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



Although it is virtually impossible today to find a middle-aged Bering Strait Eskimo male who did not at some time in his youth own "many" reindeer, it should come as no surprise to find that it is difficult to get a definite idea of the exact number owned or what eventually happened to them. The period of the early 1930’s was a time of great reindeer plentitude, and also a time when reindeer ownership produced a minimum of emotional and material reward. In 1933, there were an estimated 640,000 deer; by 1950, there were an estimated 25,000 deer — a decline of 615,000 over 17 years.72

This chapter is concerned with changing herd and range management policies during the period and with Native participation with and reaction to large scale commercial operations by the Lomen Corporation, as well as their reactions to their own joint stock ownership associations. Information in this chapter was derived from correspondence written during the period, field interviews, and stock company ledgers examined in the field.

The End of Integrated Export Operations

By 1933, it was clear that the Lomen Companies were in trouble.73 In January of that year, the New York banker who had carried the company financially since 1927 passed away, leaving the Lomens without stateside support. The company president, Carl Lomen, began again his search for funds, this time through the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (R.F.C.). In a letter to the R.F.C. in support of the Lomen request, Secretary of Interior Ray L. Wilbur wrote:

The Natives have no capital and rely largely on employment by Northwest Livestock Corporation or through the sale of reindeer to the company.74

The Eskimo owners did rely upon deer sales to the company, for they had little alternative. Local markets for reindeer products were miniscule.

But the Lomen interests, too, were faced with problems. In 1931, the firm exported only 602 deer carcasses; in 1932, less than 2,000. From 1933 to 1937, the firm exported an average of 3,000 carcasses per year, a mere fraction of deer available for slaughter.75 Requests were made to the R.F.C. for $750,000, of which $200,000 were to be used for advances to Native deer owners through the company’s mercantile outlets. The firm eventually received only $100,000 from R.F.C.76 The Lomen brothers were under growing pressure from Native producers with surplus deer at home, while facing depression markets and capital shortages in their export outlets. In short, they were caught between two forces, neither of which they could control

By 1935, Lomen stores were offering to purchase Native owned deer in exchange for $2.00 credit. To the Native owners, many of whom could well remember selling their deer for as much as 40 per pound, such a proposition was tantamount to dishonesty. By this time, however, many deer owners were already in debt to Lomen stores for credit advances, were faced with badly crowded ranges, and had no alternative use for their surplus animals. In a meeting held to discuss the offer, the Eskimo owners at the village of Wales agreed to allow individual owners to sell for the purpose of reducing indebtedness and range pressure.77 Many owners sold deer. Keok and Ootenna, large owners since the turn of the century, sold several hundred head each. Ootenna was reportedly in substantial debt to the Lomen store, a circumstance ill befitting one of the first Eskimo apprentices to own deer.78

The Lomen Company and the government field men who supported these transactions bore the brunt of Native owner disappointments, the seeds for which were planted thirty years earlier when a reindeer business was developed predicated upon the presence of a local market. In the words of one Wales owner, writing to W. T. Lopp, who had retired in Seattle:

We are in great need of Government’s help before it is too late. As long as Lomen’s men are allowed to stay in the Reindeer Service the Natives will be forced to sell a deer for $2 in trade. As Geo. Ootenna and others are already done it will never stop this selling (sic) . . . . 79

To this owner, it appeared the Lomen Enterprises had taken over even government field personnel .Indeed, circumstances must have seemed little short of hopeless during this period. Pressure from these quarters were added to those emanating from congressmen and from the Indian Rights Association, which, through the efforts of W. T. Lopp and others, had become articulate concerning the problems facing Native producers.

In September of 1937, Congress passed the Alaska Reindeer Act, which directed the Secretary of Interior to acquire all non-Native owned reindeer and equipment in Alaska and to establish a self-sustaining industry for the benefit of Alaska Eskimo and other Natives. By the summer of 1940, the former objective had been achieved, and the Lomen name passed from reindeer range lands. Thus, in a short span of thirty years, Eskimo owners witnessed the growth and decay of local markets and of integrated export operations. To them, the reindeer and the value it produces in exchange seemed as uncontrollable and undependable as any other aspect of Native environment — probably more so.

Reindeer Are Like "Melting Snow in the Spring"

It had become increasingly difficult during the middle 1920’s for the Eskimo owner to exercise year-round herding over his deer. With the shrinkage of local markets, few owners could afford to provide the supplies necessary to make winter on the barren tundra physically attractive. Additionally, few young men were eager to work as herders in exchange for payment in deer, which were by then fast becoming an economic burden to the Eskimo. By the late 1920’s, most herds were unattended throughout much of the year.

What had become impossible for the individual owner during the 1920’s proved exceedingly difficult for groups of owners by the 1930’s. Community and association owners were soon likewise compelled to forego constant, year-round herding habits. Thus, by the mid-1930’s, many herds had not been constantly herded for several years and had reverted to their wild state. In the words of one herd manager, "We need herders, but no money to support them in grub . . . ." 80

During the years of local markets, the Eskimo owners had kept their herds as close as possible to coastal population centers. This worked quite well when herds were relatively small and constantly herded, and the deer became accustomed to the range they inhabited. The tendency to use coastal range lands exclusively, or during most of the year, was further reinforced during the period of Lomen export operations. Slaughtering facilities were located on the coast because of the absence of transportation to and from interior ranges. In short, the Eskimo-owner operation had a distinct coastal orientation. The habit of the deer to seek seashore breezes for relief from bugs and for salt during the spring and summer rendered much interior peninsula graze of little use.

From 1932 to about 1937, when several hundred thousands of deer were estimated to exist from the Kuskokwim River basin to Point Barrow, the lack of constant herding and the natural and built-in coastal bias of the industry began to result in large areas of overgrazed range lands. Starvation, predation by wolves on untended herds, and large scale straying were other consequences of herding inadequacies.

There exists today substantial disagreement as to the principal cause for the vast disappearance of reindeer during the late 1930’s and the following decade. The Eskimo owner is likely to mention starvation, predation, or straying as the cause. Many who owned deer at the time say the reindeer "just went away." It seems a valid observation that to many owners the reindeer ceased playing a vital role as a significant contributor to the well being of their homes and villages in the 1920’s, when the deer lost their value as instruments for the acquisition of consumer products. Reindeer care requires considerable effort. This effort produced significantly important rewards to the Eskimo owner only during the time reindeer were valued commercially.

It should be noted in passing that some writers attribute the decline in reindeer abundance to: (1 ) a failure on the part of Eskimo owners to acquire the Laplander’s nomadic life style;81 (2) the movement away from constant year-round herding — this being usually referred to as Eskimo reluctance to live away from his village;82 and, (3) a loss of interest by Native owners as a result of diffuse association-stock ownership.83

As for the Native not acquiring the nomadic pattern, it was pointed out early in the last chapter that the Lapps were brought to Alaska primarily as freighters — and instructors in freighting — not as models for cultural change. The Laplander, like the Eskimo owner, had an occupational role as an appendage to a mining economy. There was no attempt to systematically introduce nomadic behavior among the Eskimo. Indeed, the reindeer was far less mobile than were his Eskimo owners, who were accustomed to changing regional residence with some frequency. In all probability, if an attempt had been made to change life styles according to Laplander design, it would have failed, not because the Eskimo resists change, but because his culture was far richer in variation of experiences and resources than that of his supposed model.

As for the movement away from close herding and loss of interest due to diffuse stock ownership, it should come as no surprise that a resource of no value as a producer of revenue should suffer in terms of care and interest. The Eskimo owners’ only experience with reindeer had been as an exchange commodity. Why, then, anticipate perception of some form of inherent value sufficiently strong to encourage care and interest that are economically unwarranted? Why try to curb "melting snow in the spring," when snow is no longer useful to you?84 In this, the Eskimo culture is similar to the western enterprise system in which the degree of project potential determines effort.

The Joint Stock Company Experience

Eskimo owners began forming ownership clubs as early as 1918 in their efforts to provide a forum for settling range disputes caused by mixing herds and to set prices and allocate market shares. Membership in these early clubs was open to owners of herds above a certain minimum size. Regular meetings were held to elect officers, and special meetings could be called when a dispute arose between members. As the size of herds grew and the difficulty of keeping herds in some areas apart increased, the clubs became more formally organized. These ownership groups were encouraged by Reindeer Service employees.

By the middle 1920’s, reindeer stock companies began making their appearance over much of Seward Peninsula and other parts of western Alaska. In 1933, it is reported there were 78 Native reindeer associations, with a total of 5,878 members.85 Some associations were limited to the owners of one village, others were composed of members from several villages, depending upon range contiguity. Though records and recollection of actual association operations are scarce, they apparently functioned somewhat as follows.86

The herds of the association members were combined and placed under the supervision and care of a chief herder appointed by the members. Actual day-to-day operations were under the complete control of the chief herder. An individual owner who desired to replenish home meat supplies, or had promised a local miner a carcass or two, had to secure a permit to slaughter a stated number of deer within a given period of days. Oftentimes, the chief herder-himself was required to be present and select the deer to be slaughtered in an effort to prevent the selection of another owner’s deer. The chief herder, with the advice and consent of association officers and members, also hired young herders to assist him with the herd. The number of assistants varied with herd size and range characteristics.

Payment to the chief herder and his assistants was subject to negotiation. The form of payment was normally in ownership shares, each share representing one deer. Apparently, no distinction was made among shares as to the sex of the deer. In several instances the chief herder acquired between 30 to 50 shares per year. Additionally, the chief herder and his assistants were supplied with groceries and equipment purchased through the sale of association "treasury stock."

Each herd owner to join the association was issued a share for each deer in his herd. There were no stock certificates as such, simply a journal entry under the owner’s name corresponding to the number of shares owned. Each owner was assessed a tax to pay for herding expenses that amounted to 10 per cent of his total stock ownership. Each year, usually during April fawning season, each co-owner’s share total was increased by a selected percentage to reflect spring increases. In nearly all instances examined, the increase was computed by adding 50 to 60 per cent to the owner’s previous share total. Again, there was no distinction between animal sex among shares owned; one share represented one deer.

To cover expenses, the association had a treasury account composed of shares taxed from owners. The elected board of directors of the association presided over the sale of the deer represented by treasury stock and used them to acquire groceries and materials to support operations. When a corral needed repair, each owner contributed food and labor. If he could not be present himself, he was obliged to arrange another’s presence in his stead. In the event of a member’s death, his or her shares were divided evenly among immediate family dependents. In some cases, treasury stock was used to pay family debts when the head of the family died.

The era of stock associations among the Eskimo owners covers a period of about 25 years (1925-1950). The effectiveness with which these organizations functioned varied throughout the period. For the first few years, most of the herds were cared for, or at least there were herders and chief herders on the payroll. During the late twenties, however, it became increasingly difficult to interest herders in acquiring more deer through herding, and — there being no alternative source of wages — herding on a constant basis declined. Without accurate herd counts, the high yearly percentage increases attributed to spring fawn crops were perpetuated, even into the period when herds began declining in size.

There is clear indication that the transition from observable and countable herd ownership to ownership on the basis of ledger entries was never effectively made. Ideally, an owner of a share of stock participates in a stream of income being generated by the issuing organization according to the extent of his subscription. In the case of the reindeer associations, the identity of one share of stock with one reindeer (one unit of observable asset) was maintained. The Eskimo owner owned a given number of reindeer, not a given percentage of corporate income. The effort, in other words, was to avoid the abstraction required by equity ownership.

The one-share-to-one-reindeer perspective led to considerable owner disappointment when it was found that ownership shares had become greatly over-valued. As previously mentioned, fawn increases were computed on the basis of the total shares owned by a given member. A moment of thought will reveal that to apply a percentage increase of the magnitude used (50-60 per cent) to the total number of shares owned greatly overstated the actual fawn crop. The net annual herd increase for a well managed herd can run as high as 33-1/3 per cent, or 50-to-60 per cent of the adult female population.87 By increasing member share ownership as much as 60 per cent may have been an appropriate expectation from the adult female population, but certainly not the entire herd. Net annual herd increase during the 1930’s was estimated at 20 per cent.88 It is entirely probable that, had there been some distinction between stock shares (i.e., "female" and "male" shares), this disastrous error could have been avoided. More realistically, the very concept of share ownership, and the abstraction it necessarily requires, was completely unadoptable.

By 1940, many associations were operationally out of control. By this time, it was clear to most owners that deer were physically disappearing and that share ownership was greatly over-valued. Periodic reductions to total shares owned by members effected rapid devaluation of recorded herd sizes. In the records of the Unalakleet Native Company, Mary Andrewuk, the aging heir and widow of Charlie Antisarlook, "owned" over 5,000 deer in January of 1939. By November 1945 she owned 234, and by April of 1951, 194.89 Similarly, in 1944, when Eskimo owners decided to return to individual ownership at Deering, they could find less than one-tenth of their recorded herds.

In 1944, Reindeer Service employees were urged to work "ceaselessly" against association ownership in their efforts to create "Lapp-like" individual herds.90 In so doing, they returned to an official policy first launched in 1892.

Marketing Patterns and a Return to Private Ownership

In the late 1930’s, the Reindeer Service operated 39 local reindeer offices, employing village teachers as local reindeer superintendents. These local stations fell under the supervision of five regional managers, whose activities were in turn coordinated by a reindeer superintendent in Nome.91 When it became clear that the widespread lack of constant herding was due primarily to the absence of means among Eskimo owners to support and pay an adequate effort, the Reindeer Service began increasing its efforts to locate markets for reindeer products. In a circular letter to regional and local managers in 1936, the general superintendent encouraged his field men to promote local sales while his office endeavored to coordinate efforts to sell reindeer products in "outside markets."92

Beginning about 1936, reindeer hides were shipped aboard Department of Interior vessels to Seattle for auction. Still-born and new-born fawn skins were sold for 75 each (F.O.B. Seattle), and winter skins for as high as 90 each. Reindeer tails and "bells" (a tuft of hide which hangs beneath the animal’s neck) brought from 2-to-5 and from 5-to-15 each.93 This operation led to widespread killing of deer by Eskimo herdsmen, who possessed many surplus deer and greatly desired to realize some income from them. Without a parallel market for reindeer meat products, deer carcasses were left on the range to rot or were used for fox bait.94 By 1939, there were sufficient numbers of Natives with skins thus acquired that it became necessary for regional managers to set a maximum limit on the number of fawn skins shipped.95 It is important to note that the best hides are produced by those deer in the best condition, potentially the best breeding stock. If the appearance of an animal was important in selecting those to be shot for their hides, and indications are that it was a criteria, this resulted in generally weaker herds. A weaker herd has quite clearly less chance of surviving the arctic winters, which permit the survival only of the fittest. It is also important to note that the Eskimo owner responded to the market for skins with zeal and with little thought for the future. To the Eskimo, a surplus of deer had worth only insofar as it was of value in exchange, and exchange value had proved itself to be of ephemeral significance.

In 1940, in the absence of any substantial success in developing markets for reindeer products, the Reindeer Service returned to its policy of earlier years of subsidizing herding expenses. It was not recognized that live reindeer were no longer a sufficiently attractive wage for herders and that Eskimo owners had no alternative wage payment fund. Most Eskimo by this time had acquired fixed habits that required a continuous supply of commercially made products, and, with no market for reindeer products, there was little reason to care for or to own reindeer in excess of subsistence needs. In an effort to encourage constant herding, the Reindeer Service employed herd assistants and apprentices for $45.00 and $20.00 per month, respectively, thus sharing in herding costs. The Eskimo owner was obliged to contribute subsistence products of at least equal value.96Though marketing conditions changed little, this form of herding subsidy lasted only a few years in most herds. By 1950, the few remaining herds were under government control again and were serving as a basis for loans to individual Eskimo owners.97

Depending upon the number of deer left and the attitudes of association members, the return to private ownership was affected differently from region to region. In those cases where herds still existed, the owners were urged to sign an agreement to loan their deer to the government or to a selected individual who had manifested an interest in continuing in the business. In one case, a herder was still "paying off association members" until the early 1960’s. The government herds formed from association herds served as a source of deer loans to individual Eskimo —- a practice still in existence today.

A Note on Political Representation

The period from 1930 marks the real beginning of political education among most Eskimo reindeer owners. In no previous time did Native owners write notes to congressmen, government committees, and employees in the volume and lucidity as they began to do during the events leading to the demise of the Lomen interests. Previously, the Natives’ persuasive efforts were almost exclusively on the personal, face-to-face basis at which they were extremely competent. It was, however, fast becoming clear to many owners that government field personnel were themselves very sensitive to influences other than those in their immediate environment. Similarly, the value of reindeer in exchange for commercial products now very clearly depended upon little understood forces emanating from "outside."

When federal investigations of the reindeer industry were initiated in 1931, the hearings were held in Washington, D.C. No Eskimo owners were present there — but simultaneous meetings were held by the owners themselves in Nome, and telegrams in support of the Washington hearings were drawn up and dispatched. Later, in 1933 — when Ben Mozee, a highly respected employee of the Reindeer Service, was fired — letters from many villages, one containing over fifty signatures, were sent to Alaska’s congressional delegate arguing for Mozee’s reinstatement.98 Some villages held meetings when the Reindeer Act of 1937 reached them, again writing letters to their delegate expressing positions on sections of the bill.

This is not to suggest that Native owner opinion became a unified, meaningful political force overnight. Most of the Eskimo initiated correspondence was sent to persons with whom the Eskimo had previously met in the field and had learned to know and trust. W. T. Lopp, Ben Mozee, and C.L. Andrews were teachers and Reindeer Service employees for many years on the peninsula, and it was to these men that most Eskimo owners wrote about their feelings and problems. Until his death in 1939, Lopp remained active as a communication link for the Eskimo. All three of these men were instrumental in initiating and directing the anti-Lomen sentiment that led to the end of non-Native ownership. The Native response to Mozee’s removal in 1933 testifies to the important communication and mobilization roles played by a few trusted spokesmen.

Trust in a few articulate "links" with the "outside" indicates in part that, as is true today, the Eskimo owners did not view themselves as a unified force capable of exerting political will together. Indeed, as has always been the case, a few known personalities may serve as a far greater catalyst for opinion formation and mobilization than a fragile agreement among politically equal Native owners. As has been previously noted, the Eskimo is culturally accustomed to tend to his own daily pattern, leaving diplomatic affairs to a relatively few individuals. This works well only when the diplomat thinks and acts according to commonly shared values and norms. When the need for representation "outside" became increasingly important, the number of individuals capable of being both culturally representative and articulate with outside forces was few indeed.

In the early 1930’s, the role of the diplomat was filled by a few sensitive government field personnel whose tenure in office was less a function of Native support than of agility in handling successive administrative attacks from Washington and the territorial government. Native trust and intensity of dependence proved far more durable than occupancy of a given government field office. The very nature of political affiliation among the arctic Eskimo — the fundamental reliance upon personal contact and eventual confidence through intimate knowledge of behavior — proved antithetical to the years of frequent governmental field personnel changes inaugurated by the events of the 1930’s. From the late 1930’s to the late 1950’s, when Native leadership began to emerge, the Eskimo owner was for the most part without inter-cultural representation.


The years 1933 to 1950 were ones of sweeping changes and consequent adjustments for the Native reindeer owners. The period began with the decline and eventual cessation of integrated export operations by the Lomen Companies. Later, the Native owners were exposed to stock company operations while, at the same time, the reindeer herds were rapidly disappearing. The period culminated with largely unsuccessful attempts by the Office of Indian Affairs to seek new markets for reindeer products, and with the reintroduction of individual ownership.

These were the years during which optimism about the commercial development of a reindeer industry was exposed as the unreliable excess of partially organized planners. Reindeer ownership and reindeer as a production resource became known as concepts that yield to cyclical market forces controlled by someone "outside" the Eskimo realm of influence.


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