Of Laplanders & Reindeer in the United States
by Christy Nilluka Broussard
Originally published in the Port Arthur News, December 25, 2009
As the Christmas season grows near, the stores are setting out Christmas Trees, Reindeer, and Santas. The Radio will soon be playing “Up on the Roof Tops” and “”Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer”. The television stations will be airing “Prancer” and “Miracle on 34th St”; and my mother, Jonnye Williamson, will begin nagging me to share my family heritage with the people of Southeast Texas. She does it every Christmas season! Hey! She is my mom. This is her Christmas wish, so here goes! I am sure everyone has heard that Santa, his elves, and reindeer live at the North Pole. My story begins not far from the North Pole in Outakoski, Utsjoki, Finland.
In 1879, my great-grandfather Mathis Ivers Klemetson (M.I.K. pronounced Mike) Nilluka (photo at left) was born into the Sámi culture. The Sámi, also known as Lapps, are among the largest indigenous ethnic groups in Europe. Most of them live in the Arctic Circle. So what does this have to do with Christmas?
The Sami have traditionally plied a variety of skills to make a living. These include coastal fishing, sheep herding, and fur trapping. But the Sami are known best as nomadic reindeer herders. When you think of Reindeer, you think of Santa Claus right? Now you know where his reindeer come from. But Great Grandpa MIK Nilluka did not just herd reindeer; he made two incredible journeys with the reindeer.
In the Alaskan Territory in 1890s, 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.
Fortunately every 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 supervision.
The decision was made to select a few families of Laplanders to do the herding and give instruction to the Eskimos. 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 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.
By 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
Posted with permission of the author
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