Project 4c

Food Security and the Cross-Border Dimensions of the Vuntut Gwich'in Social Economy

Progress Report - December 2010

Cross Border Food Security of the Vuntut Gwitchin  (pdf file)

PowerPoint Presentation

Research Team

David Natcher, University of Saskatchewan
Tobi Jeans, Masters student, University of Saskatchewan
Norma Kassi, Arctic Health Research Network - Yukon
Jody Butler-Walker, Arctic Health Research Network - Yukon

Timeframe: June 2009 to August 2011

Project Description:

A key project for this research work will be undertaken to examine the social economy of indigenous populations through a case study on food security and cross border dimensions of the Vuntut Gwich'in Social Economy.

This research proposal reflects the recommendations stemming from the January, 2009 workshop held in Vuntut Gwichin territory in Old Crow, Yukon - Vuntut Gwitchin Climate Change and Health Research in Northern Yukon: What do our Changing Homelands Mean for
our Health? Phase 2: Knowledge into Action. This workshop brought together university researchers, elders, youth and community members to discuss the ways in which climate change is affecting the ability of the Vuntut Gwich'in to secure a healthy diet of traditional foods and to develop food security strategies to maintain their health in the face of declining traditional food species  (Butler Walker and Kassi, 2009). By the conclusion of the workshop it was agreed that a community-based research program would be initiated in the summer of 2009 to explore:

  1. The interest among Vuntut Gwich'in families to build and maintain a green house, community gardens and a small-scale agricultural farm to grow local produce.
  2. How many households have caches for preservation of traditional foods;
  3. What kinds of long-term food storage facilities/structures does the community need;
  4. Where do small fish and game migrate to in time of ecosystem change and the traditional means used by Vuntut Gwich'in elders to locate and harvest traditional foods during times of change; and
  5. How the US/Canadian border has affected food sharing systems and to identify ways in which sharing networks can be strengthened in times of need.

It is with respect to point 5 above that this research will examine the cross-border dimensions of the Old Crow food system. The AHRN-YT will facilitate the integration of point 5 with the rest of the community-based project to ensure assumptions are identified and addressed, and communications are consistent and comprehensive.his project involves working closely with the Vuntut Gwich�in in the community of Old Crow, Yukon.  They are facing significant challenges in accessing traditional foods. Due to a combination of factors, including fluctuations in resource availability, high costs associated with subsistence harvesting, limited wage earning opportunities, changing dietary habits, and environmental uncertainties associated with climate change, Gwich'in families are finding it increasingly difficult to secure a sufficient quantity and quality of traditional foods for household consumption. While commercial foods have become more readily available, the nutritional quality is far inferior to the traditional foods that have long been procured locally.

Concerns over food security have led the Vuntut Gwich'in to undertake collaborative research with university partners to identify some of the key environmental variables influencing the availability, accessibility, and quality of traditional food resources. Through a partnership with the University of Northern British Columbia, the Vuntut Gwich'in are documenting the volume and frequency in which traditional foods are consumed by community members. They are also recording the level of contaminants present in those food sources, for example mercury levels in caribou. The Vuntut Gwich'in are also involved in research to document the distribution and abundance of wildlife in the Old Crow Flats, with a specific focus on monitoring moose movements and estimating muskrat abundance. Through these research initiatives the Vuntut Gwich�in people hope to develop a community adaptation plan to limit the negative consequences of environmental change and overcome future conditions of food insecurity.

While food security is undoubtedly influenced by environmental change, maintaining access to reliable and nutritious food sources is also part of the larger social and political system in which food procurement occurs. It is in this context that this project will explore the social and political dimensions of food security, with particular focus on the unique challenges faced by Old Crow due to its close proximity to the US/Alaska border. By focusing on the social and political dimensions of food security, this research will examine:

  1. How political and legal restrictions relating to cross-border travel have affected subsistence harvesting (i.e., passport requirements, restrictions due to past infractions with the law, post-911);
  2. How political and legal restrictions relating to cross-border travel have affected traditionalcontemporary food sharing networks among the Vuntut Gwich'in and Gwich'in communities in Alaska;
  3. How political and legal restrictions relating to cross-border travel have affected cultural exchange and the spiritual aspects of food sharing;
  4. Last, this research will examine the effects of having the Gwich'in Nation divided legally and physically by an imposed border and the challenges of dealing with federal, territorial, and state governments that most often fail to appreciate the concerns and rights of the Gwich'in people. This question relates directly to the issue of food sovereignty and the rights of the Gwich'in to define their own policies and strategies for the production, distribution, and consumption of sustainable and healthy food sources. In this way, food sovereignty is considered a precondition for food security (1st Indigenous Peoples' Global Consultation on the Right to Food and Food Sovereignty, 2002).

Partnering with us in the project is the Arctic Health Research Network (AHRN) - Yukon. The mandate of the AHRN is to improve health outcomes through community-driven research. The AHRN promotes health and wellness research in order to facilitate the identification and action on health research priorities.

In this proposed sub-project, the food security of the Vuntut Gwich'in will be examined. While food security is undoubtedly influenced by environmental change, maintaining access to reliable and nutritious food sources is also part of the larger social and political system in which food procurement occurs. It is in this context that this sub-project will explore the social and political dimensions of food security, with particular focus on the unique challenges faced by the Vuntut Gwich'in (Old Crow, Yukon) due to its close proximity to the US/Alaska border.

This research is relevant to the social economy in that our efforts will strengthen the social infrastructure of the Vuntut Gwich'in (specifically in Old Crow) by connecting food systems to local capacity, partnerships and socio-economic networks that exist locally and throughout the region. By positioning food security within the broader social economy we will arrive at community-based solutions that improve the health and nutrition of the Vuntut Gwich'in.


To understand the cross-border dimensions of the Old Crow food system the research team (Natcher, Kassi and Butler Walker) will work with Vuntut Gwich'in members of Old Crow to learn how they themselves perceive the border to be affecting the social, cultural, and political dimensions of food security. Methods will include key informant interviews (including a mapping component), focus groups, and the administration of a food sharing survey. Initial discussions for this project began in February 2009.  A meeting was held with the Vuntut Gwichin leadership in the community of Old Crow in July 2009 to discuss the research project.  With community approval and support for the project secured in June 2009, the research is scheduled to begin in September 2009 and will conclude August 2011.  Tobi Jeans, a Masters student will be working on the project in Old Crow June 2010 to August 2010.

Specific objectives include:

  • We will identify the barriers that may be limiting food sharing between the Vuntut Gwich'in and related Gwich'in communities in Alaska (families and relatives). Barriers may include the costs associated with travel, legal restrictions limiting cross-border travel, travel risks associated with environmental and climate change, and changes in border policy following the events of 9/11.
  • We will map historic and contemporary travel routes and sites used by the Vuntut Gwich'in for the exchange of traditional foods and other resources with relatives in Gwich'in communities in Alaska.
  • We will identify and map family, community and regional food sharing networks that exists within the Gwich'in Nation (social network analysis). This will include information relating to the types and amount of foods being shared, seasons in which sharing occurs, and the social relationships that are maintained through food sharing and exchange (friends, family).
  • We will identify the cultural and spiritual importance of food sharing. This will include recording oral histories about sharing and food exchange. 
  • We will record the rituals and ceremonies long followed by the Gwich'in for sharing food and for maintaining trade and political alliances with other Gwich'in communities.
  • By working with community members and leadership we will design a set of policy recommendations to help ensure that the imposition of the US/Canadian border does not infringe upon the food sovereignty rights of the Vuntut Gwich'in.



The theme coordinator and graduate assistants will make public presentations on the research in the community of Old Crow, other Gwich'in communities in Alaska, and at national and internatonal conferences.  The theme coordinator and graduate student  will offer to brief national Aboriginal and other organizations on the research project and findings. Northern journalists will be apprised of research visits and offered interviews. Full use will be made of the SERNNoCa newlsetter, the CED Network newsletter, and the SERNNoCa Website

Research results will also be communicated to the academic community through submissions to refereed journals. The results of research will be made available on the SERNNoCa and Hub website.  Papers published in various academic journals. Public workshops in research locations. Besides publication opportunities the student will be involved in the Social economy Student Network. This network serves primarily as a graduate level academic, information and education forum/portal on the Social Economy. Presentations of this research will also be made at the annual conference of the new Association for Non-profit and Social Economy Research (ANSER) held each year at the Congress for Humanities and Social Sciences.


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