Kutchin (Native Americans of the Subarctic)

Kutchin (Ku chin) or Gwich’in, "People." The Kutchin were a group of tribes or bands who called themselves by various names, each having the suffix "-kutchin." The name of one band—Tukkuth, or "People of the Slanting Eyes"—was translated by the French to Loucheux, a name now commonly used to designate the Kutchin people. Their self-designation is Dindjie, "person." They were culturally related to the Han, Tutchone, and Tanana and were culturally influenced by the Inuit as well as the Tlingit.

Location Kutchin territory is the Peel River Basin to its junction with the Mackenzie River as well as the Yukon River drainage (Alaska and Yukon).

Population The Kutchin population, between 3,000 and 5,000 in the eighteenth century, declined to around 1,300 in the mid-nineteenth century and around 700 in the mid-1970s. In the mid-1990s there were around 2,000 Gwich’in people in Canada and an additional 600 in Alaska.

Language Kutchin people spoke dialects of Kutchin, a Northern Athapaskan language.

Historical Information

History Kutchin people encountered the Mackenzie expedition in 1789. The North West Company founded Fort Good Hope in 1806; other trading posts followed in 1839 (Fort MacPherson) and 1847 (Fort Yukon). Fur trapping gained in importance among the people during the nineteenth century. Catholic and Protestant (Church of England) missions worked in Kutchin territory from the mid-nineteenth century on. Missionaries introduced a system of reading and writing (called Tukudh) in the 1870s.

Major epidemics stalked the people during the 1860s and 1870s, and again in 1897 and into the twentieth century. Many Kutchins left their immediate region to take advantage of the local whaling boom at the end of the nineteenth century.

The Klondike gold rush (1896) brought an influx of non-natives into the region, many of whom abused the Indians and stole their land. Religious residential schools existed from 1905.

Religion Shamans acquired spiritual power through fasting and dreaming. They could foretell the future, cure illness, and control the weather. They were quite powerful in the west but less so in the east. In general, most people seldom came in "official" contact with the shamans.

Spirits inhabiting nature were mollified with offerings of beads. Hunters prayed to moon-related deities, offering pieces of caribou fat thrown into the fire. Ceremonial feasts, including singing and dancing, were held on various occasion. The main ceremonies revolved around life-cycle events, lunar eclipses, and memorial potlatches. There was a general fear of giants and other monsters. Bear and caribou were considered to be especially deserving of respect, in part owing to a supposed physical connection (shared hearts) between people and caribou.

Government Kutchin bands included the Kutcha (Yukon Flats), Nakotcho (Mackenzie Flats or Arctic Red River), Natsit (Chandalor River), Tatlit (Peel River), Tennuth (Birch Creek), Tukkuth (Upper Porcupine River), Tranjik (Black River), Vunta (Crow Flats), and Dihai (Downriver People).

Tribal chiefs were chosen for their leadership qualities or wealth. In some cases the positions were hereditary, but leaders had no real power. Local groups (two or so extended families) lived in a defined area and used its resources.

Customs Animal-associated matrilineal clans declined in importance from west to east. The clans had marriage and ceremonial functions, playing significant roles in feasts and games. There were three social classes that may have been ranked: the "dark people" (Crow), "fair people" (Wolf), and "halfway people" (no crest). There were also some slaves, although they probably were not purchased. Among the distinct socioeconomic levels, the wealthy were considered better in every way.

Women carried babies in their coats or in birch-bark containers. They also performed most hard work (except for cooking, which men did) and ate only after the men had finished. Women generally selected husbands for their daughters. Female infants, as well as the elderly, were sometimes killed. From shortly before puberty until marriage, young men moved away from their parents to live in a lodge with other such young men. This was a period of self-denial and skill sharpening. Men without family might attach themselves to other families as servants.

Young women were segregated during their menstrual periods. At that time they observed many taboos, such as not looking at others, designed to prevent others being "contaminated" by their "condition." The dead were cremated. Their ashes were hung in bags from poles or, if the person were particularly influential, placed in coffins in trees until decayed and then burned. Relatives destroyed their property and cut their bodies.

Hospitality was a key value. The nuclear family was the basic unit, but grandparents might sleep in a lodge near the family and spend a lot of time with them. Items of value included dentalium shell beads, wolverine skins, and caribou products. Rich men of certain tribes gave potlatches but usually only at funerals. Everyone enjoyed singing, dancing, games, and contests. Games included stick and hand games, ball games, and athletic contests. Witches were greatly feared.

Dwellings Dome-shaped, caribou-skin tents were stretched over curved spruce poles painted red. These portable lodges were about 12 to 14 feet long and 6 to 8 feet high. There was a smoke hole at the top, fir boughs for flooring, and bough and snow insulation. Some groups covered the lodges with birch bark rather than caribou skin. Some groups built semisubterranean dwellings of moss blocks covering a wood frame, with gabled roofs. When traveling, men sometimes built dugout snow houses glazed with fire.

Diet Fishing took place mainly in summer. Pike and whitefish were important fish species. There were salmon along the Yukon River and moose along its banks. Men hunted mainly caribou but also moose, hare, beaver, muskrat, and other game. Dogs often assisted in the hunt. People also ate waterfowl and plant foods, such as berries, rhubarb, and roots.

Key Technology Many items were derived from the caribou. Bows, generally of birch, were made in several sections and bound with sinew or willow shoots. Men hunted with bows and arrows, deadfalls, and babiche snares. They also used caribou pounds or corrals. Fishing equipment included hooks, lures, spears, dip nets, and willow baskets.

Other important items included wooden and birch-bark trays, woven spruce and tamarack-root baskets and cooking vessels, and other containers made of bent wood and birch bark. There were any number of tools with which to work hides, bone, and wood. Blades were mostly of stone and bone. Musical instruments included wooden gongs, drums, and willow whistles.

Trade Trade partners included the Tanana, the Koyukon, the Inuvialuit, and the Inupiat as well as the Tlingit. Imported dentalium shell was used as a currency. The people also imported some copper blades. As intermediaries, they relayed Arctic coast oil, bon, and tusks to inland groups. They exported furs even before contact with non-natives.

Notable Arts Containers and clothing were decorated with porcupine quills. Skins were finely tanned.

Transportation Sleds were made with high-framed runners, which might be covered with bone or frozen sod coated with water or blood. Inuit-style birch-bark canoes had flat bottoms and nearly straight sides. The people also used moose-skin canoes, toboggans, and particularly well-made long, narrow snowshoes with babiche netting.

Dress Most clothing came from white caribou skin as well as furs. Shirts were pointed both front and rear. Wide (Inuit-style) leggings attached to moccasins were beaded or embroidered with porcupine-quill designs along the sides. Winter gear included long mittens, headbands, fur hats, and winter hoods. Most clothing was fringed and/or decorated with seeds or dentalium shell beads and/or painted and embroidered with porcupine quills.

Both sexes, but especially men, wore quill and dentalium shell personal ornamentation. Men also skewered their noses; women simply wore nose decorations. People took particular care with their hair. Men applied a large amount of grease and wore it in a ball at the neck, covered with bird down and feathers. They also painted their faces red and black. Women tattooed lines on their chins.

War and Weapons The Kutchin were a relatively aggressive people. Kutchin enemies included the Inuvialuit and Inupiat and sometimes the Tanana and the Koyukon Indians. Enemies, with the occasional exception of young women, were generally killed. There was some ritual cannibalism.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations Alaska Kutchins live in villages such as Arctic Village, Chalkyitsik, Circle, and Venetie. Some of these villages are shared with Inuits. Fort Yukon, Alaska, ranks as a town, the only Gwich’in population center to boast of the presence of roads. Villages corporations with elected boards of directors administer Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) assets.

Economy Most people still rely on traditional subsistence activities as well as fur trapping and barter.

Legal Status According to the terms of the Dene/Metis Western Arctic Land Claim Agreement (1992), the Dene surrendered aboriginal and treaty rights in return for surface rights on about 24,000 square kilometers of land, some subsurface rights, and about $75 million in cash as well as hunting and fishing rights. The groups also participate in decision making about renewable resources, land use planning, and other environmental and development issues. In the early 1990s, the Mackenzie Delta Gwich’in broke away from the Dene Nation and Metis Association over this issue. They concluded a separate agreement with the Canadian government in 1991 for land and cash. Most Kutchin became members of the Doyon Corporation under the ANCSA.

The Vuntut Gwitch’in First Nation is included in an umbrella land claims settlement (1993) with the Council of Yukon First Nations. Its terms are similar to those of other Canadian/First Nation land claims settlements: land, a mixture of surface and subsurface rights, cash, and participation in the overall decision-making process concerning development, land use, and other environmental issues.

Daily Life Some groups live in small wood-frame houses. Although some have access to modern inventions such as snowmobiles, televisions, and satellite dishes, more than most other Indians the Kutchin have been able to retain a semiaboriginal lifestyle and culture, including religious beliefs, to a considerable degree (although less so in Fort Yukon). Most are fluent in English, although there are efforts to retain the native language. The people are fighting to maintain the health and existence of the Porcupine caribou herd, which is threatened by development-related resource destruction.

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