Project Jukebox

Digital Branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program

"Episode 2: The Heritage of Herding in Families" Transcript

Episode #2: The Heritage of Herding in Families


During its 100 plus years, reindeer herding on Alaska's Seward Peninsula has had periods when reindeer and herders thrived, and periods when herds reached extreme lows. Reindeer were first introduced to peninsula from Siberia. Siberian herders and then Saami herders from Norway were brought to Alaska to teach herding skills to local Native people. Apprentices earned reindeer as payment, and their hard work established healthy herds. For the next three decades, the herds grew until a drastic population decline during the 30's and 40's. Some people say it was caused by changes in management while others point to wolves, loss of good grazing, over-population, and the influx of migrating caribou. Over the next 45 years, changes in ownership and better management practices allowed the herds to be re-established and to grow. The family-based industry thrived. Today, herders face another influx of caribou onto the peninsula and many have lost their entire herds. As in the past, those who still have reindeer struggle to maintain herds.

Modern Alaskan reindeer herders have much to share about their family history, about the herding activities of their parents and grandparents, and about what herding means to their community. Reindeer are more than an economic resource, they have become a part of their identity. Clifford Weyiouanna from Shishmaref shares the history of herding in his family and how it inspired him to get started:

Clifford Weyiouanna: ”On my side, my grandpa, his name was Willy Molakanok, worked for the big herd that was involved with Sheldon Jackson. And while the mother was alive, she tells me a lot of stories as to how he and his brother by the name of Lowy Koonak moved with the herd. According to the records he has, he grew up to about 1500 head, then the caribous came in and that's when everyone got wiped out in the 30's I believe. Back in 1970, I applied for a loan for a reindeer herd in the area that I am leasing right now that's just south of village of Shishmaref. And I was able to get a loan of 500 deer from my father-in-law.”

Donny Olson's heritage in herding traces back to his great grandfather, who was a Saami herder from Norway's Finmark region. After teaching reindeer herding, some Saami stayed in Alaska to marry into Native communities and establish their families. A medical doctor, state legislator, herd owner and pilot, Donny Olson reminisces about his rich heritage from Scanadanavia and Alaska:

Donny Olson: "My name is Olson because my great grandfather was a fellow named Oolie Olson, who came over in 1898 on the ship, Manitoba. He had a contract with Sheldon Jackson and that group to be part of the Laplander herders that came on over and were teaching the local Natives to go ahead and herd reindeer that had just been brought over 6 or 7 years before from Siberia. And so he came on over here at the age of 19 or so, and about that time there was the gold strike here in the Nome area, and with that there was obviously a draw for him to stay here. He eventually married a lady from down in Golovin and settled there in Golovin. My dad, he was raised by his grandparents Oolie and Alvira Olson, and that's one of the reasons reindeer has been such a part of my life. We kept hearing about reindeer stories, about not just reindeer herding here in Alaska, but also how reindeer herding was handled over in Finmark and Lapland during that period of time.”

Reindeer herding remains labor intensive. Today, successful herding is based on a foundation of experience often gained over several generations. Families like the Karmuns have worked hard to own and manage reindeer. Dan Karmun recalls his youth when kids were let out of school to help at corrallings. While too young to herd during his grandfather's time, Dan's nephew, Herb Karmun, heard lots of stories about the way of life from his father and uncle:

Dan Karmun: "Back there in the days that I was growing up, they pulled out all the school kids from the school; doesn't matter how far they are advanced. This is one of the things in showing the school kids the custom and the culture of the people. And they're absent from school for about upward to two months.”

Herb Karmun: "My father talked about ‘em quite a bit, what they did on herdings. He said they did a lot of walking and he said they used to break in sled deer. When they corral, they just put willows up and hold reindeer in to mark them and probably castrate. But my father and uncles were out living in the country all that time watching reindeer year round. They didn't have the snow machines and stuff like we do. They had a lot of reindeer and dogs to keep them intact. They were tough people. They didn't have the clothes like we have now-a-days; like thermal shoepacks and snowsuits and stuff. They dressed with natural stuff like reindeer skin, parkies and leggings - everything Eskimo made. They made waterproof mukluks so they could walk springtime. They could walk through water and anything.”

As a youngster, Palmer Sagoonick heard many stories from his grandfather, who worked with Lomen's herd. These non-Native businessmen owned a large number of deer before the reindeer act of 1937. His father, Gustaf, carried on heritage of reindeer herding and Palmer worked with him until his death:

Palmer Sagoonick: "My grandfather originally came from the Shishmaref area years back, to do some reindeer herding for the Lomen Company and ended up in Shaktoolik area and never went back home. He raised his family there and that's how my dad, Gustaf Sagoonick, came about. Once the Lomen herds went down and went away - were sold out, given out - my dad ended up working for reindeer herder from Unalakleet, Jack Katoonin. Katoonin's herd ended up around the Shaktoolik area and he started doing all the herding for the Katoonin herd and eventually ended up with 89 head. The Bureau of Indian Affairs came and said would you like to take over this herd? And that's how my dad got started with small herd and worked it up until the caribou took the herd away. And that's when I came in the picture after my dad had worked the reindeer up to about 800 head.”

Today, migrating caribou, the compounding uncertainty of weather, and the costs of herding continue to threaten the prosperity of all herders on the Seward Peninsula. Long time reindeer herder Herb Karmun has experienced both the high points in herding history and the present tough struggle to maintain a herd. Reflecting on community support during corralling time, he has hope for the heritage of herding:

Herb Karmun: “Maybe 70 - 80 people come up. Everybody got their set job, if somebody take their place they say, “Nope, that's my place.” Young or old, they work. Pretty tough. So, we'll see - got to hope for the best - can't give up hope.”

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

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