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Hunting Caribou: Subsistence Hunting along the Northern Edge of the Boreal Forest

Hunting Caribou: Subsistence Hunting along the Northern Edge of the Boreal Forest

by Karyn Sharp, Henry S. Sharp

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Denésuliné hunters range from deep in the Boreal Forest far into the tundra of northern Canada. Henry S. Sharp, a social anthropologist and ethnographer, spent several decades participating in fieldwork and observing hunts by this extended kin group. His daughter, Karyn Sharp, who is an archaeologist specializing in First Nations Studies and is Denésuliné, also observed countless hunts. Over the years the father and daughter realized that not only their personal backgrounds but also their disciplinary specializations significantly affected how each perceived and understood their experiences with the Denésuliné.

In Hunting Caribou, Henry and Karyn Sharp attempt to understand and interpret their decades-long observations of Denésuliné hunts through the multiple disciplinary lenses of anthropology, archaeology, and ethnology. Although questions and methodologies differ between disciplines, the Sharps’ ethnography, by connecting these components, provides unique insights into the ecology and motivations of hunting societies.

Themes of gender, women’s labor, insects, wolf and caribou behavior, scale, mobility and transportation, and land use are linked through the authors’ personal voice and experiences. This participant ethnography makes an important contribution to multiple fields in academe while simultaneously revealing broad implications for research, public policy, and First Nations politics.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803277359
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 06/01/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Henry S. Sharp has been a professor at the University of Victoria and Simon Fraser University in Canada and a former scholar-in-residence at the University of Virginia and is now semi-retired. He is the author of Loon: Memory, Meaning, and Reality in a Northern Dene Community (Nebraska, 2001), winner of the Victor Turner Prize from the Society for Humanistic Anthropology, and The Transformation of Bigfoot: Maleness, Power, and Belief among the Chipewyan.

Karyn Sharp is an adjunct professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Northern British Columbia and is a partner in Dancing Raven, a consulting company based in Prince George, British Columbia. Her articles have appeared in The Answer Is Still No: Voices of Resistance 2014, WIREs: Climate Change 2012, and The Midden.

Read an Excerpt

Hunting Caribou

Subsistence Hunting along the Northern Edge of the Boreal Forest

By Henry S. Sharp, Karyn Sharp


Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-7735-9



August 19, 1975

Foxholm Lake, Northwest Territories

There had been no recent sign of caribou (Rangifer tarandus tarandus) where we were camped near Foxholm Lake. It was a time of active searching for caribou. The hunters had already searched for several miles along the shores of the lake. They had gone up the north-south bay at the east end of the lake to its end and had then gone on foot northward for several miles out onto the muskeg meadows heading toward the next big lake to the north (Knowles Lake, locally called Spider Lake). George had later searched by himself farther west along the south shores of Spider Lake. They had searched the high sand plateau to the west of the north-south bay. The creek out of the south end of the small lake across the portage—where our winter camp was located—had been explored southward for several miles to where a lake/creek chain joined it from the east (see Interlude 1, following Hunt 8, for more about the terrain). The two creeks were joined by a short deep stream that flowed from a lake and river chain to the west. The men had gone up that creek, across the lake that was its source, and searched the wetlands to its north and northwest.

The camp's hunters later determined that the caribou were five or six miles north of where we had looked off the north shore of Foxholm Lake and that they had been missed by only a few miles. There had been no sign of caribou within the areas searched. The only tracks found in all that searching were those of moose (Alces alces andersoni).

George and I decided to take the canoe that I had at camp and search northeastward toward Joe's Camp, some twelve or fifteen miles away. The first time I had done this was with Wellington and Paul in 1970. Caribou were then plentiful at Foxholm Lake, and Paul was using the trip to show me the country and an old camp he had used some twenty years before. I was to make the trip again in 1977, this time with George in a search for caribou at a period when they were absent from the part of Foxholm we were using and we needed to find food for our camp. In 1992 Karyn, Phil, and I again started the trip at a time when caribou were absent from the part of Foxholm Lake where we were camped, and it was Karyn who first spotted them. The trip took us east along the north shore of Foxholm Lake and across the large northward-projecting arm of the lake. We crossed this wide arm and entered a large stream that drained a series of lakes to the northeast.

The land north of Foxholm Lake, although it contains a series of large lakes—each of which would be a major feature in any of the states east of the Mississippi River—is part of an extensive stretch of relatively dry, flat, land some 5,000 square miles in area. This stretch of land, dozens of miles wide (west-east) and deep (north-south), parallels tree line from the northwest to the southeast. This area is rich in browse. When caribou move out of the high tundra in late summer, it is this stretch of land that holds them until they are ready to move into the forest when the snow comes and the small lakes begin to freeze. It is almost as if the caribou herds are waves that, instead of breaking on the forest, form a rough chop zone just north of the forest until the onset of snow, ice, and cold weather leads them to break through the barrier and flow into the forest. The northern shore of the west end of Foxholm Lake is but a few miles south of this caribou holding zone. Caribou often enter the northern end of this stretch of relatively dry ground by early July and may be there as early as June. In most years, some bull caribou choose to remain in this zone close to the forest edge for nearly the entire winter.

In "normal" years—if there is any such thing as normal with caribou movements—the zone has provided earlier access to the caribou for those Denésuliné who lived at the edge of the boreal forest as well as providing a last access to caribou for those Denésuliné who were moving southward off the tundra and into the forest. It has, for hundreds of years, provided the Denésuliné with a crucial early summer and often mid- to late winter food reservoir (see Text 13, Shadows of the Past).

The trip to Joe's camp in a small sport canoe with but a two-horsepower motor to push it was long and slow. The little canoe was vulnerable to waves on the open lake, while the river route off Foxholm Lake toward Joe's Camp was often nearly blocked by shallow stretches. The deeper parts of the river were riven with rocks and boulders that could easily puncture the bottom of a canoe or an aluminum boat. It did, however, take us northeast of the area where we were camped and exposed us to a more northerly section of the high, dry upland. It was a proven area to look for caribou when they were expected to be nearby but were not in evidence at the northwest end of Foxholm Lake itself.

As it happened, we found caribou after we had crossed the far northern bay on Foxholm Lake and started up the rocky river passage. Well before we reached Joe's Camp we saw a small bunch of caribou bulls on the north shore of the river. They were along the shore between the bouldered shoreline and the tree growth just inland. We cut the motor and turned the canoe toward shore. When the caribou noticed us heading toward them, they calmly walked into the trees and vanished. The land just inside the trees was a series of ridges (thirty to fifty feet in elevation) and narrow gullies. The ground was difficult to move over, both for the caribou and for us, although the caribou seemed to manage it more comfortably than we were able to do. The ridges were not terribly high but they were difficult to climb. Much of the ground surface was littered with cobble-sized stones and small boulders and there were many cracks and holes in the exposed bedrock. It was difficult to get firm footing when walking, and when carrying a heavy load there was the constant risk of a broken foot or leg.

The caribou we had seen from the boat had moved away and were out of sight by the time we reached the shore. We found a place to beach the canoe and quickly moved inland toward where we had seen them vanish into the timber. George knew to head toward the crest of the first ridge within the timber and, quietly but quickly, led the way. Several hundred feet inland, the forest vanished. We saw caribou moving among the ridges inland, and moved in their direction. As we crested the first ridge, we saw the now scattered bunch of caribou. They had moved inland to the ridge crest, crossed it, and dispersed over the low ground between the first and second ridges. The ridges were less than a hundred feet apart. Widely scattered trees grew over the ridges and in the gully between the ridges. The caribou had spread out in the gully. As soon as they saw us crest the ridge, they began to run in several directions. We were about two yards apart as we approached the caribou, and each of us was able to get off one shot. Each of us knocked down one of the bulls before the rest of them vanished into cover and moved out of sight.

Killing is not an end in itself. It is the start of a process of utilization of the animal that has been killed. Butchering the animal is the next step.

The land surface in this area is essentially devoid of topsoil. The ground surface that is not bare rock or some form of water is normally sand, covered only by fragile and often thin moss and lichen growth. Butchering a large animal on such a surface requires skill as well as considerable practice and some forethought. Fresh meat, often in the hundreds of pounds, is quite vulnerable to contamination from debris found on the ground surface, and sand is particularly noxious and difficult to remove. If one is fortunate in the place where the caribou dies, there will be dwarf birch (Betula spp.), willows (likely including dwarfed sandbar willows, Salix interior), and other bush-sized vegetation (various species including Salix bebbiana) that can be used to keep fat and other body parts elevated above the ground surface while the butchering proceeds.

Butchery practice varies with the seasons as a function of outside conditions and air temperature as well as the physical condition of the animals that have been killed. We followed normal butchering practice for this time of the year. It was late enough in the summer that many of the bulls had begun to build up fat to prepare themselves for the ensuing fall rut. At this time of the year, when hunters first approached a downed caribou bull it was not uncommon for them to make a small (inch or less), shallow cut at the base of the sternum to see if the animals had begun to build up a subcutaneous fat layer. Once this has been done, the first step in field butchering a caribou is to remove its head.

The head is removed by slicing the throat and cutting upward through the spine. The primary concern is gaining access to the tongue so that it can be removed. The head is a delicacy—particularly for the women of the camp—but it is rarely taken back unless the camp is close by or there are few or no restrictions on the ability to transport the meat. The heads of yearlings or animals without antlers (caribou cows also grow antlers) are more likely to be taken back for consumption. The antlers of bull caribou are extremely large. The head is difficult to transport if the antlers are not removed, but they are difficult to remove from the skull without damaging it. Removing the head has a pragmatic aspect, as its removal makes skinning and butchering easier, but it is also done out of respect for the spirit of the animal. The head of the animal is a focus of communication between its spirit and the humans who have killed it. It must be treated with respect even if it is to be taken back to camp and consumed. Who handles it and how it is handled are key to determining future relations between the hunter and others of its kind.

If the head is to be left in the bush, as was the case here, it is carefully set aside from the rest of the carcass to form the first pile separate from the carcass. The heads are moved away and turned over so that they rest on their antlers. Each head is routinely covered by the skin removed from its body unless the hide is to be transported back to camp. The tongue, which is a favored Denésuliné delicacy, is always removed and taken back to camp. This practice varies from kin group to kin group. The tongue is always taken for consumption, but it has been observed in other kin groups that the hunters sometimes cook and eat the tongue where the animal has been killed and butchered.

If the season and weather allow, the animal is then skinned. The hide, which has been ringed by the knife cut where the head has been taken off, is cut down the center of the neck, thorax, and abdomen and then out along the center of the inside of each leg. The hide is ringed at the end of each leg, normally just above the knee. If the entire leg is to be removed and transported back to camp, the hide is still ringed above the knee but is left on the lower part of the leg. The hide on the lower legs is a favored material for sewing baskets to store dried caribou meat. The genitalia of male caribou are cut off and tossed (usually with the left hand while bending over to make the cut) into the bush away from the rest of the carcass. Depending on the individual preference of the person doing the butchering, the female genital opening may either be ringed or split as the hide is pulled off. The anus is normally split, although a few individuals prefer to ring the hide around it.

Skinning a caribou requires little knife work. Experienced hunters remove the skin largely by pushing their fists between the skin and the flesh. Removing the skin this way does a much better job of separating the hide from the fat, flesh, blood vessels, and supporting tissues that connect the hide to the animal. This allows the hide to dry more quickly and largely eliminates the need to scrape the hide if it is to be worked or tanned. Once the cuts have been made and the fist thrusts used to separate it from the flesh, the hide is simply pulled off the animal.

The fat is carefully removed from the back of the animals. In late summer, bull caribou build up a large sheaf of fat that runs from their mid-back to their genitals. This sheaf of fat is even more desired than the tongue, and it is handled more carefully than any other part of the carcass. It is carefully set aside so that it is exposed to the air while the butchering proceeds, and it is very carefully kept from contact with the sand or the ground vegetation. If any bush-sized vegetation is in the area of the butchering, the sheaf of fat is carefully draped over it.

Once our two bulls were skinned and the external fat was removed, each carcass had its legs removed. Removing the front legs is an easy matter of a few long cuts. Removing the back legs requires more skill. The knife cuts have to be made deep into the muscle tissue of the rump to keep as much meat as possible attached to the leg, and the deep ligament connections of the femur make access difficult as they are recessed near the acetabulum. It takes some care to avoid cutting the relatively thin abdominal wall and opening it. One leg is often left attached to the animal to provide a hold for maneuvering the body during butchering. The tenderloin is removed from both sides of the backbone and set aside.

After the animal has had its head removed, has been skinned, and has had its legs removed, its abdomen is opened and the guts are removed. At this time of the year, this is done by carefully opening the abdominal wall and rolling the carcass to one side. Someone skilled at field butchery is able to detach the abdominal contents with a few knife strokes so that when the carcass is turned onto its side the intestines and other abdominal organs will roll out onto the ground. During this process the diaphragm is cut, and the hunter reaches into the chest cavity to sever the windpipe, esophagus, and blood vessels so that the lungs spill out beside the intestines and the other internal organs. The lungs of many caribou are heavily parasitized. Echinococcus granulosis can form large cysts in their lungs and the parasites, which are primarily parasites of canids, can infect humans. There is considerable variation among the Denésuliné as to whether or not they will handle caribou lungs or use them for dog (Canis familiaris) food. The way this kin group butchered caribou, the entire carcass was carefully cut away from the lung tissue to avoid any contact between it and humans.

Any internal organs or portions of intestinal fat the hunter intends to take are removed from the carcass either before it is rolled over to allow the organs to spill out or afterward as the guts are exposed on the ground. The spillage of these internal organs creates a separate pile of remains.

Once the guts have been taken out, the carcass is rolled back onto its back. If a leg has been left on the animal as a handle, it is removed at this point. The ribs are separated into three pieces—left and right ribs and the sternum. Separating the ribs from the carcass is the first point in the butchering process where a heavy blade—usually a heavy kitchen knife or butcher knife—is necessary. A smaller blade can be used, but it makes taking the ribs a much slower process and it is hard on the blade. In the absence of a heavy knife blade, an ax or hatchet can be used. The ribs are a favored part of the caribou. If the hunters of this extended kin group chose to eat while they were butchering or before they began to transport the meat back to camp, a rack of ribs was their preferred part of the carcass.

The normal practice of this kin group of Denésuliné is to separate the remaining part of the carcass into sections. An ax or hatchet is extremely useful for this but not always available. The pelvic section is separated from the spinal column. The spinal column is cut into two pieces. The neck, which has already been separated from the head, is now separated from the torso. These heavy, bonier parts of the carcass are taken back to camp if transport allows. When transport is restricted, the meatier parts of the carcass that are suitable for making into dry meat—legs, ribs, tenderloin—as well as selected internal organs, the external and internal (mostly intestinal) fat deposits, and the tongue all have priority for transport.

Transport of the meat back to the camp is the next and in many ways the most crucial step. All that can be transported is separated for transport. What cannot be taken away is carefully stacked and covered to keep scavengers off it. In late summer the primary concern is birds, especially seagulls (Larus argentatus, L. philadelphia) and ravens (Corvus corax). Unfortunately for humans, larger scavengers such as bear (Ursus americanus, U. arctos), wolf (Canis lupus), or wolverine (Gulo gulo) are perfectly capable of tearing apart any attempt to stack and cover the meat. If they find it, it is gone.


Excerpted from Hunting Caribou by Henry S. Sharp, Karyn Sharp. Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
HUNT 1. Caribou,
TEXT 1. Hunting and Predation,
HUNT 2. Moose,
TEXT 2. Food Storage,
HUNT 3. Caribou: Pursuit and Risk,
TEXT 3. Persistence in Hunting,
HUNT 4. Caribou: Waiting for Prey,
TEXT 4. Weapons,
HUNT 5. Caribou: Walking, Kill Locations, and Spoilage,
TEXT 5. Carrion and Scavengers,
HUNT 6. Wolf,
TEXT 6. Camp Formation,
HUNT 7. Moose: Hunting by Habitat,
TEXT 7. Summer Doldrums,
HUNT 8. Caribou: Long-Distance Hunting,
TEXT 8. Transporting Meat,
INTERLUDE 1. Land Use and the Terrain at Foxholm Lake,
HUNT 9. Bear: Failed Hunt,
TEXT 9. Looking for Game,
HUNT 10. Caribou: Calves,
TEXT 10. Hides,
HUNT 11. Jackfish,
TEXT 11. Women's Labor,
HUNT 12. Bear: Stalking Prey,
TEXT 12. Prey Choice,
HUNT 13. Missing Hunts,
TEXT 13. Shadows of the Past,
INTERLUDE 2. Wolves, Caribou, and Approaching Prey,
HUNT 14. Caribou: Caching in the Fall,
TEXT 14. Hunting from High Ground,
HUNT 15. Caribou: Failed Hunt,
TEXT 15. A Puzzle,
Selected Bibliography,

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