Praise for "The Man Who Became a Caribou"
Reviewed by Tok Thompson, University of Southern California, in the Journal of Folklore Research, 10 September 2020
“Caribou are how we survive and are integral to who we are and how we define ourselves. Caribou are our stories, our soul, the food on our table, our clothes, and our tools” (Gwich’in Sam Alexander, 2017, testimony before the US Senate, quoted on page 37).
One of the difficulties of reviewing this work is in giving a succinct phrase stating what, exactly, this work is. It could perhaps be described as a compendium of caribou lore from the Gwich’in people of northern Alaska and Canada. The word “lore” is useful, here, precisely because of its wide semantic range. Lore can include narratives, to be sure, such as the central story that gives the book its title, but it can also include all sorts of other knowledge—crafts, beliefs, skills, names, customs, taboos, and all the rest of the realm of folklore. This book, likewise, spans an enormous range of aspects all related to the caribou in Gwich’in culture. In this sense, though, “compendium” might be a bit misleading, as this is not simply a collection of lore on a particular topic. Rather, this book investigates a resplendent set of cultural elaborations on the most central figure of Gwich’in identity and culture, showing how Gwich’in life is entwined, practically and spiritually, with the caribou. In this sense, investigating the slippage between the human and caribou provides an emically centered ethnography of the Gwich’in, giving great insight into their culture, language, and lifeways.
Most of the material comprising the book was drawn from interviews conducted in Gwich’in, a severely endangered language. The book is largely presented bilingually, which by itself is a significant accomplishment and a wonderful addition to the limited corpus of bilingual (Gwich’in/English) materials.
The book is superbly researched and presented. The introduction by Craig Mishler is a very helpful overview of the manuscript, detailing the overall approaches in methodology as well as the Gwich’in territory, language, worldviews, and lifestyles. The work is richly illustrated, with art, artifacts, and maps, alongside photographs of the collaborators, the fieldwork process, and myriad representations of life, and caribou, in Gwich’in territory. Several appendices are dedicated to explication of the linguistic features.
Such a holistic view gives a rich perspective of the topic at hand, repeatedly demonstrating the multiple ways in which caribou lore intersects with Gwich’in identity, culture, worldviews, and community. In this way, this work acts as a culturally appropriate explication of Gwich’in culture as a whole.
For example, the story that the authors use as a title, “The Man who Became A Caribou,” is, among other things, an ethnogenesis of the Neets’it (Neets’uk) Gwich’in band. In the story, a man went to live with the caribou, who were his spirit animal, transforming himself into one, and learning of their ways. Later, the man returns to his human form, and instructs people on the proper relationship between the Neets’it Gwich’in and the caribou. Mishler states: “This ancient story, which we regard with reverence, provides a framework and underpinning for all of the other traditional knowledge about caribou,” and that “As a folktale, it serves as the emotional and spiritual center for all of the other discourses which follow” (51). While I disagree with the nomenclature (I would categorize the story—and many other stories in this work—as myth and not folktale), this recognition of the intrinsic sacredness of the story, detailing the experiences of a man who became a caribou, captures the essence of what it is to be Gwich’in.
Mishler notes that this story is part of a larger matrix found in Native American and Siberian narratives, wherein a specific relationship between one species and one group of humans is formed by experiences of a person who has spent time with both species and in both communities. Whether this should be seen as oikotypical variation, or as polygenesis resulting from similar overarching worldviews, may be difficult to discern, as there is likely a fair bit of both involved. For example, the Haida rely on salmon, and it is thus no surprise that “Salmon Boy,” the story of a boy who spent time with the salmon before returning to the people to instruct them, parallels “The Man Who Became A Caribou” in important ways.
The authors are careful to point out, too, that this feature is by no means confined to, or by, the past. Rather, the practices, narratives, and knowledge persist today as vibrant, dynamic traditions, enmeshed in change (guns, snow machines) as well as constancy (most vividly, the role of the caribou themselves: the average hunter harvests about thirteen caribou per year, with caribou remaining the predominant foodstuff for Gwich’in people (37).
It should also be pointed out that this way of life is now under constant threat, as petroleum interests in particular clamor to carve up more and more of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for petroleum extraction, which the Gwich’in see as threatening the caribou—and especially their summer calving grounds. The Gwich’in spend much of their time fighting such interests in legal and political battles, a far cry from their preferred lifestyle of subsistence hunting, yet once again they display their advocacy for the safety and sacredness of the Porcupine caribou herd, as shown throughout this book.
The Man Who Became A Caribou is truly a standout, stellar work: a book which succeeds on all sorts of levels, from its careful bilingual presentation to its insightful emic analyses. Beyond those interested in Gwich’in people, this work should be of interest to anyone interested in indigenous rights, Native conceptions of ethical and spiritual lives, and the ongoing tensions between global capitalism and the sustainability of life on earth. In terms of theory, this work sets a high standard for folklore research with indigenous communities, and it also opens up new ways of conceptualizing the presentation of non-Western cultures. The authors should be roundly congratulated for such an achievement, and I hope that this book gains the national and international recognition it so justly deserves.