The People of the Lakes
© Parks Canada / K. Alexander
Vuntut Gwitchin translates to “people of the lakes” – Gwitchin meaning people; Vuntut referring to the Old Crow Flats, a network of two thousand plus shallow lakes. For countless generations, the Vuntut Gwitchin have lived in the Old Crow Flats and Porcupine River areas in the northern Yukon. Central to the existence of the Gwitchin in this region is their deep connection with both the Old Crow Flats and the Porcupine Caribou Herd. With an abundance of fish, plants and wildlife, the Old Crow Flats provide sustenance for the Gwitchin throughout the seasons. The caribou provide a dependable and plentiful source of food, clothing and shelter.
An Enduring Lifestyle
Old canoe once used while trapping or hunting muskrat© Parks Canada
Until recent times the Gwitchin were nomadic, moving throughout the region to proven hunting and fishing territories, which varied depending on the season and the migration pattern of the caribou. The Gwitchin utilized technology such as spears, snares, traps and bows and arrows to harvest fish and wildlife.
After the arrival of the fur trade, trapping furbearers for income became part of the Gwitchin lifestyle and modern technology such as firearms forever changed the way people hunted. However, Gwitchin continued to depend on the land for most of their sustenance.
Blueberries© Parks Canada / L. Sumi
In the summer and fall, salmon were caught and preserved as were different types of berries and edible plants, such as blueberries, cranberries, Labrador tea and rhubarb. Animals such as moose, muskrat, beaver, porcupine, rabbit, ptarmigan, ducks and geese were also an important part of the traditional diet.
Twice each year, in the spring and fall, the caribou would migrate through Vuntut Gwitchin territory and during these times caribou would be harvested in large numbers. Every part of the caribou would be used to provide food, clothing, shelter, tools and weapons for the Gwitchin.
Vuntut Gwitchin elders visiting the remains of a Caribou Fence© Parks Canada
Until about 1920, the Gwitchin used caribou fences to harvest caribou. These wooden structures consisted of drift fences that spanned kilometers and guided caribou to a solidly built corral, which funneled caribou into a constricted area where they could be easily killed.
Evidence of this efficient harvesting method has been found across the north, with a total of forty-six known sites in Alaska, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon. Seven of these fences are located within Vuntut National Park, representing important archaeological and cultural sites.
Experience Caribou Fences
Immerse yourself in the world of the Vuntut Gwitchin and see for yourself how caribou fences were used -- try a 3D fly through, listen to elders’ stories, learn Gwich'in words for caribou, and see photos of the remains of caribou fences today, visit the Caribou Fences Interactive website.
Gwitchin on the land© Parks Canada
Though no communities or year-round homes are located within the park, Vuntut Gwitchin citizens still use the area during the seasonal pursuit of traditional activities, such as hunting, fishing and trapping. These rights are guaranteed through the Vuntut Gwitchin Final Agreement in order to protect Vuntut Gwitchin culture.