Alaska Reindeer Herdsmen:
A Study of Native Management in Transition
by Dean F. Olson
Institute of Social, Economic and Government Research
University of Alaska
Fairbanks, Alaska

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To the Bering Strait Eskimo, the domestic reindeer, much like the indigenous seal, walrus, or whale, seems subject to forces far beyond Eskimo control. In aboriginal times, periods of relative resource abundance would be followed by periods of relative resource impoverishment, each having less to do with Native prowess or effort than with variations in sea currents, natural disruptions to ecological balance, or distant market conditions.

Similarly, the domestic reindeer, first introduced at Port Clarence on July 4, 1892, have been, and continue to be, subject to forces beyond Native control. Periods of relative resource abundance could easily be followed by periods of resource scarcity, each having less to do with Native interest and effort than with variations in governmental ownership policies, changing range conservation programs, or the presence or absence of zealous and sensitive non-Native government field personnel.

The Introduction of Domestic Reindeer and the Question of Need

In 1890, Captain M. A. Healy of the United States Revenue Cutter, Bear, who had witnessed severe starvation among St. Lawrence Island Eskimo in previous years, conceived the idea of transporting domestic reindeer from Siberia to the coast of the Seward Peninsula. He proposed the plan to Dr. Sheldon Jackson, General Agent for Education in Alaska, then a passenger on the cutter. Jackson vigorously pressed for the importation of reindeer, although he lacked a clear design for the program.3

Jackson, new to the Arctic and a visitor there during summer voyages only, launched a fund raising campaign to support the reindeer program. Appeals were addressed to the U. S. Government and to private sources on the behalf of the Bering Strait Eskimo, who, Jackson said, were a vanishing race because of widespread starvation.4 Jackson’s efforts were successful, and between the years 1892 and 1902 a total of 1,280 reindeer were landed on the Seward Peninsula near Port Clarence, financed almost entirely by federal appropriations.

Although the issue of starvation among the Bering Strait Eskimo was no doubt used to great advantage in securing financial support, it seems probable that, because of the white man’s lack of cultural familiarity, the condition was more perceived than real. In retrospect, it now seems clear that the Bering Strait Eskimo were not faced with chronic starvation, although there is little doubt that starvation did occur on St. Lawrence Island during the late nineteenth century. Even there, starvation probably occurred for reasons other than simple lack of food resources.5 There is no conclusive evidence that anything more than temporary food shortages, a condition characteristic of Eskimo ecology, existed among coastal villagers, and indeed, some evidence indicates that the population increased during this period.6

That a crisis atmosphere did not exist among the Native population at the time reindeer were introduced suggests quite clearly the probable absence of recognized need for the deer by the Natives themselves. In fact, there is good reason to suspect that the reindeer were regarded by the Native population as an item of wealth rather than as a food item, and therefore as something potentially disruptive of established inter-village social-economic relationships.

A New Form of Wealth and an Established Social Arrangement

Port Clarence in 1892 fell well within the political-territorial influence of the nearby powerful village of Kingegan (now Wales). A large village of some 500 persons, Wales, in cooperation with the Diomede Islanders, held a mainland monopoly on the trade of reindeer hides imported from Siberia. The introduction of live reindeer — by outsiders and in the absence of express need for food — clearly represented a threat to the Wales village’s political and economic hegemony. During the first winter that reindeer were kept at Port Clarence (1892-3), the Wales villagers threatened to kill the four Siberians brought over to care for the deer and train Native apprentices, and to slaughter the deer and the white superintendents left in charge by Dr. Jackson.7 These threats were not carried out, and Wales soon became the most prolific source of Eskimo apprentices and original independent owners

That the original reindeer station at Port Clarence was regarded by the Native population as Wales territory was a circumstance of no small importance in shaping the future of the Native involvement in the reindeer program.8 Many of the young apprentices during these formative years were Wales Natives, almost entirely men younger than twenty, and, in those cases where documentation is possible, of families that were wealthy before the introduction of reindeer. Additionally, many of these early apprentices were related, leading to the development of an incipient "Kingegan (Wales) Reindeer Aristocracy" by the turn of the century.9

In those cases where villages from the Norton Sound area, or north of the peninsula (i.e., Point Hope), sent apprentices, they too were frequently men from families of prestige and regional importance. Once these men became deer owners or advanced apprentices, it was almost always a brother or near relative who joined them as a sub-apprentice or new apprentice at the reindeer station.

Examples of this tendency for deer ownership to reinforce previously existing regional-familial status relationships are readily documented. Charlie Antisarlook, the first Eskimo to own deer (1895), was well known and respected from Wales to Cape Nome.10 Many a young apprentice received his start through this first Eskimo herd while it was owned by Charlie’s widow, Mary (Sinrock Mary, Mary Andrewuk).11 In fact, Native ownership of deer for the first two decades after introduction can be traced back to fewer than ten prominent families. This evolved quite naturally through the requirement that Native reindeer men must take on sub-apprentices as their herds grew, coupled with the Eskimo disposition for maintenance of family ties and inter-family alliances.

It is not surprising that the early reindeer apprentices and owners were for the most part from wealthy and respected families. In aboriginal culture, it is the oomalik (rich man) who acts as diplomat and ambassador in inter-village affairs.12 Wealth being a precarious position to maintain, widespread alliances and relationships were developed based upon reinforcing and perpetuating prestigious positions and reciprocal exchange of trade commodities in order to spread the risk presented by occasional regional resource shortages. The village oomalik were the first to learn of the new wealth form presented by the introduction of deer and, simultaneously, to see that they had the most to lose by not insuring control by selected families.

The Bureau of Education, which sponsored and guided the program during its early years, encountered considerable difficulty in achieving broad dissemination of reindeer among the Native population. In view of the high social stations occupied by Native herders in their villages during this period, the conclusion that widespread dissemination was restricted by these early owners and their wealthy families seem inescapable. Although in 1905 there were over 10,000 deer in western Alaska, of the more than 75 Native owners and apprentices, fewer than ten possessed more than 100 deer; only two (Antisarlook and Keok) possessed herds exceeding 300 deer.13 By 1910, the situation was not vastly improved. Though Native owners numbered in the hundreds, few had herds exceeding 100 head. Only one, Keok, possessed more than 500 head, and fewer than 10 owned more than 200.14

Culture Change — The Real Beginnings

The domination of Native ownership by a few families probably lasted well into the 1910's, but it did not remain completely intact. In his efforts to speed reindeer distribution throughout western Alaska, Dr. Jackson not only built new reindeer stations at widely scattered locations, but he also distributed deer to various religious missions in several villages.15 Additionally, Laplanders, who had been brought to western Alaska to serve as instructors to Eskimo apprentices, began receiving herds of deer (a loan of 100 head) in payment for their services. By 1910, there were five Lapp families with herds of 500 head or more.16

These events, plus the beginning of large scale ownership by white men in the late 1910’s, served to reduce, albeit gradually, incipient Native control over the still new resource. Whereas in the very first years of the reindeer program there were only two owners, the U. S. Government and the Eskimo, by the early 1920’s there were four distinct ownership groups — whites, Eskimo, missions, and the government. With the rapid development of mining activities across the peninsula at the turn of the century, Native purchases of reindeer and the accumulation of other new wealth forms became more common and further eroded the developing Native reindeer aristocracy.

The absence of a chronic food shortage among mainland Eskimo at the time of the introduction of reindeer, coupled with the need for a broadened appeal to attract attention and increased governmental appropriations, led Dr. Jackson to an optimistic appraisal of the future role of reindeer in the Arctic. While the original "plan" had reference mainly to the need for securing a source of food and clothing for famished and freezing Eskimo, as early as 1895 Dr. Jackson wrote, "But it is now found that the reindeer are as essential to the white man as to the Eskimo."17

A new view of the role of reindeer — as a means of transportation and communication — led Dr. Jackson to prophesize a unique division of labor between the Eskimo herder and the white miners and merchants that were inundating the peninsula by 1903.

The ordinary white man is unwilling to undergo the drudgery of herding in that rigorous climate, and unwilling to work for the small compensation that is paid for such services. He can do better. His directive ability can be more profitably employed as merchant and manager of transportation in employing and directing the trained Eskimo herders and teamsters . . . it will become possible for white men to own large herds, but the men that will do the herding and teaming will always be the Eskimos and Laplanders.18

The use of reindeer for transportation of freight and passengers soon dominated the actions of government field personnel and the composition of Native apprenticeship programs. Each herder was required to become expert in training good sled deer, and thus herd management required the selection of the finest males — potentially the best breeding stock — for castration and sled training. The Lapp colony brought to Alaska in 1898 to train the Eskimo in deer care became "the most important commercial event next to gold discovery."19 The Lapps, who desired to own deer as payment for their two year contract, were viewed as the "backbone" of the young but promising transportation industry.20

It seems clear, in retrospect, that the discovery of gold and the flood of men and materials attending its extraction provided justification for the reindeer program that had been lacking at the time deer were first introduced. As a means of transportation — a resource for commercial enterprise — reindeer attracted increasing non-Native attention, and Dr. Jackson, who for the first time found himself advocating a widely accepted objective, actively encouraged commercial interest. As early as 1903, in a letter to a Seattle firm, Jackson pointed out that a good herd of deer was as profitable as a gold mine, with total investment in a four year old male only $1.00, and top sales price for a good sled deer from $60 to $150. "I hope your company will establish a large herd, . . . any assistance . . . will be gladly given."21

The discovery of gold near Nome in 1898, and the year-round activity of tens of thousands of miners on the peninsula by the early 1900’s, cannot be overemphasized in terms of its effect upon the Native population. Prior to this time, Native contact with alien cultures had been limited for the most part to the summer months, when ice conditions permitted the Revenue Service and whalers to enter the Bering Strait and Norton and Kotzebue Sounds. Regular summer voyages by revenue cutters and whalers pre-date the introduction of reindeer by less than a decade in the case of the Revenue Service, and by less than fifty years in the case of the whalers. Thus, when large-scale land occupation first occurred at the turn of the century, the way of life of much of the Native population had changed but little. The fact that when the reindeer were first introduced they became quickly and easily incorporated into existing social and political relationships among the Native villagers stands in testimony to the resilience and continuing strength of these relationships up to at least 1900.

The base line for the introduction of a new way of life among much of the Native population is 1900, not 1892 when deer were first landed. In all probability, the reindeer would never have become a potential focal point of culture change had it not been for the coincident discovery of gold and the wage economy that followed soon thereafter.

The Early Apprentices and Apprentice Programs

It has already been noted that the first apprentices and reindeer owners were from the wealthy and widely respected families — oomalik — among the Eskimo. The Apak (Constantine), the Antisarlook, Dannak, Electoona, Keok, Ablikak, Tautook, Sokweena, and Kivyeargruk families were of the most articulate and cross-culturally capable among the Eskimo people. Many could speak and a few could write in English.

This could mean, and frequently does mean in other parts of the world, that these men were not well integrated among their own people. This was not the case among the Eskimo in the late 1800’s. The oomalik were active in inter-village diplomacy and played a very important role in acquiring and distributing wealth through widespread trading alliances. These men were widely traveled and were frequently employed by the early reindeer superintendents as interpreters and guides on excursions, a role in which only an oomalik could perform well. Indeed, to act as initiator and instrument of inter-village contact was their cultural role in pre-white days. Given these great advantages of position and influence, control of the reindeer by a few families was natural and immediate. Furthermore, by the summer of 1896 such control appears to have had the support of the Native population generally, for no more apprentices were forthcoming, though requests were sent to villages from the Yukon River to Kotzebue Sound.22

Apprenticeship programs changed almost yearly during the first ten years following 1892. During the first year, Dr. Jackson decided to have the superintendent in charge select one or two young men from each village to train for a two-year period at the expense of the Government Reindeer Station. At the end of the two years, each would be given ten deer. The young herders could then return to their home villages.23 In 1893, each apprentice received two deer the first year, five deer the second year, and was further urged to remain with the main herd at Port Clarence for another four years.24 In 1894, the term of apprenticeship was extended to three years, with two deer received the first year, five in the second year, and ten in the third year.25 In 1896, the term of apprenticeship was lengthened to five years, with no deer given during the period. Instead, at the conclusion of his training, an apprentice "might" receive deer as a gift, not as wages. It was further required that no herder could return to his home village until his herd totaled at least 100 head.26 Finally, in 1907, four years and fifty deer were deemed the appropriate duration and terminal herd size. It is impossible to assess the effect of these many changes upon the young apprentices. It is noteworthy that the first Eskimo to receive deer, Charlie Antisarlook, received his loan in order to dispel doubts among the Natives that they would ever receive deer of their own.27

The case of Charlie Antisarlook is perhaps instructional in reaching an understanding about Eskimo ownership in those early years. Charlie, who was a leading man among the Eskimo, received a loan of 100 deer on January 31, 1895. He and his young wife Mary took their herd south to Cape Nome, where in a short time a small village was established, based primarily upon reindeer herding and subsistence utilization and composed mainly of family members. The loan was for a term of five years, at the end of which time the government would be due the number originally loaned, with the increase to be retained by Charlie.

During the fall of 1897, word reached Dr. Jackson that miners in the Upper Yukon River were in danger of starvation if supplies were not received before spring. To secure the deer, Charlie’s loan was returned two years prematurely at Jackson’s request. As it happened, the deer were not needed; in fact, they were never taken to the Upper Yukon. This left Charlie, and the village which had grown up around the herd, with 133 deer.28

Weeks later, on January 2, 1898, Charlie was asked to surrender the remainder of his herd to provide relief for several hundred whalers that had been trapped by the polar ice at Point Barrow.29 Charlie agreed, but only upon a guarantee of return given by an officer of the Revenue Service. He accompanied the drive to Barrow, about 800 miles distant. It is recorded that Mary and the other villagers almost starved that winter.30

Nearly two years later, on December 2, 1899, the deer, plus the estimated fawn crop for two years, were returned to Charlie. Charlie died a few months later during the 1900 measles epidemic, leaving Mary with some 328 head of reindeer. Mary later became known throughout western Alaska as "Reindeer Mary." In his letter of instruction to the field superintendent in charge of returning Charlie’s deer, Dr. Jackson writes:

If you start from Eaton and go across country with sled deer and find in the herd you are driving to Charley better deer than those you have, you can make an exchange and take the best for the Eaton station.31

One of the deer returned to Charlie was sick and had to be hauled the last 25 miles.32

A somewhat similar experience was endured by the Wales apprentices. Several of these apprentices had served their training period by the fall of 1897 and were about to become the very first independent owners. Like the Antisarlook herd, however, the Wales herd was driven north to Barrow in early 1898 to provide relief for stranded whalers. William T. Lopp, the superintendent of the Wales station, wrote in August 1899 that, while the drive to Barrow had been valuable experience for the apprentices, they were quite disappointed in beginning their sixth year without the deer they had been promised.33 Without deer, they had been compelled to subsist on flour, molasses, and tea.34

It is impossible to assess the effect of these events upon Native attitudes. To be sure, they came at an unfortunate time. In all likelihood, to the Eskimo, long accustomed to alternating periods of resource scarcity and abundance and in possession of the seemingly endless patience which the Arctic inculcates, the unpredictable reindeer program now seemed much like the rest of their ecological environment.

Models for Change

The selection of imitative "models" is a critical factor in introducing a new way of life. The problems involved in seeking out persons knowledgeable about reindeer and then retaining them through the complete isolation and physical discomfort of eight-to-nine months of arctic winter proved nearly insurmountable to Dr. Jackson. The reindeer station at Port Clarence proved brutally hard on superintendents, with a new employee placed in charge almost yearly for the first five years.35 Likewise, the Siberian herders, who were to serve as teachers to the Eskimo apprentices, returned to their homes, some of them concerned about their physical welfare.

An example of the great importance of personality among white residents living in close relationships with the Eskimo is clearly illustrated by the following series of events.36 During the 1860’s, several Wales villagers had attacked a whaler, with hopes of using the vessel in trading and hunting. The attack failed, but the village of Wales acquired a reputation of sufficient durability that intercultural contact was curtailed until 1890, when two young teachers, W. T. Lopp and a person by the name of Thornton, arrived and started a school.

Lopp and Thornton differed greatly in personality. Thornton wore sidearms — which is anathema among the Eskimo — and was reportedly abusive and authoritarian in relationships with the Natives. Lopp, who learned the language and customs of his hosts, was the more sensitive of the two. Thornton was murdered by three young villagers in the fall of 1893. Mr. Lopp went on to become "Tom the Good" to the Natives, working with them continuously as teacher and reindeer superintendent until 1925.*

The early successes of Eskimo involvement with reindeer are more attributable to the efforts of Lopp than to any other single individual. Lopp traveled to Barrow with the 1897 relief expedition. The Revenue Service officer in charge of that expedition wrote that Lopp was "indispensable" and far more capable in his dealings with the Eskimo and the reindeer than any other person in the country.37 In the first ten years of the reindeer program, 35 Eskimo herders were graduated from the Wales Reindeer Station herd under the able and ambitious Lopp.38 Given the regional importance of the village of Wales and the initial attitude of these villagers toward reindeer, the future of reindeer as a Native resource clearly rested upon Lopp’s capacities to interpret and clarify in the Native tongue the meaning of this new form of wealth. It is noteworthy that Lopp steadily refused to have a Laplander at Wales.39

The role of the Laplanders as models for cultural change among the Eskimo is somewhat ambiguous. Here, again, personality differences surely played a great part. It is clear, however, that the Lapps received much better treatment than did the Native herders. They received a larger quantity of rations when herding or on excursions and were permitted to slaughter deer for subsistence, which, in the first few years, the Natives were not permitted to do.40 Due to the nature of their relationship to the government as employees under contract, the Laplanders early acquired larger per capita herds than did most Eskimo. In 1902, the average Laplander herd numbered 100 head, the average Eskimo herd 59.41

By 1905, due to the growing number of Eskimo herders and the relatively few Lapp owners, the average Lapp owned 238 head, with per capita Eskimo ownership at 49 head.42 In 1905, there were five Lapp and 78 Eskimo owners.43

In the villages that housed Lapp owners, the relative ownership distribution was striking indeed — and at a very observable and therefore important level. At Kotzebue, the Laplander, Nilima, owned 363 head. The largest Eskimo herds were owned by Ohgoaloak and Minungon, each with 11 deer. At Golovin Bay, distribution was somewhat improved, with Nils Klemetsen owning 287 head and Tautoak owning 193 head. At Unalakleet, Ole Bahr owned 332 head and Tatpan had the largest Eskimo herd at 129 head. Sara and Spein, at Bethel, together owned 698 deer, with the largest Eskimo ownership at 25 head.44 By 1910 the only Eskimo owner whose herd equaled the size of the Lapp herds was Keok at Shishmaref, where there were no Lapp owners.45

Social relations between the Laplander and his fellow villagers differed from village to village. Residents of Golovin tell of a Lapp town well separated from the Native village itself, and at Buckland Lapp homes and Eskimo homes were on opposite sides of the river. Inter-marriage did occur; however, the pure-blooded Eskimo, when asked about possible Lapp patrilineage, is quick to deny it. Much of the respect accorded the Laplander in today’s memories relates to their hardiness and their willingness and ability to live off and with their reindeer through all seasons.

In 1894, Jackson mentioned his strong desire to bring Laplanders to Alaska as a colony to go into reindeer husbandry on their own account.46That year he hired William Kjelmann, a Laplander then living in Wisconsin, to superintend the Port Clarence reindeer station. Again in 1895, Jackson wrote of the need for "many more Lapps to be freighters," for it would surely be many years before Eskimo "can be trusted to freight on their own account."47 With the shift in emphasis from reindeer as a subsistence item to a commercial resource in arctic transportation, the Laplander’s importance as agent of cultural change became secondary to their role as breeders and trainers of sled deer from large herds that they themselves owned. The significance of the Laplander as a teacher of the Eskimo apprentice was greatly reduced. By 1908, of a total of 99 apprentices working in Lapp herds, only five were Eskimo. It had, by then, become the stated policy of the Reindeer Service to reduce the number of reindeer owned by Lapps.48 Regrettably, by that time the prolific reindeer were increasing much more rapidly than the capacity of graduating apprentices to absorb them, and it was proving difficult enough to distribute those deer under government control, let alone find new homes for Lapp and mission-controlled herds.49 In fact, by 1910, less than 20 years after introduction, a characteristic of the nature of reindeer — their high rate of annual increase — had already surpassed bureaucratic abilities to institutionalize orderly means of utilization and control.

There is some indication that, during the brief period when the Laplanders were used as teachers (about 1895 to 1901), they were less than completely effective. In his diary, T. L. Brevig mentions that although he and his wife were initiated and became "Eskimo," William Kjelmann was disallowed — "We do not regard him as trustworthy."50 The Laplander who had been sent to St. Lawrence Island is said to have feared for his life.51 In the words of the teacher at that station, "Living alone among a thieving, lying lot of Natives whom you had never seen before . . . might upset a hardier nature than the mild-tempered, home-loving Lapps."52

Those Eskimo living today who had extensive contact with Laplanders in these early years unanimously seem to hold them in high esteem. This they do with most anyone who, like themselves, can endure the Arctic without emotional disintegration. The factor of greatest importance in determination of status, and thus effectiveness in inducing change among the Eskimo, is stability and dependability in inter-personal behavior. Any individual, regardless of cultural heritage, whose word becomes his bond, who develops a reputation of trust and confidence, and who can be relied upon to share with others in times of need is a welcome asset to the Eskimo home and village. The "friendly Arctic" is friendly only to those who are individually productive and socially cooperative. The leader among the Eskimo, in pre-white times and today, is one who possesses both wealth and generosity. Perhaps one reason why the Eskimo has preserved much of his traditional social-familial organization more or less intact throughout a generation of directed culture change is because those carriers of change least like the Eskimo have found the Arctic personally unendurable.

A Policy of Broadened Participation

By 1907, fifteen years after introduction of reindeer, there were 114 Native reindeer owners, including 79 apprentices owning small numbers of deer. Excluding the apprentices, who were in various stages of their four-year program, the independent Native owners owned herds averaging 112 deer (6,406 head).53 Between the years 1905 and 1907, however, Dr. Jackson fell under political attack for his handling of the school system and the reindeer program, particularly his wide use of missions as institutions for distribution of government deer. During 1907 several important policy changes occurred that were to greatly effect future Native involvement.

Under W. T. Lopp, who had led the attack against Jackson and mission involvement and who succeeded Jackson as General Agent for Education in Alaska, the distribution and custody of reindeer became an integral part of the then existing school system. District superintendents of the schools and local village school teachers assumed the dual role of educators and Reindeer Service Administrators. In 1907, a campaign was launched to distribute the reindeer owned by the government, missions, and Lapps much more rapidly than ever before. The program was successful, with government and mission ownership falling from 45 per cent of all deer in 1907 to 10 per cent in 1916.54 By 1916, there were 1,293 Native deer owners, 145 of whom were apprentices . Average herd size among non-apprentice owners had dropped to about 50 deer.55

The policy of broadened Native participation was implemented by a variety of techniques. The number of government reindeer stations was rapidly increased by breaking up government herds. Each new station was obliged to find and begin training new apprentices in the local area, thus greatly broadening the sources of young men who were to participate in the program. That the reindeer herds had to be taken to the Natives in order to achieve greater participation is instructive. It was no longer possible to interest a sufficient number of young men greatly enough for them to leave their home village to learn reindeer herding. In all likelihood, this reluctance was due to the growing number of alternative activities (mining and trapping), to a desire not to change existing activities (fishing and hunting), and because of urgings by village leaders who were being pressured by existing Native owners. For whatever reasons, the herds were moved to distant villages.

It soon became apparent, however, that rapid dissemination of deer among the Natives could not be achieved through the apprenticeship system.56Thus, by 1908, reindeer superintendents were actively encouraging individual Native investment in deer ownership. Indeed, several missions, in order to reduce their holdings and help support mission operations, sold deer to Native buyers for cash. Reindeer were also distributed as payment to Native helpers in return for services rendered the government in connection with the Alaska School Service and the Alaska Reindeer Service. Native apprentices and chief herders at government reindeer stations received their salaries in reindeer, which they could in turn butcher and sell as meat or train and sell as sled deer to local gold prospectors and other consumers. Graduating Native apprentices were required to support new apprentices in their herds, with the number of required apprentices increasing with the size of the owner’s herd to a maximum of four.

By 1916, Native owned herds supported far more apprentices than government, mission, or Lapp owned herds combined. Though the Lapps and the missions had much larger herds per capita than did most Native owners, Lapp and other white owners supported only three Native apprentices and missions only 20 in 1916. Native herds supported 84 apprentices in the same year.57In fact, by 1909, when new government herds were established, they were placed under the direction of Native chief herders, whereas formerly the chief herder was almost always a Laplander. This was necessitated by the small number of Lapps still in government employ. Also, herd management costs were substantially reduced, for the Natives were paid in reindeer.

In retrospect, the results of the policy of broadened Native participation were largely unfavorable to Native involvement. As has already been mentioned, up to about 1910 when this policy began having effect, few Natives owned deer herds of over 100 head. That wealth was concentrated in a few families and was distributed through familiar traditional channels, quite in keeping with the Eskimo way of living. Now, great many Natives owned herds and thus they were no longer necessarily economically compelled to relate politically to their more wealthy village oomaliks. This provided the seeds for the destruction of relationships that until then had provided a sense of community identity (i.e., around a few wealthy families of high status). Correspondingly, the individual Eskimo’s source of self-identity was made more ambiguous.

The presence in a given village of many owners of small herds loosened the ties that formerly bound the village together precisely at the time greater cooperation between village residents became necessary. Cooperation between owners of herds sharing the same range soon became of paramount importance in the determination of ownership of newly born fawns of unmarked mothers or of appropriate recompense for the killing of another owner’s deer. Whereas in former times resolution of conflict was achieved by consulting an oomalik, to whose advice both participants were informally obliged to listen, or by simply moving to another village, such remedies were of declining effectiveness. Movement to another village was restricted because of the habit of deer of becoming attached to their fawning ground and home range, because of a herder’s obligation to his apprentices not sharing his desire, and because of the absence of suitable range near another village. The relative immobility that attends reindeer ownership and the corresponding need for greater inter-personal cooperation as herds grew in number and size in the 1920’s and 1930’s produced great stress among the highly individualistic Eskimo. While it is often believed that the Eskimo herder could not adapt to the nomadic life required by reindeer ownership, it is this writer’s view that, while this may be nominally true, the far more important influence operates in reverse order. The reindeer is behaviorally bound to a given range, thus reducing the Eskimo’s former intervillage mobility, and this behavior reduces his latitude of choice in seeking out a village in which he can secure social recognition.

To review, the policy of broadened participation simultaneously enlarged the forum for conflict among the Eskimo, while reducing the availability of traditional methods of its resolution. As will become more apparent later in this chapter, this contradiction between reality and administrative policy led to the adoption of Native ownership associations. These associations were an attempt to reinstitute Eskimo leadership, which had become thoroughly confused as a result of widespread deer ownership.

The Era of Reindeer Fairs, 1915-1918

From the winter of 1915 to the influenza epidemic of 1918 can be regarded as the time of greatest successes for the reindeer program. This is the period of the reindeer fairs, still much talked about today, fifty years later. A song was developed describing the fairs. 58 (See Appendix A.)

The fairs were held during the first months of the year at centrally located villages to which the Eskimo owners and herders journeyed. Each village sent at least two delegates to the fairs in their region, and non-delegates came as well.

The fairs were seven days long and ended in a grand parade for which participants would dress in their finest winter clothing and drive their best sleds and deer. Daytime activities ranged from competitive shooting matches and men’s and women’s snowshoe races to lassoing, butchering, and racing reindeer.59 Many of the activities emphasized reindeer as draft animals, reflecting the bureau’s continued fascination with transportation potentials. Indeed, delegates were instructed to make the trip to the fairs with sled deer or risk not being allowed to participate.60 The evening hours were spent going over reindeer business, discussing the future, and listening to speeches given by bureau employees, Eskimo owners, and others. One evening was reserved for discussion among Eskimos only — no white persons were allowed to attend.

The fairs were a great success insofar as they attracted leading Eskimo personalities — Tautuk, Kivyearzruk, Ootenna, Keok, Electoona, Okok, Karmun — and stimulated interest in reindeer through competitive events stressing deer strength and herder dexterity and imagination. In retrospect, it is regrettable that so much energy and time was consumed by the draft animal aspect of the reindeer, for much of this usage disappeared with the departure of large numbers of miners. Indeed, many Eskimos today point out that as a draft animal the reindeer loses its usefulness after two or three days of continuous use, largely because it must forage for feed at night and gets little rest. The traditional dog team is much faster.

The fairs provided a forum for discussion between Eskimo reindeer men and between the Eskimo owner and the emerging Lomen family owners. Carl Lomen is reported to have relieved great anxiety among Eskimo owners, when, in a speech given at the first fair in 1915, he indicated that his company would leave local markets to the Eskimo and concentrate on developing new markets in the States.61 Bureau of Education employees used the fairs successfully to urge the Native owners to band together in reindeer associations. As will be pointed out later, the earliest associations were launched during the last years of reindeer fairs.

The fairs were less successful in providing solutions to everyday herding problems. A pressing problem of the day, and indeed one which existed for some years, was the clear reluctance of some herd owners to provide food, clothing, and shelter to their hired herders and apprentices.62There are insufficient data to tell precisely how widespread this problem was, but it does reappear on a vast scale during the 1930’s and 1940’s. The circumstances during the more recent period were sufficiently different to provide little insight as to why the problem existed 20 years earlier. In 1916, the going wage for hired herders was one dollar per deer per year. This is a rather imprecise standard, especially for herders who worked less than a year at herding for any given year. Many young men by 1918 were employed during the spring, summer, and fall as miners, and worked at herding only during the winter months, if at all. Trapping, which was fast becoming a very lucrative winter occupation by this time, may well have led to a conflict of interest — the hired herder spending more time checking is trap line than herding. If this was the case, it may well have contributed to owner-herder conflict. As for care of apprentices, by 1916 the bureau itself was paying apprentices in deer as a cost-saving measure. This involved dependency upon a nearby market in order for it to be an appropriate form of payment. It is possible that some Native herds were sufficiently distant from a market that apprentices were unable to sell deer in enough quantity to support themselves.

In the final analysis, the reindeer fairs were very popular among the Eskimo, and undoubtedly represent the period of greatest interest in reindeer achieved through administrative design. If continued, these annual meetings may well have produced more tangible solutions to problems surrounding Eskimo involvement. Unfortunately, the epidemic of 1918 ended the services of W. C. Shields, the bureau employee most active in promoting the fairs, and they were never reinstituted.63

Non-Native Ownership, Shrinking Markets, and Native Response

As has been previously mentioned, non-Native ownership of deer, excluding government-owned herds, had its inception as early as 1894, when missionary societies first were given deer. Large scale Laplander ownership was based upon herds loaned by the government when Lapp employment contracts expired in 1901. Ownership by non-Natives for the express purpose of developing a livestock industry for the sale of meat products did not begin until 1914. In that year, the Lomen family of Nome purchased from Alfred Nilima, a Laplander in the Kotzebue Sound area, a herd of 1,200 deer. In the years that followed, the Lomen family purchased two mission herds (Golovin and Teller) and other white owned herds. Total purchases by 1929 came to 14,083 deer.64 Reindeer Service employees objected vigorously to the mission sales on the grounds that the reindeer had been brought to Alaska for Native use only. But they were ineffective in seeking a reversal of a distribution scheme that they themselves had set in motion twenty years earlier.

Carl Lomen and his father, G. J. Lomen, first came to Nome in June 1900. The elder Lomen, who had been a practicing attorney in St. Paul, Minnesota, quickly developed a brisk business sorting out conflicting mining claims in what was at that time a bustling, rich frontier town.65 Son and father soon became inextricably caught up in the contagious atmosphere, and the rest of the family of eight joined them in Nome. As large and active families will, the Lomens became engaged in a variety of activities — from prospecting to launching a drug store and photography studio — the latter proving quite successful.

The family was of Norwegian ancestry. The elder Lomen spoke the language well and became good friends with, and a source of legal counsel to, several Scandinavian deer owners, and to many Swedish and Norwegian gold miners, some of whom became very wealthy in the gold fields. These personal relationships later proved extremely helpful. In 1914, when the family made its initial purchase of deer, Jafet Lindeberg, a Norwegian miner who was one of the first to become wealthy (in 1898) provided financial support. Indeed, Mr. Lindeberg continued to be the company’s most valuable stockholder until 1921, when, as president of Nome’s Miners and Merchants Bank, he encountered financial reverses.

As a profit generating enterprise based on the raising, processing, and marketing of reindeer products, the Lomen operations were destined never to succeed. The only activities (excluding the drug store and photography studio) entered into by the family that ever produced earnings on a steady and dependable basis were those limited to freighting and lighterage. When local finances became impaired in 1921, Carl Lomen was forced to seek capital support from outside Alaska. With energy few possess, Lomen tried to secure adequate funding; from 1921 to 1927, the company tried to float debt instruments and failed, reorganized to issue new ownership shares and succeeded only marginally, and even sought federal support as a Native employer. Only once, in 1927, did the company manage to attract sufficient capital, but this proved to be too late to overcome problems developing in the field. It is instructive to note that when financing was arranged, it was not on the basis of an analysis of expected return, but as a philanthropic gesture by personal friends.66

From the beginning, it was Lomen policy to leave local markets to the Eskimo.67While this served to help calm the Native owners and bureau employees for a brief time, when the mass out-migration of miners and supportive merchants began in the 1910’s, what had been a very lucrative local market ceased to exist. This occurred at a time when Natives owned more reindeer than ever before.68 In fact, much of the Bureau of Education’s reindeer program relied upon the presence of a large and steady local market for meat and sled deer sales. Apprentices and herders were paid in deer, and many owners depended heavily upon sales of deer meat and sled deer to support themselves and their traditionally large followings. Indeed, as pointed out earlier, the reindeer and the Eskimo herders had been systematically prepared to serve as a supportive industry since the turn of the century. By 1918, it became apparent to even bureau personnel that the young industry was in for troubled times and that Eskimo reindeer men would have to cooperate with each other much more than at any previous time.69

In the face of shrinking markets and growing Native ownership, the reindeer fairs of 1917 and 1918 became the forum for the formation of Native reindeer cooperatives. At first, the Native owners formed loose associations or clubs, as they were called, to set prices and to allocate portions of the shrinking market among themselves. As herds grew in the decade of the 1920’s, the difficulties in keeping herds separate and in even marking an individual owner’s deer became insurmountable. With individual herd isolation no longer physically possible or economically warranted, these owners’ clubs incorporated as joint stock companies or ownership cooperatives, in most cases issuing one share of stock per deer owned to each member-owner. It should be noted that the reindeer associations were an inevitable outgrowth of fast-growing reindeer herds occupying common range, which made observable, physically separated herds no longer possible. The relationship between this inevitability and the bureau’s previous policy of broadened participation, which created many herds, is clear.

By the late 1920’s, with local markets a fraction of their former size and Native owned deer numbering several hundred thousands, the Lomen operations began to take on new meaning for the Eskimo owner. By 1929, the Lomens, as a natural outgrowth of servicing state-side markets, had a virtual monopoly on commercial slaughtering facilities, lighterage, and ocean freighting services. What had seemed more than reasonable 15 years earlier, a division of local and outside markets, now seemed an arrangement extremely unfair to the Natives. The Lomen brothers began buying Native-owned deer, or rather, began acquiring Native owned deer in exchange for credit advanced at Lomen-owned trading posts at Teller, Buckland, Golovin, Unalakleet, and Nome. But limitations on the size of their operations, as previously noted, prevented them from using more than a fraction of deer available for slaughter. The pressure weighing on Native owners, whose reindeer herds were rapidly multiplying themselves out of grazing range, to get some return from their resources resulted in widespread use of deer meat for trap bait. In 1930 and 1931, small shipments of Native deer were sent to state-side markets aboard Department of Interior vessels. Sales by both the Lomens and by the Department of Interior amounted to less than 5 per cent of the estimated 640,000 deer existing in the early 1930’s.

To the Native owner, who from 1900 forward had been encouraged to regard his reindeer as a valuable commercial resource in transportation and meat products markets, the effect of seeing his herd grow in numbers yet actually decline as a source of realizable income was an immeasurably destructive influence on his attitude toward reindeer ownership. When questioned about the events of the 1920’s, many Natives who owned deer at the time have trouble recalling their feelings and thoughts. Yet when asked about the period of reindeer fairs and strong local markets, they smile knowledgeably and talk at length about "the good old days."

By 1932, the Lomen interests became the logical, and to the Eskimo owner, only target for the mounting bitterness and disappointment felt by Bureau of Education field personnel and Eskimo deer men alike. As mentioned previously, the Lomen family owned the only slaughtering and cold storage facilities on the Seward Peninsula. Apart from limited service by Department of Interior vessels and a Seattle-based steamship line, the family also controlled ocean freighting services and, more importantly, the lighterage facilities, so crucial to handling perishable meat products in the absence of any natural harbors.70 The elder Lomn was the district’s appointed federal judge during this period, and he therefore had the authority to appoint the Clerk of the Court in Nome — an official of great importance in sorting out land lease disputes to be heard by the court. Finally, the company operated a chain of trading posts. Through these mercantile outlets, the family acquired deer from Eskimo owners, who, in turn, were advanced credit. By 1933, Eskimo deer men were indebted to Lomen trading posts for advances made to the amount of $45,000.71 These widespread activities were later to bring the Lomen family under personal and administrative attacks, which climaxed in 1939 and 1940 with their exit from the reindeer business.

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