Leonard “Sulook” Olanna sat in his white-walled, summer fish
camp tent on the north side of the channel that separates Grantley
Harbor from Port Clarence late Wednesday evening waiting for news. He
was working on a cup of coffee when his cell phone rang. Moments
later he announced to the semi-circle of family members seated around
the central wood stove that his crew had already driven his reindeer
to Piktaruk, a lake just west of Brevig Mission.
Pauline Olanna, Sulook's wife, offered the visitors another cup
of her “cowboy coffee.” She stated that although the crew was
well ahead of schedule, this would still be a late night.
Sulook had sent his brother Michael and two young nephews, James
Olanna and Elmer Seetot III, out on ATV's at three o'clock that
afternoon to round up his herd. He initially expected them to return
at about seven or eight o'clock the next morning, but this update
indicated they would surely arrive before that.
Outside, thick, dark clouds made it look more like autumn than
less than two weeks removed from the brightest day of the year.
Inside, Sulook waited patiently for his younger sibling, and told a
story about how when he was growing up, elders had predicted that the
weather would change in the future. The Port Clarence area has been
experiencing much less favorable conditions during the summers since
he was a boy, he said.
The cold winds from across the bay are not so good for filling
fish racks, but they are perfect for “pushing” deer along the
north side of the harbor since reindeer like to follow the wind, said
Sulook. Teller's Kakaruk herders across Granley Harbor favor north winds when they
corral their deer.
The expectant herder began seeing headlights of three machines
off in the distance around 1:00 a.m. Thursday morning as they pushed
the herd toward the spit of land that lies across from Teller. At
about 1:30 a.m., Sulook received a call saying that one of the
machines had suffered a flat tire, but that would not prevent them
from arriving shortly.
When the lights were about a mile away, the Olannas and their
family members quietly crept out from several tent sites that line
the steep beach near a row of abandoned buildings. These dilapidated
structures are known as “Plant,” because they once were part of
the Loman reindeer processing business back in the 1920's and 30's.
While Sulook and a few men headed stealthily toward the wire
fence that serves as an outside border of the corral, Pauline led
the women and children to the old, vacant and windowless Loman
cookhouse where they would watch the action unfold.
Michael and his partners gradually maneuvered the herd south
along the lake behind the camps and worked a tricky creek crossing.
When the tightly-packed bunch entered the first wire-bound funnel,
helpers ran out from their hiding places to move the deer deeper into
their first holding pen, while Sulook and a few of the men moved
fencing into place to create an enclosure.
Their clocks read 3:15 am by the time the deer were moved into
one of the steep-walled “pockets” of the main corral, where they
would spend the night,.
The signal for Thursday's work came when the plane flew over head
carrying Clarissa Eide, one of Kawerak Incorporated's Natural
Resources Department reindeer tally people. It would take Eide, who
is a distant cousin to Sulook, less than an hour to land, and make
the nearly seven-mile ATV trip from Brevig Mission to Plant. While
they waited, Sulook and Pauline calmly cut several fish they had
caught in their net during the night, placing most in their drying
racks, and putting two aside for a post-herding meal.
Reindeer assistant Johnny Seetot opened the outside corral door
letting the first deer move through the narrow, v-shaped chute at
approximately 12:30 p.m. Chute workers would steady each animal and
make note of it's ownership by observing the unique notching pattern
that had been placed on it's ear, or by looking for color-coded
proprietary tags. Each animal's transfer would bring a loud shout
from Sulook such as “Olanna bull,” for a white ear-tagged male
owned by Sulook, or “maverick female” to denote a previously
Eide loudly echoed each call, marking her tally seconds before
one of Sulook's reindeer handling team grabbed the animal and
wrestled it to the ground. Adult men from the crew worked the larger
animals, while younger teenaged boys grappled with the fawns. The
reindeer would be marked and tagged, if needed, and grown deer would
have their antlers cut off for sale.
Just about an hour had elapsed between the first and last deer
moving through the chute. Eide was impressed by the group's
organization. Her final tally showed that 110 deer passed through the
chute, which included one from the Kakaruk herd, and one from the
Noyakuk herd. Thirty-three fawns received the white ear-tag of the
After the event's conclusion, a weary Michael Olanna sat resting in he
and his wife Bessie's tent. He looked forward to a well-earned meal
of “guak,” (boiled walrus skin and blubber), and “ungiimaq,”
(half-dried salmon). Michael was glad to have brought reindeer to the
corral, but lamented not bringing in the entire herd. He explained
that a large group split off as he and his helpers were pushing the
deer across the Don River, some 15 miles west of Plant.
Sulook and his siblings grew up around reindeer, as their father
Ward was once a herder. In 1994, about a decade after the passing of
his father, Sulook was able to reestablish the herd through the help
of Tom Gray of White Mountain, who lent him around 450 head.
Sulook recalled the challenges of bringing animals 30 miles a day
through the tree-filled lands between White Mountain and his family's
grazing areas that lie west and north of Brevig Mission. This past
winter he received 180 animals from the Kakaruk herd in exchange for
the use of his corral. Sulook says that after 20 plus years of
herding he is ready to turn the management of the operation over to
In an interview in Nome on Saturday, Greg Finstad had high
praises for Sulook and Michael's endeavors. Finstad is an Associate
Professor and the Program Manager of the Reindeer Research Program,
an affiliate of UAF's Northwest Campus in Nome. He has been working
with reindeer in the region since 1982, a year after the program's
inception. It's not easy for one herder to get deer from another, he
explained, since females get used to, and return to, familiar calving
“These are the world's expert's,” said Finstad in recognizing
the fine reindeer husbandry skills of the Olanna brothers and their
workers. “Leonard and his crew are good at it. It's like watching a
dance. They make it look easy, but it is not. They are able to put
large animals to the ground with little chance of injury to the
animal or the person. They are the best in the world.”
Finstad sees reindeer herding as a great vehicle for progress in
the village. “Herding builds a connection with the land,” he
says. “The pre-production is very compatible with the ecosystem.
Socially, reindeer herding is very good. It builds excitement and is
a good, positive experience.”
Reindeer herders have a storied history in this part of the
Seward Peninsula. When deer were first brought to mainland Alaska
from Siberia, they were put in the waters off Port Clarence and swam
to shore. Finstad says the natural boundaries of the thin peninsula
made it a perfect place to gather the deer for movement to other
The original deer were moved to the Teller Reindeer Station, near
present day Brevig Mission. Two years later Norwegian Lapland
herders (now known as Saami) were imported to train the native people
of Grantley Harbor in reindeer management since instruction from the
Siberians had proven unproductive. Their participation was contingent
upon the presence of a Norwegian Lutheran pastor. Tolaf Larson
Brevig, also know as T.L., who had been living in Madison, Wisconsin,
was not only hired as a minister, but as one of the Reindeer
Station's first superintendents.
Teller Reindeer Station can be thought of as the birthplace of
reindeer herding in Alaska. In an excerpt from his journals, Brevig
once wrote, “Port Clarence, the closest harbor to Siberia whence
the reindeer were acquired in 1892, has been the landing place for
the reindeer, which year after year have been brought over by the U.
S. Cutter Bear (Captained by M.A. Healy). From Teller Reindeer
Station for many succeeding winters, herds of reindeer have been sent
across the frozen tundra to newly established reindeer stations in
In 1903 the name Teller Reindeer Station was changed to Teller
Mission to reflect the Lutheran missionary efforts. Some years later
the name was further revised to Brevig Mission to avoid US Postal
Service confusion between Teller, and Teller Mission.
At the time of this printing, Michael and his crew had located
another 250-300 of their reindeer, and were planning another journey
to bring them back to the corral at Plant.
We just sent you an email. Please click the link in the email to confirm your subscription!
OKSubscriptions powered by Strikingly