Meet the caribou hunter of Arctic Village, Alaska

Photos of this winter’s hunt and a community’s subsistence way of life.

  • Charlie Swaney's dog, Daazhraii (meaning white swan), waits outside his house in Arctic Village, Alaska at night. While snow machines are the preferred mode of transport for hunting and gathering wood, many villagers still keep dogs around, and some even have full sled dog teams.

    Nathaniel Wilder
  • Charlie Swaney, a subsistence hunter, heads out of his back yard to hunt caribou outside of Arctic Village, Alaska on the edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the southern slopes of the Brooks Range.

    Nathaniel Wilder
  • Charlie Swaney prepares to send three boxes of caribou he hunted for his grandson's college graduation celebration in Fairbanks, Alaska. Supplies for the 150 inhabitants of Arctic Village, one of the most remote villages in North America, arrive by plane.

    Nathaniel Wilder
  • Members of the migrating Porcupine caribou herd linger on a lake just south of Arctic Village. Caribou from the Porcupine herd are among the furthest traveling mammals in the world.

    Nathaniel Wilder
  • The Porcupine caribou herd, which numbers over 190,000, migrates through Arctic Village, one of the most remote villages in North America. The village sits at the edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the southern slopes of the Brooks Range.

    Nathaniel Wilder
  • Caribou scatter after Charlie Swaney, 54, fires and kills a female in the herd that has congregated on a few lakes and in the woods near his house. Locals say the caribou are coming through town a month early in 2015 but no one can say why.

    Nathaniel Wilder
  • Charlie Swaney, a Gwich'in Athabaskan from Arctic Village, straps two caribou to his sled that he has hunted and field dressed near town. Swaney is considered to be one of the best hunters in Arctic Village, and each animal takes him about 20 minutes to field dress.

    Nathaniel Wilder
  • A caribou kill from the previous day awaits the knife in Charlie and Marion Swaney's living room in Arctic Village.

    Nathaniel Wilder
  • Charlie Swaney is one of about 10 villagers that cuts and sells wood for the rest of the 150 residents in Arctic Village. He also gathers wood for his own wood stove. Villagers have broken a snow machine trail about six miles out of town down the eastern fork of the Chandalar River and up into the hills to get to good, thick stands of trees.

    Nathaniel Wilder
  • Outside the Arctic Village native store in late February. The community is fully opposed to opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to development.

    Nathaniel Wilder
  • The Arctic Village tribal council office sits near the center of town between the school and the village runway. Limited opportunities for employment and income in a community that maintains a subsistence lifestyle means that locals learn to work with what they have.

    Nathaniel Wilder
  • The "Midnight Sun Native Store" is the only store in Arctic Village, with some prices 3 times that of those in Fairbanks, Alaska. Heating with oil is too expensive in the village so every building has a wood stove.

    Nathaniel Wilder
  • Caribou meat hangs to dry on a log rack that Charlie Swaney built in his living room over the wood stove.

    Nathaniel Wilder
  • Charlie Swaney's driveway is a transfer point for things he has gotten from the land such as wood for his stove that was gathered 6 miles out of town and remains of two caribou he'd hunted earlier that day.

    Nathaniel Wilder

 

Each year, as the Alaskan winter transitions to spring, the Porcupine caribou herd begins its annual migration from south of the Brooks range and in the Yukon Territory, north to the coastal stretches of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In 2013, roughly 197,000 caribou made the trip, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. When the migrating caribou pass through indigenous villages, subsistence hunters like Charlie Swaney of Arctic Village take caribou for food and other traditional uses. Swaney's 2015 hunt is documented in these photos.

Unlike the high-profile predator hunting in Alaska, Swaney's hunting is quiet and close-to-home. "When the caribou migrate through, they hang out close to town for awhile, resting on the lakes, grazing in the muskeg forests," says photographer Nathaniel Wilder. "Our Gwich'in host would watch the caribou from his living room, through binoculars. He called the living room window 'the Outdoor Channel' as he could watch patterns of the caribou and wolves approaching the herd." If he wants to hunt, he hitches his sled to his snow machine and travels ten minutes down the way to the lake. After field dressing them, he brings his kills home.

Swaney also cuts down trees for the wood stoves that heat Arctic Village's buildings. His work plays a large role in his and the village's survival: Job opportunities are limited, cash is hard to come by and the village has resisted efforts to lease their land to oil and gas companies. Kate Schimel

A previous version referred to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game as the Alaska Department of Fish and Wildlife.

A version of this story appeared in the print magazine.