Reindeer are prominent in our holiday music and images. They pull Santa’s sleigh, have red noses, have names, and fly. But how much do you really know about this northernmost deer species?
Reindeer History in Alaska
Throughout the mid to late 1800s, whaling ships moved up and down the Bering Sea coast of Alaska. Traders from these ships came ashore and traded guns, ammunition, tobacco, alcohol, and foods like sugar and flour for pelts, meat and hides. When the production of plastics and petroleum products became prevalent, whaling was no longer profitable and whalers left the area. Unfortunately, by the time they left, the local populations of marine mammals had been severely impacted, leaving the Alaskan Natives without one of their major food sources. There is also evidence that terrestrial mammal populations were on the decline during this period. Diminished wildlife populations combined with a new dependence upon the food and goods introduced by the whalers left Alaska natives in uncertain circumstances.
By 1888, Captains of the U. S. Revenue Cutter Service ships that patrolled the waters of western Alaska became concerned for the well being of the Native Alaskans living along the Bering Sea villages. Captain Healy of the U. S. Revenue Cutter Bear was one of these Captains. He was a mixed-race slave born on a Georgia plantation and ran away from home at the age of 16 to become an officer on a merchant vessel, working his way up to Captain. Reports of starvation among Alaskan Natives reached Dr. Sheldon Jackson, the Commissioner of Education in Alaska and a Presbyterian minister. Dr. Sheldon Jackson devoted the last half of his life to serving the people of Alaska and he established schools and missions throughout western Alaska. Jackson’s goal was to broaden the resource base of Alaska Native populations and provide economic development where none was available. It was Captain Healy who first suggested the idea to Jackson of transporting domestic reindeer from Siberia to western Alaska as a solution to the food shortages among Native Alaskans. Healy had traveled extensively throughout the Bering Sea and had witnessed first hand the Native people of eastern Siberia and their success at raising reindeer.
Jackson received approval from Congress to introduce reindeer into Alaska from Siberia but received no funds for the project. He appealed to the women of the Presbyterian Church and they raised $2,000 to purchase reindeer. Jackson had many critics of his plan back in Washington, so he decided to perform a ‘trial run’ by purchasing 16 reindeer the first year and shipping them to Amaknak Island to see if they would survive the voyage and the winter. The reindeer did both and produced two calves the following spring. During the summer 1892, Captain Healy made five trips to Siberia and brought a total of 171 reindeer along with 5 Siberian herders, employed as herding instructors, to the Teller Reindeer Station established at Port Clarence.
The Siberian herders returned home after cultural clashes with Native Alaskans. In 1894, Scandinavian families, along with dogs and sleds were brought to Alaska to teach reindeer herding.
Congress appropriated funds from 1896 until 1902 to purchase more reindeer from Russia. Small reindeer herds were distributed to mission schools on the Seward Peninsula and throughout western Alaska under the direction of Jackson, to teach Native Alaskans to herd. Additional herds were established along the route to Point Barrow in 1898 when Jackson ordered a drive of over 400 reindeer to an ice-bound ship of starving sailors.
With the discovery of gold in Nome in 1898, reindeer were used to their full potential. There was a large demand for meat and reindeer were used to pull sleds of gear for the miners. The first postal reindeer route was established between St. Michael and Kotzebue in 1899. Reindeer were preferred to dogs for carrying supplies, as they were less expensive and they could graze freely, whereas food needed to be carried for the dogs.
Jackson continued to use reindeer as a means for teaching Native Alaskans English so they could do business with white people. Girls were taught sewing and housework, while men and boys continued to apprentice as reindeer herders. A reindeer apprentice required five years of schooling with room and board. They earned two female reindeer and their calves per year. After five years, the new herder is loaned enough reindeer to increase his herd size to 50 head.
In 1906, a government investigation by the Department of the Interior found that Scandinavians and mission schools rather than Native Alaskans owned a majority of the reindeer in Alaska. As a result, a new government policy was established with the goal of placing more reindeer into Native ownership and Dr. Jackson’s serviced were ended. By 1913, Alaskan Natives owned over 30,000 or 65% of the reindeer in Alaska. By the late 1920s there were over 400,000 reindeer in western Alaska and the population peaked at 640,000 reindeer in the 1930s! In 1937, the Reindeer Act was passed which restricted ownership to Native Alaskans. This act is still in place today.
By the 1950s approximately 50,000 reindeer were present on the Seward Peninsula. Reasons for the sharp decline are the harsh winter of 1938-39, losses to migrating caribou, predation by wolves, and the lack of attendance to herds. In the 1960s there was a gradual selection of Native Alaskan owners to become private reindeer herders with designated ranges. In 1968, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) became responsible for range management by issuing grazing permits and monitoring range condition. Soon after, modern range management techniques were applied to reindeer herding. Reindeer herding in Alaska has been a cultural and traditional mainstay in many western villages. The traditions surrounding reindeer herding and the use of their products continues today. Currently, there are approximately 20 reindeer herders and 20,000 reindeer in western Alaska. These herders belong to the Reindeer Herders Association, which is part of the Kawerak, Inc. Natural Resources Division. This group provides assistance in the development of a viable reindeer industry to enhance the economic base for rural Alaska and to improve the management of the herds. An additional 10,000 reindeer exist in herds on Nunivak, St. Paul, Umnak, and other Aleutian Islands along with a few fenced herds along Alaska’s road system. In the lower 48 states, there are approximately 1,000 reindeer, which are owned by private farms and zoos.
[Note: This narrative is taken from “Reindeer Roundup”, a curriculum book developed and authored by Carrie Bucki, © 2004 by the Reindeer Research Program, University of Alaska Fairbanks.]