Happy Holidays! While many know of Rudolph and his famous red nose, some don’t realize that reindeer are real (albeit flightless) animals. While not native to North America, reindeer have been a vital part of American Indian/Alaska Natives’ (“AI/AN”) survival and industry in ways well beyond Christmas time fables.
By the mid-1800s, AI/AN were facing dire circumstances with diminished natural food supplies, which largely consisted of caribou, marine mammals, and berries. The shortage was caused by depletion of natural resources as the U.S. expanded into the Alaskan territory, bringing a rising non-Native population, a proliferation of firearms, and extensive commercial hunting markets. After seeing the grim situation that non-Native settlers had brought upon AI/AN, the federal government sought to provide a sustainable food source for them. The answer came in the form of sixteen reindeer delivered from Siberia, Russia to the Seward Peninsula, AK in 1891.
Many AI/AN were trained in reindeer animal husbandry and herding, but met significant competition from non-Natives. In response, Congress enacted the Reindeer Industry Act of 1937, which gave AI/AN exclusive control over the reindeer industry. Congress ironically mandated that the (imported) reindeer economy be operated by AI/AN in their “native way” and in their “native lands”. Subsidies were given to Natives to stabilize the reindeer economy and to foster its growth. Congress’ final goal was to promote self-sufficiency and sustenance for AI/AN communities, giving them the opportunity to remain in their native lands and continue to practice their “traditional way” of life. AI/AN were able to survive in the fickle Alaskan economy, using reindeer for food, clothing, transportation of goods, and even use as U.S. postal delivery animals.
This ironic effort faced a constitutional challenge in 1997 in Williams v. Babbitt, where the court held that Congress could not exclude non-Natives from the reindeer industry, since that the Act did not pertain to unique AI/AN interests. While the reindeer industry is now open to all participants, it continues to be a vital part of AI/AN life to this day, even if it is not part of their pre-contact heritage.
As you gather with your family and loved ones this holiday, and after belting out Rudolph and his colleagues, refer back to this post and “drop” some serious reindeer knowledge on those that will listen.
Kele Bigknife is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a graduate of University of Michigan Law School. Kele was a recipient of the 2016 Procopio Native American Internship and currently is Regulatory Affairs and Corporate Counsel at ecoATM Gazelle.