An Important Staple in the Last Frontier

Posted: October 1, 2021

Alaska tribes embrace reindeer market and subsistence

By Sheena Marrs

Visitors to Alaska are often surprised to see reindeer on the menu. I can recall more than a dozen times being asked by family and friends visiting from the lower 48 if reindeer really was being served. It is not a food available at most restaurants and grocery stores in other states.

Although not native to Alaska, reindeer have flourished during the last century from the 16 that first arrived from Siberia in the late 1890s.

Dr. Sheldon Jackson, the Alaska commissioner of education and a Presbyterian minister, imported reindeer. He received the suggestion from Captain Michael A. Healy, who saw that Native Alaskans were starving along the western coast.

By the late 1800s, the Bering Sea marine mammal population had been devastated by whalers. Indigenous people in western Alaska coastal communities relied heavily on the bountiful harvest of the sea were left with little subsistence food.

With approval from Congress and funding raised by the women of the Presbyterian church, Sheldon introduced 16 Chukotka reindeer to Amaknak Island, testing their viability as an alternative food source. The reindeer acclimated nicely, making the appeal for funding from Congress easier.

Thanks to federal funding, hundreds of reindeer were imported. Siberian and Scandinavian herders were hired to teach Alaska Natives how to care for the reindeer in the 1890s. The federal government soon recognized it did not do enough to promote a self-sustaining industry for Alaska Natives because the herds were owned by the Scandinavians and mission schools.

Nearly a half-century later, the 1937 Reindeer Industry Act was passed. It allows only Alaska Natives to own the originally source stocked reindeer. Today, reindeer herding provides economic opportunities for more than 20 tribes along the west coast of Alaska and is part of their heritage.

Reindeer has become a staple subsistence food. Meat and antlers are sold.

Although there is a big demand for reindeer meat, tribes are limited by the slaughter process. U.S. Department of Agriculture inspections are required to sell meat to processors, and there are limited meat processing plants in the region.

Among those in the market for antlers are buyers who believe they offer medicinal and health benefits when ground and ingested. Antlers are also purchased as decorative pieces. Bones and other animal parts are used for jewelry and tools.

New generations of people in AVEC communities-Savoonga Teller, Koyuk and Mekoryuk-embrace learning how to herd reindeer. Technological advancements, such as four-wheelers and helicopters, have influenced the herding process as people continue to adapt with the times while remaining true to their heritage