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Gwich’in

The Gwich'in (sometimes rendered as Kutchin or Gwitchin), literally "one who dwells" and "I think", are a First Nations/Alaska Native people who live in the northwestern part of North America mostly above the Arctic Circle. The Gwichʼin were also known by the French name of Loucheux or Loucheaux in historical documents, as well as the Tukudh used by missionaries. Gwich'in often self reference using the term "Dinjii Zhuu" instead of Gwich'in. Dinjii Zhuu figuratively translates as "the Humble People."

Gwich'in language

Many Gwichʼin speak their indigenous Gwichʼin language, which is in the Athabaskan language family. There are two main dialects of Gwich'in; eastern and western, which are delineated roughly at the United States and Canadian border. Each village has unique dialectical differences, idioms, and expressions that are favored as well.

Gwich'in Tribes and Clans

There are many different bands or tribes of Gwich'in including, but not limited to: Denduu, Draanjik, Shoo Draanjik, Di'haii, Gwichyaa, K'iitl'it, Neetsaii, Teetl'it, Teetsii, Tanan, Han, and Vantut.

In addition there are three major clan variations across Gwich'in Country. There are two primary clans and one that has a lower/secondary status. The first clan are the "Nantsaii", which literally translates as "First on the land", the second clan are the "Chits'aa" which translates as "The helpers" (second on the land). The last clan is called the "Tenjeraatsaii", which translates as "the untouchables" or "independents". This last clan is reserved for people who marry within their own clan, which is considered incestual, and in a lesser degree for those who are the children of people who are outside of the clan system. In ancient times this would also refer to the children of "Naa'in", people who were expelled from the tribe due to committing a crime. In modern times "Tenjeraatsaii" is also applied to Gwich'in children who are born to white, black, or Asian, mothers, and is used in a non-derogatory way. These mothers simply fall outside of the clan system. In other times, prior to 1900, being a Tenjeraatsaii automatically placed a Gwich'in at the third lowest rung of the social ladder and were ostracized. The second lowest rung was reserved for war-captured slaves. The lowest social status was that of a banished Naa'in. Banishment is still practiced in current times due to the lack of enforcement of American or Canadian law in rural areas, and is enforced by the aggrieved clan and/or band.

Current politics

Caribou is traditionally a major component of their diet. Many Gwichʼin people are dependent on the Porcupine caribou which herd calves on the coastal plain in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Gwichʼin people have been very active in protesting and lobbying against the possibility of oil drilling in ANWR, due to fears that oil drilling will deplete the population of the Porcupine Caribou herd which they rely on for nutritional and cultural needs. Gwich'in have also actively protested the development of oil in the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, and a proposed land trade from the United States Wildlife Refuge system and Doyon Inc..

The Gwich'in are well known for the construction of snowshoes, birchbark canoes, and the two way sled. Today the economy is mostly a mix of hunting, fishing, and seasonal wage paying employment.

There are approximately 9,000 Gwich'in in 15 small communities in the Northwest Territories and the Yukon Territory of Canada, and in northern Alaska. Gwichʼin communities include:

Oral History, Stories

The Gwich'in have a strong oral tradition of storytelling that has only recently begun to be written in the modern orthography. Gwich'in folk stories include the Vadzaagiitsak cycle (literally, "His Younger Brother Became Snagged"), which focuses on the comical adventures of a Gwich'in misfit who, among other things, battles lice on a giant's head, plays the fool to the cunning fox, and eats the scab from his own anus unknowingly. Gwich'in comedies often contain bawdy humor. Other major characters from the Gwich'in oral tradition include: Googhwaii, Ool Ti', K'aihinjik, K'iizhazhal, and Shaanyaati'.

There are numerous folk tales about prehistoric times that all begin with the phrase "Deenaadai'", which translates roughly as "In the ancient days". This is usually followed with the admission that this was "when all of the people could talk to the animals, and all of the animals could speak with the people". These stories are often parables, which suggest a proper protocol, or code of behavior for Gwich'in. Equality, generosity, hard work, kindness, mercy, cooperation for mutual success, and just revenge are often the themes of stories such as: Tsyaa Too Oozhrii Gwizhit (The Boy In The Moon), Zhoh Ts'a Nahtryaa (The Wolf and the Wolverine), Vadzaih Luk Haa (The Caribou and the Fish).

Spiritual Belief, Traditional and Contemporary

Overview

The Gwich'in historically had a religious tradition similar to that described as animism. The way of viewing the world was strongly steeped in a natural mysticism. Magical, and mystical, knowledge to traditional Gwich'in is considered natural and not requiring belief by anyone for its inherent truth. Communication with animals for mutual benefit among the Gwich'in is widely acknowledged. Traditionally the Gwich'in had no concept of "K'eegwadhat", or God. Everything in the world: air, stone, water, fire, plant, or animal, possesses spirit or a life-force. Time, mortality, and space are often manipulated according to traditional Gwich'in religion. Common spiritual foes of the Gwich'in shaman in ancient times, and who were considered to be especially powerful as spiritual people, were the Inupiat of the Kobuk river valley, and the Cree Indians of Canada. This division has since been mended however, with little conflict in modern times. Great distance and isolation did not hinder their communication or mutual animosity according to Gwich'in oral tradition. A common example of low level Gwich'in power is the Gwich'in hunter who has been known to dream of an animal in a specific place; upon going to this place the animal will be there waiting for the hunter. Among the Gwich'in this is considered somewhat common. Important figures, in recent times, who represented traditional belief structures are: Johnny and Sarah Frank, Shaanyaati', and Cheegwalti'.

Afterlife

Traditionally the Gwich'in afterlife consisted of a country where the flora and fauna were plentiful. Even the flowers were thought to sing in the afterlife. The eternal life was reached by emptying oneself of all possessions mental, emotional, physical, historical and spiritual. Failing to behave appropriately in a system similar to karma was commonly considered the main hindrance to people's attainment of an afterlife. Positive deeds could empty oneself in preparation for death. When people die, they face a series of tests that they must pass in order to attain admittance into the afterlife; otherwise they are stuck on earth to possibly be reborn again. If a person has any attachment, possibly only negative attachment, to the qualities of their personal life he or she will not pass the tests. Only individuals themselves can determine if they are ready to move on. The Gwich'in did not believe in any spiritual intermediaries such as priests. Every individual is responsible for their own spiritual enlightenment, and spiritual interpretation of experiences. "Dinjii Dazhan" (magical humans or shaman) were merely considered humans that were exceptionally gifted and thereby powerful in some aspect of life. They were held in high regard and, in some cases, were greatly feared. Contemporary belief structures have changed Gwich'in society however.

Contemporary Influences

The introduction of Christianity in the 1840's throughout Gwich'in territory produced spiritual changes that are still widely in effect today. Widespread conversion to Christianity, specifically Episcopalianism and Catholicism is widely recognized among the Gwich'in. Notable figures in the missionary movement among the Gwich'in are Archdeacon Hudson Stuck, Archdeacon Alexander Hunter Murray, Deacon William Loola, and Deacon Albert Tritt. The current traditional chiefs of two Gwich'in villages are also Episcopal priests: Rev. Chief David Salmon of Chalkytsik, and the Rev. Chief Trimble Gilbert of Arctic Village.

The Tukudh Bible is a translation of the entire King James Bible into Gwich'in. The Tukudh Bible is in a century old orthography that is not very accurate, and thus hard to read. In the 1960's Richard Mueller designed a new orthography for Gwich'in, which has now become standard.

Further reading

  • Andre, Alestine, and Alan Fehr. Gwich'in Ethnobotany: Plants Used by the Gwich'in for Food, Medicine, Shelter and Tools. Tsiigehtchic, N.W.T.: Gwich'in Social and Cultural Institute, 2001. ISBN 189633704X
  • Balikci, Asen. Vunta Kutchin Social Change: A Study of the People of the Old Crow, Yukon Territory. Ottawa, Ont: Northern Co-ordination and Research Centre, Dept. of Northern Affairs and National Resources, 1963.
  • Bass, Rick. Caribou Rising: Defending the Porcupine Herd, Gwich-'in Culture, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge / Rick Bass. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2004.
  • Gilbert, Matthew. 2007. "Farewell, Sweet Ice - Hunters Feel the Heat in Gwich'in Country". The Nation. 284, no. 18: 26.
  • Heine, Michael K. Gwichya Gwich'in Googwandak: The History and Stories of the Gwichya Gwich'i ; As Told by the Elders of Tsiigehtchic. Tsiigehtchic, N.W.T.: Gwich'in Social and Cultural Institute, 2001. ISBN 1896337058
  • Kirkby, W. W. The Kutchin or Loucheux Indians. [London: Seeley], 1863.
  • Leechman, Douglas. The Vanta Kutchin. 1954.
  • McKennan, Robert A. The Chandalar Kutchin. 1965.
  • Morlan, Richard E. The Cadzow Lake Site (MjVi-1): A Multi-Component Historic Kutchin Camp. Mercury series. Ottawa: Archaeological Survey of Canada, National Museum of Man, National Museums of Canada, 1972.
  • Nelson, Richard K. Hunters of the Northern Forest: Designs for Survival Among the Alaskan Kutchin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973. ISBN 1578051142 0226571777
  • Rogers, Thomas J. Physical Activities of the Kutchin Athabaskan Indians of Interior Alaska and Northern Canada. 1978.
  • Slobodin, Richard. Band Organization of the Peel River Kutchin. Ottawa: Dept. of Northern Affairs and National Resources, 1962.
  • Thompson, Judy, and Ingrid Kritsch. Yeenoo Dài' K'è'tr'ijilkai' Ganagwaandaii = Long Ago Sewing We Will Remember : the Story of the Gwich'in Traditional Caribou Skin Clothing Project. Mercury series. Gatineau, Québec: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 2005. ISBN 0660195089
  • Wallis, Velma. Two Old Women. An Alaskan Legend Of Betrayal, Courage And Survival, Harper Collins, 1993

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