Kodiaks Scandinavian Heritage – Reindeer herders

Lois Stover in Sami dress

People were drawn to Alaska for various reasons. Some arrived almost by accident, others came on a mission.

In 1882, the United States government initiated a program to aid the native people who were starving in southwestern Alaska. Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian minister who had established many schools up and down the Alaskan coast, was appointed to lead the project. In Siberia, he had seen herds of domesticated reindeer kept by the Chukchi people and thought that it ought to be possible to raise reindeer in Alaska. With government funding, he purchased 171 reindeer and arranged for a group of Chukchi herdsmen to accompany the animals across the Bering Sea to Alaska and teach the Yupik people how to raise them. It wasn’t easy to teach the Yupiks to herd reindeer, however, and when relations broke down completely between the Russian Chukchi and the Alaskan Yupiks, the project was terminated.

In 1894, they tried again. This time they hired Norwegian Samis, promising them a three-year contract, good wages, and free room and board. A group of 13 Sami reindeer herders left Kautokeino in Norway to come to Alaska and teach the Yupik people how to raise reindeer.

Four years later, a second group of 113 Samis were contracted and 537 reindeer were purchased from Norway. The project was a success and continued for several years. The animals increased in number and were divided into several herds. When their contract was fulfilled, some of the Norwegian Samis returned to Norway or moved elsewhere in the United States, while others married native women and stayed in Alaska.

Lois Stover and her sister, Mary Eyman, are descendants of the Norwegian Samis from Kautokeino. Lois moved to Kodiak from Bethel, Alaska in 1959. When I met her at a Sons of Norway meeting, I asked if I could visit her and hear more about her ancestors. Her house, ensconced in a grove of beautiful spruce trees, was located on the outskirts of town. We sat on the deck, and she and her sister, Mary Eyman, showed me their collection of Sami clothing and handiwork.

Lois and Mary’s grandparents came from Norway with the reindeer herd in 1898. Their grandmother, Ellen Sara, was only 15 years old when she arrived in Alaska and was pressured into an arranged marriage with a considerably older Norwegian Sami man. Ellen cried throughout her wedding day. “It made me so sad to hear about her marriage,” said Lois. “Grandma had three children in her first marriage. Then she divorced her husband, married another Norwegian man, and had four more children.”

“I’ve heard that the Russian Chukchi were rather rough on the reindeer, especially their milking technique,” continued Lois. “They would throw the reindeer on the ground and then suck the milk out, spitting it into a bottle. The Yupik couldn’t accept the way the Chukchi treated their animals. It was easier for the Norwegian Samis to teach their milking techniques – using their hands much the way you would milk a cow or a goat. The Samis from Norway had a much better relationship with the Yupik people than their predecessors from Russia, mostly because they showed respect to both people and animals.

“I think another reason was that the Samis and the Yupik people had similar cultures. They ate similar foods and clothed themselves in a similar fashion. The Samis adapted quickly to the Yupik way of life.”

Lois remembers that her grandparents often spoke Norwegian to each other “When my father started school he refused to speak English, and had to repeat first grade three times,” she said. “My grandmother told him that, if he didn’t learn to speak English, he would be in first grade until he was 30! That didn’t sound very good, so he learned English really fast!”

Tim, Lois and Mary’s father, continued his studies and, in 1937, became the first Sami-Eskimo to graduate from the University of Alaska.

“We were taught to be proud of our Sami-Eskimo heritage and to fight anyone who teased us!” Lois laughed. “But, of course, we didn’t really fight anyone.”

The girls learned both Yupik and Sami traditions, including how to preserve fish and dry reindeer meat. “I still love reindeer jerky. We were raised on reindeer meat and cloudberries. Cloudberries grow all over the tundra around Bethel where we lived.”

It wasn’t easy to raise reindeer in an area where caribou roam. They inspected the herd every morning, looking for the larger caribou bulls, which had to be chased off or shot. If they were not quickly removed, they might take off with several of the reindeer cows and weaken the herd.

“Many of the Yupik didn’t really want the responsibility of taking care of the herd,” explained Lois. “They often abandoned their herds during the fishing season. You can’t do that. The herds must be protected from caribou and wolves. Many lost their herds that way.”

In 1922, a herd of reindeer was transported to Akhiok on Kodiak, but no one took care of them, and they turned wild. There are still reindeer roaming the hills of southern Kodiak. “It would be fun to round up a few reindeer and start a new herd,” said Lois, her eyes glowing with excitement. “Grandfather always said that we were not here for the reindeer, the reindeer were here for us.”

Mary remembered all the good food they made following the slaughters. “Mother filled the intestines with blood, oats and spices to make blood sausages that we boiled and ate either hot or cold. She also made bread from reindeer brains, brain bread. It was hard and brittle, like Rice Crispies.”

Excerpt from the book “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear” which can be ordered from Camera Q.

At the Kodiak Scandinavian Culture and Film Fest I will be premiering a new films about the Scandinavian-Sugpiaqs of Kodiak.  See festival site for more information.

Burton’s Ranch

Narrow Cape, the beach at Burton’s buffalo ranch, is a place on Kodiak I return to often. This is, without a doubt, the end of the road – as far out into Kodiak’s wilderness that you can come by car. Indeed, before the Kodiak Launch Complex was built in the late 1990s, the road was sometimes impassable. Back then, the 45-mile trip from Kodiak to Narrow Cape could take two to three hours.

In the late 1980s, the only paved roads were in the city. “The Road,” as it is called, was only gravel, and often riddled with deep holes and large rocks that had to be carefully avoided. The trip was long and tedious, and very few people ever bothered to visit Narrow Cape.

To get to Burton’s ranch, you drive east from the city along the winding road that follows the rugged coastline, rounding three inlets, Womens, Middle and Kalsin Bay. With all the twists and turns, the distance is more than doubled, but behind every curve awaits a new awe-inspiring view. The steep mountain slopes are blanketed in plush, green vegetation, dotted with wildflowers in white, blue, red, and yellow.

Just before turning off toward Burton’s ranch, the road passes Pasagshak Bay, a cove that, in the right light, resembles a tropical sea. There are always at least one or two people fishing in the Pasagshak River, which empties into the bay. During the Silver salmon run, the riverbanks are crowded with eager fishermen from Kodiak.

After Pasagshak, the road turns up into the mountains where the buffalo graze. Twenty years ago, when the road was at its worst, it was necessary for someone to walk ahead to guide the driver past the worst of the holes and rocks. Just before reaching the ranch, the road crosses a small creek. Today there is a bridge, but when I first came out here, there were only a few logs thrown across the ravine on which to cross.

Visiting the ranch used to mean a lot of extra wear and tear on the vehicle. Several times I’ve had not one but two flat tires driving from the ranch. Once, when I was approaching Narrow Cape, we heard a loud crash followed by a nasty crunching noise under the car. Jumping out to inspect the damage, I saw that the exhaust system had caught on a huge rock. Carefully, I put the car in reverse and backed up slowly, but the exhaust pipe was torn loose. After that, the car sounded like a Formula 1 race car.

The first time I visited Burton’s ranch, I felt like I’d entered a time warp. Animals wandered freely between the rugged buildings. Horses stood, saddled and ready for use. Until the late 1990s, the horse was the primary mode of transportation on the ranch. Ranch owners Bill and Kathy Burton and their son, Buck, were living the life I’d dreamed of as a boy. The first time I met Bill, it was like reuniting with a long-lost friend. For Bill, no one was a stranger.

Bill Burton came to Kodiak from Florida in 1966, to work at Joe Beaty’s ranch by Narrow Cape, which at that time was a traditional cattle ranch. The following year, Bill and his wife, Kathy, decided to buy the ranch from Joe and stay on Kodiak.

“It was a constant struggle against the bears,” Bill explained. “Raising cattle on Kodiak is hard, they are easy prey. When I bought the ranch, bear hunting was not very regulated, and poaching was fairly common. But there are fewer cattle owners today, and shooting bears to protect livestock is no longer accepted.”

“In 1979, bears killed 127 of our cattle,” he continued. “We had to make a difficult decision – quit or try something else. We decided to stay, and the following spring, we bought 40 head of buffalo.”

Unlike cattle, buffalo retain their natural instincts and are better equipped to defend themselves against bear attacks. A bear that has once approached an angry buffalo will seldom make the same mistake again.

Exchanging cattle for buffalo proved to be a profitable venture. Not only can the animals protect themselves, but the meat is also more valuable, and the bulls are attractive trophy animals for hunters. Today the herd has grown to over 500 head and is the largest buffalo herd in the state.

The ranch is enclosed by a high mountain range that meets the ocean. There is no need for fencing and the buffalo roam freely. The road out to Pasagshak Bay is the only breach in the natural enclosure. When too many buffalo have wandered off, the Burtons gather a posse on horseback to drive the animals back over the Pasagshak River and up through the passage where the road winds along the bay. I’ve participated in a few of those drives. Sitting on horseback, driving a herd of buffalo through one of the most scenic areas on earth has been the fulfillment of all my boyhood dreams.

Excerpt from the book “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear” purchase it here.

At the Kodiak Scandinavian Culture and Film Fest I will be showing films from my 35+ years on the island. Meet Bill Burton and many other “old timers” in the film Voices of Kodiak. See festival site for more information.