Being Caribou (2005) concentrates primarily on the arctic as home for the caribou rather than the indigenous Gwich’in the herds support. But its frame at least begins to align the survival of the caribou with that of the Gwich’in people. As Salma Monani suggests, “Because Being Caribou is a film that combines encounters with wild animals and wilderness adventure with an explicit political agenda, and because this political agenda also pays homage to the Native Americans embroiled in the battle of the Refuge debate, the film provides insight into the potentials and problems of contemporary wilderness discourse within the adventure–nature film categorization” (102) For filmmaker Leanne Allison, the icy landscape is like a rhythm, alive and vacant without the caribou. Her filming of her and husband Karsten’s journey with the porcupine caribous is meant to not only document their migration but also to provide arguments against drilling in the Arctic National Refuge. Oil drilling will hurt the herd, they explain.
Although most of the documentary focuses on this husband and wife team’s struggles to become caribou, the opening and closing connect the herds’ wellbeing to the Gwich’in people they sustain. Randall, a Gwich’in elder from Old Crow along the Porcupine River speaks for the caribou and for Gwich’in culture dependent on their survival. For Randall, there is a spirit in all living things. The Gwich’in and the caribou share elements of this spirit. The caribou look after the people, so the people care for the caribou, he explains. Randall also opens Leanne and Karsten’s journey by interpreting Leanne’s dream of a flowing river. He can read when the migration has started because his world is so integrally connected with that of the caribou.
During the central part of this film, we see Leanne and Karstan’s efforts to follow the caribou. They ski through rough snow and climb steep ridge while carrying 60-80 pound backpacks. But, as Leanne explains, they are “trying to be caribou, not being caribou.” Along the trail they note multiple challenges to the caribous’ survival: bears wolves, foxes, and even insects. But humans serve as the most dangerous adversaries for the herds. Anthropocene climate change has already diminished the herds. Oil drilling in the refuge will destroy them. The caribou are protected in Canada, but in the Alaskan refuge where they birth and nurse their calves, their habitat is still unprotected. This documentary is meant to sway Congress to vote to protect the Arctic Refuge.
Yet because their journey ends where it began, with Randall, the Gwich’in representative, the power of circular journeys and an indigenous worldview proves stronger than a white Canadian nature film. He shows them they are part of a bigger circle that’s continuing for the caribou. They all hope it will always continue. Unsurprisingly, Congress does not respond well to the film. The response is disappointing and ignites their biggest fear that the calving grounds will be drilled and the caribou herds will decline. It is only when the Gwich’in voice again enter the film that hope for the caribou returns, for their survival means the survival of the Gwich’in and their home.
After watching a Gwich’in protest outside the capital building, Karstan realizes success won’t come from the top down. They must work from the bottom up by giving voice to the indigenous people who live with and for the caribou. As Randall explains at the end of the film, “We need to talk about life. That’s what the elders taught us. To respect life and accept all its forms: plant life, animal life, fish life, bird life, whatever. The Gwich’in people respect everything.” Although the film provides beautiful scenes of caribou and their journey, it is the words of Randall that prove the most convincing argument against drilling. It will destroy the Gwich’in homeland. Although Monani asserts that Heuer and misrepresent native peoples and “do little to subvert consumerist longings to desire for adventure in wild places and maintains classist hierarchies” (112), it at least broaches the Gwich’in worldview and, perhaps, the caribous’ only chance for survival.