Canada Is Losing Its Last Reindeer Herder
As indigenous reindeer herders die out, filling their shoes will be increasingly difficult, putting Canada's Inuit people at risk.
When Henrik Seva butchers a reindeer, not a shred of meat is wasted. First, he shoots it and gently slits its throat. Once the blood is fully drained from its body, he thanks the animal for its sacrifice. Flipping the carcass onto a sled, he tugs it back to his cabin. Standing alone in the arctic tundra 28 miles from Inuvik, in the Northwest Territories of Canada, Seva's cabin looks straight out of a horror movie; chainsaws, axes, knives, and other weapons hang on the wall, and everything is covered in blood. Outside the door is a pile of reindeer meat, choice cuts, flash frozen under a hide. Not far away is the "gut pile."
Seva works for
Canadian Reindeer, where he's chief herder of the last free-range herd of reindeer in the country. In 1999, he was recruited from Sápmi, an indigenous area in Arctic Scandinavia. Taught to herd by his father and grandfather, Seva was already an expert herder with reindeer of his own when he was first invited to visit the herd in Tuktoyaktuk. Now over a decade since his arrival in Canada, Seva has decided to return home. The last person in the country with the qualifications necessary to carry out the lonely and gruesome task of year-round reindeer herding is leaving, and it's looking like there might not be anyone to replace him. Without someone to herd them, the fate of the company and its thousands of reindeer is uncertain.
In 1925, Alaska's "Reindeer King," Carl Lomen, signed a contract with the Canadian government, agreeing to send a herd of 3,000 reindeer to the Northwest Territories. A lack of caribou in the Mackenzie Delta region of the province resulted in a famine among the Western Inuit, and the federal government, which was also hoping to develop the area, saw a large settlement of reindeer as an opportunity.
Sami herders were hired to make the initial journey with the herd from Naboktoolik, Alaska, to Reindeer Station, north of Inuvik. Their bond with the animal—which they traditionally depended on for food, fur, and transportation—is central to their culture, and because of their expertise with the animal, the Sami have held the position of chief herder within Canadian Reindeer since the herd's arrival in Canada more than 80 years ago.
When Seva first started managing the herd, Canadian Reindeer's focus was on cutting the animal's velvet antlers, which occurred once every summer during June and July. The reindeer were rarely herded over the winter months for more than a few days, meaning previous herders never had the chance to tame them.
Mid-growth and covered in fuzz, the reindeers' cartilaginous antlers were then shipped to China, where they were ground up and sold as an aphrodisiac and health supplement. Seva cut his last pair in 2003, when New Zealand's larger herds took over the market and a cheaper solution came along—"one of the reasons, from what I understood, was a little blue pill took over, and it's called Viagra," he told VICE.
Seva lives alone in his cabin, returning to town only on weekends to visit his wife, Anna. While he's up there in his cabin, he spends his time alone, leading the reindeer through their grazing land, protecting them from predators, and harvesting bulls. The chief herder is still charged with sharing some of the harvest with the local Inuvialuit, who still struggle to find caribou in the area. "It's a long tradition of two indigenous groups working together," he said.
Now over a decade since he's begun helping Canada's indigenous population, he's decided to return home to his clan in Sápmi to fight for his own people, who face a host of problems including deforestation and a dwindling population. This poses a huge problem for Canadian Reindeer, which now has to find a qualified replacement before his departure in July.
According to Lloyd Binder, the owner of the herd, an ideal chief herder must have a very specific set of skills; not only does he or she have to understand herd composition, breeding, and behavior, but he or she also has to be able to navigate safely through the harsh tundra despite poor visibility and the constant possibility of running into predators. If a chief herder does come across a grizzly bear, a pack of wolves, or a wolverine, he or she has to be prepared to ward them off however possible.
Being chief herder doesn't only involve dealing with dangerous wildlife, but also the hostile environment of the arctic—a herder must know how to use compasses, maps, and satellite tracking devices, as well as be capable of doing standard snowmobile maintenance. The long periods of isolation a chief herder must endure during the winter harvest shouldn't be considered a hardship, and when Canadian Reindeer sends guests to visit him or her, showing hospitality shouldn't be a challenge. Not only that, but he or she must also be a capable butcher for the daily harvest and be able to train new workers, as well as deal appropriately with other hunters, trappers, tourists, and anyone else encountered on the winter grazing land.
"The most basic measure of success is shown by herd growth and the tracking and collection of strays," Binder said. "This requires a firm commitment to herd protection under many conditions with due caution to his or her own survival." Basically, a chief herder has to be able to protect, lead, and harvest the herd without dropping dead or growing overly lonely in the process.
As the Scandinavian governments surrounding the Sami continue to push them off their ancestral land due to mineral extraction, deforestation, and large-scale energy projects like hydroelectricity and windmills, their traditional herding methods have become almost impossible to sustain. Because of this, only 10 percent of the Sami are directly linked to reindeer herding today, which seriously diminishes Canadian Reindeer's chances of finding a candidate familiar with their traditional practices. When asked if they would hire a non-Sami herder, Seva had his doubts. According to him, there's no way of knowing if they would show up for the first day, even less for the next seven grueling months of solitude. "The thing is, they'll have a problem to get people to commit to it," he said. "The Inuit culture is a different culture, a hunting culture, not a herding culture."
Even though Binder claims a "good candidate" is in view, an official replacement hasn't been found. Without anyone to take Seva's place, it's difficult to say what's in store for the herd and the population that has benefitted from it for almost a century.