The Sámi Reindeer People of Alaska

Closing event for the exhibition The Sami Reindeer People of Alaska:
Dr. Roland and Edi Thorstensson will present a multimedia program titled In the Shadow of the Midnight Sun—Introducing the Sámi of the Nordic North on October 27 at 2:00 p.m. in the Amdal-Odland Heritage Center. Refreshments will be served and those who wish the view the exhibition after the presentation will receive free admission.


Relive the fascinating saga of how Norway’s native people, the Sámi, came to the rescue of Alaska’s native people in the 1800s.

The exhibition The Sámi Reindeer People of Alaska, is on view until November 10, 2013, and honors the Sámi families who came from Norway in 1894 and 1898 to teach reindeer husbandry to the native Inupiaq and Yup’ik people of Western Alaska.

The exhibition, sponsored by Owen and Naomi Bekkum, was coordinated by the Sami Cultural Center of North America and Báiki: the International Sami Journal. Báiki is a project of the nonprofit Center for Environmental Economic Development. Guest Curators are Faith Fjeld, Duluth, Minnesota; Marlene Wisuri, Duluth, Minnesota; and Nathan Muus, Oakland, California.

The exhibition includes enlarged historic photographs, poems and family stories, and duodji (useful items made beautiful). Objects such as knives, cups, and boots will be displayed alongside the photos that show their use. There will also be a full-sized and furnished lavvu, a traditional Sámi tent dwelling.

During the late 1800s, Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian minister and General Agent for Education in Alaska, conceived of a plan to introduce reindeer and reindeer herding to Alaska to save the native people, who were starving from a lack of wild game, which has been decimated by Russian and American trappers.

Jackson’s attempt to introduce reindeer from Russia to Alaska was successful, but the native Russian Chukchi herders did not wish to stay, so Jackson looked to Norway for help. Seventeen Sámi men, women, and children came in 1894 and 113 more Sámi came in 1898. More than 600 Inupiaq and Yup’ik apprentices trained as herders. By 1910, the reindeer herds had grown to 27,000 animals. After their contracts ended, many of the Sámi settled in Alaska and the continental United States.

In addition to the history of Jackson’s Reindeer Project, the exhibition discusses Sámi life and culture, cultural interaction, Lutheran missionaries, and Sámi-Norwegian ancestry.