lorillard Caribou are similar to those in other Arctic herds. There have been no health advisories issued on any Nunavut caribou."
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Report to the Hunters of the Lorillard Caribou May 2020 - Inuktitut

A brief report in Inuktitut from the Northern Contaminants Program on contaminants in the Lorillard herd. The animals were sampled in 2018. The report concludes, "Although it is difficult to come to any firm conclusions based on only four animals, we can say that contaminant levels in the Lorillard Caribou are similar to those in other Arctic herds. There have been no health advisories issued on any Nunavut caribou."
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A brief report from the Northern Contaminants Program to the people who hunt reindeer in Sanikiluaq. The reports says most contaminants in local reindeer are similar to those found in other caribou herds in the Canadian Arctic, although levels of some contaminants in Sanikiluaq reindeer were slightly higher than average.
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A brief report in Inuktitut from the Northern Contaminants Program to the people who hunt reindeer in Sanikiluaq. The reports says most contaminants in local reindeer are similar to those found in other caribou herds in the Canadian Arctic, although levels of some contaminants in Sanikiluaq reindeer were slightly higher than average.
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A 9 page synopsis report of the Arctic Caribou Contaminant Monitoring Program. The program covers several Arctic herds. It concludes, "Levels of most contaminants measured in caribou kidneys were not of concern toxicologically, although renal [kidney] mercury and cadmium concentrations may cause some concern for human health depending on the quantity of organs consumed. Yukon Health has advised restricting intake of kidney and liver from Yukon caribou, the recommended maximum varying depending on herd (e.g. a maximum of 25 Porcupine cariboukidneys/year). The health advisory confirms that heavy metals are very low in the meat (muscle) from caribouand this remains a healthy food choice. There have been no health advisories issued for caribou in NWT or Nunavut."
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caribou and community well-being (Gjoa Haven)

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Gwich'in Knowledge of Bluenose West Caribou

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The Wind Waits for No one (Master's Thesis)

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Traditional Knowledge: Barren-ground Caribou in the Northwest Territories

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The contamination of traditional foods with chemical pollutants is a challenge to the food security ofAboriginal Peoples.
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Denésoliné (Chipewyan) Knowledge of Barren-Ground Caribou (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus) Movements

An academic paper from 2010 on the Indigenous knowledge of caribou from elders and hunters in Lutsel K’e in the Northwest Territories. Forest fires, mining development, and failure to comply with traditional practices are all noted as influences on caribou abundance.
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Kivallirmiut (Caribou Inuit)

An online encyclopaedia article, updated in 2016, on the Kivallirmiut (Caribou Inuit) who live in the Kivalliq region of Nunavut. These people were different from other Canadian Inuit in that they relied mostly on caribou instead of coastal resources.
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Living with Caribou

A 16 page report published in 2010 that talks about the documentation of traditional knowledge of caribou in the Sahtu region of the Northwest Territories from 2005-2010. It talks about the values of collecting such knowledge, and about the nature of the knowledge that was gathered, and how it was used
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CAFF Voices Project

A series of many lengthy wide-ranging interviews on video ( average about 25 minutes) with individuals in communities dependent on caribou. The videos were shot in 2008. Canadian communities involved were: Old Crow (Yukon); Arviat (Nunavut); Lutsel K’e and Wekweti (NWT)
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The Flux of Trust: Caribou Co-Management in Northern Canada

An academic paper from 2003 that looks at aspects of co-management of caribou, largely based on the writer’s experience in Lutsel K’e in the Northwest Territories. It emphasises the need for Indigenous knowledge to be properly integrated into management decisions, and the need for trust between participants in co-management.
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) (2003)

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Dogrib Knowledge on Placenames, Caribou and Habitat

A long 2002 paper on Dogrib (Tlicho) place names. It discusses how caribou are embedded in many place names.
Government of the Northwest Territories (2002)

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Mushuau Innu learn to hunt caribou in Labrador

A 26 minute video produced by CBC program "Land and Sea" about Mushuau Innu living in Labrador, with a focus on their relationship with caribou. The video is entirely narrated, and dated in style and terminology, but shows some traditional hunting practices.
CBC (1979)

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Tuktu- 10- The Caribou Hunt

A 1968 National Film Board of Canada production, this 14 minute film shows traditional caribou hunting techniques of the Netsilik Inuit
National Film Board (1968)

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At the Caribou Crossing Place: Part 1

This 1971 30 minute film follows a Netsilik Inuit family from Pelly Bay (now Kugaaruk) in Nunavut, including skinning caribou. There is no narration or subtitles, the whole piece is in the local dialect of Inuktitut. A second part shows a group of men building inuksuit (stone figures) to help herd the caribou toward the water, where they are speared
National Film Board (1967)

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People

At the Caribou Crossing Place: Part 2

This 1971 30 minute film follows a Netsilik Inuit family from Pelly Bay (now Kugaaruk) in Nunavut, including skinning caribou. There is no narration or subtitles, the whole piece is in the local dialect of Inuktitut. A second part shows a group of men building inuksuit (stone figures) to help herd the caribou toward the water, where they are speared
National Film Board (1967)

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Moccasins on the Ground

Lutsel K'e Dene First Nation

FACT SHEET: Fortymile Caribou Herd

A five-page undated fact sheet on the herd, concentrating on the Indigenous knowledge of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation
Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in Heritage Sites

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10 traditional protocols of caribou hunting

This five-page document provides ten protocols for hunting caribou as described by the Dënesųłıné (Chipewyan) people, and include commentary from elders to help explain the protocols.


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Traditional animal foods of Indigenous Peoples of northern North America

A website compiling several sources, mostly academic papers, that deal with the importance of caribou as a resource for Indigenous peoples. It includes information on: hunting practices; preferred parts and preparation of caribou as food; Beliefs and taboos, and other (non-food) uses made of caribou. It covers several First Nations and Inuit regions.
McGill University

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Education Resources and Teacher Tools: Caribou for the Future

These undated resources are focused on the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq herds, but a lot of the information would be transferable to other migratory herds. There are three poster/fact sheet/video units covering respectful harvesting, harvest reporting, and cumulative effects (of factors that influence caribou decline). There are also contests and other information for students that live in the caribou range.  
Beverly and Qamanirjuaq Caribou Management Board

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Beverly and QaminirjuaqPeople