The Introduction of Reindeer to Alaska

During the 1890s, the United States government believed that the Inuit people in Alaska were too reliant on the hunting of seals, walruses, and whales for sustenance. In 1892 the government first imported domestic reindeer to Seward Peninsula at Port Clarence. The hope was to introduce the non-native reindeer to the ecosystem of Alaska in order to provide a source of income and sustenance for the Inuit there. Also the emigration of Sami men, women, and children from Sápmi, the northern region of Scandinavia, to Alaska was funded. The US government encouraged the Sami, a people falsely stereotyped as being exclusively reindeer herding, to teach the art of reindeer husbandry to the Inuit. In 1937, though, the Reindeer Act was passed into law, banning the Sami and all other non-native Alaskans from herding reindeer in order to provide for Alaskan natives. This forced most Sami in Alaska to sell their herds to the government and mostly wiped out the reindeer husbandry industry in the United States. The introduction of reindeer made a lasting impact on the native caribou populations in Alaska, as they interbred with the introduced reindeer.

Contributed by Sophia Callahan
Course: Modern Global Environmental History
Instructor: Dr. Wilko Graf von Hardenberg
University of Wisconsin–Madison, US

Further Readings: 
  • Olson, Dean. Alaska Reindeer Herdsmen: A Study of Native Management in Transition. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 1969.
  • Olsen, Mel and Arden Johnson. “Sami, Reindeer and Gold, 100 Years.” Árran, no. 11 (1998).
  • Beach, Hugh. The Saami in Alaska: Ethnic Relations and Reindeer Herding. Uppsala: Department of Cultural Anthropology, 1986.