Learning with the Gwich’in “caribou people” in Alaska

Gwich'in Village, Alaska. Photo by Brendan O'Brien.

Soon after the youngsters and I reached the top of the mountain, an elder who had been hunting caribou stopped by. The kids quickly settled down. “I just saw three caribou,” the elder said. “They were the first I’ve seen this season. In the old days there would be so many here by this time. But there are fewer and fewer each year.”

Such doses of reality remind us why we chose land conservation as a career. Working in The Wilderness Society’s Anchorage office, I try to spend at least some of my time in the wild places that we want to protect. So in August I went to Arctic Village with my colleague Brendan O’Brien to teach students about wildlife habitat, ecosystems, and how climate change may affect their daily lives.

This village lies along the southern boundary of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It is home to several hundred Gwich’in, Athabascan Indians who call themselves “the caribou people” because of the central role that this animal plays in their diet and culture. Rural native communities like Arctic Village maintain a subsistence way of life, obtaining most of what they need from the land and wildlife. One of our goals was to share ecological knowledge that will help them sustain this culture despite dramatic changes in the natural world.

To show the youngsters the interdependence of caribou with their environment, we played a game called “Oh Caribou!” The kids loved it, especially when they get to play the role of a predator!

The Gwich’in have had an important voice in protecting the Arctic Refuge from oil and gas drilling. The children understood that development on the coastal plain would reduce important calving habitat of the Porcupine Caribou Herd. This could decrease the herd’s population and shift migration routes away from Arctic Village

Wendy Loya sharing at a tundra break, Alaska. Photo by Brendan O'Brien.

Now the Gwich’in are wondering how climate change might affect the herd and its habitat. The climate is becoming drier, which may be killing spruce trees and increasing the intensity of fires, and caribou avoid burned areas for decades. Increased temperatures and drying are also making the rivers warmer and slower, thus threatening fish populations that Gwich’in people also depend on.

You certainly couldn’t ask for a more beautiful classroom. The backdrop to the north was the majestic Brooks Range, and as fall began to take hold — even though it was still August — the tundra featured wonderful shades of red and yellow.

Of course, Brendan and I learned a lot, too. Our teachers included the village elders and the kids themselves. One elder taught us traditional ways to catch fish, using a willow branch as a snare. We also got an education on the tastes of local delicacies, such as arctic ground squirrel. Its flavor resembles turkey.

Our visit was arranged by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges. I had volunteered at science camps twice before, serving at two other refuges. I treasure the opportunity to help the next generation understand its relationship to nature. It was hard to leave, but I plan to visit this wonderful place and the students again. Meantime, we will continue to do all we can to protect the caribou’s habitat so that they, too, will return.

Gwich'in Village, Alaska. Photo by Brendan O'Brien.
Wendy Loya sharing at a tundra break, Alaska. Photo by Brendan O'Brien.