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Gwich'in Indian Fact Sheet

Native American Facts For Kids was written for young people learning about the Gwich'in tribe for school or home-schooling reports. We encourage students and teachers to visit our main Gwich'in website for in-depth information about the tribe, but here are our answers to the questions we are most often asked by children, with Gwich'in pictures and links we believe are suitable for all ages.

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    Gwich'in Tribe

How do you pronounce the word "Gwich'in"? What does it mean?
Gwich'in is pronounced "gwitch-inn." This comes from a word for "people" in their own language. Sometimes you will see it spelled differently, such as Gwichin, Gwitchin, or Kutchin. Since Gwich'in was not traditionally a written language, the spellings of Gwich'in words in English sometimes varies a lot.

Where do the Gwich'ins live?
The Gwich'in Indians are original people of northeastern Alaska and the Yukon. Here is a map showing the location of traditional Gwich'in lands.

How is the Gwich'in Indian nation organized? Do the Gwich'ins live on a reservation?
Gwich'ins in the United States do not have reservations. Like most Alaska Natives, they live in Native villages instead. The Gwich'in Native villages are independent from one another, but they have joined two coalitions, Doyon Limited and the Tanana Chiefs Conference, to handle tribal government and land management on behalf of Gwich'in villages. In Canada, the Gwich'in people are organized into First Nations and live on reserves.

In the past, each Gwich'in village was governed by a headman, or village chief. The headman was always male, and was chosen by clan leaders, usually on the basis of his leadership skills or medicine power and his family's prestige. Today, Gwich'in villages are governed by tribal councils. Councilmembers are elected and can be either male or female.

What language do the Gwich'in Indians speak?
Gwich'in people speak English today, but some Gwich'ins, especially elders, also speak their native Gwich'in language. Gwich'in is a complicated language with many sounds that don't exist in English. If you'd like to know an easy Gwich'in word, "drin gwiinzii" (sounds similar to drin gween-zee) is a friendly greeting. You can also read a Gwich'in picture dictionary here.

Today Gwich'in is an endangered language because most children aren't learning it anymore. However, some Gwich'in people are working to keep their language alive.

What was Gwich'in culture like in the past? What is it like now?
Here's a link to the Gwich'in Social and Cultural Institute. There you can find information about the Gwich'ins in the past and today.

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How do Gwich'in Indian children live, and what did they do in the past?
They do the same things any children do--play with each other, go to school and help around the house. Many Gwich'in children like to go hunting and fishing with their fathers. In the past, Indian kids had more chores and less time to play, just like early colonial children. But they did have dolls, toys and games to play. Handball games and wrestling matches were favorite pastimes for Gwich'in kids. Gwich'in mothers traditionally carried their babies in the backs of their oversized parkas, the way their Inuit neighbors did, although some bands used birchbark baby baskets instead.

What were Gwich'in homes like in the past?
There were a few different types of Gwich'in houses. In the northern part of Gwich'in territory, men would build snow shelters for themselves while on hunting trips, similar but less elaborate than Inuit igloos. Gwich'in families never lived in snow houses, though. In some communities, Gwich'in people lived in tent-like houses made by stretching caribou hides over a dome-shaped wooden frame. In others, people lived in larger earth houses, which were made by digging an underground chamber, surrounding it with log walls and a thatched roof, and then packing the whole structure in layers of earth to insulate it. Usually earth houses had multiple rooms and each one housed several familes from the same clan. Here are some pictures of Native American earth lodges like the ones Gwich'in Indians used. Athabaskan people do not live in old-fashioned earth houses anymore, any more than other Americans live in log cabins. Gwich'in people today live in modern houses and apartment buildings, just like you.

What was Gwich'in clothing like? Did they wear feather headdresses and face paint?
Gwich'in men and women wore very similar clothing: a caribou-skin tunic and trousers with moccasins attached. In cold weather they wore mittens and fur parkas with hoods. All of these clothing articles were frequently decorated with colorful porcupine quills or beadwork in floral patterns. Here is a website with images of Athabascan clothes, and some photos and links about clothes of Native Americans in general.

The Gwich'ins didn't wear long headdresses like the Sioux. Sometimes they wore headbands decorated with porcupine quillwork. Gwich'in men painted their faces with different colors and designs for war and ceremonies, and women often wore tribal tattoos on their faces. Both men and women usually kept their hair long, and wore hair ornaments and necklaces made of dentalium shells and fine beadwork.

Today, some Gwich'in people still wear traditional beadwork designs, but they wear modern clothes like jeans instead of hide trousers... and they only wear fancy regalia for special occasions like a dance.

What was Gwich'in transportation like in the days before cars? Did they paddle canoes?
Yes, the Gwich'ins used moose-hide or birchbark canoes to navigate the rivers. Here is an article about Native American canoes. Overland, Gwich'in people used dogsleds and snowshoes to travel across Alaska. Today, of course, Gwich'in people also use cars... and non-native people also use canoes and snowshoes.

What was Gwich'in food like in the days before supermarkets?
The Gwich'in Indians were hunting people. Gwich'in men hunted caribou, moose, and small game, and caught salmon and other fish in the rivers. Gwich'in women gathered roots, berries, and other plants. Here is a website with more information about Native Indian food.

What were Gwich'in weapons and tools like in the past?
Gwich'in hunters used bows and arrows, spears, and snares. Fishermen used nets and basket traps. In war, Gwich'in men fired their bows or fought with war clubs. Here is a website with pictures and information about Indian weapons.

What are Gwich'in arts and crafts like?
Gwich'in artists are known for their fine basketry and beadwork. Here is an online photo gallery of Gwich'in, Ahtna, and other Alaskan Athabascan artwork.

What other Native Americans did the Gwich'in tribe interact with?
The Gwich'ins traded regularly with neighboring Athabaskan tribes. They often fought with other tribes as well, especially the Inupiat and the Koyukon.

What kinds of stories do the Gwich'in Indians tell?
There are lots of traditional Gwich'in legends and fairy tales. Storytelling is very important to the Gwich'in Indian culture. Here is one Gwich'in legend about the creation of the world. Here's a website where you can read more about Gwich'in mythology.

What about Gwich'in religion?
Religions are too complicated and culturally sensitive to describe appropriately in only a few simple sentences, and we strongly want to avoid misleading anybody. You can visit this site to learn more about Athabascan spiritual beliefs or this site about American Indian beliefs in general.

Can you recommend a good book for me to read?
You may enjoy We Feel Good Out Here and The Delta Is My Home, two great books for kids about the lives of contemporary Gwich'in children. For older readers, two good books about the Gwich'in people are People of the Lakes and Raising Ourselves: A Gwich'in Coming of Age Story from the Yukon River. Younger kids might like The Girl Who Swam With The Fish, a picture book based on an Athabascan legend. You can also browse through our reading list of recommended Native American books in general.

How do I cite your website in my bibliography?
You will need to ask your teacher for the format he or she wants you to use. The authors' names are Laura Redish and Orrin Lewis and the title of our site is Native Languages of the Americas. We are a nonprofit educational organization working to preserve and protect Native American languages and culture. You can learn more about our organization here. Our website was first created in 1998 and last updated in 2015.

Thanks for your interest in the Gwich'in Indian people and their language!

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Learn More About The Gwich'in Tribe

Gwich'in Indian Tribe
An overview of the Gwich'in people, their language and history.

Gwich'in Language Resources
Gwich'in Indian language samples, articles, and indexed links.

Gwich'in Culture and History Directory
Related links about the Gwich'in Native Americans past and present.

Gwich'in Indian Words
Gwich'in Indian vocabulary lists.

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