1. Historical information about the culture

The Gwich’in people live farther north than any of the other North American Indians. Their communities span from north of the Arctic Circle down to the Yukon River in northern Alaska (Clark). In total, their population is around 7,000 to 9,000 people. Conventional belief states that the Gwich’in have lived in the area “for as long as 200,000 years,” though Gwich’in oral tradition suggests that they have been there “since time immemorial” (Gwich’in Council International). They speak one of the nineteen Canadian Athabaskan languages; only one other group, the Han Kutchin, may be able to understand the Gwich’in language (Moore; Clark). Gwich’in communities were traditionally nomadic, up until the 1870s, when they began to make settlements out of the forts and trading posts of colonial fur traders (Gwich’in Council International).
Because the environment is characterized by long winters, short summers, and mostly boreal forest, the Gwich’in economy has relied mainly on hunting game to survive. Their most important resource has always been the caribou. They believed in using every part of the animal. For instance, they boiled and roasted the meat, ate the bone marrow, and used the bones, antlers, and teeth for weaponry in both war and hunting. They used the caribou hides mainly for making clothes and covering their homes. They even used caribou sinew to thread their bowstrings (Krech). The caribou has also had a deep spiritual connection for the Gwich’in. It is believed that “‘every caribou has a bit of the human heart in him; and every human has a bit of caribou heart.’” Many ancient Gwich’in songs and stories stress the importance of having a high level of respect for all animals, but the caribou is the most revered of all (“The Gwich’in of Alaska and Canada”).  Their belief system also included “beliefs in animal spirits, spirit beings, bushmen (wild Aboriginal people with supernatural attributes) and the culture hero-trickster Raven” (Clark). Many of their ancient beliefs still persisted after contact with Christianity, and are still prevalent today (Krech).
The historical Gwich’in household consisted of “a pair of same-sex siblings with their nuclear families.” A local band was made up of multiple households who were all related to a single chief. Each local band worked as a unit to sustain itself, but still kept connections with other bands through intermarriage and cultural ceremonies (“The Gwich’in of Alaska and Canada”). Gatherings of several local bands would make up a regional band – the Gwich’in “were traditionally distributed in nine or ten regional bands” (Krech). Overall, a common Gwich’in language was what formed their Gwich’in identity (“The Gwich’in of Alaska and Canada”). 

Clark, A. McFadyen. “Gwich’in.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. 13 Mar. 2007.<>.

Gwich’in Council International. “The Gwich’in.” Gwich’in Council International. 2009. <>.

“The Gwich’in of Alaska and Canada.” The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR): A Special Report. n.d. <>.

Krech, Shepard. "Gwich’in." Encyclopedia of World Cultures Supplement. 2002. <>.

Moore, Patrick. “Aborigianls: Na-dene.” The Encyclopedia of Canada’s Peoples. Published in Multicultural Canada. <>.




























2. Colonial experience of the culture

The Gwich’in had their first written contact with European settlers in 1789 by Alexander Mackenzie of the Northwest Company (Pilon). They were originally called the “Loucheux,” meaning “squinters,” by the French. The Gwich’in were also called the Tudukh by Anglican missionaries, and later they were known as the Kutchin by the Canadian government, though that has since changed to Gwich’in. The Gwich’in, however, call themselves Dinjii Zhuu which means “Small People” (McFayden).

Within two decades of the initial contact with European settlers and colonists, the Gwich’in of the Canadian Yukon, and Alaska, became the primary intermediary traders between the Euro-Canadians and other aboriginal peoples in the region, such as the Mackenzie Inuit. The Gwich’in traded in places such as Fort McPherson, established in 1840 in the Northwest Territories, and with The Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Yukon, Alaska in 1847 (Pilon; McFayden). Because the Gwich’in were so far removed from American settlers—and because Alaska did not become an American territory until 1912 and later gaining statehood1959—they were never given a treaty or put into reservations by the United States. The Gwich’in were instead traders who, due to population loss from epidemic diseases, became more centralized in towns like Old Crow, at the confluence of the Crow and Porcupine rivers, rather than living across the deltas in the Yukon. Although the traders introduced the Gwich’in to objects like guns, axes, beads, European clothing, etc., the Europeans also brought with them microbes to which the native peoples had no immunity to, such as tuberculosis and influenza, and which ultimately devastated their communities and destroyed various Gwich’in tribes (Peter-Raboff). The diseases reduced the population by about 80% and may have ultimately led to the different tribes under the Gwich’in name to form a singular and centralized tribe by the turn of the twentieth century (Pilon).

In 1898, Christian missionaries introduced the Bible to the Gwich’in 8. The missionaries that came to visit the Gwich’in settlements were often either Anglican or Catholic. Because of the aggressive missionary work done by Anglican Archdeacon McDonald and his successors, the Gwich’in became strong adherents to Anglican Protestant Christianity instead of Catholicism (Pilon; McFayden). Because of the natives’ fervent embrace of Christianity, the missionaries within the Gwich’in communities sought to save the souls of the native people by eliminating much of the traditional culture including songs and dances, shamans, infanticide, potlatches (gift-giving ceremonies or rituals), polygyny (one man having two or more wives), and polyandry (one woman having two or more husbands) (Pilon).

However, with the Canadian government’s increasing interest in its native and northern peoples, the Gwich’in signed a treaty with Canada in 1921 which exchanged their entitled, sovereign rights and the introduction of trapping territories for the perceived benefits of management by the Canadian government (Pilon; Irlbacher-Fox). This later expanded with greater control over Gwich’in energy interests as well as directing the activities and lives of the Gwich’in (Irlbacher-Fox).

Irlbacher-Fox, Stephanie. Finding Dahshaa: Self-Governmen, Social Suffering, and Aboriginal Policy in Canada. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009. 133-36. Print.

McFayden, Clark A. "Gwich'in." The Canadian Encyclopedia. N.p., 13 Mar. 2007. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. <>.

Peter-Raboff, Adeline. "Preliminary Study of the Western Gwich'in Bands." Alaska Native Knowledge Network. University of Alaska-Fairbanks, 12 Dec. 2013. Web. 4 Mar. 2015. <

Pilon, Jean-Luc. "The Gwich'in (Briefly)." Canadian Museum of History. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Mar. 2015. < plgwiche.shtml>.



3. Contemporary developments or issues

The contemporary Gwich’in people continue to live in the expanse of land inhabited by their ancestors that encompasses parts of Notheastern Alaska and regions of the Yukon and the Northwest Territories in Canada.  The present day Gwich’in of Northern Canada and Alaska primarily live in fifteen communities: Old Crow, Inuvik, Fort McPherson, Aklavik, Tsiigehtchic, and Fort Yukon of Canada and Fort Yukon, Venetie, Beaver, Arctic Village, Chalkyitsik, Stevens Village, Circle, Birch Creek, Canyon Village, and Christian of Alaska (Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute). The Gwich’in communities of Alaska have tribal governments with elected chiefs and councils. Additionally, these tribal governments and two Koyukon tribal governments are united under the Council of Athabaskan Tribal Governments, which addresses larger regional concerns (Our Arctic Refuge).  The Canadian communities are organized under a democratically elected government known as the Gwich’in Tribal Council. Though the Canadian and Alaskan Gwich’in have had to consolidate into separate tribal governments to deal with the governments of Canada and the United States respectively, the Gwich’in still understand themselves as a single ethnic group with interrelated issues. Thus in 1999, twelve of the Gwich’in communities from Alaska and Canada formed the Gwich’in Council International to insure that Gwich’in nation had a unified voice in intergovernmental organizations such as the Arctic Council.

            The present day Gwich’in communities are often very small and continue to be quite isolated. For example, the community of Old Crow remains unreachable by road. Visitors must either fly in, or during Summer months, visitors may reach Old Crow by boat (Old Crow). Many Gwich’in communities practice subsistence lifestyles, meaning that a large portion of the economy comes from hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering. Some communities also integrate tourism and the sale of local arts and crafts as an important economic venture (Our Arctic Refuge).

            The Gwich’in language is considered severely endangered. The Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks estimates that of 1,100 Gwich’in living in Alaska there are only 300 native speakers. The language is similarly endangered in Canada, and Ethnologue: Languages of the World estimates the population of Canadian native speakers at just 370. While the Gwich’in language remains endangered, many Gwich’in communities have language revitalization movements. The local school in Old Crow has taught Gwich’in since the 1970’s (Lewis, Simmons & Fennig). The Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute of Canada offers a language summer camp where young students learn the Gwich’in language and traditional practices from tribal elders (Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute; Yukon Native Language Centre).

As well as teaching Gwich’in youth the language, an another important language preservation project is found in the recording of Gwich’in place names and oral traditions. Much of this language preservation is done by universities and education groups such as the Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute, and University of Alaska Fairbanks, who support academic research of the Gwich’in language and oral culture.

            As discussed above, many Gwich’in continue to practice subsistence lifestyles and thus Gwich’in livelihoods and identity are deeply tied to the environment. Contemporary Gwich’in are often involved in environmental activism and there is a move to integrate traditional Gwich’in ecological knowledge into environmental policy (Gwich’in Renewable Resources Board). One the most significant environmental causes championed by the Gwich’in is the protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is home to forty-five important land and marine mammals including the Porcupine Caribou (Our Arctic Refuge). For thousands of years the Gwich’in have hunted the caribou as they migrate across Alaska and Northern Canada, and caribou continue to be essential to the subsistence lifestyle practiced by contemporary Gwich’in. Since the 1970’s large oil companies have lobbied to drill on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. However, the coastal plain is calving ground of the porcupine caribou, and industrial development in the area could greatly affect the caribou population and Gwich’in livelihoods. In response to threatened coastal plain, Gwich’in elders called together tribal leaders from communities across Alaska and Canada in the first traditional gathering of this sort in more than a century (Our Arctic Refuge). In 1988, they formed the Gwich’in Steering Committee which continues to lobby for the protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Gwich’in way of life.

“Gwich’in.” Alaska Native Language Center. University of Alaska Fairbanks. Web. 10 march,                         2015. <>

“Gwich’in.” Yukon Native Langauge Centre. Yukon Native Language Centre. Web. 10 march,                         2015 <>

Gwich’in Council International. Gwich’in Council International. 2010. Web. 10, march 2015.                         <>

Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute. Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute. 2003. Web. 10,                         march, 2015. <>

“Gwich’in Traditional Knowledge Projects”. Gwich’in Renewable Resources Board. GRRB.                         2015. Web. 10 march, 2015. <>

Gwich’in Tribal Council. Gwich’in Tribal Council. 2013. Web. 10 March, 2015

Lewis, M. Paul, Gary F. Simons, and Charles D. Fennig (eds.). 2015. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Eighteenth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Online version. 10 March, 2015 <>

Old Crow Some of the Vuntut Gwitchin. Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation. 1998-2015. Web. 10                         march, 2015. <>

Our Arctic Refuge — Gwich’in Steering Committee. Gwich’in Steering Committee. 2015. Web.                         10 March, 2015. <>