Returning to the old ways
Nunivak herders take to their feet

by Ted Horner, Delta Discovery

While most businesses are turning to high technology to increase efficiency and profits, the Nuniwarmiut Reindeer and Seafood Processors have discovered the advantages of low-tech to boost profits of their meat harvesting and processing business.

Several times a year, the company brings in herds of reindeer from around Nunivak Island to Mekoryuk for slaughter. The modern method has been to use fixed wing aircraft and helicopters to herd the animals but the annual cost of over $30,000 takes a huge bite out of profits.

So, the company decided to try it by foot, the way their ancestors did.

"We wanted to prove that we could do it by foot herding," said NRSP General Manager Jobe Weston. "We wanted to try to bring it back and see what kind of problems we would encounter."

Charlie Spud, Sr; Abraham David; Ira Isaac, Billy Kiokun watch off scene as reindeer are being herded into the main corral in Mekoryuk. The local reindeer company butchered 12 reindeer and distributed the meat to every household in the community. The round-up was done to test herding methods used over 50 years ago. Mekoryuk exports thousands of pounds of reindeer meat each year throughout Alaska. Photos courtesy of NRSP.

Earlier this month, six herders trekked out by foot onto the tundra carrying heavy packs weighing 75 – 100 pounds. They followed the advice of elder George Williams, Sr. who is one of the last surviving herders of the old way of doing the reindeer round-up.

"Our only method of travel was on our legs," the 81-year-old Elder Williams recalled. "In those days we were not given groceries and supplies from the company. We just had seal skin parkas and boots. No luxuries like (modern) rain pants, we had seal intestine rain gear."

No tents or sleeping bags, either. The men just camped out in the open rain or shine.

"There were no ready-made groceries," he said. "We only brought along dry fish and seal oil. For socks they wore traditional grass stockings made by our women."

The men would be out for weeks at a time and the herders knew that the survival of the entire community depended upon their success.

"Sometimes we ran out of food and we used the rivers and even though there were spawned-out rotting fish, we would take away the maggots and eat the fish. That was how we provided for our food."

One of the reindeer captured during a round-up on Nunivak Island where herders successfully tried herding on foot as their ancestors did. Simeon Andrew and Peggy Williams (behind) skin one of the reindeer harvested.

Despite the hardships, the herders were generally successful in providing food for the island community.

In the 50s, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs started to become involved with the reindeer herding, they helped provide additional gear and supplies to the herders, which was a mixed blessing.

"I can remember that the packs got a lot heavier after that with canned food, milk, tents, crackers and stoves," he said.

The Elder also recalled that always they were looking for more efficient ways to herd the reindeer and this was often discussed at the herder camps.

"We talked about pack dogs to pack our bags or to herd the animals, the reindeer," he said. "We even talked about using pack horses to carry our heavy bags."

Now, decades later Weston finds himself having these same discussions about improving the reindeer herding operation on the island.

"I have been toying with the idea of getting Australian sheep dogs or acquiring horses to pack supplies," Weston said. "I don't know if the horses can feed off the natural flora of if we have to import hay."

Read also:
The Tradition of the Nunivak Island Reindeer Herders
by Marvin Kiokun



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