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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


May 18, 2002 - Issue 61


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Memories of a Reindeer Herder - Jimmy Komeak


The following is an excerpt from a research paper written by Charles Klengenberg back in 1983 through an interview with Jimmy Komeak about his time spent as a reindeer herder near Tuktoyaktuk.

Mr. Jimmy Komeak, who is 63 years of age, is an active elder of the community of Tuktoyaktuk. Mr. Komeak is originally from the Cambridge Bay area. He attended only three years of school in Aklavik from 1938 to 1941. After finishing school, he moved back to Cambridge Bay where he obtained employment as a Special Constable for the local RCMP detachment as a translator. In the summer of 1942, he and his brother Joseph traveled back to the west to Tuktoyaktuk on a small boat called the Nigilik, which was owned by the trading company Con Alaska. The fall of that same year, Jimmy got involved with reindeer herding which he continued in this occupation for 13 years.Jimmy got married to his wife Jean in the year 1950. They had seven children of which five are living.

Over the years, Jimmy has held various occupations after he quit reindeer herding in 1956. For a year he worked for the RCMP in aklavik, the Hudson Bay Company in Tuktoyaktuk, various Dew (Distant Early Warning) site, Community Health Worker for the local nursing station, outreach worker, delegate for the Metis Association, and harbour monitor during the 1970s and 80s oil exploration boom in the Western Arctic. Presently, Jimmy is an active member of the
Tuktoyaktuk Elders' Committee, whereby he is the secretary manager. One of his many duties includes setting up a drum dancing program forthe youth and elders of Tuktoyaktuk.

Around the early 1900s, the people of the Mackenzie Delta/Beaufort Sea area were facing many hardships, both physical and economic hardships. Many of the people in the region were wiped out due to epidemics of measles in 1902 and influenza in 1919.

In trying to find solutions to aid the people of the region, in 1919, "the Canadian government of reindeer and muskox husbandry on northern Canada (Sims, 1983)". The primary reason was to aid the people with another source of food since the caribou in the region had disappeared leading up to the 1930s. The reasons for this disappearance of caribou stated by DIAND (1983) might have been "the increasing use of the rifle for hunting by Eskimo and a growing presence by man native and non-native in the north". Therefore, the initial intention of the government was" it thought that bringing in reindeer to replace the caribou and turning some hunters and trappers into herdsmen might be a solution. Herding could provide wages for local inhabitants, and the herd, which would gradually increase, would provide meat and hides to the local communities (Renewable Resources, 1989)".

However, before a herd could be established, a survey needed to be conducted to determine if there was sufficient rangelands to sustain a viable herd. Therefore, during the years of 1927/28, a survey was conducted between the Alaska, Yukon and Coppermine River by A.E. Porild and his brother. After this preliminary rangelands survey, it was assessed that the lands east of the Mackenzie Delta were excellent for establishing a reindeer herd.

In 1929, the Canadian government obtained 3,000 head of reindeer from the Lomen Reindeer Company of Alaska. "The reindeer drive took six winters and five summers to complete. Over terrain which few people had traveled before or since, the herders had to deal with inclement weather, accidents, impassable mountain ranges, wolf predation, personal conflicts, and straying reindeer (Renewable Resources, 1989)". They reached the Mackenzie Delta in 1935 with a population of 2,382 head of reindeer.


Jimmy Komeak began reindeer herding for the federal government in the fall of 1942. How he came to manage his own herd was because of his organizational skills and his ability to speak his own language and as well the English language. Jimmy and Guy Omagotuk, a local from the Mackenzie Delta, were in partnership for a herd of 800 reindeer.

The management of the herd was based on a five-year plan, in which Jimmy and his partner were to sustain, multiply and become self-sufficient with a thriving reindeer herd. The strategy of the government at the time were "from the main herd, smaller herds were to split off and become the property of Inuit herdsmen, who would eventually repay reindeer into the main herd as their own stock increased (Renewable Resources, 1989)". For initial supplies, Jimmy and crew were assisted by the government to aid them in the day-to-day management of the herd, especially when they first started out.

The herd Jimmy and Guy were allocated had two employed herdsmen for the management of the herd. They usually kept a 24-hour watch on the herd, more so in the spring and fall. They followed and kept the herd together throughout most seasons, feeding in an area for at least three months at a time. The cycle. They followed were based on seasonal movement patterns that they followed from year to year. The seasonal cycle for Jimmy's herd were:

Fall movement: -after freeze up, move herd inland from summer feeding grounds
Winter movement: -herd near Husky Lakes
Spring movement: -move herd slowly back to coastal feeding grounds
Summer movement: -coastal feeding grounds

Besides the main herd, which was stationed at Richards Island, there were four Inuit-owned herds when Jimmy was herding his own herd. In the beginning, there were six Inuit-owned herds, but due to "an unfortunate accident" the first two herds reverted back to the government in 1944 when the owners and their families drowned in a storm in the Beaufort Sea (Renewable Resources, 1989". The families were of Charlie Kidley and Peter Kuglik. The rangelands Jimmy grazed his herd on ware an area called Toker Point on the Tuktoyaktuk peninsula. With his herd, he ranged from the Toker Point area to the Husky Lakes area (current maps indicate Eskimo Lakes).The other three Inuit-owned herds were located and managed by:

Wallace Lucas: -Kiniksuk (vicinity of present-day Tuk)
Otto Binder: -Face Point (southern Husky Lakes area)
Joseph Avik: -Warren Point (northern Tuk peninsula)

Each herding group would graze in an area for at least three months, since the reindeer, in comparison to caribou, are less migratory.

The mode of transportation, as Jimmy indicates, "them days you had to be tough" since most of the traveling was done on foot. During the winter months most of the travel was done on skis, which were introduced by the Lapp herders, who brought the initial herd to the Mackenzie Delta. When needing to travel on water, they utilized scows (flat-bottomed boats).

They also used reindeer for carrying supplies and transportation purposes. The training of reindeer was quite young. They had to train the reindeer to respond to commands and get used to the harnesses and packs. They tried riding the reindeer like horses, but the reindeer could not handle the weight of the rider over rough terrain.

They also became dependent on dogs, but more so for the gathering and herding of the reindeer. These dogs were brought over with the initial reindeer herd. They were a breed of collie, the type used by sheepherders. Each herder had to train their own herd dogs to respond to commands of whistles. They were efficient at long distances. The use of these dogs made herding the reindeer easier. When they had to travel long distances during the winter months, they used dog teams.

Payment for supplies or other necessities was usually based on a barter system reindeer meat for supplies. For example, on one of the grazing areas, Jimmy and crew needed a base camp from which to operate from. A deal between the owner, Jonah Carpenter, who owned a small log cabin, was made for the trade of two reindeer.

The slaughtering of reindeer took place once a year, usually before Christmas. Most of the meat was sold to the residential school in Aklavik.

Family life for a herder was a life where the majority of the time was spent out tending the herds. The time they spent with their families was around the Christmas holidays, spring and summer.

The reason for Jimmy giving up his herd was his herd did not grow; he basically had the same average population of reindeer each year. One main reason he did not have enough females to have enough offsprings to increase the herd. Jimmy indicated that this was the main reason, not losses through predation or overgrazing, but what he needed to pay his bills and live off took his marginal profit of reindeer.

The herding technique Jimmy and other Inuit herders were using to manage their herds has come to be called the "closed herding technique" which is successfully used in other reindeer-herding countries, but in the Mackenzie Delta/Beaufort Sea area, in the long run proved unreliable. Eventually, what Jimmy and his herd were experiencing; the other herders were facing the same problems. As Sims (1983) indicates "it is now believed that attempts failed for a
combination of reasons, including inefficient herding practices, over-harvesting of animals, overgrazing near settlements, and losses through predation, disease, poaching, and straying animals". After 1990, the reindeer were allowed to run free with an annual roundup, which proved more successful than what the herders were trying in the early years of this massive project.

The significance of this information in relation to the study of anthropology and to the history of the Northwest Territories is an attempt by the federal government to turn nomadic hunters into domesticated herders. Their attempt was fruitful, but for unforeseen circumstances was unsuccessful. As Jimmy Komeak says, "those were the days, life was good, but we will never see those days again".

Tuktoyaktuk, NWT Map
Maps by Travel

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