The Saami Herd at South Naknek (1931 - late 1940s?)
By the 1920s, the village of Naknek was rapidly becoming the region’s economic and transportation hub due to the success of the canneries and fishing industry. Thus, Saami reindeer herders who were seeking to supply local residents and cannery workers with a fresh supply of meat established the second reindeer herd in the Naknek region. Saami or Lapp herders Per Thuri, Matti Anderson, Lars Nelson and Ole Polk drove their deer to Naknek from the Kuskokwim River region in the early 1930s. Many Naknek residents still remembered these men who quickly became part of the community. Several Naknek residents remembered that their parents ordering a quarter, half or whole reindeer from the “Lapps”. Carvel Zimin explained that the Saami would butcher reindeer in South Naknek, just adjacent to his current home and across from the school.
According to Naknek residents who were children when the Saami herders sold meat locally, the herders traveled with reindeer and had a coral at Johnson’s Hill. Naknek resident, Alvin Aspelund explained in an interview in spring of 2012:
Per Thuri was pretty much what they call the hancho, he was in charge of them…They were stationed here…but each one had an interest in [the herd]. They’d tag their ears and each guy would know which was his when they had young ones. They traveled with them all the time, they had reindeer pulling sleds with their tents and equipment, and when the reindeer move, they move with them.
Later during the interview, Alvin continued to describe how he understood the yearly routine of the Saami herders:
They had collie dogs that helped them, you know, and they used skis in the wintertime. What they did in the summer, I don’t know. It’d be pretty swampy, they’d travel and then, sometimes in the summer, they must have got them located in good feeding areas because they’d go fishing for a month and then they’d go right back to them.
Passage of the 1937 Reindeer Act by the US government restricted reindeer ownership to Alaska Natives only. Thus, Saami herders were forced to sell their reindeer to the US government. Ironically, after selling his herd, Per Thuri was hired by the Reindeer Service to manage the Naknek herd. Alaska Native herders were also brought in from the Kuskokwim region but eventually, by the 1950s, herding around Naknek ended.