The Gwich’in Indians (sometimes spelled Kutchin or Gwitchin), are a First Nations and Alaska Native people who live in the northwestern part of North America, mostly above the Arctic Circle. Gwich’in literally means “one who dwells” or “resident of [a region].”
The Gwich’in The Gwichʼin were also known by the French name of Loucheux (“squinters”) in historical documents, as well as the Tukudh, a term used by Anglican missionaries. Gwich’in often refer to themselves by the term Dinjii Zhuu instead of Gwich’in.
Dinjii Zhuu literally translates as “Small People,” but figuratively it refers to ‘Indians,’ not just Gwich’in.
The Gwich’in men are well known for their crafting of snowshoes, birchbark canoes, and the two-way sled. The women are renowned for their intricate and ornate beadwork.
They also continue to make traditional caribou-skin clothing and decorative sewing using porcupine quills, both of which are highly regarded among the Gwich’in. Today the economy is mostly a mix of hunting, fishing, and seasonal wage-paying employment.
Approximately 9000 Gwich’in live in 15 small communities in the Northwest Territories and the Yukon Territory of Canada, and in northern Alaska. Gwichʼin communities include:
Inuvik, Northwest Territories (largest of the four Gwich’in communities in the Gwich’in Settlement Area (GSA), Inuvialuit (predominately Uummarmiut, Nihtat Gwich’in).
English is the main language spoken, though schools teach and a handful of local people still speak Inuvialuktun, and Gwich’in.)
Aklavik, Northwest Territories (Ehdiitat Gwich’in)
Tetlit Zheh, Northwest Territories (formerly Fort McPherson) (Tetlit Gwich’in)
Tsiigehtchic, Northwest Territories (formerly Arctic Red River) (aka Gwichya Gwich’in)
Old Crow, Yukon (Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation)
Beaver, Alaska (Gwichyaa Gwich’in)
Circle, Alaska (Danzhit Hanlaii Gwich’in)
Fort Yukon, Alaska (Gwichyaa Gwich’in)
Chalkyitsik, Alaska (Draanjik Gwich’in)
Birch Creek, Alaska (Deenduu Gwich’in)
Arctic Village, Alaska (Di’haii and Neetsaii Gwich’in)
Venetie, Alaska (Di’haii and Neetsaii Gwich’in)
The many different bands or tribes of Gwich’in include but are not limited to:
Neetsaii or Neets’it
Vuntut or Vantee.
Three major clans survive from antiquity across Gwich’in Country. Two are primary clans and the third has a lower/secondary status.
The first clan are the Nantsaii, which literally translates as “First on the land”, the second clan are the Chits’yaa which translates as “The helpers” (second on the land).
The last clan is called the Tenjeraatsaii, which translates as “In the middle” or “independents”. This last clan is reserved for people who marry within their own clan, which is considered Incestual.
To a lesser degree it is for children of people who are outside of the clan system.
In ancient times this would also refer to the children of Naa’in, people who were expelled from the tribe due to committing a crime. It also applied to the children of mothers who simply fell outside of the clan system.
Prior to 1900, being a Tenjeraatsaii automatically placed a Gwich’in at the third-lowest rung of the social ladder. They were to some degree ostracized.
The second-lowest rung was reserved for war-captured slaves.
The lowest social status was that of a banished Naa’in or bushman.
The clan system is no longer well known or used among the Gwich’in.