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Sami Reindeer Herders in Alaska

1894 to Late 1930's

Location: Western Alaska, Bethel to Barrow
History: An extensive history of Sami reindeer herding in Western Alaska can be found on the BAIKI - The North American Sami Journal web site.

In 1877 Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian minister came to Alaska to set up a mission at Port Clarence on the Seward Peninsula.  In 1885 Jackson was appointed by the US Congress to be the General Agent of Education for the Alaska Territories.  In 1890 Jackson promoted a federal plan to import reindeer from Russia to introduce reindeer husbandry to the Inupiaq.  Reindeer and Chukchi herders were brought from Russia, the reindeer propagated but Alaskan Natives do not get along with the Chukchis.  In 1894 Jackson received funds from the government for "The Reindeer Project".  Sami reindeer herders were then recruited in Kautokeino, Norway and traveled by ship to the US, by train across the country to Seattle and again by ship to the Teller Reindeer Station.

The Sami reindeer herders, working on three year contracts for $27.50 a month, taught the Inupiaq how to raise reindeer.  Other groups of Sami came to Alaska in subsequent years.  Many of the Sami liked Alaska so much that after their contracts were up they decided to stay in Alaska.  Some continued with their own reindeer herds.  Some followed the turn of the century rush for gold.  And some Sami married Alaskan Natives.  Of course, the Sami brought skis from Scandinavia to Alaska and used them in their reindeer herding duties.

Two major reindeer drives are know to have occurred in Alaska.  During the winter travel of these treks skis were most likely used.  The first occurred in 1921 when a drive of 1162 reindeer left Goodnews Bay on the Bering Sea  on October 27th and made it to Cantwell near Denaili on August 9, 1922 after traveling 1200 miles.  The second drive, known as "The Great Trek" was supposed to be an 18 month 1200 mile trek from Nabatoolik, Alaska to Kittigazuit, NWT, Canada.  Leaving December 14th, 1929 it ended up taking 5 years, and much hardship, to get the reindeer to the NWT.  Only about 10% of the 3,442 reindeer that started the trek survived, but with new births along the way the total size of the herd that reached the destination was 2,382.

Sources of Information:

The International Sami Journal - www.baiki.org; State of Alaska's Digital Archives -  vilda.alaska.edu.

Photos: Does anyone have old pictures of Sami reindeer herders on skis that they would like to contribute to ALSAP ?

Reindeer herder James Nilima - 1930
[Photo credit: Tessie Sheldon/ www.baiki.org]
Skiers visiting a reindeer pack team - 1896 - 1913
[Photo credit: Anchorage Museum of History and Art]
Sami reindeer herders in Bethel, Alaska - 1903
[Photo credit: www.baiki.org]
Sami reindeer herders in Bethel, Alaska - 1903
[Photo credit: www.baiki.org]

~  MAPS  ~

This map shows locations of Alaskan reindeer stations.  Also show on this map are the routes of the two major Alaskan reindeer drives that were done in the 1920's and 1930's.

[Map credit: www.baiki.org]

Research Correspondence 




Do you have further information, stories or pictures that you would like to contribute about this ski area?