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The Teaching Contract that Brought Sami Reindeer to Alaska

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Today marks the National Sami Day in Sapmi – an area spanning the national borders of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russian Kola Peninsula.

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.).)

Photo of a page in a book that contains the "Contract With the Laplanders."
Contract with the Laplanders. United States Congressional Serial Set Volume 3728 (1898) 107., Photo by Geraldine Davila Gonzalez.

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.

Photo of a page in a book that contains "The Royal Department of the Interior of Norway."
Letter from the Royal department of Interior of Norway. (1898) Source: United States Congressional Serial Set Volume 3728 (1898) 105, Photo by Geraldine Davila Gonzalez.

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.

Aged photograph of warmly-dressed men standing next to a group of reindeer.
Unloading reindeer, Seattle, Wash., U.S.A. Singley, B. L. (Benjamin Lloyd) (1898). Prints and Photograph Division,


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.

Black and white photograph of a Laplander man holding the reins of a reindeer while a woman milks the reindeer.
[Laplanders milking reindeer, vicinity of Nome Alaska] William Hester 1900. Prints and Photographs Division,
Further resources about Alaskan indigenous people, and Sami reindeer herding in Alaska, include:

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