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ETHNONYMS: Quarrellers, Sharp Eyes, Squint-eyed Tribe, Loucheux, Koochin, Kootchin, Kutchin, Gwitchin


Identification and Location. The northernmost Indians in North America, the Gwich'in live in Alaska and Canada's Northwest and Yukon Territories, straddling the Arctic Circle between roughly 65° and 69° North latitude, and 130° and 150° West longitude. This region consists largely of boreal forest, taiga, and alpine tundra biomes, and is dominated by permafrost and continental climate with long winters and short, surprisingly warm summers. Alexander Mackenzie, the first person of European descent to record his impressions of the Gwich'in, called them Quarrellers, because of their guttural, vociferous speech and oratorical proclivities. French-speaking fur traders called eastern bands of Gwich'in "Loucheux," a translation of the Chipewyan word for them (yeux louches, "eyes that squint"). The ethnonyms Koochin, Kootchin, Kutchin, Gwitchin, and Gwich'in are derived from gwich'in, which is used in conjunction with a place word to identify people or dwellers who live in a particular location, for example, Teetl'it Gwich'in, "people of the head of the waters," Vantat (Vuntut) Gwich'in, "people among the lakes." The Gwich'in self-designation is dinjii zhyuh, or "person, Indian." After 1970, Gwich'in developed steadily as the preferred ethnonym. Despite social and cultural variations among regional bands, the Gwich'in are culturally and linguistically distinct from their neighbors, the K'ashot'ine, Shihta Got'ine, Tutchone, Han, Tanana, Koyukon, and Inuvialuit and Inupiat Eskimos.

Demography. From a mid-eighteenth century total of around 5,400, the population of the Gwich'in plunged because of epidemic diseases to below 1,000 in the late-nineteenth century. Female infanticide further decreased Gwich'in population through the late-nineteenth century. One century later in the 1990s, around 3,000 Gwich'in lived in their traditional territory; because of constant emigration in the second half of the twentieth century, many others lived outside the region.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Gwich'in speak a Northern Athapaskan language, a well-defined complex of dialects with high mutual intelligibility yet internal variation in lexicon, morphology, stem nasalization, and other features. Gwich'in is clearly set apart from other Athapaskan languages. In the 1970s a concerted effort began to develop a modern orthography and curricular materials for children, many of whom understood but could not speak Gwich'in. In the 1990s there were about seven hundred Gwich'in speakers.

History and Cultural Relations

Eighteenth century Gwich'in conceived of their history through the cycle of tales in which Raven, a trickster, transformer, and creator figured in the genesis of land, the sun, man, and woman, as well as through other tales about cultural heroes. Archaeologists trace a 7,0009,000 year succession of big-game hunters and fishers in the Subarctic, which includes a firm Gwich'in tradition during the last millennium. People of European descent first encountered the Gwich'in in the late eighteenth century. Since that time the Gwich'in have increasingly been drawn into the orbit of societies whose reach has become global. From 18061858 the Gwich'in encountered explorers and fur traders who introduced not only guns, beads, kettles, axes, and cloth, but also new devastating microbes against which the Gwich'in had no immunity. After mid-century, Anglican and Oblate missionaries interested in saving souls sought to eliminate much of the traditional culture including songs, dances, potlatches, shamans, infanticide, polygyny, and polyandry.

In the early-twentieth century, the Canadian government turned its attention to northern peoples including the Gwich'in, signing a 1921 treaty exchanging entitlements for aboriginal rights and later initiating trapping territories for perceived benefits of individual management.

The second half of the twentieth century marked intense national interest in further directing Gwich'in lives and controlling Gwich'in energy resources. The Canadian government expanded formal education to embrace village but not bush social life, and increased wage labor opportunity, family allowances, old-age pensions, and other transfer payments. In response, the Gwich'in have tried to assert more control over their own lives and placed a heightened value on education, commodities, and jobs. In the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, Alaskan Gwich'in relinquished their aboriginal rights in exchange for cash, and in the early 1990s settled outstanding land claims in the Yukon and Northwest Territories. In 2002, the issues of highest concern involve natural resource development, including sustainable timber and wildlife harvests, control over transportation of natural gas through their territory (which Gwich'in favor), and drilling for oil in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (which they oppose).


The Gwich'in were traditionally distributed in nine or ten regional bands. Each band split into smaller local bands or task groups according to its goals in subsistence, trapping, feuding, war, and trade, and these smaller groups reformed for communal hunting or fishing. Some of these groupings were unstable in membership, while others were relatively fixed. Some were highly mobile and others were more sedentary; by the twentieth century, some bands were quite permanent and localized. After traders arrived between 1806 and 1840, Gwich'in assembled at the posts of Fort Good Hope on the Mackenzie River, south of Gwich'in territory, and after 1840, Fort McPherson on the Peel River and Fort Yukon at the confluence of the Porcupine and Yukon rivers.

In the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the number of bands declined due to population loss from epidemic diseases. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, major Gwich'in communities could be found at Fort McPherson and Fort Yukon, and others in the villages of Venetie, Beaver, Arctic Village, Chalkyitsik, Circle, and Birch Creek in Alaska, Old Crow in Yukon Territory, and Tsiigehtchic in the Northwest Territories. Gwich'in have also been attracted to communities outside their traditional territory, including Aklavik and Inuvik in the Mackenzie Delta.

The aboriginal Gwich'in lived in gabled moss-covered, semi-subterranean houses of wood and moss in fall and early winter, and made use of skin-covered semi-spherical lodges in other seasons; they also made lean-tos and specialized structures such as conical puberty shelters. In the twentieth century (after traders and missionaries arrived with iron tools, twine, guns, and new ideas) the Gwich'in abandoned traditional structures for bush-based log cabins, canvas tents, and (in the late twentieth century) town-based prefabricated housing. Through time, they altered their annual cycle to include longer stays at trading and mission posts for exchange and religious days. After 1950, important changes relating to education in schools caused towns to become the primary locus of family and community life; henceforth, the Gwich'in confined family time in the bush mainly to spring muskrat hunting and summer fishing.


Subsistence. Depending on season and regional band, the Gwich'in focused energy on hunting caribou, moose, and other large animals, and a variety of small animals like beaver, muskrat, porcupine, rabbit, and birds; fishing for salmon (Yukon drainage), whitefish, inconnu, trout, grayling, and loche; and gathering berries. With snares and deadfalls (and later, steel traps), they trapped beaver, marten, muskrat, lynx, mink, fox, otter, wolverine, and other animalsmainly for their pelts, but some for consumption as well. In summer the Gwich'in tended to fish, gather berries, and kill birds in molt; in late summer and fall, they hunted caribou and moose; and in winter and spring, they trapped and hunted. Small family- or partner-based groups carried out activities like fishing and trapping, while large gatherings of cooperating men and women gathered for the caribou surround or at fish traps.

The Gwich'in preferred to boil or roast their meat and fish. They consumed marrow, fetuses, loche liver, and much else. Raven, fox, wolverine, eagle, and dog were generally taboo as food. They dried and stored quantities of both meat and fish. The introduction of guns and twine made surrounds and fish traps obsolete and increased individualized hunting and fishing practices. Together with new foods such as flour, tea, sugar, rice, and beans, these practices had a lasting impact. Gwich'in today complain that people no longer share food as they once did.

Commercial Activities. The nineteenth century Gwich'in were renowned traders. They preferred beads to guns, axes, blankets and other items, because of their general exchange value. Beads could be calculated both in terms of the Hudson's Bay Company standard "Made Beaver," and used in payment for furs, services of a shaman, moose skins, etc. Some Gwich'in were said not to hunt at all but to live off middle-man profits based on markups of several hundred percent, and to store their beads at the post. Many advertised wealth by wearing bead strings conspicuously looped over their shoulders and by heavily decorating their clothing with beads and dentalium shells.

The twentieth-century Gwich'in became totally involved in a monetary economy but first erased debts taken on in goods procured at the start of a season with pelts at the end and auctioned their own furs outside the North. After 1950, they participating in wage labor and the welfare system, which for decades have dominated the formerly fur-based economy.

Industrial Arts. The Gwich'in made artifacts from stone, bone, skin, wood, sinew, teeth, and other raw materials. In hunting they guided caribou into surrounds constructed from posts, trees, brush, and human-shaped piles of moss where they snared, speared, and shot them with birch bows and spruce arrows tipped with flint or antler. To fish they made wooden weirs and willow basket-traps, and used hooks of caribou metacarpals, twisted willow-bark nets, and bone-pointed wooden spears. To wage war they made caribou-antler clubs and thrusting spears. For winter travel, the Gwich'in fabricated hunting (small) and trail (large) birch snowshoes and sleds on runners turned up at one or both ends; for eye protection they used skin or wooden snow goggles. For summer travel they made spruce-frame moose-skin boats, birch-bark canoes in two sizesthe larger with mast and caribou-skin sailand rafts, propelling them with spruce paddles. In addition, they fashioned stone adzes, flint arrow heads, stone and bone scrapers, drills, beaver-incisor awls, caribou-antler ice chisels, birch bark and spruce root containers, mountain sheep spoons, rabbit-skin blankets, caribou-leg bags, caribou skin lines (babiche) of various sizes and lengths, and caribou sinew thread and bowstrings. They wore tailored clothing of caribou skins (in winter leaving the hair on the inside), with the "dress" versions decorated with quills, seeds, dentalia, and, after Europeans came, beads. To protect their hands in winter they wore skin mittens and for headgear, either a scant strip of fur tied over the ears and head (men) or skin hoods (women). In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries most of these industrial arts disappeared. The Gwich'in substituted flat-bottomed scows for summer travel, toboggans for winter travel, and purchased household goods and productive technology at the store.

Trade. Prior to the arrival of mercantilists of European descent, the Gwich'in traded mainly with coastal Inuvialuit and Inupiat Eskimos, exchanging wolverine skins, spruce root baskets, and other products for seal skins and iron kettles the Eskimos had obtained from coastal traders. Western Gwich'in sought copper knives in exchanges with Indians to their west. With Europeans, the Gwich'in exchanged mainly marten, beaver, and muskrat pelts, meat and fish, and services for various "iron works" and "dry goods": kettles, knives, daggers, files, flints, fire steels, ice trenches, bonnets, belts, capotes, gartering, blankets, and leggings. But the most important trade items were guns, gunpowder, ball, shot, tobacco, and beads and dentalium shells.

Division of Labor. Distinctive but not exclusive, men's and women's roles were tempered by practical exigencies and small-group demography. Men were more likely than women to hunt, trap, twine fishnets, make war, and deal with the implements associated with these tasks. Women were more likely than men to tend to the children, prepare and cook food, haul sleds (dogs being scarce prior to the new trading-post exchange economy), prepare skins and make and repair clothing and blankets, gather vegetal food and fuel, and haul water. With predictable exceptions (e.g., nursing and warfare) flexibility has probably always been the rule, and despite early opinion about women being subjugated "beasts of burden," in reality Gwich'in women held authority within the household and were assertive in other domains.

Land Tenure. While they did not own land as individuals, the Gwich'in did have rights to particular tracts of land for hunting, fishing, trapping, or other uses, which lapsed with non-use. In the mid-twentieth century, trapping rights in specific territories were allocated to Canadian Gwich'in in hopes that management would restore depleted furbearers.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Gwich'in had three nonlocalized matrilineal clans, knowledge of which remains contradictory and incomplete. The clans seem to have been more important for western Gwich'in (influenced by Athapaskans to the west) than for eastern bands, but this might be a result of earlier epidemic diseases in the east and the subsequent loss of people and cultural knowledge. The clans were in theory exogamous, but in practice many marriages were endogamous. This helped give rise to the notion that two clans (naatsaii and ch'itshyaa ) were original and the offspring of endogamous marriages were at first reserved for a new third clan (teenjiraatsyaa ). Related to this is the marked tendency for naatsaii and ch'itshyaa to be set against each other, as moieties.

The three clans (naatsaii, ch'itshyaa, and teenjiraatsyaa) were associated with different origins (the head, tail, and middle of a fish, respectively), different ranks (high, low, and intermediate), wealth (rich, poor, "middle class"), animals (raven, wolf/herring gull/fish, and glaucous gull/arctic tern), skin tones (dark, light, moderate), and stature (large, small, intermediate). Clan-based obligations and responsibilities were came into play at marriage and death, in feuds and at feasts and potlatches. Clans receded quickly in importance for all Gwich'in in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and at the end of the twentieth century were recognized mainly (and sometimes only vaguely) in the context of feasts after moose were killed.

Kinship Terminology. Gwich'in kinship terms were bifurcate collateral in the first ascending generation (separate terms for father, father's brother, and mother's brother, and for mother, mother's sister, and father's sister) and basically Hawaiian in ego's generation (male/female parallel and cross cousins, with the possible exception of mother's brother's daughter, were terminologically equivalent to brother and sister). Relative age was also important and was reflected in distinct terms for older and younger siblings and cousins. There were few, if any, meaningful terminological distinctions between father's and mother's sides in the grandparental or grandchild generations. Relative age and status could override genealogy in determining what kinship category (and term) to use. Children were sometimes named after maternal grandparents or for animals, objects, or events; and parents were named after the first-born child (teknomy).

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Some marriages were decided by the prospective bride and groom, unless the bride's mother or other members of her family objected to the status or promise of the prospective husband. Other parents arranged the marriages of their daughters and sons. A young girl's mother might take the initiative in arranging her daughter's initial intimacy and consequent future marriage. Men might also secure wives by living with and serving the parents of an especially young girl until she reached marriageable age, or by successfully wrestling a married man for his wife.

The Gwich'in practiced monogamy (most common), polygyny (chiefs, shamans, and wealthy men often possessed four or five wives and one chief had eighteen), and polyandry (the woman in such a marriage being admired). Partners also sometimes exchanged wives. No matter which post-marital residence rule obtained, in practice matrilocality, patrilocality, and matri-patrilocality were found. A man might beat or divorce an adulterous wife, and a woman could divorce an abusive husband or leave to take up with another man. Evidence for the levirate is equivocal; but following a man's death, his brother, in theory, had to approve the widow's remarriage. In the late-twentieth century arranged marriages disappeared. More young people remain unmarried, and divorce, frowned upon by the church, is rare.

Domestic Unit. Different kinds of arrangements have served as basic social and economic units: the nuclear family and paired family were most important. The latter, a mutable arrangement, formed when brothers, formal partners, or others decided to pool resources and share tasks. Through time the nuclear and extended families have replaced other kinds of domestic arrangements. Adoption was common.

Inheritance. Most Gwich'in owned few possessions, inheritance of which was patrilineal and by primogeniture. If a man had no son his son-in-law inherited his property. Sometimes possessions were destroyed at death or distributed in a potlatch, as with the beads of some wealthy men. Rights in hunting and fishing locales were activated with use and lapsed with non-use. Caribou fences tended to remain within the family.

Socialization. Child training was permissive. The Gwich'in respected and seldom punished their children, checking a wayward child's behavior with gossip or, if need be, switching with a willow branch. Children learned gender-specific roles through imitation and experience, and morality and values from tales. In their games boys learned running, jumping, shooting, and fasting skills important in hunting and warfare. Girls had small wooden dolls clothed in caribou skin. At puberty, a girl was secluded for up to one year in a special isolated shelter. She wore a hood over her head that hung to the waist, suspended from which were caribou-hoof rattles to prevent her from hearing. She avoided meat and other foods, and drank only clear water, sometimes through a goose-leg bone drinking tube. Wealthy parents marked the return of a daughter (and her eligibility for marriage) with a feast. Fathers marked a son's coming-of-age with a feast following his first kill of large game. At puberty, some western Gwich'in boys underwent formal instruction under a teacher.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. In Gwich'in society, two classesthe wealthy and poorcrosscut clan membership. Men gained wealth from success as hunters, trappers, mercantilists, shamans, and polygyny, or from inheritance. In the nineteenth century they advertised their wealth and social standing with beads. The poor worked for chiefs not as dependents but by exchanging services like hunting and packing for presents. Slavesmale Indian captives in warwere rare and could, in time, marry and become as any other Gwich'in.

Political Organization. Gwich'in chiefs were always wealthy men and endowed with appropriate personal characteristics, including strength and physical dominance. They tended to belong to the naatsaii or ch'itshyaa clans. They might also be shamans, and were usually polygynists. They possessed paternalistic authority, influencing such matters as where to hunt or fish, generously loaning tools, hospitably welcoming newcomers to the community, and sharing their food and wealth. Some also wielded power. If he desired and the community approved, a son could inherit the position of chief from his father. A council of mature and elderly menin which younger men or women might speakdecided weighty matters like war and appointed war leaders. European traders added a layer to political leadership with their appointment of Hudson's Bay Company chiefs as intermediaries between the Company and the band. They sometimes selected men who were not the same as the chiefs the Gwich'in themselves recognized. In the early twenty-first century, under governmental impetus, Gwich'in polity was expressed in the formal band and village institutions that developed among indigenous people in Canada and Alaska.

Social Control. To check unwanted behavior, the Gwich'in depended on informal negative sanctions like gossip and ridicule, but also resorted to physical punishment. Although theft was uncommon, as there was little property, it was punished by piercing and ripping open the thief s fingers with a bone awl. Family- and clan-based conflict was a danger in traditional Gwich'in society: wrongs were avenged on the basis of lex talionis (an eye for an eye), although blood money might suffice in compensation for a killing; wealthy men might literally get away with murder. With such a system, feuds were always possible and a large family was an advantage. A man judged dangerous or unstable by the community could be executed without consequence to families involved. In the twentieth century, the greater nation's judicial process, legal institutions, and agents (e.g. Royal Canadian Mounted Police) have been brought to bear on the Gwich'in.

Conflict. The Gwich'in fought the Inupiat and Inuvialuit for revenge, possessions, prestige, and sometimes women. They prepared for war ritually and were led by clan war chiefs. They used weapons such as caribou antler clubs, thrusting lances, and bows and arrows. They brutalized the bodies of the enemies they killed, breaking or slicing their joints, cutting off and displaying heads on stakes, and practicing ritual cannibalism by consumption of stomach fat. Formal partnerships linking Gwich'in and Eskimo men sometimes helped save a partner in the event of a raid. Warfare ended in the late-nineteenth century under pressure from missionaries and traders.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Gwich'in world was inhabited by spirits, ghosts, giant fish, bushmen, various monsters resident in lakes and woods, and supernatural beings in stars and the moon. The Gwich'in believed in reincarnation and that in an earlier day, humans and animals spoke to each other. Following the arrival of Protestant missionaries and Oblate priests, the Gwich'in converted to Anglicanism or Roman Catholicism, yet in the 1990s the belief in bushmen, animal helpers, and reincarnation persisted.

Religious Practitioners. The aboriginal Gwich'in believed firmly in the power of their shamans, most of whom were men who acquired power in dreams during adolescence, when animals came to them, with which they formed alliances. With the aid of an animal-helper and amulets, rattles, and other paraphernalia, a shaman divined the cause of illness, cured the sick, prescribed therapy, killed enemies, and forecast death, hunting success, or the weather. In the mid-nineteenth century, shamans were powerful, wealthy, and prestigious. However, shamans were virtually powerless against epidemic diseases introduced by Europeans and were challenged by Anglican and Oblate missionaries and Gwich'in catechists. Shamanism declined in the late nineteenth centuryalthough in the late twentieth century, some people still derived power from animal-helpers.

Ceremonies. Feasts attended the birth of a first-born, the arrival of the first king salmon (Yukon drainage), the end of a daughter's puberty isolation, a son's first kill of big game, and return from a successful hunt or caribou drive. The most important feast was the potlatch. After an appropriate time of mourning, a rich relative of a deceased man, during a time when food was plentiful, sometimes gave a potlatch in the deceased's honor and to reciprocate members of another clan for services to the deceased. Guests played games with a bladder and moose skin, heard special songs composed and sung in honor of the deceased, and danced in their fine clothing. The potlatcher formally distributed beads, dentalium shells, tools, weapons, blankets, furs, and other gifts, with the understanding that one-half their value would be returned to him when he asked.

Arts. The Gwich'in danced vigorously, played plank and tambourine drums, sang songs of love and warknowledge of which is incomplete due to missionary suppressionand participated in athletic games. They possessed a rich corpus of storiestales, myths, historiesabout culture heroes, tricksters, bushmen, spirits, giant fish, and other peoples. The Gwich'in also decorated their clothing, possessions, and persons: they rubbed red ochre into the seams of clothing or on snowshoes and sleds. They decorated their tunics with seeds, shells, beads, dentalia, fringes, vegetal-dyed porcupine quills and, after they appeared, beads. Both men and women let their hair grow long (men greased, ochred, and placed feathers in their hair in elaborate and culturally distinctive hairstyles) and wore nasal septum ornaments of beads, dentalia, or whalebone, and pierced their ears. Ornaments and fine clothing were worn and displayed especially on public occasions. Women and men both tattooed their bodies: women their chins for aesthetic reasons, men their arms for victims in war.

Medicine. The Gwich'in believed that they became sick because of taboo infraction, spirit loss, or sorcery. Sorcery"throwing bad medicine" by shamans or sorcererswas especially harmful. The healers were shamans, who practiced phlebotomy, drew on healing properties of many plants, used a variety of therapeutic techniques including steam-heat and surgery, or bit and sucked out disease.

Death and Afterlife. People died from a number of causes that the Gwich'in traced to the actions of shamans or sorcerers or to evil spirits or spirit loss. When a relative died they mourned demonstratively, weeping, throwing themselves into the water, singing their hair, mutilating their bodies, and destroying food and property. Members of another clan were chosen, sometimes under duress on their part because of the onerous taboos they had to observe, to prepare the corpse. A corpse had to be cleaned, painted, dressed, wrapped, and placed in an appropriate grave.

Many Gwich'in preferred placing the dead in trees on stages or scaffolds, or enclosing them in hollow wood fixed in trees. A year or so following the death they burned the body, ostensibly to keep maggots from eating the corpse, a terrifying idea for some. Others interred corpses in the ground (or on the ground, under rocks, if the ground was frozen) and erected a pole atop which was a carved animal over the grave. Some said that cremation was reserved for a few wealthy individuals.

Ultimately, after the arrival of traders and missionaries, all Gwich'in accepted interment in the ground. Before Christianity affected aboriginal belief, the Gwich'in thought their spirits or souls went to the land of the dead, located variously in the north, east, south, or upstream. Spirits could remain in the land of the living as ghosts.

For other cultures in Canada and The United States of America, see List of Cultures by Country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 1, North America.


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