U.S. Reindeer Service

In 1892, under the direction of General Agent for Education and Presbyterian Minister Sheldon Jackson, the U.S. government introduced reindeer herding among Inupiat of the Seward Peninsula as an economic development and acculturation project to “improve” the welfare of Alaska Natives (see Olson 1969, Stern et al. 1980, Ellanna and Sherrod 1994, and Simon 1998). As head of the U.S. Reindeer Service, Jackson commissioned Saami herders from Norway to move to Alaska and teach apprentice Alaska Natives herding techniques, such as driving and milking reindeer, building and using corrals, marking ears, and working herding dogs. Reindeer herding had mixed success over the years but in the early 1900s, it spread quickly throughout northern and western Alaska. By 1905, 300 reindeer reached the southern shore of Lake Iliamna, sparking the beginning of reindeer herding on the Alaska Peninsula.

For a number of reasons, including loss to predators and to running off with wild caribou herds, reindeer population numbers continued to decline throughout Alaska in the twentieth century. Today a handful of families in northwest Alaska continue to herd reindeer. Based on 2007 studies (Christie and Finstad 2009), there were 15,000 reindeer in Alaska.

Back to Top