Alaska – The Deer That Went to School

TODAY, because one can fly to Nome so easily from Fairbanks in a few hours, few use the old-time Yukon waterway of long ago, taking monotonous weeks in transit. There are no fine, modern, tourist-equipped vessels on the Lower Yukon, as on the upper river; and in keeping with Alaska’s paradoxical ways, as the Great River grows wider and wider in its perpetual rolling to the sea, the boats you take to travel on it get smaller and smaller as you near the deltic mouth and the once busy port of St. Michael.

Here, where the now old weary river flows through wide mouths its ” somewhere safe to sea,” is to be found a very different land from the tremendous majesty of the Upper Yukon. There is very little timber on the coastal areas and none at all over the major portion of Seward Peninsula; indeed, the old Russian round tower at St. Michael is built of timber brought from Asia, men say who have examined it closely, though it is well known that material for the Russian Fur Company building was brought from Sitka in 1833. There is practically no timber over the belt immediately back of the coast, and only very scattering stands across the neighboring inland areas back as far as the Endicott and Alaska Ranges. The coast lands are hummocky moist ground called tundra or niggerheads—dense, matted and profuse growths, but unsuitable for agriculture. On small areas of sandy soil along the beach the grasses are three to four feet high, and in many places the typical tundra growth of mixed sedges, grasses and lichens form a sponge mat ten to twelve inches deep, making any long mush across them a leg-weary toil. Thickets of scrub willow along the stream course and scattered stands of alder or birch along the larger river valleys or upper roll of slopes, mix with a growth of ground birch, ground willow, huckleberry, salmonberry, cranberry, crow-berry and ” Alaska tea.” Those white spots flying overhead are Arctic swans seeking a north place for the summer season, where the sun never sets. Those darker wedges are migrating ducks and geese. Except for their far lonely cries the land lies silent, waiting for some far-seeing mortal to sense the quick life dormant in these sedgy tundras and turn this corner of the Great Country to usefulness and purpose. Nor do we have to wait long for an answer—it has already come. The magic of an idea, born out of human compassion, is even now transmuting tundra into meat.

There is one animal and one alone, known to man since man himself has first been known, that thrives on land like this—an animal long domesticated, a native to the North, ” the most widely distributed mammal in the world,” whose range has been a territory far exceeding in size all of Europe. The rein-deer is the answer to that question of how the peculiar and abundant vegetation of this quarter of the High North can be converted into food for men, instead of food for wolves and foxes; for rein-deer and reindeer alone of all domesticated animals can best convert into the most delicious meat the billions of tons of edible vegetation which yearly in the past have gone to waste on the swelling slopes of these northern prairies. ” Reindeer moss “—that gray, gelatinous, slightly pungent and acrid lichen, shaped like branching coral and the most common form of vegetation in this section of the North—cannot be eaten raw by man, but it can be eaten in the most palatable wise imaginable, after it has been built solidly into reindeer meat. And Alaska has in the Lower Yukon-Bering Sea section grazing land sufficient to support three to four million reindeer. Already there are nearly a million reindeer being herded by Eskimos and whites in this section, and already the net profits from this youngest of Alaska’s great industries have reached a sum that more than pays back Uncle Sam’s sometimes begrudged purchase price for the whole Territory. If the reindeer industry increases in the same ratio as it has been doing, in much less than twenty years the annual surplus of the reindeer crop will be yielding a meat production each year worth more than the annual precious-metal yield of the Territory, and second only to the great Alaska fisheries as a permanent income-producing activity.

Wherever wild caribou thrive, why should not the reindeer, man protected, thrive even more lustily? For reindeer are merely caribou that have for long ages gone to school with man and have been greatly changed in disposition and tractability by these centuries of domestication—but no more changed in essential physique than wild horses or wild cattle have been changed. And the climate and vegetation of large sections of Alaska are closely similar to those of regions occupied by long-skilled reindeer breeders in the Old World.

Who thought of this, and when? Dr, Sheldon Jackson, U. S. General Agent of Education in Alaska, in 1890 had been granted transportation on the Revenue Cutter Bear on its annual cruise into Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean, in order that he might gain basic information about the possibility of establishing schools among the Eskimos. The Bear visited all the important native villages on both the Alaskan and Siberian shores. The Alaska Eskimos were leading a precarious, hunters’, hand-to-mouth existence due, as he soon found, to the very patent fact that the native food supply of sea game was fast diminishing, and to the fact that wild caribou no longer ranged this region but were drifting farther inland through central Alaska and the Yukon territory. With the coming of white men and white men’s traps and guns, the fur-bearing animals were growing more and more scarce. Yearly, fleets of steam whalers were driving the bowhead farther and farther into the Arctic, and gasoline schooners were decimating the herds of walrus and seal which the Eskimos through centuries of adaptation had learned to depend on for their food and clothing, sewing materials, boats and tools. Left alone, all would have been well, but we had not left them alone; we whites were yearly ravishing their larder and leaving only fast-emptying food shelves for Muk-pi’s people. Not only were the Alaska Eskimos in danger of losing their food supply but (and this is equally important in any Arctic climate) their clothing as well. The Alaskan Eskimo was typically a sea hunter—seals, whalebone and ivory tusks had long been his articles of barter with Siberian cousins across the Straits, and in return he brought back reindeer skins from their herds. Dr. Jackson saw that unless something was done, and done soon, Uncle Sam might have to feed the whole Eskimo population of Alaska—or let them starve to death. This was unthinkable. And yet, as hunting resources were the Eskimo’s entire dependence for his claim on life, and hunting resources were rapidly diminishing, the natural consequence would be starvation.

But-across Bering Straits in Siberia and only a few miles distant from Alaska, with climate and country precisely similar, Sheldon Jackson found thousands of Chuck-chees waxing fat on countless herds of reindeer. Why then hadn’t the Alaskan Eskimos taken up reindeer herding? The answer to that question runs very far back into pre-history and paleo-asiatic folk ways, but the sum of it is this: While the domestication of reindeer is undoubtedly far older in Asia than in the Europe of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, and the rein-deer culture of the paleo-asiatic Siberian tribes is very ancient, still reindeer-nomadism as a way of life was taken up by these Asiatic peoples after the migration of Alaskan Eskimos to this continent. When they came, reindeer were being hunted and not yet tamed in the old home in Asia, and so the Eskimo continued as a hunter and had never learned to be a herder. Among our own early ancestors rein-deer hunting was an important occupation, as we know from wonderfully lifelike drawings of ‘pre-historic reindeer made in such caves as those of Kesserloch in Switzerland. Indeed the very dawn of human history has become known as the Reindeer Age, because they flourished so then, and must have been the most numerous large animal then in Europe. But these early European hunters had not yet learned reindeer nomadism, although cave-dwelling men have left for us those many skilful etchings of their favorite game creature, done upon cave walls with a sharp-point flint.

That is the reason why Muk-pi’s people did not bring reindeer herds with them when they came, so long ago; nor did they need domestic reindeer while the wild caribou herds were plentiful on Bering coast, or while they could pursue their ancient hunter way unhampered on the sea, with undiminished success. And after the sea food-supply began to go, Siberian cousins then would neither sell nor lend their own live reindeer, but only trade their hides. Tradition and a taboo had grown up, absolutely for-bidding the sale of reindeer for breeding-a tradition very similar in quality to that of Arabs regarding their pure-bred mares. Nor did the Alaskan Eskimos know anything at all about herding, and it is not at all likely that, unaided, they would ever have considered it, nor, even if they had, would they have been successful at it. Successful herding is a trade long to learn, and both the cultural form of reindeer nomadism and the handy ski for snow-tool are among those North Asiatic cultural elements which evolved too late to reach America, and stopped with the Chuck-chee before reaching the narrow Straits. The coast Chuck-chee are not herders but fishermen, and while the inland Chuck-chee breed large herds of reindeer (often as many as a thousand to a herd) and live on reindeer flesh and milk and are generally prosperous, the fishing Chuck-chee of the Siberian coast villages with whom the Alaskan Eskimo come most in contact, are very poor, and beg hides from their richer cousins to make their tents and clothes.

Although there were approximately three million reindeer among the northern peoples of Asia, Siberian Chuck-chee were most unwilling to part with any live deer—partly on account of superstition, and partly for fear of losing trade. They not only did a good business in skins with Alaskan Eskimos, but among themselves the size of herd was a symbol of wealth, culture, position, and family pride. What houses and lands, motors and jewels are to us, even such are flocks and herds to the pastoral liver. To sell, they felt, would be like selling birthright for a mess of pottage. And the Chuck-chee were a fierce and independent race, who had resisted all attempts of Russia to conquer them.

Both Sheldon Jackson and Captain Healy of the Bear were greatly impressed with the thought that it would be a wise national policy to introduce domestic reindeer from Siberia into Alaska, as a source of supply for food and clothing to Alaskan Eskimos. So obsessed was Dr. Jackson with the dual idea of the Eskimos’ plight and the feasibility of transplanting reindeer culture from Asia that, after two at-tempts to get money from Congress had failed, an appeal was made to the people directly through the press of eastern cities, and $2,136 was contributed by benevolent individuals. Sixteen deer were purchased with this in 1891 and a hundred and seventy-one in 1892. In 1893 Congress now realized the importance of the movement and made the first appropriation of $6,000 for the work of continuing the reindeer industry in Alaska. During nine seasons the good old Bear carried the agents of the Bureau of Education back and forth between Siberia and Alaska and transported Siberian reindeer to Alaska –1,280 animals in all being imported. From this small beginning has grown the present Alaskan herd of nearly 1,000,000 animals.

All this was not done without adventure, work and risk in the early stages, as well as the skepticism and cruel wit which always attach to a new venture. In 1901 Lieutenant E. P. Bertholf, U. S. Coast Guard, was sent to Russia, provided with proper credentials by the State Department, to arrange through imperial official channels for the purchase of reindeer; for Dr. Jackson and Captain Healy had both of them learned the deep-rooted feeling of the Chuck-chee against the sale of their animals. Armed with the necessary permits by governmental authority at St. Petersburg and Moscow, he travelled across Siberia by rail and sledge to Ola, on the Okhotsk Sea, where about four hundred reindeer of a superior breed were bought with trade goods from the Tungus, a northern wide-spread Asiatic people of Mongol-Tartar family. These animals were taken to Vladivostok where a small steamer was chartered and this shipment of deer transported, with 2,500 bags of reindeer moss for food during the voyage, to Teller, on Port Clarence, which was Alaska’s first reindeer station.

At first, Siberian natives were hired to come over with the herds and teach the Eskimos the care of deer, with herding, breaking deer to sled, lasso throwing, corralling, and all the other tricks of herdsman art. But they proved poor teachers—in fact, unwilling instructors and quite greedy of imparting very much of what they knew. They seemed jealous of their craft and wished not so much to teach as to conserve their present good jobs—which was but human nature, perhaps! Accordingly, in 1898 Uncle Sam invited a few intelligent and efficient Lapps (a people who had reduced reindeer raising to a science in the north of Europe) to come over at his expense, bring with them some of their own sled deer, and help him train his Eskimos to be good herdsmen. We know that the Lapps have been breeding reindeer in Norway through long cen turies, for Ohthere the Norwegian (who said that he ” dwelt furthest north of all the Northmen,” made the first voyage around North Cape, and discovered the White Sea) in the ninth century speaks of a herd of six hundred head and told our own Saxon King Alfred all about reindeer herding, in a manuscript still preserved in the British Museum.

Under this white-man expert tutelage the Eskimos, like the Mongoloid quick-wits they are, proved excellent imitators and soon became proficient. An ingenious system of four years’ apprenticeship was inaugurated, an apprentice receiving six, eight and ten breeding deer at the close of his first, second and third years, respectively, and ten more at the close of his course of training. He then becomes a herder on his own, in entire charge of his own herd, and hires apprentices to serve under him on the same terms, thus creating an endless chain of trained producers. This is the excellently devised system which in one generation has elevated a large portion of the Eskimo population from a hunting to a herding culture, based no longer on a gamble with the winter sea but on the sure increase of herds which now run from less than 400 up to 12,000 head—great herds of meat creators on a thousand tundras, located, visited, and inspected to-day by men in airplanes, conquering space.

Our own good friend Jafet Lindeberg, “The Father of Nome,” came to Alaska in 1898 as one of these foremen brought by Uncle Sam from Norway with the reindeer. But Lindeberg did not have to wait for herds to make his fortune, for he was, you will remember, the lucky discoverer of Nome’s gold fields. It was Jafet Lindeberg, at Unalakleet on Norton Sound, who gave me my own very first sight of a great reindeer herd. Surely no man’s eventful life has been more bound up with the development of this Northwest Province. The herd we saw there Lindeberg owned jointly with the well-known Lomen family of Nome, and the Lomen Reindeer Corporation is today the greatest single producer of reindeer meat in Alaska. This company ships reindeer meat to the States, where it is served as a great delicacy on dining cars of most of the finest railroads, and in many of the better-class eastern hotels and most exclusive clubs. The States Restaurant in San Francisco is the largest user of reindeer meat in America, I am told. They order it by the carload and now serve almost as much of it as they do beef! Indeed, it has become so swiftly popular that I believe it’s scarcely necessary to describe its taste, which lies somewhere between beef and mutton, with just the faintest suggestion of duck. Only the dressed meat of young steers is shipped out of Alaska, and this has no gamy flavor, only a little spicy tang like well-fed duck. While the best cuts for household use are round, loin, ribs and shoulder, there is practically no part of the animal inedible; and chemical and biological analyses of reindeer meat, made by the Department of Agriculture, show that reindeer, about halfway in size between beef and mutton, has good texture and very little difference in proximate composition as compared with other meats. The distinctive differences in quality are that it is high in protein, low in fat, and of relatively low moisture,—that is, high nutritive value in proportion to weight,—a valuable factor when, as from Alaska, it must be shipped long distances.

The word ” reindeer ” has long been associated in our minds with Santa Claus, and this association need no longer be considered a childish fancy; for the reindeer did come first to Alaska as a left-handed gift of Uncle Sam himself, and to a people whom he, in his solemn treaty with Russia three quarters of a century ago, had undertaken to protect and not abridge in their natural rights. But reindeer have proved to be so well adapted to this peculiar environment that they have developed with leaps and bounds. Today Dasher and Dancer, Prancer and Vixen, and all the rest of Santa Claus’ antlered ponies, are clattering loudly with their far-fromtiny hoofs of infant industry upon the very roof of Uncle Sam’s attic.

This vast, fallow-lying land of the Lower Yukon, Kuskokwim and the Northwest Province contains millions of acres of good reindeer grazing. As a great portion of this land is not used for anything else at the present time, it would seem that the reindeer industry is the fitting business to encourage here. In the spring and summer the deer feed on grasses, willow leaves, buds, mushrooms and marine alga; in the winter on the lichens which have been slowly growing since last season. Each animal needs for range the same acreage as do western cattle—that is, about two and a half acres per head per month. Only the white owners (who secured the nucleus of their herds from the Lapp herders, who in turn secured their herds on shares for their work) are at present shipping meat to outside markets, and about two-thirds of the herd are still owned by native Eskimos. Here in a region not as yet proven favor-able to the pasturage of cattle and sheep, a great domestic-animal industry is being built up, reindeer furnishing food and clothing and labor and spending money to the people of one section of the far North, and an increased meat supply to all of Uncle Sam’s children below stairs.

The herds double every three years, allowing for an annual kill of ten per cent., and more than 250,000 animals have already been butchered for food and clothing. The average fawn crop runs about sixty per cent., and the average life of the reindeer is about fifteen years. Approximately five thousand people of Alaska, native and white, are now engaged in this industry. The government itself owns from five to ten thousand reindeer in Alaska, several of the missions own small herds, and the big Lomen Corporation, who are the main shippers commercially, own or control about 200,000 head. Nearly 2,000-000 pounds of reindeer meat were brought into the ‘United States in 1928. While the ultimate object of reindeer breeding will doubtless be the largest possible meat production, and the industry has grown far beyond the original conception in that a new meat supply has been tapped for all United States citizens, and the nation’s possible grazing areas have been vastly enlarged, the original idea of new and better livelihood for Eskimos and a means of their development into useful, producing, self-supporting citizens has never been lost to sight and is even now being accomplished.

The reindeer is the best solution for the high cost of living in this section of the High North. Interior Alaska has its huge wild caribou herds, which are nothing more nor less than feral reindeer; and any hunter during the great caribou runs or migrations, when they sweep in countless tens of thousands past our villages, can kill his winter’s meat. But these wild caribou range over from western Yukon Territory, from just south of the Tanana to a little west of Fairbanks and then north to the mountains. We know from long experience the usefulness of caribou, least shy of all deer and a very practical animal, furnishing food and clothing to thousands of north-ern Indians. This native caribou is an animal closely related to the original progenitor of the reindeer, but is today larger and more slenderly built, less blocky and with longer legs than the domestic rein-deer which remained an exclusive cultural property of the Old World before this Alaska importation. Valuable experiments are under way, crossing rein-deer with wild caribou, resulting in a larger beef animal.

But above all else, the reindeer is a civilizer. Before Sheldon Jackson conceived his wild dream, the culture of the Alaskan Eskimos was in a state of disintegration due to changing conditions. The sure way of life which their ancestors for centuries had followed and had learned so well, was being lost through circumstances which they could not control. The Eskimo is much like an uneducated European peasant, possessing a large amount of native wit and an intelligence that lies fallow but is readily tapped. Sheldon Jackson did the tapping when he brought the reindeer, for Eskimos delight in this new craft which makes them independent financially. Through this industry the Eskimos have now taken the first step up on the grade of civilization, a step our ancestors took long ago; that is, hunters are now becoming herders. We must be patient and not expect too much, too soon, for it’s a slow process, and new and steady qualities need to be developed. But Muk-pi’s people are quick learners, and Eskimo and reindeer have been developing in a similar environment through brooding long dark ages, and they possess the same affinity for space and mystery.

Nomadic hunters, primitive men, are today taking this step up into the pastoral stage—with herds to assure support for themselves, with opportunity to acquire real wealth, with vocational training adapted to community needs, with independence and responsible citizenship just ahead around the next corner. The “pasture deer” of the Old World for centuries went to school to men. Having proved good scholars, they have now become teachers—teachers and civilizers of men.