Day 17 - Teller
Among the protests against President Bush's plans to drill oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, impressive herds of caribou were shown on the television screens moving like a tidal wave through the barren landscape. Greenpeace warned that global warming is threatening the survival of the caribou, and oil exploration could just be the last drop. In extension, the survival of the traditional lives of the indigenous people in this area is also being threatened.
This is not the first time that the livelihood of the indigenous people has been threatened. More than a hundred years ago, the United States embarked on an ambitious experiment at Teller to turn the tide for the starving Yup'ik and Inupiaq communities, recruiting Scandinavian Sami to come to Alaska and teach reindeer husbandry to the Eskimos and other natives. The wild caribou and the tame reindeer are actually the same species (Rangifer tarandus) but in modern times no-one has succeeded in taming a caribou. Anthropologists believe that the origins of all reindeer can be traced to a domesticated stock in the Altai Mountain region in Mongolia dating back some 5 000 years. It is speculated that tamed reindeer, on a leash, were originally used as a means to sneak closer to wild herds. Eventually tame animals were used to pull sleds and even be saddled and ridden. Soon Eurasian people were keeping reindeer herds as a dependable source of milk, food and hides besides transportation.
The idea of reindeer husbandry in Alaska came up after efficient "over-hunting" by American and Russian whalers and fishermen had robbed local hunters of the caribou and other prey. It was Alaska's "General Agent of Education", Sheldon Jackson, who was also a Presbyterian missionary, who hatched the idea. Jackson purchased the first 16 Siberian reindeer in 1890. This was an experiment to see how the reindeer would survive the sea journey and a winter on one of the Aleutian islands. Fourteen reindeer survived the ordeal and two calves were born when this first small flock was brought to Teller on the Seward Peninsula.
This was the embryo of what was to become a herd of over 600 000 in its heyday. Today the Seward Peninsula is home to most of Alaska's about 17 000 reindeer. In 1891 another 171 Siberian reindeer were imported together with four of their Shukchi herders. But the Shukchi, who had been selling reindeer hides to the Inupiaq for ages, were not happy that their former customers would have reindeer of their own, so they started mistreating the animals. Eventually the four herders were sent packing. Sheldon Jackson set his sight on Scandinavian herders instead and started advertising in Scandinavian-American publications.
Among the people who was attracted by the offer from Alaska was Norwegian-born William Kjellman from Madison, Wisconsin, who had grown up working with reindeer in Finnmark and who spoke the Sami language. In 1894 he was dispatched to Finnmark to recruit "Christian" herders who were to not only teach herding skills, but also inspire a heathen population by example. Kjellman returned to New York on board the ship Iceland with 13 men and women, four children, herding dogs and Sami "pulka" sleds. The group continued to Seattle by train and then boarded a steamer for San Francisco where they stayed two weeks at the Norwegian Seamen's Home before boarding a whaler for the trip to the Teller Reindeer Station where they arrived more than three months after leaving Norway."
Wherever the Kjellman Expedition made a stop, it attracted a lot of attention. In Teller the members of the expedition were nicknamed "the card people" by the Inupiaq because of their pointed shoes (expertly stitched from a reindeer head) and the men's "four winds" hats that the Eskimos felt resembled the jokers on playing cards. The Sami teachers, who had a three-year contract with a wage of $27.50 a month plus food, clothing and shelter, started teaching their herding techniques right away. They quickly learned Yup'ik or Inupiaq and some natives in their turn learned to speak Sami. They demonstrated milking techniques as well as skills to lasso and tame reindeer and also taught the indigenous people how to milk, make cheese, glue, fur boots, harnesses and sleds. The programme drew participants from all of Alaska and became so popular that elders worried that it would prevent young men from learning hunting and fishing skills. An important reason for the popularity of the programme was that each participant received a female reindeer, that with an offspring each year would eventually provide for a herd of its own. As the reindeer population grew, it was also portioned out to the mission stations around Alaska that tried to christen the population.
When gold was discovered in Alaska in 1896, the reindeer's value as a means of transportation was greatly enhanced. Camels were also tested but they were no competition for the fast reindeer as proved by a 1 240 mile reindeer-drawn endurance expedition by William Kjellman. Sheldon Jackson had by now started dreaming of a permanent Sami colony in Alaska and when snow blocked the "The Klondike Gold Rush" and miners started starving, he saw his chance. He lobbied Congress and received funds for the purchase of 500 Scandinavian reindeer and the hiring of a larger group of herders. Once again Kjellman was dispatched to Norway (that was then in a union with Sweden), where he in 1894 obtained herd dogs, 418 sleds, 539 castrated draft reindeer and enough lichen or reindeer moss to feed them. 72 adults signed on a two-year contract as herding instructors to be paid in money or reindeer. They brought 42 dependents with them. As an inducement to staying on they were also offered loans of a hundred reindeer to start their own herds.
This expedition started off badly when a group of drunk herders caused a disturbance before the ship Manitoba had even left Norway. No liquor was allowed during the very rough Atlantic crossing. By the time the group arrived in Seattle by train, the ship that was to take them to Alaska had taken off to the Philippines to pick up troops for the Spanish-American War. The reindeer were taken to the zoo to graze as some-one had thrown away the lichen supply, believing it to be packing material. The Sami camped with their animals for two weeks and 10 000 curious people came out to see them. By now the reindeer were starving. Even-tually 57 herders left with 527 reindeer and headed by ship to Haines, where there was no lichen for the reindeer and no shelter for the men. Eight men and the weakened reindeer began a desperate 1 500 kilometer march across the mountains to Circle City in the Yukon Valley. By the time they found lichen, many of the reindeer could no longer digest food and died of weakness. Others were killed by wolves. In the end only 114 reindeer survived the trip and were eventually purchased by the US Army as they were no longer needed for the miners. By now over half of the Sami had been released from their Reindeer Project contracts, and many of them started searching for gold instead. Some were lucky, but not many of them returned to Scandinavia and almost everybody applied for US citizenship and ended up settling down in Alaska or Yukon. One of them was one of the "Three Lucky Swedes" Jafet Lindeberg who left the "Reindeer Project" after an argument with Sheldon Jackson and started working at the Swedish Mission at Golovin Bay instead.