Project Jukebox

Digital Branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program
Daniel Karmun
Daniel Karmun
Daniel Karmun talks about the history of reindeer herding on the Seward Peninsula.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2007-03-05

Project: Nome Communities of Memory
Date of Interview: Feb 17, 1996
Narrator(s): Daniel Karmun
Location of Interview:
Location of Topic:
Funding Partners:
Alaska Humanities Forum
Alternate Transcripts
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Reindeer being introduced to Alaska

Early administration of the reindeer herds

Range and size of reindeer herds

Herder payment and ownership of reindeer

People who contributed to success of reindeer herding

Corrals near Deering

Community working together on reindeer herding and importance of reindeer herding for the economy

Fun times during reindeer herding

Decline in and predation of reindeer herds

Ownership rules for reindeer herds, conflicts, and marketing of products

Ownership of reindeer herds, population decline and overgrazing

Partnership form of ownership of reindeer

Programs to rebuild and better manage reindeer herds

Importance of reindeer herding to Native history and his family

Changes in reindeer herding practices and hopes for the future

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I'm a retired reindeer agent from the University of Alaska Extension Service, also with Kawerakon developing reindeer programs back in the 70's.

To put in capsule form 105 years of history on reindeer would probably keep us here all night, but I'm going to try to do it in capsule form and give you some ideas of what occurred.

Historically, back in 1891 Dr. Sheldon Jackson, under the sponsorship of the U.S Department of Education, came up to Alaska with schooners and wanted to bring some reindeer over from Siberia.

The reason he wanted to bring the reindeer over was because of the depletion of the marine mammals along the coastline.

That was occurring because of the schooners that came from the Lower '48 to hunt the whales, the large mammals; you know for some use that they made use of in the states.

Of course we know that the college down at Sitka is named after Dr. Sheldon Jackson. He first brought over 10 live reindeer over to Port Clarence.

I wish we had a map, I'd show that to you, but you're familiar with the surroundings around this area. Teller was made the station where they distributed reindeer, that increased though the years.

Then in order to teach the Eskimo reindeer herders, the reindeer service brought over some Laplanders from the Northern hemisphere, there in Finland and those particular areas to train the Eskimo herders on how to herd reindeer.

Then, of course, the administering of the reindeer program was placed under the church missions that were established throughout the Seward Peninsula.

I'm sure the elders, that are older than I am, will remember the activities that went on in order to help the Eskimo reindeer herders. Then in later years they put the program under the school teachers.

I guess you can kind of imagine how much work that entailed; trying to be a teacher, and then trying to administer the reindeer program at the same time.

So that was quite a task for the teachers. Then at the same time, they built a reindeer station, a research station down at Unalakleet

to assist the reindeer herders on the proper method of herding, and the proper care of reindeer. Then the reindeer service, of course was stationed here in Nome.

­­­From the original 10 reindeer that were introduced some 40 years or just about 50 years later the increase was up, they said to 300,000 to 600,000 head of reindeer.

Then in those increases they farmed out the reindeer herds to those individuals, Eskimo helpers, herders, that earned their share of reindeer.

That's the method they used to farm out the reindeer to the different villages and to the different missions. In fact, the entire west, northwest coast was reindeer herding areas. All the way down. I know of the Bethel area.

Then the island that is part of Bethel where they established reindeer herds. Prior to 1891, there was some mention that they were attempting to bring the first number of deer to Alaska.

But due to storms or something to that effect, they ended up down in the Aleutian chain. I don't recall the name of the area.

But they ended up down there. So there were deer being introduced way before, probably before 1891.

The way that the herders were paid was by shares of reindeer. They didn't kill the deer outright at the time they earned their shares of reindeer. They built it up.

I learned that my father had earned some reindeer. He was a man from Wales . I didn't realize that until I started working for the reindeer program.

It was in 1916; he and Stanley Kahvayruk drove his deer that he had earned up to Deering and established a herd there. So that's the way they farmed out the deer. Whenever there was too many deer in one location they told them to go to this particular area.

I'm sure that's where they went to. To bring their reindeer herds. Then the herds continued to grow. It was too large for an individual to own the deer. So they formed reindeer companies.

And I know there's a lot of men and women that contributed to the success of the reindeer herds in the Teller area, the Nome area. I remember one here locally, that was Emma Willoya, she talked a lot about the early days.

Then I know you heard mention about Kakarruk. The people I'm not too familiar with, but there's a lot of people that contributed to the success of reindeer herding.

So when the herds continued to grow in the area that I was born in, at Deering, they built corrals out of Deering up in the timberline.

That's about 60, 70 miles kind of southeast of Deering, and they built their corrals there .

About eight years ago my nephew and I and another person went up to the location where they had the corrals. They're no longer in existence or in use. Then we went up to Teresa Creek. A place called Teresa Creek, where the corrals were built.

The reason they went up to the timberline was because they could use the wood in that area also for, you know, fire.

Having your cook stove fired up with wood- your camp stove, and that is the reason they built the corrals up in that area.

I remember as a child growing up in the '30's when the entire village, practically the entire village of maybe 200 in the community, would leave Deering right after Christmas and New Years.

And get up there to the site to shovel out the corrals and establish a community there, a large tent city. I would say there would be about 250, 300 people established in that tent city.

Not only from Deering, but from Kotzebue, the nearby villages, Buckland, then the Kobuk River. They would gather up there to assist the reindeer herd owner at that time.

You can also realize that that was the only form of, you know, cash economy for the reindeer herders. Not actually cash but they were paid with reindeer meat. They loved to get the reindeer skin which also included the sinew.

Where they used the sinew to sew their mukluks or their Native products, parkas, sealskin pants, whatever.

And they used those things for their use. Reindeer skins, of course, and caribou skins is one of the most warmest mattresses you can find in the market.

I don't care what they say in the outside. I tell you they are the warmest form of mattresses when you're out in the country.

That's why they earned that skin to take home and make use of it.

There's a little humor sometimes in reindeer herding as well. In that tent city, you know Sunday usually is a time when everybody takes a rest.

But there will always be someone that needs to out in the country with his dog team. That was the only form of transportation we had, was a dog team during the winters.

This one Sunday, Pooto Vestal from Deering, decided to go out and get a load of wood. Then the trail that went over, right in the corner, there was a tent.

They established tents there in order to get to the hill and go on over to the timberline. Anyway, there was this man in the tent on Sunday and Pooto Vestal hit the corner of the tent as he rounded the corner.

It lifted it up. Here was Wheeler Douglas, was shaving away. Still shaving. Not realizing that his tent was up in the air.

So it was always good times. I remember, we younger people, once the reindeer were put in the corral, probably about 3,000 or 4,000 head of reindeer at a time, the young people would be placed in the pockets to make sure the reindeer didn't go out.

That was a good time for the young people. They'd get a deck of cards and play cards all night and watch the reindeer, make sure they're not getting out of the corral.

Before the 1940's was when we started to have a decline and crash of the reindeer industry all over the northwestern coast of Alaska.

I remember coming down about 1942, in the spring of the year, with, I think it was Wien Alaska Airlines at that time.

We flew direct from Deering to Nome. We saw thousands and thousands of reindeer dying off. Then of course the predators also were prevalent; a lot of wolves.

The wolves were killing them off, and enjoying a feast, you might say. The only reason wolves sometimes will kill the reindeer was just to have the tongue of the reindeer.

That was the only portion, sometimes, that they would eat. They were, like I said, having a feast at that time.

Then, after the Reindeer Act of 1937 was put in place and enacted by Congress, where only natives would be owners of reindeer and that was just before the crash.

The reason they established that Reindeer Act was because in the earlier times the Laplanders, that earned so many deer, had sold off their deer. You'd hear about the Lomen Brothers here who were established in Nome, sold their deer to Lomen's and more or less got in competition with the Eskimo reindeer herders.

You must realize, also at that time, there were no markets for the increasing herds throughout the northwest of Alaska. The only markets they had was locally like the trading centers such as Kotzebue, Barrow, Nome, Bethel, in those trading centers.

That was practically their only markets. With the increase of deer, the Lomens came on the scene. I think a lot of our people became disgruntled.

But they must realize, and didn't realize at the time that they didn't have the markets. Look at that history; you know we'd like to kind of blame everything on to the white people, which is not right.

I've always tried to maintain the philosophy that there is a lesson to learn in that incident; that they established a market. That's one of the secrets of getting into business such as reindeer herding.

You have to have a market in order to get your products sold. They did have a good market in the Lower 48, established that.

But the cattle industry in the Lower 48 didn't like it. So they kind of shoved them out and said, "No more of this." So that was the time when they also got out of the business of marketing reindeer.

Then the Bureau of Indian Affairs came on the scene after the enactment of that Reindeer Act. They began to establish a different form of ownership.

Prior to that I remember at Deering they began to separate the deer, I recall as between the Teller Unit and the Deering Reindeer Company, which they did, the deer that were left. They said the crash brought the deer way below 20,000,

from what you might say, 300,000 to 600,000 head of reindeer. All on the northwest coast. All the way down to Bethel.

So that was quite a crash and decline of the deer. Another thing was, they over-populated, then they also over-grazed the land. There was one form of food they had there in the winter is the lichen.

A little white lichen that is probably the size of your finger, that grows and the scientists tell us they re-grow in about 20 years. So you can imagine with the over-grazing of the lands they died off so rapidly, way below 20,000.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs tried, at first, the partnership form of ownership of reindeer amongst the natives. But that didn't work, because there was always division between two Eskimo owners.

One didn't like the other's method. So they strayed away from that concept and began to farm out the deer to individual and interested Natives at that time. That's the present method that is being used by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

So the rebuilding program, I came on to it back in 1974 after the Bureau of Indian Affairs also farmed out the project to the nonprofit arm which was Kawerak .

That was when we began to establish a five year plan for the industry to make sure we don't repeat history. We had the entire Seward Peninsula surveyed to determine the amount of feed that was on the entire Seward Peninsula.

Some 16,000,000 acres was surveyed. Then we also, with the University of Alaska Fairbanks developed a program to eradicate diseases, such as brucellosis, that, you know, keeps the female reindeer from reproducing in a healthy herd.

Then we also had another program to assist the herders in removing warble flies in that five year plan that started in 1974. We've completed that project.

Also, to assist the herders in keeping a better method of their herding, and the numbers in their herds. In that program we found out that you can have onr reindeer in that grazing land that would take a hundred acres .

That's the reason you'll find such large acreages for larger herds. There's one herd that has over 1,000,000 acres of grazing lands. The smallest herd amongst the 15 herds in the peninsula today, the smallest is 500,000 acres.

So you can see the acreages that are needed to maintain a healthy herd.

So these are part of the history of reindeer, something that's been with us in our presence. The reindeer has been a help to our native people during the harder times when that was the only form of work they had, other than gold mining in the summer time.

So reindeer has been good to us. It was there at that separation of deer between Teller Unit and Deering, it was found out that my family, my father who brought the deer up there 1916, they had the largest share of deer.

So, the family put the herd in place, and formed what they call the Kugruk Reindeer Company. Today, after 80 years that herd is still in our family. My brother and his sons are maintaining the deer.

I have pictures and documents of the early day way of putting out your shares. At our leisure I'll show you the shares of deer that were willed to myself and to my younger brother.

And is still in the family after 80 years. It's been good. It's been good to us.

But the method of herding has changed from the early days. It was during the winter that herding method was the only time they took care of the reindeer.

But with the demand of velvet antlers by the Oriental people for medicinal purposes have changed the seasons of operation to summer when the velvet antlers are in stage during summer.

So that has greatly helped the reindeer herders into trying to maintain a balance. Not over-killing their herds because of the small numbers that they have,

but still maintaining meat and velvet antler products for the herders. And I would hope after celebrating the first 100 years of having reindeer in the Seward Peninsula in 1991,

with the safeguards that are built in now, that we can see another 100 years of reindeer on the Seward Peninsula. Thank you.