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The Sacred Place Where Life Begins

I sit with Gwich’in hunter Charlie Swaney outside under a classic blue camping tarp, rain silently drumming. Thin, tall, and not so young anymore, we talk caribou. It’s our favourite subject. Charlie is one of the hunters of Arctic Village, a small First Nations community nestled into a fairy tale valley, hundreds of miles from the nearest road.

Today we are in Arctic Village for the biannual Gwich’in Gathering and Charlie talks about his people, their connection to the caribou and why they held the first Gwich’in Gathering in Arctic Village 28 years ago, when the calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou herd was under threat from proposed oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

This is Charlie’s story:

“In the old days. People they respect the caribou. Everything they had, they respect caribou with. This particular time it was in the fall. We walk up the mountain to look around for caribou. We end up staying there that night. We didn’t have no tent that night. We didn’t really need no tent. It’s warm out, you know.

Well the next day, we went up to the top and we look all over. We look everywhere, and we see some caribou, but they’re way back. Way too far. So we walk all the way along the edge of this mountain, all the way to the other end. When we got to the other end, we sat down and there is a mountain over there, they call it “Duchanlee.” We see a caribou coming down. We start walking over that way. We get up there and… well, I didn’t know that my rifle sight was off that time… That caribou pop out in front of me. I shot four times, what was in my magazine, and I re-loaded and I shot five more times. That caribou took off. My sight was that far off.

Well I thought that caribou is long gone. But something just tell me, just go over that ridge and just go over and check. Well what do you know, I went over that ridge and check and I’ll be darn, if that caribou didn’t turn around and start coming back towards me and turn sideways. I was able to shoot it and I knock it down. Well… we skin it and gut it right there.

When we got back to the village we heard that just at that moment when that caribou turn around and come back, there was an elder from here, well his wife passed away. I tell everybody about this caribou that it turned around and come back to us… just like it gave itself to us. It’s almost like it sensed that we lost an elder, so that caribou turn around and come back and give himself to us… cause on a normal basis, if you shoot nine times at a caribou, well it’s gone. But it just so happens that this caribou came back and I shot it.

The caribou really are connected to communities that they go through. You know somehow it knew, that caribou just knew… and it’s just like this gathering that’s happening. The first day, the caribou showed up, and I talk to some of the elders and they say, “they know, they know exactly what’s going on here. There is a celebration happening here and they come to be with us.” They, the elders, look at us and the caribou as one… cause we roam this land together. That’s the way it was in the old days too. That is one particular story that always stick with me, I always think about. I never seen a moose or caribou or anything come back to me like that, and just at that particular time that elder pass away.

Members of the 200,000 strong Porcupine Caribou herd migrating to the foothills of the Coastal Plain of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

For thousands of years, the caribou took care of people here. And then all of sudden in ’98 when they want to develop oil, well the caribou needed help. And that’s what all these Gwichi’in communities did, they got together here so they can do the best they can to help the caribou. That first Gwich’in Gathering, that’s how it started… because if they drill up there in their calving grounds, there is going to be a disaster.”

On the way to the Gwich’in Gathering.

In 2015, I did a month-long ski expedition with a good friend in late winter to photograph the caribou on their way to their calving grounds. The trip started out in Old Crow, a small fly-in Gwichi’n community above the Arctic Circle in Northern Canada. In Old Crow, we heard from the people how the caribou hadn’t come in the fall or during the winter and it was really hard on the people.

During the ski trip, thousands of caribou were travelling North, far above Old Crow and into our path. One day the bull caribou suddenly separated from the cows, and those bulls went hundreds of kilometres out of their way and straight down to Old Crow. The people were happy, and they got lots of caribou. It was like the caribou bulls gave themselves to the Gwich’in. After they passed by Old Crow, the bulls looped back North and headed straight to the calving grounds. On a map, it looks like a 100-kilometre horseshoe detour to visit Old Crow.

In November 2017, the U.S. government opened the calving and nursing grounds of the Porcupine Caribou herd to Oil and Gas Development. The Gwich’in call this place Izhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, meaning the Sacred Place Where Life Begins.

The story is from Peter Mather’s upcoming book Caribou People.