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Following the caribou's lead

Elder in residence at UAS to be this week's Evening at Egan speaker

Posted: November 8, 2012 - 1:03am
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An image from "Being Caribou" of caribou on the frozen Porcupine River, Yukon Territory.  Courtesy of UAS and Mountaineers Books
Courtesy of UAS and Mountaineers Books
An image from "Being Caribou" of caribou on the frozen Porcupine River, Yukon Territory.

Those who’ve read “Being Caribou” by Karsten Heuer will remember Randall Tetlichi, the Gwitch’in elder who dropped Heuer and his wife Leanne Allison off on the frozen Porcupine River at the beginning of their epic journey to follow the porcupine caribou herd across a thousand miles of wilderness; Tetlichi is a vivid and important part of the book in part because his words to author Heuer prior to the couple’s trip set the tone for much of what follows, becoming clear only after the author and his wife have spent months out on the tundra.

This week, students and faculty at UAS have been finding out for themselves why Tetlichi’s words and presence had such a powerful and lasting impact on Heuer. On Friday, at the Evening at Egan lecture at the Egan Library at 7 p.m., members of the public will have the chance to find out as well.

A calm man with a quiet voice, Tetlichi is a widely respected teacher, community healer, tradition bearer and faculty member at Yukon College. This week, he’s been UAS’ Elder in Residence, visiting many classrooms and meeting with Tlingit elders and UAS staff. He was invited to UAS in part for his role in “Being Caribou,” which is UAS’ One Campus One Book selection this year, but those who haven’t read the book will not be at a disadvantage at Friday’s lecture; his talk, "Human-Caribou Relations from a First Nation’s Perspective," will focus on how each of us can make a difference by paying attention, and on the importance of forging strong connections to the natural world.

At an informal lunchtime meeting on Tuesday, Tetlichi spoke to a roomfull of students, teachers and other community members about those connections. He described growing up on the land, wearing caribou skin clothing until he was seven, and learning about the world through his grandparents and elders and the traditions of his tribe. It was a healthy life, he said, one built on constant contact with the natural world.

“We’re given this universe to be connected,” he said.

One of the best ways to foster this connection, he said, is by spending as much time as possible outside, and by cultivating an awareness of the spirit within every living thing.

“The connection with the animals is very important,” he said. “When I was growing up, our connection was to the caribou. We followed the caribou, we talked to the caribou, we’d sing to the caribou. ... Each four legged one, each finned one that lives in the ocean, and the winged ones, they all have a spirit. They all have life.”

Tetlichi’s knowledge of the caribou and their movements is the reason author Heuer and his wife sought him out in Old Crow prior to their journey in 2003. Their plan -- which many thought was crazy -- was to follow the 123,000 member porcupine caribou herd from their winter range in the Yukon Territory to their calving grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, a course the animals have been traversing for more than 27,000 years. The trip was planned in part because Heuer sought a deeper understanding of the impact development -- particularly drilling – would have on the animals. The story of the animals themselves, that “surge of life and death,” had gotten lost in all the magazine articles and documentaries, Heuer wrote. It was a story he wanted to tell.

In order to get permission to take the trip, the couple had to go through many groups, most importantly the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and the six-person council that advises them on wildlife and forestry issues. They received permission -- but were still unsure about the details of the trip. Finally, they were directed to Tetlichi in Old Crow, to ask him about where and when -- and even if -- they should attempt the migration journey.

Tetlichi didn’t give Heuer the hard answers he wanted, and Heuer struggled at first with some of the things he heard, fearing his mindset might be too different from Tetlichi’s for him to fully appreciate his meaning.

“Randall also referred to things I couldn’t relate to: ancestral spirits, dreams, visions -- things his grandfather had accessed in his consistent predictions of where and when to find caribou next – like a deep instinct that resides in the land. A part of me shunned such notions, the part that had grown up in a city, trained as a scientist and looked at the world through a rational and logical lens.”

But after his wife has a vivid dream about seeing the Porcupine River break up and begin to flow (again prompting skepticism in Heuer), the couple sets off on their journey, and end up being completely transformed by the experience. Upon their return the first person they see is Tetlichi, who knows immediately that they are not the same -- and says so.

“It was as though every cell inside our bodies had been repolarized,” Heuer writes. “And yet we were still trapped in the same skin. The man who had sent us off with just the right words had welcomed us back in the same way.”

“Being Caribou” is primarily a story about the links between humans and the natural world, but it’s also a story about cross-cultural connections and bone-deep nonverbal communication. Heuer wasn’t able to accept Tetlichi’s words on an intellectual, rational level. His brain tossed up too many barriers. Rather he had to just go out and let the words seep into his awareness through his own experiences.

Heading into Friday’s lecture, we may be wise to keep that in mind.

•••

Next week’s Evening at Egan lecture will continue the discussion, when “Being Caribou” author Heuer will be the featured speaker, on Friday Nov. 16, at 7 p.m. at the Egan Library. His filmmaker wife Allison will also be on hand for a screening of her film, also called “Being Caribou,” at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 15, at the Egan Lecture Hall.

For more on the book and the film, visit www.beingcaribou.com. For more on Evening at Egan, visit www.uas.alaska.edu/eganlecture.

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