Sami and the Baffin Reindeer Experiment

April 17, 2008 • Philip BurgessReindeer, Reindeer Herders

(From CBC North, 03042008) This historical photo from an Iqaluit museum shows Saami with a reindeer on Baffin Island in the 1920s. (Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum)


A Saami woman from northern Norway has followed the travels of her ancestors to Nunavut, looking for what happened to hundreds of reindeer that were relocated from Norway to Baffin Island in the early 1900s.

Karen Monika Paulsen, in Nunavut for a month-long research expedition, said her great-grandparents sailed with more than 600 reindeer to southern Baffin Island in 1921.

Using her family’s recollections and reports from the Hudson’s Bay Company, Paulsen has learned the company relocated the Norwegian reindeer as an experiment aimed at helping Inuit avoid starvation by teaching them how to herd reindeer.

“People were suffering, and I guess the Hudson Bay company … had heard about Saami taken to Alaska to teach Inuit there, in Inuvik and other places, to herd reindeer. And it had been a success,” Paulsen told CBC News last Friday in Iqaluit.

“So they wanted to try that here, too.”

The Hudson’s Bay Company hired Paulsen’s great-grandparents and other families from Norway’s indigenous Saami population to sail for three weeks aboard the ship Nascopie, arriving at an area between Cape Dorset and Kimmirut on Nov. 1, 1921.

“They came here with 620 reindeer, 3,000 sacks of moss, skis, dogs, and everything they needed for a long time,” she said.

But the project failed after a year, as wolves attacked the transplanted reindeer and the herd had trouble finding food due to ice and snow.

Many of the families, who had been hired on three-year contracts, left after one year because conditions in Nunavut were too rough, Paulsen said.

The surviving reindeer were left behind on the island, and Paulsen said are thought to have mated with caribou there.

“I’ve heard from elders here that the reindeer has descendants, because they sometimes catch caribou with shorter legs or with different colourings,” she said.

Paulsen, who hopes to produce a documentary on the topic, said she’s planning another trip to Nunavut to visit the site where her ancestors landed with the reindeer.

She said she also wants to hear more recollections from Canadian Inuit about the so-called people with the pointy boots — a kind of winter footwear worn by the Saami.

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