ETHNONYMS: Dindjié, Gwich'in, Kootchin, Loucheux
The Kutchin are a group of Athapaskan-speaking Indians living in northeastern Alaska and extending eastward across the Mackenzie River in Canada in the northern Yukon Territory and northwestern Northwest Territories. Contact with Europeans began with Alexander Mackenzie's exploring party in 1789. Trading posts were established by the North West Company in the early nineteenth century and by the Hudson's Bay Company in mid-century and later. Roman Catholic and Anglican missionaries began their work in the area in the 1860s. Other European influences included epidemics in the 1860s and 1870s, whaling along the north coast, the Klondike gold rush at the turn of the century, the arrival of government police in 1903, and the establishment of schools in the early twentieth century.
In Canada, the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development was established in 1953, leading to much house and other construction under its auspices. In Alaska, cooperative movements began in the late 1950s, and the results of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act resulted in some economic development. Earlier probable native cultural influences from the Northwest Coast had been noted in some bands, specifically potlatching and slavery. Most Kutchin are now fluent in a Kutchin-influenced variety of English, although there are some who still speak only Kutchin.
It has been estimated that there were over five thousand Kutchin in the mid-eighteenth century. The population probably dropped to below one thousand in the nineteenth Century, but has now rebounded to around twenty-two hundred. Most now live in fairly acculturated fixed communities, although many still feel they belong to one of the remaining bands.
At the time of contact, Kutchin speakers were grouped into nine or ten regional bands, each centered in the drainage of a major river. Over the years certain areas have been depopulated with bands being forced to move because of Pressure from other ethnic groups or possibly because of inaccessibility to trading posts. In the late 1970s there were six bands remaining as well as subcommunities in the Mackenzie Delta in Canada and Birch Creek in Alaska. Each of the regional bands had a chief with limited authority—either hereditary or chosen for wealth or wisdom. The Kutchin were divided into three clans, which extended across tribal (ethnic group) lines to some extent.
Marriage was usually outside the clan and often outside the band, with children belonging to the mother's band. The nuclear family was fundamental. Some local groups of six to eight households existed, living within a few miles of each other. There was a general dichotomous wealth-ranking of families, with some marriage restrictions ensuing. Most Marriages were monogamous, but some wealthy headmen were polygynous, with polyandry also being reported.
Early basic house types seem to have been semisubterranean rectangular log houses roofed with moss, and a portable dome-shaped skin house. The basic house type for most of the historical period has been the surface rectangular log house, frame houses becoming more frequent since the Second quarter of the twentieth century. Canvas tents are used in warm weather and while traveling.
Subsistence was based upon a wide variety of flora and fauna, with the hunting of large mammals being very Important in terms of prestige, although daily subsistence depended largely on the taking of fish, small mammals, and birds.
Religious and cosmological ideas were not systematically developed. There were no full-time religious practitioners. Shamans existed but were not particularly important. There was a close relationship to the natural world, especially with the caribou. Many supernatural beings and monsters were thought to exist.
McKennan, Robert A. (1965). The Chandalar Kutchin. Arctic Institute of North America Technical Paper no. 17. Montreal.
Nelson, Richard K. (1973). Hunters of the Northern Forest: Design for Survival among the Alaska Kutchin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Osgood, Cornelius (1936). Contributions to the Ethnography of the Kutchin. Yale University Publications in Anthropology, no. 14. New Haven, Conn.: Department of Anthropology, Yale University. (Reprint, Human Relations Area Files, 1970.)
Slobodin, Richard (1981). "Kutchin." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 6, Subarctic, edited by June Helm, 514-532. Washington, D.C: Smithsonian Institution.