Arctic Circle: The Lost Reindeer

The 'Lost' Reindeer of Arctic Alaska

Norman Chance

"Northern and central Alaska [is] capable of supporting over 9,000,000 head of reindeer. To reclaim and make valuable land, otherwise worthless; to introduce large, permanent, and wealth-producing industries, when none previously existed; to take a barbarian people on the verge of starvation and lift them up to a comfortable self-support and civilization, is certainly work of national importance."

Sheldon Jackson, General Agent for Education in Alaska, submitting a request for federal funds to establish a reindeer herding program in 1890.

The Setting

Prior to the discovery of the northwest whaling grounds, this activity had been limited to the Atlantic and southern Pacific oceans. But with their discovery in 1835, large numbers of American vessels began crusing north of 50 degrees north latitude in the area between the Asiatic and American coasts. Eventually, heavy commercial harvests reduced the bowhead population at the same time that the American Civil War further stimulated the market. To maintain their profit margin, whalers began hunting the walrus.

The season began in June in waters between St Lawrence Island and the Bering Strait, continued in early July on the north shore of the Chukchi Peninsula, and then moved into the northeast Chukchi Sea. Most walrus were shot on ice flows, frequently hundreds at a time. It is estimated that whalers captured approximately 150,000 walruses, 85 percent of which were obtained between 1869-78. However, given the considerably larger number of animals wounded without being taken, the total kill was probably twice that amount. [Bockstoce 1986:135] The result of this slaughter for Alaska's northern Natives was devastating. One whaling captain, Frederick A. Barker, shipwrecked in 1870 following a severe gale, wrote in a New Bedford, Massachusetts newspaper of his stay with the Eskimos:

Should I ever come to the Arctic Ocean again, I will never catch another walrus, for these poor people along the coast have nothing else to live upon....I felt like a guilty culprit while eating their food with them, that I have been taking food out of their mouths. Although they knew the whaleships are doing this, they still were ready to share all they had with us. [Barker 1870-71]
Over the next ten years, the American press continued to report stories of hunger, starvation and death in the Alaskan north. Some placed blame on the effects of alcohol brought to the villages by traders. Others addressed the impact of western-induced disease on a population with litle immunity to combat such afflictions. Still others focused on the loss of sea mammals to a Native population with limited natural resources on which to draw. Overhunting by Natives supplied with rifles by Euro-Americans and British reduced Alaska's Western Arctic caribou herd with a comparable loss of food amoung the inland population.

Finally, these problems drew the attention of U.S. government and private agencies. The lack of western-based education, need for improved hygiene and health care, and greater "industrial and moral training" were also seen as a cause for federal action. Shortly thereafter, schools began to appear along the northwest coast - in most instances, staffed initially by religious missionaries.

Introducing the Reindeer Program

To solve the problem of depleted game resources and instill a new entrepreneurial spirit among Native northerners, the U.S. Bureau of Education [at the time carrying federal responsibility for their welfare], agreed to implement Sheldon Jackson's reindeer herding proposal. With funds allocatted by the federal government, reindeer were purchased from the Siberian Chukchi and shipped across the Bering Strait by American revenue cutters in the 1890s. Herds were initially supervised by church missions [and later schools] throughout Northwest Alaska. Chukchi and Lapp herders were also brought over to instruct Yup'ik and Inupiat Eskimo men in handling them. After serving an apprenticeship, individual Natives received the loan of a small herd.

Eventually, these herds grew to substantial size. The Inupiat herd at Pt.Barrow, which originated with 125 deer, expanded to 30,000 by 1935. [Sonnenfeld 1959:331] Between 1918 and 1934 the Wainwright herd increased from 2300 to 22,000. By total count, the 1250 deer imported to Alaska from Siberia between 1892 and 1902 had increased to over 600,000 by 1932. One reason for this spectacular growth was that the reindeer were introduced into an environment that had been largely cleared of their only possible range competitor, the caribou. Reindeer simply took over the ecological niche left vacant by this other animal. Yet the success of this venture proved only temporary.

In Alaska, of the 600,000 reindeer present in 1932, only 25,000 remained [in 1950].

At Barrow, initial interest in reindeer herding was stimulated by a decline in the whaling industry. But by 1940, there were less than 5,000 domestic reindeer and by 1952, there were none. A similar pattern emerged throughout Alaska. Of the 600,000 head present in 1932, only 200,000 remained by 1940. And a decade later there were only 25,000.

What were the reasons behind this tremendous loss?

At the time, explanations for the decline focused on problems of overgrazing, along with disease and predation. But of equal if not greater importance were changes in government administration and policies, new opportunities for Natives to gain a cash income, and changing attitudes of northern Natives toward subsistence hunting and wage labor.

At the heart of the reindeer program was the apprentice system designed to provide Alaska's Eskimos with a new, commercially viable economy. In 1894, apprentices were to be given two deer at the end of the first year, five after the second, and ten deer in each succeeding year that they remained as active herdsmen. In addition, they were to be "fed, clothed, housed, and instructed at the expense of the government." Shortly thereafter, however, the payment in deer was rescinded since "Experience has shown that the apprentice at the [reindeer] station makes a better living than his associates at home. When he completes his apprenticeship it may be proper to give him some deer for a start, but if this is done, it will be as a gift and not wages." [Jackson 1896:111]

Several years later, the policy shifted again. At that time, the apprentice program was reduced to four years, each individual receiving a loan of six to ten deer depending on the length of time spent in the program. At the end of the four years, the participants would be loaned additional deer to assure their having a herd of fifty animals. By this means, Eskimo herders could support their family from the sale of surplus deer. However, on the North Slope of Alaska (which had no viable market for reindeer meat), the hoped for entrepreneurial self-reliance that was to emerge from this endeavor, was simply not possible. Instead, reindeer herding was viewed by the Pt. Barrow, Wainwright, and other North Slope Inupiat largely as an extension of their earlier subsistence hunting practices.

Still, given the dramatic increase in the deer population, more and more Inupiat began purchasing them, bypassing the period of apprenticeship. In 1913, a teacher at Barrow described the expanding herds as being like "a savings bank." Owners, leaving their animals in the growing herds, could reap the benefit of the expansion without having to give up their hunting and trapping activities. Inupiat apprentices, too, could benefit since in addition to receiving "wages" [including ammunition], they were allowed to trap near the herd; a easy process since foxes often frequented herding grounds in the search for food. But as owners and reindeer increased, so did the problems. One difficulty was how to maintain a proper record of ownership. For small family-owned herds, the problem was minimal. But as the herds grew larger, mismarking of strays and calves became more common.


An entirely different problem emerged following the U.S. Reindeer Service's proposal that individual herds be consolidated into central ones residing under the control of "corporations" which would assume the responsibilities of management. Initially proposed in 1911, the policy urged that Natives give up their individual ownership, receiving in turn a proportionate number of shares in the corporation. By the mid-teens, the plan was firmly in place. However, many owners were dissatisfied with the resulting consolidation saying they had 'lost' a great many deer in the process.

In 1928, the Eskimo population of Pt. Barrow Eskimo faced a further difficulty when the local schoolhouse containing all the records of reindeer ownership burned to the ground. A transcript of the fedral government's Reindeer Service sponsored hearings contain the comments of Charlie Brower, a white entrepreneur living in the village at the time:

Today, there are probably 20,000 reindeer running loose...No man knows how much he owns. The people who owned the biggest herds have lost their interest. They are practically wild, running in with the caribou.
The problem was eventually resolved in 1930 when another set of records was found. However, considerable damage had already been done. As herding became more sporadic, wolves which had increased proportionately with the reindeer population, expanded their predations. This in turn scattered the animals making herding more difficult. Furthermore, as the deer became wilder from lack of herding, the farther they roamed from their home ranges.

Not surprisingly, as the mixing and breeding of domestic reindeer with caribou became more common, these animals often found themselves in the sight of an Native hunter's rifle. 'Who was to say whether an Eskimo kill of this four-legged creature was someone's reindeer or simply a stray caribou separated from the larger herd. And anyway, for the Inupiat as well as other northern hunters, any game was fair game when need was the primary criteria.'

By 1939, most of the Inupiat Barrow deer had disappeared resulting in lost income for the apprentices. Similar losses were common in other areas of the Arctic. In an effort to revive the industry, the government again supported apprentice wages and offered as well improved training in herding practices. At Barrow in 1943, 2700 deer were loaned from the nearby Wainwright village herd and three defunct companies reinstituted. But for the most part, government support seemed insufficient to draw the interest of the North Slope Inupiat. Government leaders were also concerned that such efforts promoted dependency rather than economic self-reliance. As stated by a white superintendent of one of the Barrow reindeer companies: "The natives must be brought to the realization that the responsibility for maintaining their herds is theirs, and not the responsibility of the government." Elaborating, he continued:

Getting the local native to do a little work for the company now and then without always expecting pay for same [is difficult]...Natives want too much pay in shares when labor is given...Too many deer are used by herders at reindeer camps during the year....Hunters and [Native] trappers killing deer without a permit, claiming deer were almost dead, or had a sore foot and so on..." [Annual Report, Northern Frontier Reindeer Company, 1941]
Earlier experience with whalers, trappers, and government officials had, of course, led Alaska's Eskimos to expect a supply of goods or cash in return for their labor. Having adapted to these economic relations, proposed changes were looked on far less favorably. Thus, as long as government subsidies continued, apprentice workers could be found and the herds adequately cared for. But by 1944, when the reindeer companies were again perceived as being sufficiently self-sustaining, the government subsidity was withdrawn once more. This same summer, a new airfield was constructed at Barrow with the help of Inupiat laborers. The Navy also arrived on the scene to explore petroleum deposits known to be in the area. With these opportunites for a cash income, reindeer herding suffered accordingly. By the end of the summer, a major herd was lost. Located that winter, it was lost again, eventually located by several Inupiat working at a coal mine on Mead River 60 miles to the south.

To forestall a complete collapse of the reindeer industry throughout the Alaskan Arctic, the Reindeer Service proposed that herds be removed from corporate ownership and placed in the hands of individuals. As stated in a Reindeer Service Circular of 1944:

Herders will be encouraged to take good care of reindeer if they own the reindeer, because they will be planning and working for themselves. The better they manage the reindeer, the more money they will make. If they neglect the herd, they will suffer the loss of their reindeer business.
Thus, the Service tried to distance itself from a failing industry. But it was too late. In May of 1946, more far northern herds had been deserted. Loaned additional deer, those too were lost the following year. By 1952, the last of the remaining Pt. Barrow reindeer was gone. Similar losses were reported at other reindeer herding villages on the North Slope. But in Barrow, particularly, lack of supervision of the herds had suffered by the availability of a new cash income which was far more appealing than the herding of reindeer.

However, new employment opportunities though significant, were not the only reasons behind the final demise of the arctic Alaskan reindeer industry. Not to be discounted was the resurgence of the decimated caribou population which the Inupiat could again count on in their efforts to maintain a economic life style free of the constraints associated with herding. This distaste for herding was further enhanced by the government's seemingly endless policy changes. Thus, while there may have been an initial novelty in owning a small group of reindeer, once that novelty wore off, the problems became clearer.

When government policy forced the consolidation of herds, even greater difficulties emerged. At Barrow, following the burning of the schoolhouse with its records of individual reindeer ownership, herding hardly seemed worth the effort. While the collapse of the fur trapping industry during the depression of the 1930s provided a new incentive for reindeer herding, it was short-lived. By World War II, furs again had increased in value, thereby drawing the attention of those Inupiat, who, under other circumstances, might have chosen to continue their interest in herding.

Farther to the south in the Seward Peninsula where opportunities for marketing reindeer meat were much greater, the Eskimos of that region faced quite a different set of problems - some of them having to do with unethical practices by incoming White entrepreneurs. In 1915, the Lomen Reindeer Corporation was established by two brothers who quickly moved into rangeland controlled by the U.S. Department of the Interior and occupied by Eskimo herders. When government policy forced the Eskimos to place their reindeer under the direction of corporations, their animals were located in the same herds as those of the Loman brothers. Through various forms of manipulation such as marking all maverick deer under the Loman name and miscounting the number of newborns, the Native Alaskans felt they were being cheated. But given the lack of government intervention on their behalf, all they could do was complain to their reindeer district representative.

Changing Social Relations

Reindeer herding was introduced to Alaska during a period of rapid industrialization, accompanied by significant advances in maritime technology. Rather than having to demand tribute from a subjugated Native population as had been the case during Russian colonization, America's search for wealth in Alaska was based on a set of economic principles firmly rooted in improving technology, expanding industry, exchanging commodities, and accumulating capital.

Also, thousands of transient and shore-based whalers, traders, gold seekers, missionaries, teachers and government agents eventually came north, thereby constituting a much larger segment of the overall population than had been characteristic of the Russian penetration. Furthermore, although Eskimos and other Alaskan Natives were useful in providing labor, food and supplies to these white entrepreneurs, they were not as essential in extracting the particular resource as had been the case with the Native Aleut. Thus, Eskimo relations with American whalers and traders differed significantly from earlier ones between more southern Alaska Natives and Russian traders where deliberate murder and enslavement were commonly practiced.

....different economic activities encourage different economic and social relations......

The major lesson to be learned from this comparison is not that America's links with Native Alaskans were less devastating than those of Russia - although that is certainly the case - but that different economic activities encourage different economic and social relations. Life in the Arctic prior to European penetration placed a high value on cooperative labor among Native kin - thereby enhancing the likelihood of adequate sustenance. Although rights and responsibilities differed according to the closeness of the relationship, the collective labor of the group was nevertheless seen as being mobilized by linkages between kin. Only after their colonial encounter with Euro-Americans did changes take place that fundamentally altered these social relations.

The introduction of reindeer herding to Alaska in the 1890s provides a particularly good illustration of this process. Prior to that time, Eskimo hunting, fishing and gathering activities basically used nature's renewable resources. But herding reindeer transformed the people's relationship with their natural environment in that Eskimo herders began utilizing it for the production of livestock. In the first instance, the resource was available to those with the skills to obtain it. In the second, it was restricted to those producing it. That is, through ownership and inheritance, Eskimo herders (along with non-Native ones) gained exclusive rights over its disposition - quite a different relationship indeed.

This is not to suggest that prior to the introduction of reindeer herding, caribou grazing lands, duck stations, or fishing camps were simply common property available to all. Terrirtorial boundaries were recognized and enforced throughout Arctic Alaska by distinct kin groups, a process that effectively limited access to such resources by "outsiders" unless appropriate social clearance was obtained [see Burch 1975].

As long as Alaska's Native northerners were able to channel their economic efforts through kin-based relations, part-time involvement in the larger economic system supplemented, rather than replaced, their own means of livelihood. However, as commerce and industry expanded and western commodities became more plentiful, the earlier barter-oriented ties once characterizing Native-Euro-American economic relations increasingly gave way to cash-based ones.

Eventually, subsistence activities became dependent on western technology, at which point Eskimo "partners" in economic exchange increasingly became subordinate producers in an entirely different form of production - that of industrial capitalism. Under this form of enterprise, the tie between the producers and the means to produce is largely broken, the results of which either draw people into wage work from which profit can be extracted, or places them at the outer margins of the dominant society.

George Rogers [1972:195], one of Alaska's most respected economists, describes the changed relations stemming from this economic transition succinctly:

During the colonial period the Native was treated as part of the environment in which the exploitation was to be undertaken. If they could be turned to a use in serving the purpose of getting the resource out as easily and cheaply as possible, they might be enslaved as with the Aleut, or a local work force in the harvest and processing of marine resources. If not, they were ruthlessly pushed aside while their traditional resources were exploited to the point of extinction by seasonally imported work forces as was the case with the coastal Eskimo. The impact was on the whole destructive to traditional ways and to the Native people themselves, and their economic participation was marginal at best.
Much can be learned from studying the reindeer herding experiment on Alaska's northern Eskimos. It clearly unveils the colonial mentality of the time. It also highlights the changing nature of Euro-American-Native social relations. And perhaps most important of all, it foreshadows the implementation of corporate policies and structures characterizing the core of Native Alaskan economic and political life today.

References Cited

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