In the Alaskan
Territory in 1890’s, the Eskimo inhabited the land, miners discovered gold, the
place filled up with people, and their food source was running out. Dr. Sheldon
Jackson, a Presbyterian minister who served as an agent of the U.S. Government,
surveyed the agriculture possibilities of the Yukon Territory. He had the idea
to introduce domesticated reindeer to Alaska. Using private investors, he purchased
one hundred seventy reindeer from Siberia and had them shipped to Alaska. There
was a problem. The native Eskimo did not know how to herd reindeer and the herd
perished shortly after their arrival. More purchases followed and more failures,
even after hiring herdsman to look after the reindeer.
failure lead to more extensive research and someone finally discovered that the
Lapps depended on their reindeer for food, clothing, tools, transportation, and
yes, even Reindeer games! Americans finally figured out that if reindeer were
ever to be successfully introduced to Alaska, it would only take place under Lapp
The decision was made to select a few families of Laplanders
to do the herding and give instruction to the Eskimo’s. Since there were no full-blooded
Laplanders in America they would have to be brought from their homeland, along
with the reindeer. Advertisements were placed in several Scandinavian newspapers
to acquire service of men who were knew the reindeer. In all two hundred fifty
applications were received. Selections were made, provisions purchased, and on
February 28Th, 1898 The Manitoba Expedition set sail for the United States with
539 reindeer, 418 sleds, 511 sets of harness and a 113 herders. The herders consisted
of men, women, and children, who were Lapps, Finns and Norwegians. This project
was an apprenticeship of the U.S. government. Among the herders was my Grandpa
MIK who was then only 19 years old. The expedition was brought to New York by
sea. It then traveled by train to the West Coast, and then north, on foot and
by sled. Grandpa MIK finally reached Alaska and did what he knew how to do; teach
the Eskimo how to herd and care for the reindeer. The original herd tripled in
size with the change of the seasons and Grandpa MIK finished his apprenticeship
with the U.S. government.
1914, under Lapp management, herds were estimated at 250,000 reindeer and Grandpa
MIK was a vital part of the herding process. He was an employee of the Lomen Brothers;
as well as a friend of the Lomen family. Grandpa MIK not only helped the native
Eskimo, he became a part of the largest reindeer Industry in history. So now,
I have shared with you how reindeer and my great grandfather came to Alaska. But
wait there is more!!
The Canadian government noted the benefits provided
to the Eskimo by the reindeer. Canada purchased 8,447 reindeer from the Lomen
Reindeer Corporation for introduction into northern Canada. The Lomen Company
would oversee the delivery of the reindeer. The deer would be driven from Kotzebue
Sound in Alaska to the Mackenzie Delta. The Lomen Brothers decided that there
only choice of herders for this kind of drive would have to be the Lapps . Andy
Bahr, a Lapp, was selected to head the drive. Grandpa MIK was chosen as his second–in-command.
In 1929, “The Artic Moses” and his small band of herders started out from Alaska
with 3000 reindeer, intending to cover the 1500 miles on foot to the Mackenzie
Delta in 18 months. These men would face temperatures of seventy degrees below
zero, blizzards, prowling wolves, boggy tundra, mosquitoes, and ornery reindeer.
In the end, their perilous journey would take more than 5 years to complete. A
single mountain range took an entire year to cross. At the end of the trip the
men ended roughly with the same number of reindeer they left with, having to raise
the ones they lost.
This was the longest trail ride in the history of
North America, and undoubtedly the most remarkable. It had featured semi-wild
animals that most North Americans had never seen, and whose meat they had never
tasted. It had taken the natives of four countries: Canada, the United States,
Norway and Denmark, to succeed and had involved governments at federal, state
and territorial levels.
My grandpa MIK was an incredible man. He left
his home at the age of 19, to come to America to help out the Alaskan natives.
He left his family, his land, and friends all for the love of reindeer, and the
survival of a culture. He returned to Norway to wed my great-grandmother, but
the two immediately returned to Alaska where he continued his employment with
the Lomen Corporation until he retired. It is the job of my generation to keep
this incredible story alive for generations to come. There are approximately 60
of us Sami descendants (Nilluka's) in the United States today. Now that I have
shared just a touch of my great grandfather’s story I am proud to say I am a Sami
descendant living in Southeast Texas. Alaska will always be a part of me. Its
is my birth place and it is where my great grand father’s legend lives on.
Christy Nilluka Broussard
Shoe Horses, Don't They April 15 column