Cooking Caribou in the Northern Yukon Territory

One afternoon in late September 2015, photographer Cathie Archbould, writer Kelly Milner, and I stood around the table in Archbould’s studio in Whitehorse, in northern Canada’s Yukon Territory, staring at a caribou head. We were not going to eat it, at least not yet. We were going to skin it and take pictures of the process for a combination field guide and cookbook focused on caribou.

Archbould and I had collaborated on two cookbooks focused on northern food before, but this one was different. Our caribou was a Porcupine Herd caribou, harvested by a member of the Van Tat Gwich’in First Nation in Old Crow. Roughly 1,000KM from Whitehorse, Old Crow is the most northern community in Yukon and one that cannot be reached by car. For the Van Tat Gwich’in, the caribou has been a source of food, clothing, and shelter for thousands of years.

One of the largest tundra barren ground caribou herds in North America, the Porcupine Caribou herd travels from the northern Yukon across the Western Arctic to its calving grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska every year, passing through Old Crow on its journey. The herd is, at the moment, a success story among barren ground caribou herds, with an estimated population of 197,000 in 2013. But several of the great northern Caribou herds have declined by more than 80 percent from peak numbers, and there is cause for concern that they will not rebound in the same way they have before.

The growing threats to barren ground caribou range from resource development to overharvest to a warming climate. In November 2016, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), designated barren-ground caribou as Threatened. COSEWIC is a scientific body established under the Canada Species At Risk Act to assess the conservation status of wildlife species based on scientific and Indigenous knowledge. The assessment was led by Dr. Justina Ray of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Canada, who also serves on co-chair of the Terrestrial Mammal Subcommittee.

The Porcupine Caribou Herd has been the subject of careful and collaborative conservation efforts over the past 25 years. In 1985, the Porcupine Caribou Management Board (PCMB), a Canadian advisory board composed of representatives of federal, territorial and First Nations governments, was established to make recommendations to agencies responsible for managing the herd. Among other activities, the PCMB works closely with hunters in the communities within the caribou’s range to manage the harvest.

Though the herd is in good health relative to other barren caribou herds, the story is never over. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, where the herd gathers every spring to calve, is once again under threat from oil and gas exploration, and communities constantly report disruption in herd migration patterns from roads and industrial activity. But the inspiration for the cookbook came from another direction. In recent years members of the PCMB, Indigenous hunters, and territorial conservation officers from the Yukon and the Northwest Territories had noticed that some hunters were leaving parts of the caribou out in the field—parts that might be considered more challenging to cook and eat like the head, the organs, the shins, and the hooves.

Photo Credit: Archbould Photography.
Photo Credit: Archbould Photography.
Photo Credit: Susan Morse.

Traditionally, the communities that rely on the caribou have used the whole animal, from antler to hoof to hide. But this practice was changing, at least for some hunters. One of PCMB’s key educational efforts concerns best practices in hunting caribou. The board decided, in collaboration with Vunut Gwitch’in Government, and with the inspired advice of PCMB communications consultant Kelly Milner, that best practices might be promoted not just in the field, but also in the kitchen. Maybe what was needed was not only a guide to field-dressing and butchering, but a cookbook, featuring traditional and contemporary recipes, to encourage antler-to-tail eating and bring those unwanted parts back into use.

Milner became the project manager, Archbould the photographer, and I the consulting cook. And that’s why we were skinning a caribou head in the fall of 2015. We were preparing for the community cooking workshop in Old Crow that would form the backbone of the book.

None of us had skinned a caribou head before, and we were daunted. So we put in an emergency call to PCMB chairperson Joe Tetlichi. He came over between meetings, donned a pair of gloves, picked up a knife and skinned the head in about 15 minutes, without getting a strand of hair or a drop of blood on his neat blue shirt. Archbould followed every movement with her camera, and then Tetlichi went off to his next meeting. The photo shoot was a success: we had the material for the head-skinning portion of the book.

The project team traveled to Old Crow later that October, but the caribou herd had taken a route farther north. In the herd’s absence, Archbould shot portraits of community members, and we all cruised the grocery store shelves, noticing the high prices of course, but also the number of Asian and Mexican products, which provided clues to the dishes that might prove popular with the community. We returned home to Whitehorse, and that season Old Crow hunters filled their larders with moose instead of caribou.

The following May we got a call from Megan Williams, Heritage Director at Van Tat Gwich’in Government. The caribou were in. People were hunting. Come up! The three of us flew to Old Crow, armed with camera gear, knives, and a few supplies like wonton wrappers and fresh ginger. Upon arrival, we found that though there were caribou for us, they were frozen and wouldn’t thaw in time for our cooking workshop and photo shoot. At 10 pm on our first night in town we got another call, this time from a hunter, Stanley Njootli Sr. “So, I’ve got a caribou for you,” he said.

Archbould and Milner worked with hunter, Stanley Njootli Sr, to photograph the skinning, field dressing, and butchering of the animal, while in the school kitchen, six community cooks and one high school student gathered for our Cooking Caribou Together workshop. The women brought their recipes for head cheese, ch’itsùh (pemmican), and caribou head roasted the traditional way. I brought recipes for bone broth, caribou brain ravioli, wonton soup, and sautéed bone marrow on crostini.

For two days we cooked together, learned together, laughed and ate together. It was a powerful immersion in the hard and joyful work of preparing a harvested caribou, of skinning shins and detaching hooves, of cutting sinew and removing silver skin, of relearning old methods and discovering new ones. On the evening of the second day, the cooks held a small feast for members of the community. One woman said, “I’ve never tasted caribou like that before.” The project team went home with photographs, with lived experiences — I lost my fear of caribou heads — and with the remainder of our caribou to cook and photograph over the coming fall and winter.

In March 2017, the combination cookbook and guide to field-dressing and butchering, Vadzaih, Cooking Caribou from Antler to Hoof, was released in a first printing of 500 copies, for sale through PCMB, in local bookstores, and at the John Tizya Centre in Old Crow. Since then all kinds of people have bought it—hunters and cooks, Indigenous people and settlers, Yukoners and visitors; they have sent it to friends and families across Canada, brought it home as a memento, taken it overseas.

In April 2017, the PCMB, Yukon Conservation Society, and Vuntut Gwich’in First Nation co-hosted a celebration of the Porcupine Caribou Herd at the Beringia Centre in Whitehorse. Milner presented the cookbook, and at lunch we sampled two dishes from its pages: caribou liver pate and breakfast sausage patties. Just before lunch, our colleague Dr. Justina Ray of WCS Canada, who led the COSEWIC assessment, presented a sobering talk on the plight of the barren ground caribou. The Yukon audience understood how lucky we are that the Porcupine Herd is as healthy as it is.

Perhaps the highlight of the whole experience, apart from watching Joe Tetlichi skin a caribou head in his office clothes, was collaborating with community cooks who know in their bones that respect for the caribou is paramount, in the field and in the kitchen. These cooks live and teach respect for the animal every day. On its website, PCMB notes that Vadzaih is “…our way of showing respect and sharing how the caribou continue to provide for people across the north – and our hope that it will continue to provide for many generations into the future.”

In the fall of 2017 a second printing of Vadzaih, Cooking Caribou from Antler to Hoof will be released, for sale on newsstands in the Yukon. The book can also be viewed here.

Header image courtesy of Susan Morse.