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Reindeer in Alaska, 1914

Arctic & Northern History

The Sunday Star (Washington, D.C.), December 13, 1914.

    SANTA CLAUS' steeds, imported a few years ago from Siberia by the government, have propagated vast herds. They saved the natives from starvation and are now furnishing clothing, food and motive power to the Eskimos. They may solve the problem of the high cost of meats.

    Is Santa still using reindeer in spite of the automobile and flying machine? Judging by the latest photographs of that gentleman, Donder and Blitzen are still in harness and as active as when they started in business several centuries ago. Nor is there any chance of these animals so dear to the heart of childhood dying out. The government experiment in raising them, which was begun a few years ago, has proved a success.

    The reason that the government started the propagation of Siberian reindeer in Alaska was the fact that back in 1890 Dr. Sheldon Jackson, who was the general agent of education im Alaska, discovered that the natives of this vast territory were losing their seurces of food supply. Here was a land, an empire in itself, rich on everything, yet the people who lived there would soon be without food or clothing.

    The whales were each year going farther north; the walrus, which had formerly existed in great herds, were becoming extinct, and the seals were being so rapidly extinguished that an Eskimo would have to travel at least fifteen miles to secure one. Even the wild caribou had been frightened away by modern hunters. Here were thousands of natives with their food and clothing disappearing before the advance of civilization, so Dr. Jackson resolved to remedy the matter by importing reindeer from Siberia. The Eskimo had been accustomed to exchange seal skins, his whale oil and his walrus tusks for these animals, but as there were thousands of deer in Siberia, just a few miles over Behring strait, where exactly the same climatic conditions existed as in Alaska, there was right at hand, so it seemed, a solution of the problem.

    Dr. Jackson saw at once that the thing to do was to import reindeer across the strait and go at once into the business of raising them. They would serve purpose of the animals which had disappeared and be, in addition, a vast improvement, for they do not have to be chased and can be kept around the house like cattle.

    After many labors Dr. Jackson succeeded in getting means to bring into Alaska from Siberia deer of the Chukches breed, later securing those of the Tunguse stock, the latter being a very strong, tough animal. Here in this great barren north, with its 400,000 square miles of tundra, on which no other animal could live, the experiment was begun in 1891. Everywhere beneath the vast expanse of snow was a mass of long, fibrous white moss, which is the food most enjoyed by reindeer. There was room enough for 10,000,000 of these animals. They would give the natives meat, milk and clothing and also be to him what a horse is to man. His food was to be had by digging with his strong hoofs beneath the snow. What an ideal creature for the white continent with its disheartened natives!

    Along with the deer were brought some Siberians to teach the raising of the animal, and a few years later, Laplanders, sixty-three in number, were added to the colony. These Laps were brought the 10,000 miles from home at the expense of Uncle Sam and remained during the time of their contract. Some returned to their native snows, but two-thirds remained in Alaska, making fortunes in the gold fields of Cape Nome.

    The industry proved a success from the first. A young deer four years old will bring in from fifty to a hundred dollars for its meat, and if trained to the sled its price is about $150. Each doe adds a fawn to the herd each year, and these baby deer are exceedingly healthy. The doe, when a fawn is by her side, will give every day about a cup of milk so rich that it is almost pure cream. This makes the finest of cheese and butter and, when diluted with water, a delicious milk.

    For travel, reindeer have proven much stronger and superior in every way to dogs. In the winter of 1901-2 the United States mail between Nome and Candle, on the Arctic ocean, was carried by these deer. They had, in addition, heavy loads of passengers and freight, yet they made the trip in eight days, a journey for which the dogs would have required more than twice the time. Besides, deer can travel as well at night as in the day. The deer find their food beneath the snow wherever they stop, while dogs' rations have to be included in the load carried on the sled.

    In summer these reindeer are used as pack animals, much as the miners in the Rockies utilize the burro. A small man can ride one as well as he can a horse. While his winter food consists of the moss, the summer fare is of grass, twigs and mushrooms, all of which grow abundantly. They shed their horns every spring, the old ones dropping off and new, soft, thick, furry ones growing in their place. When the deer's horns are in this soft condition the natives call it being in the "velvet."

    The plan pursued by the government was that of loaning a certain number of deer to missions or reliable individuals for three years, and at the expiration of the time reclaiming only the original loan. One of the best herds started by Uncle Sam was that at Cape Prince of Wales. This herd grew so rapidly that at the end of a few years many males were sold to butchers at fine prices, while others were used in hauling freight into the miners. The benefit to the missions was immense, since it enabled the natives to be supplied with food and clothing in their homes instead of having them go to the miners' villages, while the missionaries could get from the animals fresh milk, meat and also a bit of revenue from the sale of the carcass and the hauling of freight.

    The original object in establishing the reindeer industry in Alaska was purely a humanitarian one - that of giving the native, whose animals were disappearing, a new creature which would supply his wants in a far more perfect manner than any other creature had ever done. But when gold was discovered and the rush to the Yukon and the Klondike begun, the wisdom of having reindeer in this arctic land was shown at once.

    Here was a vast land of almost limitless proportions dotted with gold. Ships could not get up the small streams, nor a horse over the mountain trails. Dogs could not draw the heavy loads which the deer pull; they have to be supplied from the same source as man, and their best work was about twenty miles a day. Deer can travel more than double that distance.

    So to the reindeer is falling the work of transportation to the mines. They are to Alaska now what the camel is to Egypt. One deer can carry a sled weighted with 200 pounds from one end of Alaska to the other, living solely on the moss he finds beneath the snow. The prospector can carry with him a larger load of supplies than a burro could bear. With ten deer, each carrying 100 pounds, a miner can spend months away from his depot of supply.

    The deer, which were at first only a few hundred in number, have increased in immense quantities. They have proven the salvation of Alaska and many of those who are disappointed in finding gold go into the reindeer industry. It is estimated that a herd doubles itself in three years. There are now prebably a million and a half deer in Alaska. Within ten years it is predicted that the country should be supplying the United States with much meat.

    The flesh of the reindeer is delicious, and there is no reason why hams and sides from Santa Claus land should not come south in big trains such as now draw out of Chicago. Meat from the Arctic, meat raised on barren wastes, which will solve the high price of living, ought to be in the near future the solution which Alaska offers.

    The ideal reindeer, drawing the sled of Santa Claus, covered with jingling bells, must give place to the modern reality. And this reality is the animal which has pretty nearly turned Alaska from a frozen waste on which even its natives must starve to a land of plenty. It is furnishing meat, milk, cheese, butter, clothing, thread, leather, skins and transportation to the Eskimo; it is a cow, a beef, a horse and a sheep all rolled into one. Some day, in our markets, we may see the sign of "reindeer steaks" as common as the one of fresh eggs is now, for Santa Claus' steeds are now one of the world's most valuable assets.

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