By Sharon Oosthoek Photos Peter Mather
Once unimaginably abundant, this “umbrella species” is at tremendous risk. What we do now and for the next few years will either save or doom this extraordinary creature
THE STORY OF CARIBOU IS THE STORY OF US. SOME 35,000 years ago, as early modern humans struggled to eke out an existence in Europe, it was reindeer — as caribou are known there — that sustained us. Archeological digs show refuse heaps dating from that time made up almost entirely of reindeer bones. Between 12,000 and 17,000 years ago, caribou was such an important prey animal in Europe that archeologists call it the “Reindeer Epoch.” Closer to home, natural cycles of abundance and scarcity in the George River and Leaf River herds in what is now northern Labrador and Quebec led to periodic starvation among the Innu, the Cree and the Inuit.
Today, caribou (Rangifer tarandus) are still essential for many northern Indigenous peoples, and not only as a source of food and clothing. Caribou play a central role in their creation stories, values and relationships with the land, and have done so for at least 12,000 years, dating back to when the glaciers retreated from North America. They are “very deep in the psyche,” says John B. Zoe, a member of the Tłįcho First Nation. “Our language and our way of life are all based on the caribou.”