Playing havoc with an old, old game

Paul Koring October 29 1979

Playing havoc with an old, old game

Paul Koring October 29 1979

Playing havoc with an old, old game

Every fall, hunters in long boats head up the Yukon's winding Porcupine River, armed with the experience of numberless generations. The Loucheux Indians of Old Crow, a tiny, isolated village 70 miles north of the Arctic Circle, are after the Porcupine caribou—a prey virtually indistinguishable from domesticated reindeer—that are still their major source of meat. Camped in tents at strategic crossing places along the river, the hunters wait for the caribou to

pass by on their yearly trek from the Alaska and Yukon North Slope, where they spend the summer and calve, to the central Yukon, where they spend the long Arctic winter.

This year the migration is slow, the instinct to move south eased by unusually warm weather. But by the time the hunt was over, 600 of the herd’s 100,000 animals were harvested. When the boats returned to Old Crow, they were laden with carcasses. For two weeks every available space in the village was

filled with meat hanging to dry.

Although the hunt has become more sophisticated with the advent of high-powered rifles and outboard motors, its overwhelming importance to the Indians hasn’t changed. Occasionally a few animals will stray right through Old Crow, a town of log cabins, as did a couple last monthprompting a tractor driver hauling freight from the small airport to stop his machine and dash for the river to get his rifle. Both animals were killed as they reached the far shore, and both were butchered and hung before the tractor started again.

But advancing development and the changing rules that come with it are begin-

ning to play havoc with this tradition. Hundreds of miles south of Old Crow, an old Indian called Joe Henry recently landed in court for doing something he has been doing almost all of his 80 years—he shot a moose. The problem is that he killed the animal within the 10-mile corridor along the newly completed Dempster Highway, where discharging fire-arms is now prohibited. Ironically, the new law was designed to protect the caribou herd, on which the Loucheux of the Yukon and Northwest Territories rely. Instead, it is likely to become a test of Indian rights in the North because in Joe Henry’s case, the stringent controls seem to be working against the very lifestyle they are designed to protect.

The Indians had long argued against the building of the Dempster, fearing it would disrupt the migration pattern of the herd. Migrating caribou are particularly sensitive to new construction, and a number of northern herds have already disappeared.

The Indians don’t share the certainty of government officials and some biologists that the building of pipelines and roads across caribou ranges can be controlled to ensure survival of the herd. For Joe Henry, who was born in Fort McPherson just as the first droves of white men flocked north for gold and who still remembers the Dempster when it was just a winter dogteam trail, the new rules have already changed an old, old game. Paul Koring