Wandering Amylessly: A real life reindeer encounter and history lesson

0
207

By Amy Larsen
Wyo4News feature writer

We all know Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen… all the way down to “the most famous reindeer of all,” Rudolph. But how much do we really know about reindeer? I had never given any thought to reindeer outside of the Christmas Season until I was looking for the “must-do” activities on my March 2022 trip to Alaska, and a couple of Reindeer Farms and encounters popped up. Always up for an adventure, I was not going to miss out on the opportunity to walk through a Boreal Forest with Santa’s trusted companions! But, come to find out, I really knew absolutely nothing about reindeer or their incredible story in Alaska.

Advertisement 

Before we get to know the reindeer, however, I am going to take a little side trip, which anyone who knows me knows is fairly normal. On my first full day in Fairbanks, I went on a great adventure with my friends Kim and Tadd out to Castner Glacier. As we were driving back, Tadd and I started talking about Caribou and hunting them and some of the Alaska regulations around them. A little bit later, as if Mother Nature herself had pre-planned it, I caught sight of an actual Caribou! A real-life wild Caribou!! I was so excited as I had never seen one before. Tadd graciously turned around so I could get way too many pictures and be “that tourist.” It was cool, and not just because it was March in Alaska.

I quickly discovered a couple of things; while Caribou and Reindeer look almost identical, they are different sub-species. The saying “wild Caribou” in Alaska gets you weird looks, as all Caribou are wild. I might add it’s about as exciting for an Alaskan to see a Caribou as it is for us to see an Elk, so not everyone shared my excitement. Finally, Caribou are indeed native to Alaska.

Alaskan Reindeer. Photo submitted by Amy Larsen

Okay so now what about Reindeer? The first fact I found interesting about them was that they are considered domestic livestock in the United States, and all but about 1,000 are in Alaska, and those 1,000 are in zoos or private farms. I suppose this is one of the reasons it’s so easy to find reindeer sausage on every menu in Alaska, along with jerky and sausage sticks everywhere. I am also guessing that is why Santa uses Reindeer instead of Caribou, as they are easier to keep track of and do not migrate.

*History note: Reindeer were brought into the Seward Peninsula of Alaska in 1892 from Siberia. In the late 1800s, the whaling industry at the time had been a source of trade for Native Alaskans, creating a new dependence on goods introduced by the whalers. When the whaling industry was no longer profitable, the whalers left the region, resulting in a lack of those supplies. Even worse was the result the whaling industry had on the local marine life population, a major food source. Captains of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service ships that patrolled the area noticed the effects of the decline on the Native Alaskans, including starvation. Eventually, word got back to the Commissioner of Education in Alaska, Dr. Jackson. He and Captain Healy came up with the idea of bringing in domestic reindeer as a solution to the food shortage, as the Native people of eastern Siberia had success in raising them. Congress agreed with the idea but did not financially support it, so the women of the Presbyterian Church raised $2,000 to buy the first reindeer. It was a success, and more would follow.

Advertisement 

Initially, they brought in Siberian herders to instruct the Native Alaskans, but there were major cultural clashes, so they ended up reaching out to Scandinavian families to work with them. When they arrived, they also brought along dogs with sleds to teach about reindeer herding. Seeing the success and possibilities with the Native Alaskans and the reindeer herd, congress eventually did give money to purchase more reindeer from Russia, which was distributed around the Seward Peninsula and western Alaska. Reindeer were also used for more than just meat and hides. They pulled sleighs (not just for Santa, but gold rush miners) and even had a postal route established in 1899. Unfortunately, there was some dishonesty along the way. When the government discovered in 1906 that Scandinavians and mission schools owned the majority of reindeer in Alaska, they established a policy that Alaskan Reindeer could only be owned by Native Alaskans. That policy is still in place today as the Reindeer Act of September 1, 1937.

Reindeer photo submitted by Amy Larsen

The reindeer I hung out in the forest and fed were not Alaskan Reindeer but instead came from Canada. They were also not Native Alaskan-owned (yes, there are loopholes to herding reindeer too). The first place I visited, the ranch, started because of their daughter’s 4-H project! Both places, however, shared the story of how the reindeer came to be in Alaska and truly the amazing relationship between reindeer herding and the Native Alaskans. I wish I would have had the time and even the knowledge back then to be able to meet with one of the 20 reindeer herders in Alaska and learn more about how the culture learned to adapt to changes brought about by an industry they had no control over. Lessons too many still are learning today.

It was a great experience wandering through the forest with reindeer and just seeing them in their home. They are surprisingly docile, very much herd animals. They really do click when they walk, both the males and females have antlers, and they each really do have their own personalities. When I got to feed them at the reindeer farm, they were very well trained for treat time and made sure you knew they were waiting for one. They are not shy at all. I was reminded yet again of taking the time to learn the story. Reindeer do not simply just exist in Alaska; they have a story and a connection to the Native Alaskans, and it is a story worth knowing.

Advertisement 

And, of course, the one question I was really hoping to find an answer to, can they fly? Well, having spent time with them, I believe once a year they can. I saw them warming up, running, and leaping, and I know for a fact they could pull a sleigh. And a little insider tip: If you really want to make them happy on Christmas Eve, leave them a treat of Lichen instead of carrots! That is their favorite.

As we wait with anticipation for Santa and his reindeer to arrive at our homes in just a few short days, I want to take this opportunity to wish all of you a very Merry Christmas and the Happiest of New Years!

*While I learned all about the history of the reindeer at both of the reindeer ranches I visited, I verified and pulled the information for this column from “Reindeer Roundup,” a curriculum book developed and authored by Carrie Bucki, ©2004 by the Reindeer Research Program, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Advertisement 

Advertisement 

Advertisement 

Advertisement 

Advertisement