REINDEER MEAT FOR AMERICAN MARKETS
Alaska: our Northern Wonderland
by Frank G. Carpenter
Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc.
|Alaska: Our Northern Wonderland, copyright 1928 by Frank G. Carpenter, chapter XXVI "Reindeer Meat for American Markets" and chapter XXVIII "School Republics of the Arctic!" Used with permission of Mrs. Edith H. Williams, for educational purposes only.|
The day is coming when reindeer meat will be sold in our American markets just like beef and mutton. This reindeer meat will come from Alaska. It will be shipped in cold-storage steamers and trains to all towns of the United States and will form the basis of a large packing industry.
There are now about two hundred and fifty thousand reindeer in the territory, and if the herds continue their present rate of increase it is only a matter of a few years before they will pass the million mark. It is estimated that Alaska can support ten million reindeer, and eventually the American housewife should be able to buy juicy steaks and roasts from Alaska as cheaply as those from our Western prairies. In fact, the industry has already reached the point where the Alaskan reindeer meat packers are urging Congress to protect them by a high tariff from competition in Norway and Sweden, which enjoy low costs of production and cheap freight rates to the United States.
The reindeer meat packing industry of Alaska is at its beginning. The first shipments were made about eight years ago, when twenty-five reindeer carcasses were shipped to Seattle. The meat was sold at from twenty to twenty-five cents per pound, and sales have increased each year since. Just now they are beginning to slaughter the deer for this season's shipment. I saw the work going on in a slaughter house back of Nome. The butcher shop is a large galvanized-iron building with corrals adjoining and passageways through which the deer are dragged into the slaughter house. I climbed to the roof and looked at the animals. There were fifty in each corral. They were as fat as butter and in splendid condition. These reindeer had enormous antlers, but they were not at all fierce. I had expected to see larger and heavier animals. Though of the average reindeer size, they were not taller than three-month-old Jersey calves. The dressed carcass usually weighs about one hundred and fifty pounds, but government experts predict that careful breeding will shortly double this weight.
The deer I saw slaughtered belonged to a stock company organized at Nome to develop the industry. The company is a close corporation, with an authorized capital of seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars owned by men of large means. One, for instance, is Jafet Lindeberg, who, as I have said, was employed by the United States Government to bring a herd of reindeer from Norway to Alaska about 1898, during the time of the great famine in Dawson. The idea then was to land the reindeer on the Alaska coast and drive them over the mountains to the Klondike to feed the starving American miners. The deer were landed, but the undertaking was not a success, as far as giving the miners a large supply of food was concerned.
" Do you think a market for the meat can be created in the United States?" I inquired of Mr. Lindeberg.
"Yes," he answered. "There is already such a market in Europe. Norway and Sweden, as well as Finland and Russia, have been shipping large quantities of reindeer meat for years to the chief European centres and even to the United States. Once when I was at Panama I saw reindeer meat from Norway among the government supplies bought for the Canal Zone employees. The northern part of Russia consumes more reindeer meat than either beef or mutton.
"With lower freight rates, I expect deer meat to compete with the present domestic and foreign meat supplies of the United States. It is delicious, and there will be a demand for it among the meat-eaters who like to have a change of diet now and then."
The reindeer meat packers say that the day will come when the packing houses here will have as many byproducts as those of Chicago. At present they are able to sell the skins and horns only, in addition to the meat, but in the future the blood will be used for tankage, the hoofs for the making of glue, and certain of the bones for other purposes. The horns are sold by the pound to men in Nome, who ship them away to be made into knife-handles. The hides are in demand for buckskin gloves and for shoe uppers. Some of the skins are tanned and sold as furs. Dyed reindeer fur is more beautiful than the ponyskin coats worn in the States. The fur is finer and the skins are lighter.
More than thirty years ago sixteen reindeer were brought across Bering Strait from Siberia to establish the first reindeer colony at Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands. That experiment was not successful and it was some years later before a real start was made. The Government began to import them in i892 and continued for ten years, being stopped by Russia's prohibition of further exportation of the animals. In 1902 nine herds had been established and the Government owned some two thousand deer worth about fifty-six thousand dollars. In addition, the natives had twenty-eight hundred valued at seventy-one thousand dollars. Today there are one hundred and fifty thousand reindeer in native hands.
The cost to the United States Government of introducing reindeer into Alaska was three hundred and thirty-five thousand dollars. All told, only twelve hundred and eighty head were imported. Besides the more than two hundred thousand there now, approximately a hundred thousand have been killed for food or for shipment to the States. As it is estimated that the total increase from the original reindeer herds has been worth six million dollars, the original investment of the Government has increased about two thousand per cent. in value in thirty years.
The industry of reindeer raising has been developed through a system of apprenticeship. If a native youth wants to become a herd owner, he makes a contract with the school authorities to take a year's training, at the end of which he is given four female and two male deer. At the end of the second year he may keep five females and three males, with annual increases until the fourth year, when he is given a herder's certificate and left with six females and four males. He may then use the surplus males for food or sale. When his herd is between fifty and a hundred and fifty strong, the herder is required to take on an apprentice and put him through the period of training, and as his herd increases he must add more apprentices.
According to the present laws, the Eskimos and Indians cannot sell their female deer, and private parties can acquire reindeer only from the Laplanders who brought them over and the missions which have some deer of their own independent of those belonging to the Eskimos.
As to the number of deer Alaska can support, that has been put by the experts at a possible ten million. The whole country is well adapted to reindeer raising and a lot of it is fit for nothing else. All told, it is estimated that there are in the territory two hundred thousand square miles, or an area nearly five times as large as the state of New York, upon which the animals can pasture. They graze upon a peculiar kind of yellowish moss which covers the greater part of northern Alaska. It is hard and tough and rather like coral. It seldom grows over three inches high, but spreads out over the ground. The reindeer will dig down under the snow with their hoofs to get at it.
Among the men who have helped to build up the reindeer industry in Alaska is Mr. W.T. Lopp, head of the government schools of the territory. Mr. Lopp proposed to bring deer across Bering Strait from Siberia at about the same time that Dr. Sheldon Jackson brought his first deer to the Aleutian Islands. A little later a number of deer were brought from Siberia and put in charge of Mr. Lopp at a station near Bering Strait, and from then until now he has had much to do with the reindeer owned by the natives. All of the reindeer herds so owned are under the charge of the Bureau of Education, and today Mr. Lopp may be said to be the patriarchal head of the industry. The Eskimos, for whom Mr. Lopp has done so much, call him "Tom Gorrah," or "Tom, the good man."
At one time, Mr. Lopp with four Eskimos drove a herd of deer seven hundred and fifty miles across country to relieve a party of whalers who were starving on the coast of the Arctic Ocean. This trip lasted two months, with the average temperature twenty or more degrees below zero. Part of the journey was over the floating ice of Kotzebue Sound, and when they got to the end of the ice the reindeer had to swim a short distance to the mainland.
At first Siberians were imported to teach the natives to handle the deer, but they did not succeed, and it was not until Mr. Lopp trained the young Eskimos that they were able to make much progress. Today they are expert in breeding and caring for them. They have large herds, some men owning as many as sixteen hundred reindeer. One such might be called the Eskimo reindeer king. He is one of the men who accompanied Mr. Lopp in his rescue of the whalers. His deer are worth forty thousand dollars.
Said Mr. Lopp to me: "Deer herding can be learned as easily as sheep herding, and the Eskimo boys readily take to the business. Six or eight herders can take care of a thousand head of deer. The animals have to be driven about to where the moss patches are and watched lest they stray too far away. The herders live in tents or temporary huts. In the winter the deer are liable to stray several miles from camp, and the boys go out in the morning to round them up. Some of the animals have bells on them. They are easily frightened and will scatter like a flock of sheep if approached by dogs. They chew the cud like a cow, and if left to themselves will feed for a time -and then lie down."
The herders do not drive the reindeer but follow them. In summer the deer make straight for the seashore, not only because they crave the salt, which they do not find in the interior, but because they are driven by the mosquitoes. The sea breezes blow away the mosquitoes.
Mr. Lopp tells me that attempts to use the reindeer to transport freight and mail have not been successful. Many of the stories that have been published as to the speed of the reindeer are, he says, untrue. The ordinary deer cannot go more than forty miles a day, and it cannot make more than twenty-five miles a day on long journeys. The reindeer is not hardy, and five or six days is as long as one should be driven at a time.
"The trouble is," said Mr. Lopp, "the deer has to get its own food on the way. The nutritive qualities of the moss are not as great as those of hay. You would not expect to drive a horse a long distance on hay, and you cannot drive a reindeer a long distance on moss, especially if it has to travel all day and hunt for its moss at night. Only in the coldest parts of Alaska are reindeer used as teams, and there by the Eskimos only. The usual sled load is about three hundred pounds, although as much as sixteen hundred pounds has been carried by a single deer.
"An interesting development in the reindeer industry of Alaska," continued Mr. Lopp, "is the holding of two annual reindeer fairs. One of these is held at Akiak on the Upper Kuskokwim River, and the other at Mary's Igloo on the Seward Peninsula. These fairs are like the great stock shows of the United States, but their only stock is reindeer. The Eskimos bring their deer in from many miles around. They compete for prizes in lassoing, butchering, driving, feeding, and herding. They have races of many kinds, and there are also prizes for the best kind of harness, sleds, and fur clothing. The prizes are contributed by the merchants of Nome, Seattle, and elsewhere. The fairs, which last for several days, are the great events of the Eskimo year."
The last Mary's Igloo fair began January 11th and lasted several days. Part of the time the thermometer was thirty-five degrees below zero, yet the people slept on the snow in tents, without fire, and all were comfortable in their sleeping bags of reindeer skin. The first event was the butchering of deer by three different methods and a discussion as to the best. In this contest two Eskimos drove their knives to the heart at one blow. Another severed the jugular vein at the first stroke.
The lassoing contest ran through three days, and was won by the man who lassoed the most deer in ninety minutes. There were eight hundred deer in the herd used for this purpose, and the winner lassoed eleven in the time allowed.
The wild deer driving contest had fourteen entries. Each of the contestants had to enter a herd, and rope, throw, harness, hitch up, and drive a hornless, unbroken bull one half mile to the river and return. He had then to unhitch, unharness, and remove the halter, all unassisted.
Altogether these fairs are proving a great success, and they promise to increase in interest and profit as the years go on.
Here is the way Uncle Sam himself sums up the reindeer industry of Alaska and what it has done for the Eskimo:
"The object of the importation was originally to furnish a source of supply for food and clothing to the Alaskan Eskimos in the vicinity of Bering Strait, nomadic hunters and fishermen eking out a precarious existence upon the rapidly disappearing game animals and fish. Within less than a generation the reindeer industry has advanced through one entire stage of civilization the Eskimos inhabiting the vast grazing lands from Point Barrow to the Aleutian Islands; it has raised them from the primitive to the pastoral stage; from nomadic hunters to civilized men, having in their herds of reindeer assured support for themselves and opportunity to accumulate wealth."