I'm always fascinated with food culture and history. It's a type of history you don't often get to study and oftentimes just have to happen upon it. I was originally going to make this post about how to fry chicken, but when I was paging through one of my cookbooks looking up what it said about chicken, I got distracted by a page that explained how to prepare reindeer.
Wait ... what? Reindeer? This is a cookbook from the 1940s, I might add, so I am often finding interesting surprises in here when I go to look something up. Once I'd seen reindeer, I was compelled to stop and read about it. The first sentence was really interesting: "Government breeding of reindeer has brought the meat back on the market in modern form." Again .. wait ... what? Government breeding ... of reindeer?
I've never heard of this, and I immediately envisioned a secret government Santa project or some such, but I also had to go digging to figure this out. As it turns out, it was a sort of economic stimulus program for Alaska and the natives that lived there.
It all began in the 1800s, when American whalers discovered that the waters around Alaska were good hunting grounds. Eventually they thinned out the whale population and began hunting walrus in the area to boost their profit margin. The walruses were slaughtered in massive amounts, with estimates being about 300,000 walruses killed by the whalers. This was devastating to the native population of Alaska, as the walrus was their main source of food and other resources.
One whaling captain who was shipwrecked and taken in by natives wrote:
Should I ever come to the Arctic Ocean again, I will never catch another walrus, for these poor people along the coast have nothing else to live upon....I felt like a guilty culprit while eating their food with them, that I have been taking food out of their mouths. Although they knew the whaleships are doing this, they still were ready to share all they had with us.
Over the next years, the situation of the Alaskan natives became worse and worse, exacerbated by the introduction of alcohol, lack of educational resources, new diseases, and a reduction of inland mammals in addition to the walrus due to the introduction of rifles.
The U.S. Bureau of Education was given responsibility for the Alaskan natives and among other things, they decided to implement the reindeer herding proposal of Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian missionary who did extensive work in Alaska. Herds of reindeer were purchased from Siberia and brought over to Alaska along with herders from Lappland, who would train the Alaskan natives. Once they had completed their apprenticeship, they were loaned out their own small herd.
The herds were initially successful, as they filled in the ecological space left by the reduced population of caribou. Initially, the reindeer population grew, but by the 1940s it was rapidly falling again. There were ownership disputes, which led to incorporation of the reindeer program and rather than owning a certain number of deer, the natives were given shares of the corporation and the deer were managed as one large herd.
By the 1930s, the reindeer were practically wild and weren't very well-managed anymore. The wolf population increased. The reindeer mingled and interbred with the caribou and hunters began to be less and less discriminate about what they were shooting at. By the 1940s the deer population had dwindled and the government tried once more to revitalize the program.
But ultimately, cultural differences between the government workers running the program and the natives proved too difficult to overcome. The natives could not successfully adapt to a businessman's mindset, learning to mind and manage and expand their herds on their own and create self-sustaining and profitable businesses out of them. They maintained their subsistence hunting ways and saw the deer as a gift from the government that would be replenished as needed. And once new industries began to appear, such as construction and petroleum, the natives found it more profitable to get jobs working in these industries than to try to make it as reindeer herdsmen.
By 1952, the deer were all but gone, and the caribou population had made a comeback, which meant natives had their hunting needs satisfied.
So that's the story of the United States reindeer breeding. It's an interesting look at historical efforts toward economic stimulus and an interesting look at colonialism, since we rarely think of ourselves that way anymore. It's also a history lesson in the pitfalls of government subsidy programs and trying to improve the lives of people of other cultures without totally understanding those cultures.