Project Summary

Linguistic Ethnography:
Gwich'in Caribou Anatomy and Cultural Ecology
Funded by the National Science Foundation*

The research objective of our project is to discover what the Gwich'in Athabaskan people, as a small-scale subarctic society, can teach the entire country through their language and world view about living in close harmony with the land and with the wild game animals they share it with. To realize this goal we have interviewed active hunters and elders in their home communities of Fort Yukon, Venetie, Arctic Village, and Fairbanks, Alaska (Year One), and in the Canadian community of Old Crow (Year Two).  We are currently processing all of our field recordings. Processing means transcribing, translating, and editing (Year Three).

A fundamental question for this research is not only what do the Gwich'in know about caribou anatomy, but how do they see caribou and what do they say and believe about caribou that defines themselves, their dietary and nutritional needs, and their subsistence way of life? Language is the key which opens the door.

Associated with the caribou's anatomy are not just descriptive Gwich'in names for all of the bones, organs, and tissues, but an encyclopedia of stories, songs, games, toys, ceremonies, tools, clothing, personal names and surnames, and a highly developed ethnic cuisine.

Recording the traditional ethnoscientific knowledge Gwich'in elders have about caribou in their oral narratives and in their hunting lexicon has far-reaching implications for zooarchaeology, for applied linguistics, and for folklore and cultural anthropology. It is an empirical approach which essentially weds natural science with the humanities, osteology with verbal art.

A major major goal is to map Gwich'in local knowledge about caribou (Rangifer tarandus) and moose (Alces alces) as keystone subsistence species, using still cameras, videography, field notes, structured interviews, and participant observation. Narrative texts and lexical data will be prepared for publication.  This web site is a preview of the book we have in mind down the road.  

Because Gwich'in is an endangered language, the involvement of elders, adults, and youth is essential to keeping the language alive for at least another generation and to recruiting new language learners. We hope you are one of these learners and we welcome your suggestions to make this site better and more interactive.  We believe our research activities allow the Gwich'in to have a louder voice in scientific research and in their own education.

*Please note that the views expressed on this web site reflect those of the Project Team and do not necessarily represent those of the National Science Foundation.