Caribou Fences: People of the Caribou

Ancient spruce-log fences hundreds of yards long - lichen covered and bleached silver with age if they are visible at all - wend through the coniferous forests and across the shrub-tussock meadows of the southern reaches of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. These are the remains of caribou fences, used for perhaps thousands of years but abandoned in the early 1900s - traditions lost in time.

caribou fence 2

There was rarely enough food in one place to feed a large community, so the people who lived in the area moved as small family groups of nomadic hunters. They ranged widely to find the dispersed food that was available. Calling themselves "People of the Caribou," these Gwich'in Indians quite literally were "of" the caribou. The animals provided most of their sustenance: food; skins for their clothing, bedding and shelter; and the bones from which they fashioned fishhooks, skin scrappers and other tools.

Throughout the long, dark winters, the Gwich'in sought the small groups and individual caribou that might drift through the area. Finding these animals demanded uncomfortable and often hungry months of searching. In some years, the caribou could not be found at all because they were wintering far to the east. In times when alternative foods such as snowshoe hares and ptarmigan were also in low numbers, there was suffering and death among the people.

caribou fence aerial

Each March, the caribou began their journey toward their calving grounds in the distant north. Depending on where the animals began their migration, the caribou passed through certain locations more frequently than others. Over many years of careful observation, the people came to know of these preferred caribou routes.

In some of these sites, the Gwich'in temporarily ceased their independent nomadic ways. They worked together to construct and maintain miles of dispersed caribou fences. Then, if caribou passed near any of these locations, the people again worked together to herd the animals along the fences to corrals where hunters could surprise and kill a number of animals at once. Snares made from caribou rawhide were also used within the enclosures to catch some of the herded caribou. For a while thereafter, there was food and celebration for all.

Now abandoned for a century, caribou fences remind us of the intimate knowledge of caribou movements, the hardships and patient efforts of a self-reliant people working together to improve their chances of survival in a harsh northern landscape.