By Oliver O'Brien
According to National Park Service in Northern Alaska, Indigenous people and caribou have been in a close relationship for at least 11,000 years. Caribou is an animal similar to reindeer, and are of the same species. Caribou have been vitally important for the survival of all Indigenous people, especially Nunamiut people who are semi-nomadic inland Iñupiat – native Alaskan people (see above image). Nunamiut people and other Indigenous communities have relied on caribou for food, clothing, and shelter. In commemoration of the National Indigenous History Month, VIBE outlines FIVE ways in which Nunamiut and Indigenous people survived with caribou as a source of food, clothing, and shelter.
After being hunted, Nunamiut people stripped and partitioned the caribou consuming meat, fat and broth made from caribou meat, bones and almost every part of the animal. Every ounce of meat would be eaten whether it be raw, dry, or cooked. Not every Indigenous community consumed raw caribou meat. The most common way the meat would be prepared was boiled and roasted.
Today caribou meat is used to make burgers, meatballs, steaks, and stew to name a few. Caribou meat is hard to find, but there is a restaurant dedicated to caribou in Thunder Bay.
Caribou Skin Clothing
Indigenous people have worn caribou skin to survive in the Arctic climate of -40°C. Caribou skin is extraordinarily warm, as caribou hair is hollow and traps in heat against the body. It is also lightweight, water repellent, and durable. A winter outfit would have two layers: one layer had caribou hair worn next to the body, while the second layer had hair facing outward. Small children wore “jumpsuits” of caribou skin, called an atayug. A mother would carry her baby in a specially constructed parka called an amauti.
Caribou skin would provide different functions during different seasons. In September and October, caribou hair is thicker and the skins are constructed into parkas and trousers. Early winter skins would be used for bedding, footwear, mittens, and diapers. Mid-winter skins would be used to line a sled, while spring or summer skins would not be valuable as the hair would fall out.
Besides the extreme Arctic cold, the long winter months contained powerful gales and lengthy snowstorms. For a habitable place to live, caribou skin would become the foundation for tents called the itchalik. Set up quickly, the itchalik provided a comfortable home for up to ten people. It was draft proof and, most importantly, strong enough to withstand the powerful arctic gales. The itchalik provided a secure shelter for Indigenous people and some itchalik are nearly 5,000 years old!
These caribou skin tents can be viewed in several places within Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve – a National Park in Alaska.
Caribou is a vital part of Indigenous history and culture. For thousands of years, Indigenous people have used caribou as their source of food, clothing, and shelter. It is spectacular how an animal provided several purposes and functions during every season.