Project Jukebox

Digital Branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program

"Episode 1: The History of Reindeer Herding" Transcript

Episode #1: The History of Reindeer Herding


The Seward Peninsula has the longest record of continuous reindeer herding in arctic North America. Reindeer herding dates back to the 1890's, when reindeer were first introduced to Alaska. Armed with extensive knowledge of the wildlife and the land, remote turn-of-the-century reindeer herders saw the opportunity to establish a sustainable and economically viable family-based industry. Since the beginning, the business of reindeer herding has been a balancing act of opportunity and struggle. Despite the hard work and uncertainty, present-day herders continue a heritage passed down by their parents and grandparents. They hope that their children and grandchildren will always have the choice and the means to herd reindeer. Past director for the region's Reindeer Herders Association, Dan Karmun shares his knowledge of the early history. Clifford Weyiouanna from Shishmaref tells about his family's involvement with reindeer herding around the turn-of-the-century:

Dan Karmun: "Teller was selected as the site to administer the growing industry to get herders involved. Then the powers to be made arrangements to bring to Alaska, laplanders that were accustomed to reindeer herding from Norway to teach the Eskimos on the proper method of reindeer herding.”

Clifford Weyiouanna: "My grandpa, his name was Will Malakiak, he worked for them for so many months and at the end of getting his education on reindeer herding, he earned two bulls. At the time, my grandmother Wilsa - they were just freshly married - my grandma was the cook and did all the other chores that the reindeer herders need to have done. She earned seven females and that was the start of the Malakiak herd.”

After the 1920's, reindeer herding on the Seward Peninsula switched from individual herd ownership to collective herd management. This change from individual to collective herding signaled a shift from herders spending full time with their own reindeer to a system of hired herders, who kept track of far more than their own. Today's life-long herders still remember early reindeer management techniques, including “handlings.” Similar to modern-day handlings, herders drove reindeer into corrals for counting, ear-marking, and slaughtering. A boy during that period, Nome reindeer herder Larry Davis tells about these herding practices. Faye Ongtowasruk from the small remote village of Wales, tells about her chores as part of a reindeer herder family:

Larry Davis: "Seemed like everybody had their own little job. Because there were so many deer you had to have your handlers like we do now, then you had the guys that work in the chute, some guys just all they did was mark deer and some all they did was slaughter deer, you know. When they got the deer in the corral, they watch them 24 hours a day so they won't lose them. It was fun. We had our good times.”

Faye Ongtowasruk: "When I was little girl, I remember we used to go corral. And we would be living in tent and they would have ladies to cook the meals for the workers. Anybody can help out and then they don't pay with money; they pay them with piece of reindeer meat."

The reindeer herds continued to grow, as did the demand for meat and antlers. Herding expanded until the 1930's and 1940's, when the good fortune came to an abrupt end. It is difficult to determine what caused the reindeer herds to go from all time highs to devastating lows. There is evidence that a combination of reindeer over-population, depletion of lichen forage, disease, poor herd management, predation by wolves, consecutive winters of icy conditions, and an increase in wild caribou all contributed to the decline. Some herders point to the movement of wild caribou on the Seward Peninsula as the major cause of the crash. Herder Merlin Henry from Koyuk recalls his grandfather, who witnessed the great demise of the reindeer herds:

Merlin Henry: "His name was Homer Tusarook and Homer was a chief herder who lived. There were some other herders that owned a few reindeer; they were all in one like a company. And then here comes the caribou, and wiped the herd out. This migration, I don't really remember when it was 1930's or 40's, when they wipe out the Koyuk reindeer. They couldn't do anything. There was lot of wolves, and caribou and they couldn't do nothing with trying to keep up with their reindeer with dog teams, so they lose all the herds.”

After World War II, in an effort to recover from the large number of reindeer lost, the Bureau of Indian Affairs abandoned collective herding and re-established individual ownership of the herds. In this program experienced herders assisted individuals who wanted to get started in the business. With good management practices in use across the peninsula, the herds grew again. They continued to thrive up until a few years ago when caribou returned onto the Seward Peninsula in large numbers. They mingled with the reindeer herds and when they moved, the reindeer moved with them. The caribou didn't come as a surprise to the herders. Dan Karmum and Larry Davis say they had been warned:

Dan Karmun: “Our ancestors always told us that one day the caribous going to come back again, and I think that's becoming true. The last five years, my wife and I would go to Shismaref to pick salmon berries during August, and we'd see a number of bull caribou. And you know, animals can convey their feelings one to other just like humans and probably they're scouts for the caribou herds to look for food sources.”

Larry Davis:" I think some people predicted that many years ago. The old Eskimos, said that they'd be back here. It didn't mean nothing to me because I didn't think those caribou would ever come back. But anyhow, they did come back and it's been devastating to the industry: Really, really bad.”

Today, roaming caribou continue to challenge reindeer herders reluctant to give up their way of life. Herders struggle to keep their reindeer away from migrating caribou and work hard to protect the range. As in the past, the strength of the herders has come from banding together as a group to seek solutions. Currently representing all the reindeer herders on the Seward Peninsula, the Kawerak Reindeer Herders Association has an active satellite-collaring program in collaboration with the University of Alaska. This program allows researchers and herders to track individual reindeer in the herds that they have left. The association communicates with biologists from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, who are tracking satellite-collared caribou to determine their migration movements. Passionate but realistic about reindeer herding, Tom Gray shares his sentiments and hopes:

Tom Gray: "I think our biggest hurdle is trying to survive with the animals in this area and if we have animals left after the caribou move out, then we have a chance.”

Funding was provided by the National Science Foundation Arctic Systems Science Program. This is Kathy Turco.

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