We’re a long ways away from the Christmas holidays, but a recent news blurb about reindeer actually has a fascinating backstory worth exploring.
Here’s the news, according to the Durango Herald newspaper in Colorado, which picked up a story by the Associated Press
“Tribal leaders in a tiny Native village in western Alaska are expanding their commercial reindeer subsidiary to soon include sales of the lean meat to larger urban markets.
“The venture by Mekoryuk’s (ma-KOR’-ee-yuck) tribal government includes plans to build a new slaughterhouse and offer the meat for sale in places like Anchorage’s urban market and ultimately in the lower 48 as it once did.”
The article quoted Tribal Operations Director Dale Smith as saying that construction of the new plant would begin this summer, thanks to $1.8 million in federal grants. Previously, the tribal members had to conduct the butchering outdoors, with only a dilapidated shack to house their equipment.
Now, let me confess right upfront: For all the savvy I like to believe I’ve accumulated over the years regarding livestock and meat-eating, I assumed that reindeer were always found on the Arctic tundra — maybe not the exact same species as the ones found in the northern reaches of Scandinavia, but certainly related.
I was wrong.
Turns out that reindeer were brought to Alaska back in the 1800s, imported from Siberia in a humanitarian effort to help the Native tribes living in villages along the Bering Strait.
Early in the 19th century, of course, whaling was one of the country’s predominant enterprises, and a large fleet of ships from New England plied the waters of the Pacific hunting the cetaceans for the whale oil that lit the lamps in millions of American homes. As they pursued their prey, the ships would stop at the native villages in Alaska to trade guns, tobacco and whiskey in exchange for fur pelts and meat.
Let’s not go into the cultural ramifications of all that right now.
Toward the end of the century, however, the whale populations had greatly diminished. The use of kerosene was rapidly replacing whale oil, and whalers basically disappeared, along with the trade goods that included four, sugar and other staples. As the turn of the century approached, the Native Alaskans living along the Bering Sea were suffering, not only from the absence of whales (one of their primary food sources), but from the reduced populations of terrestrial wildlife as well.
According to research conducted by the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, reports of starvation among Alaskan Natives reached Dr. Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian minister who served as Alaska’s Commissioner of Education and who devoted much of his life to establishing schools and missions throughout the state. Jackson wanted to help the native populations with some sort of economic development, and he connected with a former slave nicknamed “Hell Roaring” Mike Healy, who had worked his way up to becoming a captain of a ship in the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, the predecessor to the Coast Guard.
Healy suggested importing domesticated reindeer from Siberia to solve the tribal food shortages. Dr. Jackson got approval from Congress, raised $2,000 from the women of the Presbyterian Church and purchased 16 reindeer that were shipped to Amaknak Island, which is hundreds of miles out in the Aleutian archipelago and is better known as the site of Dutch Harbor, which was hit by a Japanese bombing raid in World War II but is now a prominent port for North Pacific fishing fleets.
The reindeer did well and during the summer of 1892, Captain Healy made five trips to Siberia to bring 171 reindeer, plus five Siberian herding instructors, to Port Clarence. It’s on the mainland in the far northern part of the state near Nome, now famous as the terminus of the Iditarod dog sled race.
In 1894, Scandinavian families, along with dogs and sleds, were brought to Alaska to teach reindeer herding, and small herds were distributed to mission schools throughout western Alaska.
Of course, with the discovery of gold in Nome in 1898, there was a huge demand for meat and for reindeer to pull sleds of gear for the miners. According to the university’s research, reindeer were preferable to sled dogs for carrying supplies, mainly because they could graze freely along the trail, whereas food needed to be carried for the dogs.
Fast forward to the 1950s, when the Alaskan reindeer herd numbered more than 50,000 animals. In 1968, the Bureau of Indian Affairs began issuing grazing permits and monitoring range conditions, and ever since, reindeer herding has been a cultural mainstay in many Native villages. Currently, there are 20 reindeer herders managing a total of 20,000 reindeer in western Alaska.
Which at least explains how Santa at the North Pole managed to have Donner and Blitzen, et al, available to pull his sleigh.
More importantly, it provides a question I’m going to ask of every professed vegetarian purist I meet:
If you oppose the consumption of meat because it involves the death of an animal, what non-animal food alternative, pray tell, should Native Alaskans be eating instead?
I won’t be holding my breath waiting for a plausible answer.
There isn’t one.
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.