The history of reindeer in Alaska is complex. To help me understand I interviewed Nathan Muus, writer, musician, and yoiker. Muus is a Sámi American leader who’s been involved in the Sámi American awakening for 30 years. Sámi (Saami) are the Indigenous peoples of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Russian Kola Peninsula. Muus is one of original founders of “The Sami Siida of North America.” Muus, along with Marlene Wisuri and others, established the Sami Cultural Center of North America located in Duluth Minnesota.
I have Sámi heritage, too, so I’m especially interested in this reindeer history. First, let’s explore the difference between a reindeer and a caribou. Reindeer are Rangifer tarandus and so are caribou. However, there’re enough differences between the two that they’re considered two subspecies. Reindeer are semi-domesticated. In Europe and Asia, the Rangifer tarandus is called reindeer and in North America they’re called caribou.
Reindeer Fact: Both male and female reindeer grow antlers. In early December, after mating season, male reindeer shed their antlers (unless they’re castrated males, then their antler growth has a similar cycle to female deer). Pregnant females retain their antlers throughout winter until spring.
Humans have been working with reindeer for 5,000 years. This ancient relationship is evident in the Sámi languages. The word for reindeer is boazu in the North Sámi dialect, and the word for a working reindeer herder is boazovazzi, which translates to “reindeer walker.” But how did reindeer and their reindeer walkers get to Alaska?
Let me walk you back in time 130 years:
The reindeer herding industry began as part of a plan to assimilate Alaska Natives. United States government agents, including Sheldon Jackson, spread the myth of starving Alaska Natives to acquire funds. Charles H. Townsend, who accompanied Revenue Marine Service Captain, Michael Healy (from the U.S. Revenue Cutter Bear), conceived the idea while on a trip through the Bering Sea visiting villages. They proposed the plan to Jackson, the General Agent for Education for Alaska (and Superintendent of the Presbyterian Board of Missions in Alaska). Though they witnessed overharvesting of Alaska’s subsistence resources by whalers and fishermen, as outsiders, Jackson, Healy and Townsend, didn’t understand the natural cycle of lean years and abundance.
Reindeer Fact: Reindeer hairs are hollow, so they trap air as an effective form of insulation.
The government agents and missionaries assumed they knew best. As Muus points out, “Alaska Natives had heard this story before.” The myth of starving Alaska Natives fit the plan. According to Muus, “Sheldon Jackson had his own strong vision but did try to carry out the U.S. government’s plan to try to assimilate Alaska Natives into English, Christianity and non-subsistence food gathering/ hunting.”
Reindeer Fact: In summer, reindeer foot pads soften so they have excellent traction in the soft wet ground. In winter, hoof pads tighten to form a rim, and are deeply cleft, which provides traction like snowshoes.
At first, in 1891, Jackson and Captain Healy, aboard the Bearing Sea Patrol cutter, Bear, brought sixteen reindeer to the Aleutian Islands to see if they’d survive the winter. Because the reindeer survived, the following year, they brought a herd of Siberian reindeer and four Chukchi herders to Port Clarence on the Seward Peninsula, forming the Teller Reindeer Station. The plan was to teach Alaska Natives how to care for reindeer. Though the Chukchi were traditional trading partners with the Inupiat, they also had historical conflicts. Herding methods clashed so a different plan was devised to bring new teachers to Alaska. The herding industry in Sapmi (Lapland) impressed Jackson. Sixteen reindeer walkers signed up.
Reindeer Fact: In winter, the reindeer’s facial hair grows down to the lips to protect the muzzle while grazing in the snow.
In 1894, the Sámi herding families, after signing a three-year contract with the Kjellmann Expedition, left Norway. They sailed for America, landing in New York, and continued by train to Seattle with stops in the Midwest. In Alaska, Muus says, “Sámi taught Alaska Natives, reindeer technology, herding, and herd management. Herding came natural for Alaska Natives. Both Sámi and Alaska Natives got along as they were both were “first peoples.” When the contract with the current reindeer project ended, serval families returned to Norway, but others stayed. Some Alaska Natives and Sámi had inter-married.
Reindeer Fact: Reindeer antlers are the fastest growing ‘bones’ in the world, growing up to ¾ inch per day. Reindeer have the largest and heaviest antlers of all deer species.
In the meantime, gold was discovered in Alaska. Unusually low river levels led to supply problems. In 1897, now touting starving miners this time, not Natives, Jackson received funds from the War Department to bring over more Sámi herders and reindeer under a two-year contract. Muus explains: “The plan had problems. There was sickness on the ship. The white handlers mismanaged the reindeer hay in Seattle’s Woodland Park. Someone had accidently thrown their food away.”
This second Sámi herder recruitment was called The Lapland-Yukon Relief Expedition and included 72 herders with families, their 548 reindeer, sleds, and dogs. Unfortunately, by the time they arrived on the west coast, the expedition had been cancelled when the government realized there was no need. Yet, a modified expedition continued known as the “The Manitoba Expedition,” and the herder families and their weakened deer sailed for Haines, Alaska. In Haines, there was no shelter, deer starved, routes and plans changed. Finally, in 1898, 43 herders returned to Fort Townsend Washington with Kjellmann, the expedition’s organizer, and the remaining fourteen herders, drove their reindeer overland to Circle City, Alaska. Only 114 reindeer survived.
Later in the same year, Kjellman took the remaining Sámi herders and their families via two ships from Fort Townsend to Eaton Station in Unalakleet, where a new reindeer station was established with the Seward Peninsula herd.
Reindeer Fact: Oleic acid in the reindeer’s bone marrow act as an anti-freeze agent and keeps them warm.
Reindeer herds were introduced all over Alaska. By 1914 there were 35,000 to 60,000 reindeer in Alaska in 30 separate herds occupying the Seward Peninsula. And in 1918, there were 98 herds with more than 100,00 reindeer. Nearly 70% of the herds were owned by Alaska Natives, and the rest were owned by Sámi, missions, and the government.
Over the years, herding conflicted with traditional subsistence cycles. Plus, there were conflicts over grazing rights between herders for the Lomen Corporation, Alaska Natives, Sámi, and the missions. The subsequent passage of the 1937 Reindeer Act, championed by the cattle industry to discourage the promotion of reindeer meat in the U.S., transferred the ownership of the herds to Alaska Natives, making it illegal for the Alaska Sámi to own reindeer herds. More Sámi left Alaska, returning home to Sapmi, and others moved to Washington State. Muus says, “About a third of Sámi, the Kven cooks and handlers, stayed in Alaska and married among Alaska Natives. Another third returned to Sampi, and a third moved to Washington and Oregon.”
Today, 60% of Alaska’s 40,000 reindeer are mostly located in the Bering Straits region in Nome, Teller, Stebbins, Shaktoolik, and on St. Lawrence Island. The Kawerak Reindeer Herder Association (RHA) serves 18 private Native herd owners and 3 tribal councils in the Bering Sea Region (Alaska Chronology, Baiki.).
Recently a historian said in a Facebook group that there are no Sámi living in Alaska. However, Muus says, “There are many descendants among the Yup’ik and Inupiat, and some Sámi with non-native descent.” In fact, Juneau resident, Professor Lance X’unei Twitchell and his children are descendants of the Sámi herders.
Reindeer Fact: The backs of reindeer eyeballs (not the front) change from a gold color in summer to blue in winter so their eyes can capture more light.
Our Alaskan reindeer history contains stories within stories. To tell this unique history of how Sámi and Alaska Natives coexisted with reindeer, Faith Fjeld and Nathan Muus co-curated the “The Sami, Reindeer People of Alaska” exhibit, with input and participation from Alaska Sámi families, including Lois Stover, along with Ruthanne Cecil, researcher, and exhibit organizer. “Key Alaskan Sámi families worked with the Báiki group to tell the ongoing stories,” Muus says.
Muus’s partner, Faith Fjeld, moved to Alaska to work on this project. “I visited Alaska many times and I joined in writing and assisting with the exhibit, including erecting lavvu tents, and researching photos. Also, I have three sets of relatives who live in Alaska. That’s kept me interested.” Nathan authored the Alaska Sámi-Native Alaskan Chronology online at the Saami Báiki website. “The stories are fascinating. I have come to know many descendent individuals and families as part of my work with Báiki.”
Today, in North America there are about 30,000 people with Sámi heritage, and some are descendants of the Sámi herders (“Lapp” is a derogatory term) from the Alaska Reindeer Projects. Some are descendants of Sámi immigrants to the U.S. and Canada who were listed as Norwegians, Swedes, and Finns.
Reindeer Fact: Numerous blood vessels in the reindeer noses act an internal heater and air conditioner that also regulates temperatures in the brain. Using an infrared thermographic camera, reindeer noses are indeed red.
I have only touched upon the complexities of Alaska’s reindeer history so if you’re interested, check out the photos in Alaska’s universities and library archives, plus head to the Sámi Cultural Center of North America’s webpage. Many books have been written about the reindeer expeditions, too. You can find more about Sámi by reading Báiki: The North American/International Sami Journal, edited by Nathan Muus and Faith Fjeld. Issues are available on the web.
In the Sámi languages there are more than a thousand words to describe reindeer. The special relationship the Sámi have with reindeer made them a logical choice to teach reindeer herding. These boazovazzi, reindeer walkers, became a fascinating part of Alaska’s history and their legacy lives on.
— Any mistakes and historical interpretations about Alaska’s reindeer history and Sámi culture are mine.
• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Yéilk’ Vivian Mork. It appears twice per month in the Capital City Weekly.