Friday, 17 April 2009

The history of Reindeer in Alaska

I've been reading a lot about the history of Reindeer herding lately, and my head is so full of thoughts that I can scarcely get them down on paper fast enough. Two very important things I've been reading have been "Eskimos, Reindeer, and Land," a publication by UAF's school of Ag and Land Resource Management from the 80s. More recently, but more tangentially, Gary Kofinas (UAF) and Don Russell (Environment Canada) wrote a chapter in "Family-Based Reindeer Economy, and the Status and Management of Caribou Populations" on the status of North American caribou in the high arctic, and their use as a subsistence resource. There was 4 pages on modern Reindeer herding on the Seward Peninsula, which might not seem that much, but it's helped me clear up some long standing questions I'd had.

If you're not clear on the difference between reindeer and caribou, I'd describe it like this: Caribou are to reindeer as wolves are to dogs. They're both members of the same species (Rangifer tarandus) but they're different subspecies (Reindeer: R. tarandus tarandus; Alaskan Caribou: R. tarandus granti). Reindeer are semidomestic - they've had a long history of being herded in northern Eurasia, but there are also wild populations of reindeer, and the two groups freely interbreed. Physically, reindeer are shorter than caribou, with thicker chests, more muscle mass, and they're more likely to have spots or stripes on their coat. Behaviourally, caribou and reindeer differ in that caribou are less docile, and tend to be migratory. The top picture is of a caribou, and the second picture is of reindeer at the Ag. station.

The overwhelming majority of reindeer in the state are the descendants of reindeer imported from Russia in the late 1800s, when the Reverend Sheldon Jackson imported 1,280 reindeer to provide to the eskimo in the areas he was evangelizing. The hope was that with the introduction of reindeer, subsistence hunters would stop hunting, and take up pastoral activities - somewhere in all of this, they were looking for people to join their brand of Christianity. I imagine it worked like opening a bank account, and the bank mailing you a free toaster. "Accept Jesus today and get two free reindeer! (Offer not for existing parishioners)."

Oh, randomly. A lot of the old bible translations use qusngiq for sheep, which amuses me to no end. `Reindeer of god, who takes away the sins of the world.` Okay, I'm easily amused.

All glibness (is that a word?) aside, Jackson was only partially concerned with evangelization, and no doubt part of his importation of reindeer stemmed from a crises that he thought was growing, in the form of declining Caribou numbers. Long ago, it would mean people would merely shift their focus to new food sources, like more whaling or fishing, and de-emphasize caribou as a food source. Similarly, Jackson interpreted the old sod houses and qasgiqs as being miserable, damp places, having overlooked that they were quite nice in the winter, and weren't really occupied past the spring.

Whatever the humanitarian motivations were, reindeer herding was quickly associated with religious missions, and was spread to various areas by various churches - Bethel by the Moravians in 1901, Point Barrow by the Presbyterians in 1898, Kotzebue by the California Yearly Meeting-Friends in 1901, etc. The Barrow situation is of interest, because the reindeer were drove to partially provide relief for stranded white whalers; it's my understanding of the story that the reindeer drive ended up being more of crisis than the stranded whalers. One of my graduate students has the whole story of that, but she's currently out on a well earned vacation. There were other disastrous reindeer drives, such as a drive of animals to Circle, where only about 1/3rd of the animals survived. I can't find a single time in the history books that a reindeer drive worked.

After 1930, reindeer herding underwent a rapid and catastrophic collapse, with populations going from 640,000 to around 25,000 between 1935 and 1950. The numbers remained stable there for a period, before entering a steady decline. The reasons for the collapse are mutlifaceted. Part of it was over-grazing in some areas. Other reasons were failures to retain reindeer when caribou herds would enter the area. Part of it is was related to a en-mass change of ownership mandated by the Reindeer act of 1937. The Reindeer Act of '37 warrants its own post, really. Boy, do I have a lot to say about that!

Now days, reindeer herding is essentially only conducted on the Seward Peninsula, with minor herds on Nunavak, Umnak, St. Paul, St. George, and very recent, small herds in Palmer, Delta Junction and on the Kenai Peninsula. For the herds off the road system, the biggest issues are concentration of knowledge, logistics, and the near-total collapse of the Asian antler market, which used to be a major source of income. The data I see for the value of reindeer meat up to 2000 shows a steady decline from '95 on, suggesting that alternatives to the meat are becoming more desired, or possibly the price of reindeer meat is overvalued, and any increases in price result increased no-sale. I'm not an economist, though. The Reindeer project had more to say about the state's future economic viability.
The reindeer industry in Alaska, and especially the industry at Seward Peninsula, is facing major problems.

The growing caribou herd represents a major threat to the reindeer industry in Alaska. The caribou has a devastating impact on the pasture areas; they attract preditors when they migrate into the pasture areas; and the caribou bring the domesticated reindeer along when they migrate through the permit areas.

There is a huge potential in the market for reindeer meat and other products both within Alaska and in the lower 48. To be able to develop this market the industry depends on access to abattoirs and other essential infrastructure. But the main disadvantage for the development of the industry is the high transport costs. Concerning the size of the potential market for reindeer products, the profitability of the industry could be increased if the above mentioned problems are solved.
Our reindeer and caribou research is focusing on the north slope, especially the Central Arctic Herd, the Western Arctic Herd, the Teshekpuk Lake herd, and to a lesser extent the Porcupine Herd. My own interest is more in the Mulchatna Herd, on the lower Kuskokwim, where the now-defunt Killbuck caribou herd used to reside - as previously mentioned, Bethel was a site of introduction for reindeer by the Moravians.

2 comments:

Arvay said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Arvay said...

Reindeer of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.

Reindeer of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.

Reindeer of God who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

And a trimmed lawn and nice fertilizer for my garden. Oh, and some help with transportation. Oh, and one day I might eat you. kthnxbye!