Tłįchǫ, an indigenous Dene nation of subarctic Canada, maintain subsistence lifestyles based on what they consider traditional foods. Caribou are the primary Tłįchǫ food animal and their reliance on caribou culminates in a complex relationship of give and take. Tłįchǫ demonstrate reciprocity for the caribou to give their flesh to hunters. Caribou populations in Canada’s Northwest Territories have rapidly declined and the government of Canada’s Northwest Territories implemented hunting restrictions in 2010 to protect caribou herds from extinction. Some Tłįchǫ, however, maintain that caribou are in hiding, not decline, and that caribou have chosen to remain inaccessible to humans due to human disrespect toward them. Many Tłįchǫ have responded to hunting restrictions and the lack of caribou by calling for respectful hunting practices to demonstrate to caribou that they are needed and thus resulting in the animal continuing to give itself.
I examine Tłįchǫ responses to contemporary caribou scarcity through three stages of Dene foodways: getting food, sharing food, and returning food and caribou remains back to the land. Analysis of Dene foodways stages reveals complex social relationships between hunters, animals, and other beings in the environment such as ancestors and the land that aids their exchange. Food is integral to many studies of indigenous religions and environmental relations yet the effects of dependence on the environment for food on social dynamics that include human and other beings have not been adequately addressed. Foodways as a component to theories of indigenous environmental relationships explain Tłįchǫ attitudes toward caribou. I draw from my ethnographic research, wherein I lived with Tłįchǫ families, studied the Tłįchǫ language, and participated in Tłįchǫ foodways such as hunting, fishing, and sharing food, to explicate Tłįchǫ foodways in relation to their worldviews and relationships with beings in the environment. I demonstrate how foodways, as an analytical category, offers a glimpse into Dene perceptions of non-human entities as something with which humans relate, while I simultaneously demonstrate the limits of environmental relations. My attention to foodways reveals the necessity of sustenance as a primary motivation for indigenous relationships to other beings, culminating in complex social dynamics.