ARCTIC VILLAGE, Alaska — To understand the relationship between the indigenous Gwich’in who live in this village near the edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the massive caribou herd that migrates through their land, you might start in February with a ride on the back of Charlie Swaney’s old snowmobile.
Motor past his sled-dog yard and head along a trail that leads out of the village through the powdery snow. After 15 minutes, you’ll reach a wide frozen lake, and he’ll slow down, so as not to scare the animals. There might have been 50 caribou along the distant shoreline on a recent afternoon. This time of year, they dig through the snow with their shovel-shaped hooves, looking for lichen.
Swaney silences the engine, gets off, swings the rifle off his back and examines the line of animal shapes through his scope. Pop! The herd scatters, leaving one female down. Soon Swaney is kneeling next to it with his knife. Head comes off first. Then the skin, beginning with a gentle slit down the white belly. Gwich’in have been hunting caribou in this area for thousands of years.
“You got to respect the animal, because that’s how you eat,” Swaney says as he pulls hide from muscle. You don’t take too many, he says. What you don’t eat, you feed to the dogs, he says.
“Respect is the main thing.”
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Photos for this story by Nathaniel Wilder.
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