The Sami are a semi-nomadic people who have moved across national borders in Sapmi for hundreds of years. Similar to other people from the Scandinavian countries, they have also crossed the Atlantic in hopes of a better life. But today I want to write about how their reindeer immigrated to America. Although individual Sami may have emigrated from the joint kingdom of Sweden and Norway earlier, in 1894 and 1898, the Sami were asked to travel to the United States with the express purpose of teaching reindeer husbandry to the indigenous peoples of Alaska. With them they brought hundreds of commissioned reindeer, a definite first.
The ”Contract with the Laplanders” was the fruit of Sheldon Jackson‘s (General Agent of Education in Alaska) labors. He mistakenly thought the Alaskan indigenous groups were facing starvation, and imagined the problem could be solved by importing a sustainable food source in the form of domesticated reindeer. Jackson, with the help of William T. Lopp, first brought reindeer from Siberia to Alaska in 1891. However, the Siberian transplant did not turn out as well as he had hoped so Jackson instead turned his attention to Sapmi, then referred to as Lapland, and solicited reindeer herders in Scandinavian newspapers. The first group came over in 1894. With the start of the Klondike Gold Rush, Jackson feared further starvation in the Yukon gold fields during the winter months and solicited Congress to receive funding ($200,000) to buy and bring additional reindeer from Lapland (Norway and Sweden). (Act on authorizing the Secretary of War, in his discretion, to purchase subsistence, stores, supplies and materials for the relief of the people who are in the Yukon River country, to provide means for their transportation and distribution, and making appropriations therefor (Dec. 18, 1897.).)
The resulting contract, dated January 24, 1898, provided that, among other things, the men should work for two years and that they need not pay any taxes for the duration of their contract, that they would receive free health care, and that their children would receive free education. Moreover, they were to be given provisions, but the process depended on the status of the men as married or unmarried. Specifically, the contract stated that:
To those of the undersigned who are married and have their wives with them, the provisions shall be given out once a month and be prepared and cooked by the wife. The others who are not married shall, according to their own wish, have their provisions dealt out every month and have their food prepared by a cook appointed for such service. (G.P.O. 3782 at 108)
It also provided for how the Samis were to return to Scandinavia:
Should any of the undersigned after the end of the time of service desire to return home, he shall then be at liberty to select between paying his own journey home or that the Government pay such journey provided that the respective man for such expense serve six months without salary.
The Norwegian authorities seemed to welcome the idea, and promised to assist with the endeavor.
Thus, in 1898 a total of 69 individuals–Sami, Norwegians, Swedes and Finns–signed up and were paid between $4.46 (women) and $40.20 (highest paid male) per month. Including, wives and children, the group totaled 170. Once the S.S. Mantiboan set sail, the ship housed 87 Lapps and 530 reindeer. The journey, known as the “Laplan-Yukon Relief Expedition,” was long, as the group had to first journey from the far northernest parts of Norway, then via ship from Trondheim, Norway to New York, then take a train to Seattle and then a boat from Seattle to Alaska.
When the Sami contracts expired in 1900, some stayed, some joined the gold rush, and some returned to Sapmi. Today, there are no Sami reindeer herders in Alaska, although there may be indigenous Alaskans who have Sami heritage.
Further resources about Alaskan indigenous people, and Sami reindeer herding in Alaska, include:
- Ørnulv Vorren., Saami, Reindeer, and Gold in Alaska: The Emigration of Saami from Norway to Alaska (1994).
- Carl John Sacarisen, Carl John Sacarisen Diary (1898-1899) (Carl John Sacarisen was the cook on the Lapland-Yukon Relief Expedition) [in Norwegian]
- Ellen Louise Kittredge Lopp, Ice Window: Letters from a Bering Strait Village 1892-1902 (2001)
- Clarence L. Andrews, The Eskimo and His Reindeer in Alaska (1939)
- United States Bureau of Education, Rules and Regulations Regarding the United States Reindeer Service in Alaska (1911)
- Aage Solbakk & John Trygve Solbakk (eds.) Śami Reindeer Herders in Alaska: Letters from America 1901-1937 (2014) (eng. translation by Kaija Anttonen)
- William Thomas Lopp, White Sox: The Story of the Reindeer in Alaska (1924) (children’s fiction; William Lopp was instrumental in bringing the reindeer to Alaska)
- Sheldon Jackson, Report on Introduction of Domestic Reindeer into Alaska, U.S. Congressional Set Vol. 3728 (1898)