Project Jukebox

Digital Branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program

"Episode 3: The Technology of Reindeer Herding" Transcript

Episode #3: The Technology of Reindeer Herding


Within the last four decades, changes in reindeer herding practices due to the introduction of new technology, has been astounding. Snowmachines, fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, and radio collars have provided needed assistance to herders in their labor-intensive occupation. These improvements, however, come at a cost barely affordable by most Seward Peninsula herders even in the best of times when the price of antlers and meat is high.

Before the mid-1960's, all reindeer herding was conducted on foot with the aid of trained “reindeer dogs.” Herders lived in camps, which were moved frequently to follow the wide-ranging herds. Dog teams and draft sled deer were used to haul camp gear, and the reindeer dogs were critical for managing the herds. Long-time herder Herb Karmun reflects on these times. Johnson Stalker, another experienced herder, lived and worked with the reindeer, learning their ways from his Uncle Ross:

Herb Karmun: “What they used to do is they used to make sled deer to haul their camping stuff wherever they went in wintertime. They didn't have no prima stove in them days. I don't know how they stayed warm; they did some way. They did a lot of walking; they knew where everything grows and what doesn't. Pretty proud of those people - they showed us a lot. Dad showed me a lot.”

Johnson Stalker: (sings a reindeer song) “Most of my life I've been walking. When you are with the reindeer, all you do is just stay with them. You've got a reindeer dog with you and of course your binoculars. Sometimes we use the weather to be a reindeer herder; just through the wind, they go towards the wind when its kind of hot and mosquitoes bother them. And then sooner or later there will be a big bunch of reindeer come down - bucking the wind - and they'll be right there. We make a song out of what we do, the names of our sled deer. We call them sled deer because when we first tie them on a halter - you make a halter just right - some of them they're smart, they take them off and then you lose it. My Uncle Ross taught me how. That's why I got the names of my sled deer because of my Uncle Ross; like Honey-comb, like Happy-home. I copy him.”

The biggest change in herding methods occurred with the advent of snow machines. Snow machines provide high-speed transport, allowing herding operations based at remote camps to be replaced by commutes from permanent villages. Nathan Hadley talks about the positive and negative aspects of snow machines becoming a part of his everyday life as a reindeer herder:

Nathan Hadley: “In 1965, when I first get snow machine, I didn't know much about snow machines and I didn't get extra parts. And I breakdown way out there by my reindeer and me and my brother-in-law had to walk home. But when we learn our snow machines, we get life a little easier. You don't have to drive reindeer to get a bunch. You just jump on your snow machine and do it.”

Although the physical labor associated with reindeer herding decreased with the increased use of snow machines, herders faced the more serious problem of maintaining a sufficiently large reindeer herd to make their operations economically viable. Herder Merlin Henry tells about how he figures the economics:

Merlin Henry: “It gets real hard for me as a reindeer herder and you know you can't make any more money off reindeer meat, like selling reindeer meat and dehorning reindeer. And I couldn't make that kind of money and I couldn't keep up with my snow machine; I couldn't get parts no more. I have to pay for my snow machine parts, like a track, skis. With 800 to 1000 reindeer, you can operate with what you make off reindeer all year round. You can't handle reindeer if you got 200 unless you got money in the bank, but that money in the bank don't last because you got to buy a new snow machine to keep up with the reindeer.”

New technology also helped keep track of the herds in the summer, when some herders turn to helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. Herder Donny Olson sums up the dilemma of keeping track of reindeer:

Donny Olson: “When you look at the ways to go and find the deer, I mean you can cover so much more ground with a snow machine than a you can with dog team in a fairly short period. But once you get into a helicopter, I mean when you just clear up to that altitude, you can just look all over with your binoculars. The decision to go ahead and use a helicopter, or not, is based pretty much on the financial capability of the herder.”

Eager to incorporate new methods of enhancing the control of their reindeer, herders continue to look to technology. The most recent break-through has been the use of radio and satellite collars to track herd movements over large ranges, but it has not been without problems. Herder Leonard Olanna shares his experiences with telemetry:

Leonard Olanna: “Every five days, you know, there's a cycle that kind of takes place on these satellite collars. That there's an update; like from one place they'd be here, another five days, maybe they'd be in a different location. Especially during the summertime in which they would be in one spot, and all of a sudden they'd maybe be another 25-30 miles a different place, probably due to bear.”

Advances in radio and satellite telemetry have been timely as the numbers of wild caribou on the Seward Peninsula have increased. These close wild relatives of the reindeer lead entire herds away from their traditional ranges like sheep. Losing their reindeer herds at an alarming rate, herders have turned to satellite tracking techniques to monitor their herds and the comings and goings of migratory wild caribou. Coordinator for the Seward Peninsula Reindeer Herders Association, Rose Fosdick, describes the events leading up to the use of satellite collars and the role the association plays:

Rose Fosdick: “The Western Arctic Caribou Herd was having a very devastating effect on the reindeer herders. I think the best thing that they have been able to come with is cooperative effort between the University of Alaska Fairbanks Reindeer Research Program and Natural Resources Conservation Service in putting satellite collars, or radio collars, on reindeer and finding their location in a short period of time, so they could move the reindeer out of the way. We've been able to work with private companies; an airline pilot and a airline company that owns a helicopters. We also looked to Fish and Game to locate the satellite collars for caribou because they do put collars on caribou also. So then we start to pay attention very closely to the caribou maps that are generated by Fish and Game out of their collar program, and start sharing the maps with the herders.”

Today's herders have faith that new technology can provide solutions to the problems they face in maintaining their herds. They are quick to recognize however, that there is no substitute for time on the tundra with the reindeer. Herder Roger Menadelook put it well:

Roger Menadelook: “One of my daughters work at the IRA office and know exactly where the reindeer is on a computer. She brings me that sheet and says, “Oh, your reindeer haven't moved yet, so I don't have to go out today.” That's the good thing about it. I think that's what makes us kind of lazy too because even if the deer is still blinking on the radio collar, you never know if that wolf is going to be right around the curve. And here you're home watching TV because you still think your reindeer are safe.”

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

Return to Heritage of Reindeer Herding Radio Programs Page