The Gwichyaa Gwich’in people live in the Yukon Flats area of Alaska, USA. This includes the Fort Yukon (originally “Gwicyaa Zhee”; translation: “house on the Flats”) area on both banks of the Yukon River from Birch Creek to Porcupine River;, the Senati area of the middle Yukon River, and Venetie.
Official Tribal Name: Gwichya Gwich’in First Nation
Address: PO Box 126, Fort Yukon, AK 99740
Band Number: 753
Gwich’in often refer to themselves by the term Dinjii Zhuu instead of Gwich’in. Dinjii Zhuu literally translates as “Small People,” but figuratively it refers to all Indians, not just Gwich’in.
Formerly known as “The Native Village of Fort Yukon,” the Tribal Government serves the Gwich’in people of Fort Yukon, Alaska.
The Gwichyaa Gwich’in have been known by many other names, including: Eert-kai-lee (1892), Fort Indians, Ik-kil-lin (1892), Itohali (11th Census, Alaska, 1893), It-kagh-lie, It-ka-lyariiin (1877), I’t-ka-lyi, Itkpe’lit (1876), Itkpeleit, Itku’dlln, Koo-cha-koo-chin (1866), Kot-a-Kutchin (1874), Kotch-a-Kutchins (1869), Kouehca Kouttohin (1891), KutchaaKuttchin (1865), Kutcha-kutchl (1851), Kutch a Kutchin (1862), Kutchia-Kuttehin (1876), Kutsha-Kutahi (1854), Lowland people (1869), Na-Kotchpo-tsohig-Kouttchin (1891), O-til’-tin (1887), Toukon Louchioux Indians, Yukon Flats Kutchin (1936).
Their name is sometimes spelled Kutchin or Gwitchin and translates as “one who dwells” or “resident of [a region].” Historically, the French called the Gwich’in Loucheux (“squinters”), as well as the Tukudh, a term also used by Anglican missionaries.
Alternate spelling: Kutchakutchin, translation: “those who dwell on the Flats.”
Geographic Region: Yukon River Basins in the Western Sub-Arctic
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Approximately 9,000 Gwich’in live in 15 small communities in the Northwest Territories and the Yukon Territory of Canada, and in northern Alaska.
Clans / Moieties:
Three major clans survive from antiquity across Gwich’in lands. Two are primary clans and the third 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’yaa which translates as “The helpers” (second on the land). The last clan is called the Tenjeraatsaii, which translates as “In the middle” or “independents”.
This last clan is reserved for people who marry within their own clan, which is considered incestual. To a lesser degree, it is for 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. It also applied to the children of mothers who simply fell outside of the clan system.
Prior to 1900, being a Tenjeraatsaii automatically placed a Gwich’in at the third-lowest rung of the social ladder. They were to some degree ostracized. The second-lowest rung was reserved for war-captured slaves.
The lowest social status was that of a banished Naa’in or bushman. The clan system is no longer well known or used among the Gwich’in.
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Their dwellings were made of deerskins pieced together over curved poles in the shape of inverted teacups.
Men cooked while women performed other tasks.
Because they lacked pottery, the Gwichyaa’s used other materials such as wood, matting, horns, or bark. Wooden troughs functioned as dishes while horns functioned as drinking pieces. Kettles were obtained from the Hankutchin.
The Gwich’in language, part of the Athabaskan language family, has two main dialects, eastern and western, which are delineated roughly at the United States-Canada border. Each village has unique dialect differences, idioms, and expressions.
Approximately 300 Alaskan Gwich’in speak their language, according to the Alaska Native Language Center. However, according to the UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, Gwich’in is now a “severely endangered” language, with fewer than 150 fluent speakers in Alaska and another 250 in northwest Canada.
Religion / Spirituality:
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’eegwaadhat, 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 of Canada.
This division has since been mended, 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; when he goes to this place, the animal will be there waiting for the hunter. Among the Gwich’in, this is considered a somewhat common incident.
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 help a person become empty in preparation for death. When a person dies, the individual faces a series of tests to pass in order to attain admittance into the afterlife; otherwise he/she is stuck on earth, possibly to 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 can determine if she is ready to move on.
The Gwich’in did not believe in any spiritual intermediaries such as priests. Each person is responsible for their own spiritual enlightenment, and spiritual interpretation of experiences.
Dinjii Dazhan (magical humans or shamans) were considered humans who 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. The introduction of Christianity in the 1840s throughout Gwich’in territory produced spiritual changes that are still widely in effect today.
Widespread conversion to Christianity, as influenced by Anglican and Catholic missionaries, led to these as the two dominant Christian sects among the Gwich’in.
The Takudh Bible is a translation of the entire King James Bible into Gwich’in. The Takudh Bible is in a century-old orthography that is not very accurate, and thus hard to read. In the 1960s Richard Mueller designed a new orthography for Gwich’in, which has now become the standard
Hodge described the Kutchakutchin as being partially nomadic. Their traditional livelihood was based on hunting and trapping. After the introduction of the trading post, the Gwichyaa became traders as well.
Their standard of value was the Nakieik, a string of beads 7 ft (2.1 m). A string’s value was equivalent to one or more beaver skin.
Caribou are an integral part of First Nations and Inuit oral histories and legends including the Gwich’in creation story of how Gwich’in people and the caribou separated from a single entity.
There is a stable population of woodland caribou throughout a large portion of the Gwich’in Settlement Area and woodland caribou are an important food source for Gwich’in although they harvest them less than other caribou.
Gwich’in living in Inuvik, Aklavik, Fort McPherson, and Tsiigehtchic harvest woodland caribou but not as much as other caribou.
The Gwich’in prefer to hunt Porcupine caribou or the barren-ground Blue Nose herd, who travel in large herds, when they are available. Many hunters claim that woodland caribou that form very small groups, are wilder, both hard to see and hard to hunt. They are very smart, cunning and elusive.
The caribou vadzaih is the cultural symbol and a keystone subsistence species of the Gwich’in, just as the buffalo is to the Plains Indians.
Elders have identified at least 150 descriptive Gwich’in names for all of the bones, organs, and tissues.”
Associated with the caribou’s anatomy are not just descriptive Gwich’in names for all of the body parts including bones, organs, and tissues as well as “an encyclopedia of stories, songs, games, toys, ceremonies, traditional tools, skin clothing, personal names and surnames, and a highly developed ethnic cuisine.”
Caribou is traditionally a major component of their diet. Many Gwichʼin people are dependent on the Porcupine caribou herd which 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.
For similar reasons, 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, Limited.
Present-day Gwichyaa Gwich’in rely on hunting (bear, caribou, moose, waterfowl) and fishing (salmon, whitefish) for subsistence. They make an income from trapping and selling handicrafts.
The Gwichyaa Gwich’in are the easternmost of the Gwich’in groups.
In addition to the Kutchakutchin, there were four other main Kutchin groups in the upper Yukon-Porcupine regions: the Han (Hän Hwëch’in) (erroneously as Hankutchin grouped as an Kutchin group, upper Yukon), the Natsikutchin (Chandalar River drainage), the Tranjikutchin (Black River), and the Ventakutchin (Crow River area).
Two bands of the main tribe are extinct, the Tatsakutchin of Rampart, Alaska and Tennuthkutchin of Birch Creek.
In 1827, Hudson’s Bay Company Chief Factor, Peter Warren Dease gathered information from the Gwichyaa Gwich’in. They told him that no other tribe but themselves frequent the Peel River and that they come upstream in barges every year as far as Arctic Red River for trade. In 1928, Mooney estimated the 1740 population to be 500.
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