Trimble Gilbert (Gwich'in)

Gwich'in Fiddler
A man plying a fiddle.

Photo credit Alex Troutman of Channel Films


Trimble Gilbert is traditional chief and reverend of the Neets’ąįį Gwich’in people from Vashrąįį K’oo, Alaska. The Gwich’in are among the furthest north of the American Indian people in North America, living in remote isolated villages. They live a subsistence lifestyle with traditions that date back more than 10,000 years.

Gilbert is a master Gwich’in fiddler and highly esteemed culture bearer. Few people possess the depth of cultural, spiritual, and intellectual knowledge and share it so extensively and with such humility as does Chief Gilbert. His life is a walking testament to the cultural values, practices, traditions, and knowledge of the Gwich’in people.

European contact with the Gwich’in began in 1840 through French and Orkney Scot Canadian fur traders, who brought with them the fiddle, jig, and square dances. The Gwich’in took fondly to the new music and quickly adapted it to have Indigenous names and style, defining a unique genre of folk fiddle sound, Gwich’in fiddle music.

Gilbert was born in 1935 to James and Maggie Gilbert in Vashrąįį K’oo. At the time, the Neets’ąįį Gwich’in lived a nomadic lifestyle, traversing vast wilderness, following the changing seasons and migration of animals they depended on for their survival. There was no school in the village, so Gilbert’s education was on the land, learning from his parents and elders the ways of arctic survival. From his earliest years, he was an avid, self-driven learner. By seven years old he was already working on making his own snowshoes from bent wood and sinew.

During the holidays the Gwich’in would gather in the village, returning from remote hunting and trapping grounds, to celebrate together. These celebrations included Gwich’in fiddle dances, which extended an entire week into the New Year. As a young boy, Gilbert remembers being captivated by the sounds of the fiddle and exuberance of the dances.

In 1953, the Neets’ąįį Gwich’in began to settle more permanently into the village and Gilbert ordered a fiddle from the Sears Roebuck catalogue. He learned to play the fiddle in the same way he learned other facets of Gwich’in cultural and traditional knowledge: through watching, listening, and diligent practice. By the 1970s, he was able to listen to Gwich’in fiddle music coming over the airwaves from Canada on a transistor radio. This helped him to further refine his repertoire of songs and unique style.

Rev. Dr. Chief Trimble Gilbert’s intellectual, cultural, and artistic contributions to Alaska were recognized by the University of Alaska Fairbanks with an honorary doctorate in 2016. He has dedicated much of his life to teaching others through programs such as Dancing with the Spirit, which brings fiddle music into schools. His knowledge is a national treasure, only rivaled by his willingness to share and teach others.

By Evon Peter (Neets’ąįį Gwich’in), Senior Research Scientist, University of Alaska Fairbanks