Indigenous peoples of the circumpolar north have lived off the land for generations, each community adapting to their surroundings, constructing distinct cultures, languages, and ways of being. A common denominator to life in the circumpolar north is the harsh climate, long winters, and long summer days.

The common Arctic environment brought Sami and Alaska Native communities from opposite sides of the Arctic Ocean together in the late 1800s.  Sami people, with homelands in modern-day Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia’s Kola Peninsula were brought to Alaska to teach reindeer husbandry to Western Alaska Native communities in an effort to provide economic and subsistence opportunities.

Reindeer are not native to Alaska. A small herd of 16 reindeer arrived on Amaknak Island in the Aleutian chain in 1891 from Russian Chukotka. The herd was an experiment; planted on Amaknak Island and observed to see if they were able to survive. A year later, the U.S. Department of the Interior began a program to bring reindeer herds to Alaska based on the success of the planted herd on Amaknak Island. A herd of 171 Chukotka reindeer arrived at the newly established Teller Reindeer Station on the Seward Peninsula in northwestern Alaska in 1892. However, due to historically poor relations between the Chukchi herders that accompanied the reindeer, and the Inupiat, an alternative source of reindeer herding knowledge had to be found.

In exchange of the Chukchi herders, Sami reindeer herders were recruited to teach the Inupiat. Thirteen married couples, two small children, and an independent seventeen-year-old came from Norway to Alaska to teach Alaska Natives reindeer husbandry techniques. The group of Sami signed three-year contracts and voyaged across the Atlantic to New York City, crossed the United States and embarked from Seattle to arrive at the Teller Reindeer Station in July of 1894, ushering in an era of reindeer herding to Alaska.

 

Reindeer herding expanded throughout western Alaska and continued to move south. More Sami reindeer herders came to Alaska to teach in dozens of reindeer areas throughout the late 1800s. By 1924, a reindeer herd of 32 domestic animals arrived at Lazy Bay on the south end of Kodiak Island. The herd ranged across the tundra between Cape Alitak and the Olga Lakes area and was managed by Alitak Reindeer Company. The Reindeer Company was co-owned between eight individuals Simeon Agnot, Lezon Alokli, Mike Farsovitch, Goverilla Azuyak, Willie Eluska, Ivan Constatine, Eluska Androvitch, and Peter Alavadoff.  The Alitak herd peaked at around 3,000 animals but declined after a wildfire decimated the reindeer habitat in the early 1950s. Following the catastrophe, reindeer herders never fully reclaimed control of the animals. By 1964 the federal grazing lease was about to expire and was never renewed. In a letter from the U.S. Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife dated June 10, 1963, reindeer owners were notified that “Any property that has not been removed from the leased area or disposed of on or before July 1, 1964, will become the property of the United States Government.” The reindeer remained on the land and were declared feral by the State of Alaska the following year.

 

Click on the image below to scroll through a sampling of historic images featuring reindeer in Alaska: 

 

How do I learn more? 

Included below are links to resources about the history of Sami reindeer herders in Alaska, along with links to collections held at other institutions.