Reindeer in Canada, just like any good Scandinavian import…

by foxgloveandfireweed

…at first, came from Siberia.

Reindeer herd north of Inuvik, NWT

Reindeer herd north of Inuvik, NWT

Dr.Sheldon Jackson, the Commissioner of Education of Alaska and a Presbyterian minister first heard reports of Alaskan “Eskimo” populations starving in the late 1880s via service ships patrolling the waters of the Bering Sea. In an attempt to improve their economic conditions Captain M. A. Healy of the US Cutter Service ship suggested to Jackson, who had set up schools and missions throughout Alaska, the idea of  importing domestic reindeer from Siberia.

In 1892, after an initial trail import of 16 reindeer, Jackson working collaboratively with Captain Healy and with funds from the women of the Presbyterian Church and later through government subsidies,  imported 171 reindeer  plus 5 Siberian herders. They established the first Teller Reindeer Station in Port Clarence, Alaska.

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) are referred to as wild caribou in Canada. They are distinguished from caribou by shorter legs, heavier rumps and white spots. However; unlike the multiple subspecies of caribou found in Canada, many herds were slowly, throughout Europe and Eurasia, domesticated or herded as they were more adaptable to human contact. The Sami of Lapland and the Nenets an indigenous people of northern Russia have traditionally herded reindeer for centuries. As nomadic people they would migrate with the semi-domesticated herds. More preciously, reindeer is the old world name for caribou.

The Siberian herders who had been brought into Alaska to teach the art of animal husbandry, had a “cultural clash,” with local Inupiat (Eskimos) which resulted in a death in 1894. Six Laplanders arrived as replacements. Thus, the apprenticeship of the Inupiat of Alaska begins and comes to be known as “The Alaskan Reindeer Experiment.”

Skip 30 years down the timeline and the herd has grown from the experimental 16 to an estimated 400, 000 dispersed throughout Alaska. During the 1930s reindeer populations peaked then slowly declined into later years. The  reasons for decimated numbers were overstocked ranges, lack of care in herding, predation by wolves and loss to migrating wild caribou. By the 1950s less than 25, ooo existed in Alaska.

During the time that reindeer populations had reached their high peak in the 30s, the Inuvialuit (Inuit of the Western Arctic), suffered famine as the main caribou herd, the Bluenose, shifted its migrations patterns away from the area surrounding Aklavik and Tuktoyaktuk. As such the Canadian government decided to follow Alaska’s lead and import 3000 reindeer from the Lomen Brothers, a reindeer meat company that owned large stocks, and 3 recruited Sami families for the migration. The Canadian Reindeer Project was born. Please see the book “Reindeer Days Remembered” for more information.

In 1929, the migration towards the Canadian border began, a journey that was estimated to only take 18 months. The 1, 500 km journey would eventually end 5 years later in 1935. It has become know as “The Great Trek.”  The original herd of 3000 reindeer still exists to this day. The Reindeer Station establish in 1932 to anticipate the arrival of the herd and Sami families, is located 30 miles north down the Mackenzie Delta from Inuvik. While it has been abandoned, the herd grazes nearby at Jimmy Lake and provides the communities of Inuvik, Aklavik, Tuktoyaktuk and Paulatuk with a supplemental protein source. Reindeer Stew and bannock is a staple in many Inuvialuit homes.

Ariel view of Reindeer Station, NWT photo by C. Boles

Ariel view of Reindeer Station, NWT
photo by C. Boles

It has been stated that “The Canadian Reindeer Project” like “The Alaskan Reindeer Experiment” encompassed a “politics of conservation as well as a politics of conversion.” It occurred during an era when both governments attempted to convert the Inupiat and Inuvialuit of the western Arctic from their nomadic lifestyles into domesticated herders. The threat of starvation was more perceived than actual, as the natural climatic changes of the north had always brought both years of feast and famine. In actuality the herds of the barren-ground caribou began to disappear with the introduction of fire-arms. The situation was made-man as over-zealous American whalers depleted games stocks whose summer ranges were adjacent to the Bering Sea. 

Lomen Brother's Reindeer herd

Lomen Brother’s Reindeer herd

On a side note, the same Lomen Brothers’ meat-packing company who sold the Canadian government their first reindeer herd, were also the same company to market reindeer as Santa’s helpers, pulling his “pulk” or sleigh full of gifts to children around the world. In 1926, working with Macy’s on a marketing campaign, they initiated parades using Loman Brother’s reindeer, shipped lovingly from their headquarters in Nome (North Pole), Alaska. As such reindeer have become a common image and tradition during our Christmas season.


Happy Christmas to all,  and to all a good-night.