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


A Brief Introduction to Alaska Reindeer History [pp. 8-17]

There were two periods of intensive Native involvement — from about 1895 to the very early 1920’s and again from the later 1940’s to the present day — and, with an intermediate period of extensive involvement. The periods of widespread, extensive Eskimo involvement occurred when Native reindeer stock companies were the prevailing form of ownership institution and during the period of greatest reindeer abundance. During the periods of intensive involvement, private Native ownership of reindeer prevailed.

Throughout the entirety of the 76 year period, or at least until very recent years, the emphasis of field administrators has been upon increasing the total aggregate of deer owned or controlled by Natives, with less concern manifested over the size of individual Native herds than about the total number of Natives owning deer. The policy emphasis, then, has been upon widespread resource dissemination, even during the periods of encouragement of private ownership.

1890: W. T. Lopp and H. Thornton arrive to establish school at Cape Prince of W[h]ales. This is the first school on Seward Peninsula. Dr. Sheldon Jackson, Presbyterian missionary and General Agent for Education in Alaska, makes his initial summer voyage into the Arctic for the U.S. Bureau of Education, aboard the U.S. Revenue Cutter, Bear, Capt. M. A. Healy commanding. Idea of transporting domestic reindeer from Siberia to Seward Peninsula geminates during this voyage.
1891: Captain Healy and Dr. Jackson, using $2,146.00 collected from private sources, purchase and transport sixteen live deer to Aleutian Islands to test reaction of deer to the voyage. Range reconnaissance conducted on parts of Seward Peninsula by W. T. Lopp and others employed by Jackson. Lopp reports high prices charged by Wales Natives for reindeer hides imported from Siberia. Jackson seeks federal appropriations to support reindeer program.
1892: First importation of domestic reindeer onto Seward Peninsula at Port Clarence. Four Siberian Natives employed to instruct in animal husbandry. First reindeer station built at Port Clarence.
1893: Wales Natives murder Thornton during Lopp’s absence. Wales Natives threaten reindeer station superintendents and Siberian instructors.
1894: Siberians return to their homes. Six Lapps imported to Alaska to instruct Native apprentices. Rev. T. L. Brevig establishes mission and school at Port Clarence. Wales school receives 118 reindeer from Port Clarence as part of distribution program. Herd to be used to train Native apprentices. W. T. Lopp in charge. Federal appropriations begin.
1895: Charlie Antisarlook, from Cape Rodney, receives a loan of 100 head to dispel doubts among Natives that they will ever receive deer.
1897-1898 Several hundred whalers are stranded at Point Barrow, their ships being frozen in the ice pack. Miners on the Upper Yukon reportedly short of winter supplies. Charlie Antisarlook and Wales herds used in relief expeditions. Gold is discovered near Nome in 1897. By 1898, large numbers of miners enter the peninsula creating commercial market for reindeer products and draft animals. On July 30, 1898, 67 Lapp, Finn, and Norwegian families arrive to care for herds, serve as mail carriers, and freighters. Contract terms call for a loan of 100 deer at the end of two years service, if desired. Eaton Reindeer Station established on north bank of the Unalakleet River. Herds taken to Barrow for relief are used to establish a mission herd at Barrow and a herd at Point Hope. Deer population in 1898 is 2,062. Three Eskimos complete their five year apprenticeship term (Tautook, Sekeoglook, and Wocksock) and receive together a herd of 186 deer.
1900: Carl Lomen, destined to become the "Reindeer King" twenty years hence, moves to Nome with father, G. Lomen, to seek gold. Population of Nome is estimated at 40,000. Influenza and measles sweep the peninsula. Wocksock and Charlie Antisarlook are among those lost. Charlie’s herd had been returned months earlier. A herd of 70 deer is landed on St. Lawrence Island. Of the 67 Lapp, Finn, and Norwegian families imported in 1898, 86 persons remain in Alaska. Of this number, many become miners, only eight remain as herders under government employment, and five exercise their contract right to receive a loan of deer for five years, the offspring therefrom to be their private property. Six missions now have herds. Deer population is now 3,323.
1901: Ten missions now have herds stretching from Kuskokwim River to Point Barrow. Total deer population is 4,164.
1902: Russian government ends exportation of reindeer to Alaska. From 1892 to 1902, a total of 1,280 deer were shipped to the Seward Peninsula. Of the 6,505 deer in Alaska, 2,841 head along to 68 Eskimo herders; 2,176 are on loan to or owned by eight missionary societies; 1,150 are on loan to or owned by five Lapp herders; and 338 remain under Bureau of Education control. Eskimo apprentices serve their five year term in government, mission, or independently owned Native or Lapp herds. In addition to food and shelter, the apprentice receives two female deer per year, together with ownership of the increase therefrom. At the end of five years, the new herder is loaned enough additional deer to increase his holdings to 50 head. This herd is to remain under the supervision of the government herder, mission station, or Lapp owner, for a period of twenty years. At any time during this twenty years the herder may be dispossessed for intemperance or failure to care for his herd.
1904: W.T. Lopp becomes Superintendent of the Northwest District, in charge of reindeer distribution for the Bureau of Education.
1905: Deer population estimated at 10,000 head. Lopp begins to move for a reduction in deer ownership by missions and Lapps. Dr. Jackson and the Bureau of Education are investigated by a special agent for the Department of the Interior who journeys to several peninsula villages during the summer of 1905.
1906-1908: A period of little change in the field but one of considerable political scuffling in Washington, D.C. Dr. Jackson’s services are ended, and he is replaced by W. T. Lopp. The U. S. Reindeer Service is formed with reindeer distribution now largely handled by school superintendents employed by the Bureau of Education. Deer population nears an estimated 20,000 head by the close of 1908. Programs to reduce mission and Lapp ownership meet with limited success, reportedly due to lack of funds and trained Eskimo herdsmen. Federal appropriations for reindeer in Alaska drop from an annual funding of $25,000 (1900 to 1905) to $9,000 in 1908. Eskimo owning deer in 1908 number 171 with average herd size being 52 head. Five Laplanders own 2,685 head. Natives outside the Reindeer Service begin purchasing reindeer as an investment during this period.
1909: Eskimo herders begin replacing Lapps as chief herders at new reindeer stations. Salaries and supplies received by employed herders and apprentices are now in the form of reindeer. Natives owning deer number 260 by June 30. Missions begin selling deer to Natives for cash payment.
1910-1913: Reindeer program continues as an integral part of the educational system, with district superintendents of schools also being superintendents of the Reindeer Service, and local school teachers serving as local reindeer supervisors. Government and mission ownership of deer declines during the period, with Lapp herds increasing in size. By 1913, 797 Natives own 30,532 deer, or 65 per cent of the 47,266 reindeer then estimated to exist.
1914: Ownership patterns have greatly changed since 1907. Whereas in 1907, 114 Native herders and apprentices owned 6,406 deer, for an average herd of 56 head, in 1914, 980 Natives owned 37,828 head, for an average of less than 39 head each. On a percentage basis, ownership changed over the period as follows:

Ownership Distribution (%)

  1907 1914
Government 23 7
Missions 22 10
Lapps 14 17
Natives 41 66
  The Lomen family of Nome purchased 1,200 reindeer from Alfred Nilima, a Laplander living in the Kotzebue Sound area. Between 1914 and 1929, the Lomen Corporation was to buy 14,083 reindeer at a total cost of $236,156.00.
1915-1918 The period of winter reindeer fairs and the beginning of effort by Reindeer Service employees to urge the formation of village reindeer associations and cooperatives. Native owners number 1,293 by 1916. Government and mission ownership aggregate less than 10 per cent of all deer by 1918, but non-Native ownership increases due to mission sales to the Lomen Company. By 1918, the Lomen brothers had purchased 6,268 deer from Lapp herds and the missions at Teller and Golovin. Influenza epidemic sweeps the peninsula in 1918, taking several leading Eskimo reindeer men and W. C. Shields, Superintendent of Schools, Northwestern District, who was extremely well liked by Eskimo deer men.
1920-1929 A period of considerable plant investment and commercial sales by the growing Lomen interests. Severe financing problems were encountered by the Lomen Companies during this period, though over 6-1/3 million pounds of reindeer meat were sold in the "lower 48" states. The service of W. T. Lopp ends in 1925. Between 1892 and 1926, about 125,000 deer are consumed for food and clothing. By 1929, there are an estimated 400,000 deer in western Alaska. The Governor of the Territory of Alaska assumes responsibility for reindeer supervision on November 1, 1929. Native reindeer associations and stock companies become wide-spread during this period. Deer are allowed to roam for the most part unattended. Several thousand Natives own shares in reindeer stock companies by the early 1930’s.
1930-1937 The period of greatest reindeer abundance. About 640,000 deer are estimated to have existed at the start of this period, with a precipitous decrease in the number of deer beginning probably in 1932. In 1940, only 250,000 deer are estimated to exist in Alaska. By 1950, only 25,000 deer are recorded. In retrospect, the most credible of the reasons advanced for the decline seem to be a combination of overstocked ranges, lack of care in herding, predation by wolves, and large losses to migrating caribou.

A series of events which began in 1931 lead to the passage of the Reindeer Act on September 1, 1937. This act restricted ownership of domestic reindeer in Alaska to Natives only, and provided the administrative machinery for the eventual declaration and purchase of all non-Native owned deer. Non-Natives by this time are estimated to own one third of all reindeer.

1938-1940: The period of assessment and purchase by the Government of all non-Native owned deer. Winter of 1938-39 reported to reduce reindeer population by as much as 50 per cent. During this period it becomes apparent to many Native associations that stock ownership devaluation is necessary to properly reflect actual herd sizes.
1941-1950: Reindeer herds continue to diminish; the low point is apparently reached in 1950, with 25,000 deer. In 1941, administrative supervision is transferred to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, where it currently remains. Reindeer Service personnel launch vigorous campaign to do away with Native cooperatives and associations in 1941, to pave the way for reinstitution of private Native ownership. In an effort to reintroduce closer herding techniques, government funds are appropriated to help defray costs of supporting herders and herd apprentices.
1950-1960: A period of gradual selection of Native owners who have both the desire and means to become private owners of reindeer herds. Predation and losses to caribou continue to plague efforts to keep herds together. Several Eskimo herders attempt to establish themselves with a herd, but fail for a variety of reasons. Interested and capable men are loaned government deer for five years, to get their start.
1960-Pres.: Interest in reindeer as a commercial resource again develops. A few Eskimo herders distinguish themselves as capable herd managers and leaders. By 1968 there are 11 privately managed herds, six of which are now unencumbered by government deer loans. Private herd sizes range from a few hundred to several thousand. The private herders form an owners association during the period, and an Eskimo owned and operated slaughtering facility is initiated. The State of Alaska once again begins to manifest interest in the commercial potential of a reindeer industry. In 1967, state and federal personnel agree that the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (both of the Department of the Interior) shall be responsible for range management and herd management, respectively, while the state will assume responsibilities for the processing and marketing of reindeer products. Total herd size in Alaska was estimated at about 30,000 deer in March of 1968.


This part of the study treats Eskimo herdsmen as participants in a series of historical events. Chapter II examines selected aspects of herdsmen experiences from the time of introduction of the resource in 1892 to the time of greatest resource abundance in about 1932. Chapter III examines the period of resource decline, 1933 to 1950, and Chapter IV treats the period of gradual redevelopment of the resource, from 1951 to 1968.

Next Section

[Alaskool Home]