Norton Sound communities look to build commercial reindeer economy

Savoonga’s chief reindeer herder Richmond Toolie, at the mobile reindeer processing plant (Photo by Gabe Colombo/KNOM)

Savoonga’s chief reindeer herder Richmond Toolie, at the mobile reindeer processing plant (Photo by Gabe Colombo/KNOM)

Reindeer herding is an increasingly attractive economic option for communities in the Norton Sound region.

As winter sea-ice cover becomes more unreliable, the traditional practice of hunting for marine mammals is more dangerous.

Some community leaders hope reindeer herds, originally imported from Scandinavia in the late 19th century, could now fill a growing gap in ensuring economic security.

Several Norton Sound communities want to expand their operations.

Richmond Toolie is the chief herder of St. Lawrence Island’s 4,000 to 5,000 reindeer.

“My uncle Herman — I followed him when I was a teenager, and he taught me everything, while he was the chief herder,” Toolie said. “I enjoy doing it. I love it. I just go out there and drive all around the island.”

Toolie works at a mobile reindeer processing plant in Savoonga.

The plant is owned by the University of Alaska–Fairbanks and has been here for four years.

Greg Finstad with UAF’s range management program has trained 22 Savoonga community members on how to use it.

Two big trailers with equipment inside to store, cool, hang and butcher 16 reindeer at a time.

“Before we band-saw them, we cut them in half right here, with a chainsaw. Hang them up and cut them right in the middle,” Toolie said. “We have orders from all over Alaska and Washington.”

Those orders, and others from as far away as Australia, have convinced Savoonga tribal chief Delbert Pungowiyi that the demand for commercial meat is there.

“To us, that’s the only real promise that can really bring a huge difference to our people on the island: where we can sustain ourselves and take care of ourselves as our ancestors have, without pleading to Washington or anyone for any funding,” Pungowiyi said.

Right now, they’re limited to field slaughtering, which Pungowiyi estimates brings about $1,000 per whole carcass.

He thinks professionally butchering it could get at least $1,600 per reindeer.

To do that, though, they need to pay for a U.S. Department of Agriculture representative to come inspect the processing facility.

They also want to build a permanent processing plant, a new corral and new roads to make herding the reindeer more efficient.

Pungowiyi says the Native villages of Savoonga and Gambell want funding from the federal government and elsewhere for the projects.

They’re also working with Kawerak, the regional nonprofit corporation, to develop a business plan, and lobbying Senator Lisa Murkowski to come visit and discuss the project.

“Really need to get that in motion because of the food security that we’re losing from the Bering Sea itself,” Pungowiyi said.

Across Norton Sound, Thomas Kirk in Stebbins feels the same way. He’s the clerk for the community’s tribal association.

“Climate change has affected our sea-ice hunting and our marine mammal gathering,” Kirk said. “The ice is a lot thinner. And having our reindeer is a blessing.”

The herd here is estimated to be more than 5,000 head, the largest in the Norton Sound region, and it’s jointly owned by the Native villages of Stebbins and St. Michael and the chief reindeer herder, Theodore Katcheak.

The group already sells antlers commercially to a buyer from California, who resells it at $25 a pound to Asian-Americans for traditional medicinal purposes.

“I also have other interests in the Asian market that would like to purchase the horns and the meat: Eastern Asia, China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan,” Kirk said.

Kirk said the tri-party group wants to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to do an aerial survey of the reindeer, to figure out exactly how many are out there and how healthy they are.

They’re also hoping to have the mobile processing plant transferred from Savoonga to Stebbins and St. Michael.

Theodore Katcheak said the free-range meat is healthier than the reindeer in the freezer at the St. Michael grocery store.

“The color of this meat is dark, because they’re probably feeding in the over-grazed areas,” Katcheak said.

The meat also is a reliable food source for the communities’ residents as marine mammals become less easily obtainable.

In terms of commercial sales, Katcheak said there’s still a long way to go, for the region and for him, personally.

“I see that Sami people — they know how to handle reindeer. They’ve been doing it for many centuries,” Katcheak said. “My age, I’m 70 years old, I’m just like a little baby just waking up; I don’t know what to do. You don’t see no 20 or 30 herders in Alaska. You only see like five or six, maybe seven herds.”

Pungowiyi in Savoonga hopes to change that by taking reindeer from St. Lawrence Island and reintroducing them to communities like White Mountain, which lost its herds to encroaching caribou.

Pungowiyi envisions a coalition of reindeer-herding tribes around Norton Sound that could sell meat collectively, with a central processing plant and freezer in Nome, something the regional Reindeer Herders Association has discussed.

“If we did it right, we could become Alaska’s reindeer capital: the Bering Straits region,” Pungowiyi said.

From Savoonga’s shoreline, the bright-blue water stretches as far as the eye can see on a sunny July day.

As late as 1975, though, you might have seen some sea ice here at this time of year.

Now, solid sea ice isn’t a guarantee even in March.

But if Toolie, Kirk, Katcheak and Pungowiyi see their vision of a reindeer economy made real, a more solid guarantee of self-sustenance might be on the horizon.

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