The dog days of Yukon summer

Visit Old Crow and you'll notice the dogs in this remote community aren't like the dogs you see in Vancouver or Whitehorse. They're not sporting tiny dog sweaters or chewing brightly coloured dog toys.

by Vivian Belik

Visit Old Crow and you’ll notice the dogs in this remote community aren’t like the dogs you see in Vancouver or Whitehorse. They’re not sporting tiny dog sweaters or chewing brightly coloured dog toys. The dogs in Old Crow aren’t coddled, they’re treated like working dogs.

It’s this unique relationship between dogs and people of the Far North that fascinates Peter Loovers, a research fellow at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Loovers is part of a team of anthropologists studying the interconnections between animals and humans in the circumpolar North.

Loovers is spending his summer in Old Crow and Fort MacPherson interviewing elders and others about their relationship with canines. “It used to be that everyone was dependent on dogs to get around,” says Loovers. The history of people of the North as told by anthropologists and southerners often underplays the extent to which dogs were a part of the community, he says.

Dogs have been roaming the North for thousands of years. Canine bones dating back 10,000 years have been unearthed in Siberia where Loovers’s colleagues are also doing research. In Canada, there is evidence that dogs have been around for almost as long. One theory suggests the animals came over the land bridge from Siberia while other researchers believe the dogs, descendents of wolves, were in the Americas already.

The domestication of dogs in the Middle East, where dogs are believed to have originated, was different from the domestication of dogs in North America, says Loovers.

“Domestication is understood in a particular way as dominance over animals, as humans controlling them,” says Loovers. “If you talk about dominance and control it doesn’t make any sense here in the North. Humans and animals were seen as the same. These animals were considered sentient beings who know and understand things. You still see that in Old Crow and other places in the North, stories of dogs that are very wise, sometimes more wise than humans.”

The lives of the Gwitch’in used to be closely interconnected with the needs of dogs. People of Old Crow and Fort MacPherson would spend time hunting and fishing food for their animals. They also built harnesses and sleds, used complicated systems for tying dog packs and put much effort into training the animals, says Loovers.

Although dogs have been living in the Canadian North for millennia, people only started assembling dog teams in the 1800s. Until that point people may have only had one or two dogs, says Loovers. The introduction of the fur trade in Canada’s North as well as RCMP dog patrols and missionaries helped spur this mode of transportation.

Nowadays, dog teams in the North are more for sport than necessity. “It’s completely different now. There are only a few working dogs left,” says Loovers. “In Fort MacPherson, things are much more quiet than they would have been in the ‘70s and ‘80s when there were 500 dogs in town. Now there’s only about 150.”

In Fort MacPherson dogs are also becoming house pets. That’s less often the case in Old Crow but elders there are just as concerned, says Loovers. “A lot of people talk about the fact that hard times are coming again and that it would be valuable to keep that traditional knowledge alive,” he says.

In Siberia, the First Nation people there, the Saami, don’t use dog teams anymore. “It’s more similar to the way it was a long time ago, when people had few dogs,” says Loovers. “Dogs there are still very important and the people share stories about their dogs.”

The information gathered over the next five years will be added to data gathered from seven fieldsites across Scandinavia, Alaska, Russia and Canada. The project, dubbed Arctic Domus, is looking at human-animal interactions with dogs, fish and caribou. The belief is that uncovering these relationships will shed light on environmental interactions that take place around the world.

For instance, animal herders will often choose locations to live in that are attractive to animals. Over the long run, this can affect the surrounding landscape by encouraging new and different plants to grow in that area. The Arctic Domus projects also wants to redefine the idea of domestication across the North, particularly in areas where the relationships between animals and humans is changing.

In the Yukon, it’s a loss of traditional knowledge as it relates to working dogs. But in Russia, it’s the re-establishment of reindeer husbandry across many spaces of the former Soviet Union. The project wants to challenge the common belief that the circumpolar North is species-poor and lacking complex relationships between the people and the surrounding animals.

This column is co-ordinated by the Yukon Research Centre at Yukon College with major financial support from Environment Yukon and Yukon College. The articles are archived at http://www.yukoncollege.yk.ca/research

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