Register Monday | March 27 | 2023

The Curse of the Deer

Nearly 80 years ago, the Canadian government tried to nudge people in the Mackenzie River Delta toward a cash economy using a a herd of reindeer.

On Richards Island, in a small trailer set beside a massive petroleum camp that looks like a Moon station on the empty tundra, Heinrik Sevä reclines in his cot. “Reindeer I see here is politics,” he says, sipping tea. “That part of it I don’t want. I love the work, but here reindeer belong to the Inuvialuit people.” Tonight the 58-year-old Sami herder is buoyant. For the past several days he’s been living in isolation, herding reindeer out on the empty plains of the Mackenzie Delta with only the trucks driving the ice roads for company. “We don’t make reindeer because it takes too long to cook,” Sevä says, offering me instant noodles instead. After we eat he talks about his culture late into the night. There are now only seven people living in his traditional Sami village in northern Sweden, he says. His father, now deceased, was “full nomadic,” herding reindeer and living in tents, but when Sevä was a boy he was shipped to residential school and disciplined for speaking his language. He emerged determined to retain his Sami-ness, a culture that he says, “is reindeer.” After years working as an electrician he bought his own herd but struggled. Then he learned a reindeer herd in Canada was on the verge of turning wild. He had offers to herd in Mongolia but said no. In 1999, he flew to Tuktoyaktuk.

Tonight, 10 years after that decision, Sevä sits in the trailer slowly removing his reindeer- and seal-skin outerwear. I’m overcome with the ancientness of the scene; even the wind whistling through the trailer sounds timeless. As we talk about the future, though, Sevä becomes crestfallen. Reindeer have been a dream he’s pursued at the expense of many things, he tells me. He’s let go of hope of finding a wife. He’s given up drinking. He’s still struggling with being an immigrant. And now, he’s unsure whether to give up on the dream that brought him here in the first place. “This is like a job now,” he says, a touch bitter. “I see it as work, reindeer work.” Aren’t these reindeer part of you now, I ask? “No,” he says. “I have nothing more to prove. I was thinking I could help out these reindeer, but now I realize more and more it’s something I cannot change.”

When he arrived in the Mackenzie Delta, Sevä found its last reindeer herd. He then discovered the animals were a cursed treasure in a drama that had already swept him into its plot. After the deer made a journey in the 1930s worthy of any religious text, they’ve survived rather than thrived in the delta and divided the place itself into herds. In the largest camp are the locals, who view reindeer (near identical to caribou yet semi-domesticated rather than wild) as they do mission schools – as a harbinger of massive change. In the other group are immigrants from Europe and their progeny, who have dedicated their lives to herding after the strong encouragement, then near desertion of the Canadian government. The story of the delta’s last herd is about that second group. They are the last tribe of reindeer people in Canada.

IT'S A CRISP APRIL MORNING in Inuvik and I’ve come to the head office of reindeer herding in Canada – Lloyd Binder’s mottled home. “Don’t bother taking your shoes off,” Binder says, at the door. “This is a working house.” After walking through a foyer filled haphazardly with boxed reindeer meat, I pass a room plastered with oversize pages from a book Binder co-authored, The Reindeer Herders of the Mackenzie Delta, and make my way up the stairs to the kitchen. In the room there is a meat slicer on a long table; a cutting board, meat cleaver and scissors hang from the walls; a smoldering cigarette reclines in an ashtray. On the white fridge door are notes scribbled in red marker; nearby is a large stack of empty Budweiser cans, and a beluga whale stomach, hung from a wire to dry. The green linoleum floor has worn though to the plywood in several spots. This house isn’t Binder’s – his sister owns it – but he doesn’t pay rent. We sit at the table. I have a coffee and Binder finishes his cigarette. “You can see my operation here is pretty basic,” he says.

Binder is the first and last descendant of the reindeer tribe in Canada, and he embodies the contradictions of herding in the delta like no one else. He was born in 1952, at Reindeer Station, the town the government built in the ‘30s for the project, located about 60 kilometres north of Inuvik. Growing up, his nickname was “quunek,” Inuvialuktun for reindeer. His mother, Ellen, is the daughter of Anna and Mikkel Pulk. In 1932 she and her parents arrived among the first wave of Norwegian Sami hired by Canada. It was here she met, Otto, Binder’s father, who was born in Cambridge Bay but came to the delta to be a herder. Growing up, Binder says his mixed-race family, “became a little tribe unto itself, because we were reindeer people.” That’s amplified today. His parents, uncles, aunts and a few siblings live on the same block and help with the business when they can.

Binder calls himself a “half-breed” and seems to understand himself as a partial outsider to both of his ethnic halves. Perhaps because of reindeer, though, he’s connected deeply with his Sami herding roots, evidenced by the Sàpmi flag sticker on his front door, his six trips to Norway and his “workable” ability to speak the language. He’s slightly pear shaped and typically wears loose-fitting t-shirts, navy workpants and black leather boots. His ice-blue eyes, sunk behind large glasses, are unmistakably shaped like an Inuk, yet reside in the compact, cherub-like face of a Sami. In conversation, Binder reminds of troubled kid – aloof, sometimes suspicious, yet on some level eager to connect. Talking to him on the phone can be a jarring experience – he answers with an abrupt “Lloyd.” My secret weapon today is reindeer. I tell him I’m interested and he melts, just a little. “Reindeer is what we do,” Binder says.

He has paid deeply for these connections. Since buying the herd along with his parents and a few other investors in 2002 – after 30 years working in construction and the civil service – his long dream of reconciling his reindeer past was realized, only to run against the delta itself. Bad feelings about reindeer run deep. During the project’s early days, Reindeer Station was largely closed to the locals, seeding the bitterness. “In effect it was a government village,” Binder says. In 1933, the reindeer grazing preserve, which Binder’s herd still uses, was created near Tuktoyaktuk, and locals suddenly required permits to use the land. Defiance took deeper root. Forced re-settlement and mission schools became facts of life. Reindeer herding was viewed as another force of colonialism. It’s only in this context that you can understand why, as Binder says of herding, “to the Inuvialuit, you may as well be a janitor.” As we talk, he shows me grizzly photographs of severed heads of reindeer, complete with coloured ear tags, left behind by poachers. “What we didn’t realize when we bought the herd is that there was a very large lingering resentment towards reindeer among the Inuvailuit, primarily in Tuk,” Binder says. What rubs him most, though, is that few locals now survive by hunting and trapping. Even if they tried, he says, they’d struggle – the caribou are ranging elsewhere these days. Still, people have a “mind block” against paying money for “country food” because of lingering memories of getting caribou for free, he says. “All of these things set you up for a really bad attitude towards reindeer. It was pretty naïve of me to think it’d be an easy go.”

Binder has nearly been broken by his dream. Herding reindeer in ideal conditions is rarely a cash cow, and in the delta it’s proven to be a money sink. He took on a large debt to buy the herd, which has now swollen to more than $300,000. He’s become tied to goodwill and grants, and lives “on the cusp of personal and corporate bankruptcy.” Everything he owns is breaking or broken, including some of his relationships. Even his ancient Ford pickup was given to him in charity. He bears evidence of this struggle, too: The right half of his front teeth are missing after a bridge came off. He says he hasn’t had the money or energy to get them fixed. “You’re treated differently as a toothless person, let me tell you,” he says. As we talk, he tells me former herd owner, William Nasogaluak, once told him, “This business is all about heartbreak.” It remains true. At 57, the only thing Binder owns anymore is a herd of 3,000 reindeer.

THE NEXT MORNING, after waking myself with a snore, Sevä and I scarf down a breakfast of fats – bacon, buttered toast and eraser-sized chunks of cheddar cheese. “I don’t think a vegetarian can survive out in the tundra,” Sevä says. I marvel at his curly toe boots and wolf fur mittens as we dress for the day. When we emerge into the morning sun, Sevä takes a large jerry can from the sledge behind his snowmobile and tops up his gas tank. Nearby I notice a black garbage bag with reindeer legs poking out: Sevä’s improvised freezer. “Ready to be a herder?” he yells. I eagerly mount my snowmobile.

I ride in Sevä’s white-wash, flying down the great Mackenzie at well more than 100 km/hr. Through the clouds I occasionally spot him huddled beneath his machine’s windscreen. His traditional green poncho and mittens flap in the frigid wind. The view is surreal. I wonder to myself, Is this a dream? I conclude that it is, for both Sevä and for me – though for him it’s about to end. After a few minutes we come to the snowmobile tracks he left on the land after leaving the herd yesterday, and like Hansel and Gretel we use them to re-trace his route back. After 10 minutes we’re there – except I don’t realize it. Looking at reindeer in the Mackenzie Delta is like looking at caribou: They blend in. The herd stands before me atop a gentle ridge and dig in the snow to graze in a flat. I remove my helmet to hear the cotton-in-your-ears quiet. The question floats back: Am I dreaming?

I now have an enviable problem. A writer is supposed to remain detached, but that’s impossible if you’re herding the last reindeer herd in Canada, remnants from a bizarre scheme from the reindeer-transplant crazed near the turn of the century. Screw detached: I’m giddy and engaged. I drive toward the reindeer and spook them forward as if my snowmobile has an invisible plow. As Sevä concentrates on the main herd, I pick up the stragglers, stopping mere feet away for a moment to marvel at their majesty as they root through the snow for food. But in this dream there’s a heavier feeling, too. It’s as if I’m looking at ghosts, or bringing old photographs of forgotten things to life with my eyes. I realize these reindeer could disappear in a snap. And I realize what Sevä meant about them belonging to the Inuvialuit. They will ultimately decide whether they remain or disappear.

We stop for some tea and to let the animals rest. Sevä pulls out the sandwiches I made this morning with Klix canned meat and cheddar cheese – the fatty treats of the trailer pantry. “So, what do you think?” he asks, with the warmth of a friend. “You want to stop writing and start being a herder?”

REINDEER ARE NOT INDIGENOUS to Canada but thrive wherever caribou do. They belong to the same deer species but form a different subspecies, distinguishable by shorter legs, heavier rumps and white spots. Reindeer are more sedentary and can become quite comfortable around people, making them ideal candidates for animal husbandry – which the Sami have practiced for centuries. In the circumpolar Arctic there are an estimated 1.4-million domesticated reindeer, the majority of which range in Russia. In Alaska, their numbers once hit 640,000 but now have shrunk to 30,000, with 20 dedicated herders. At its peak, the delta herd grew to nearly 10,000 deer. Because of their tameness and unmatched ability to adapt, reindeer have convinced many a frontier dreamer that they can become the cattle of the North. They have been transplanted in Iceland, Greenland, Alaska and, strangely, the South Georgia Islands off the southern coast of Argentina. In Canada they have been imported to the Mackenzie Delta, Baffin Island, the Belcher Islands, the South Slave region of the NWT, Newfoundland and Quebec. Despite early success few of these projects have flourished over the long term.

The last of these Canadian herds is in the delta. It’s fitting they survive the longest, as they endured an epic journey to get here. In 1929, the Canadian government bought 3,000 deer from the Lomen Brothers, a massive reindeer-meat company on the west coast of Alaska, for $195,000. The price included delivery, and that was no small catch. The deer were driven west for 2,400-kilometres across the breadth of Alaska and northern Yukon – swollen rivers, tundra plains, the Brooks and Richards mountains and finally, the icy Mackenzie Delta. A Sami herder named Andrew Bahr, later known as “Arctic Moses,” led the march. Expected to take 18 months, the journey eventually took five years. In 1935, Time lionized Bahr, calling the drive “the greatest man-managed animal trek in history.”

The idea had come from Alaska too. In the 1890s, after whales were decimated by over fishing, fears of mass starvation amongst the Inuit prompted the United States government to buy reindeer from Siberia, hire Sami herders on contract and set up herds. The results were promising. So, in the 1920s, when migration changes saw the Bluenose caribou leave the delta, the Canadian government copied the plan. The government’s goal was a reliable source of food for people, but hoped reindeer herding would further push aboriginals away hunting.

As Dick North writes in Arctic Exodus, at the time the idea for reindeer in the delta was hatched, the Montreal Gazette reported, “If success can be achieved after the reindeer have been introduced . . . a new era may be opened up for Canada’s northland. A meat industry of great proportions may be developed . . .” Indeed, Erling Porsild, one the architects of the Canadian reindeer experiment, had estimated 250,000 deer could be supported without impacting the native caribou. What the dreamers couldn’t develop was a warm reception the reindeer industry. Transplanting animals in a place that’s depended on indigenous animals for thousands of years meant changing the people in a flash. Consider that many aboriginals were given jobs on herds and asked to ski out to the animals, something they’d never done. A few intrepid people tried to make a go of it, but most of the Inuvialuit herds lasted a few years at most. The reindeer were the proxy in a bigger battle, over culture.

INUVIK IS A PROJECT much like the reindeer that live to its north. Bureaucrats created the town in hopes of solving a problem. Today, set along the lazy valley of the spindling Mackenzie River delta, Inuvik serves as a link between the area’s hyper-modern future and its ancient past, with Inuvialuit prints sold in galleries next to oil and gas companies advertising their “readiness” for a pipeline. The constant question in such a place is what comes next? And to ponder that, explicitly for reindeer, I go to their past: Ellen and Otto Binder.

I meet Ellen first. Inside the small house she shares with Otto, there is a near museum-sized collection of artifacts of her Sami family in Canada. She shows me a photograph taken in 1930, in Germany. In it stand her parents. They were members of a cultural tour formed by the German government that featured Sami people and their reindeer. Had it not been for that trip, Ellen says, her mother once told her they might not have moved to Canada.

But they did come, 78 years ago, “fulfilling their dreams,” she says. “It was the dirty ‘30s. It was tough times all over the world.” And the Canadian reindeer project was sold to Sami, “as a mission of mercy.” Of course, that wasn’t exactly what they found when the arrived with their newborn girl, Ellen. And no one told them they’d be moving to the most remote part of Canada. Perhaps the same story can be said of the thousands of Sami that have moved like global nomads wherever governments have tried to transplant reindeer.

“Reindeer is what brought us here,” Ellen says. She adds that Sami people never leave a mark where they go, and can thus disappear without a trace. “It would be nice to be more optimistic that there will always be a herd,” she says, noting the pipeline and the lifestyle mean there likely won’t be. “Lloyd will give it one last hurrah.”

“It’s hard for my boy Lloyd,” Otto adds the following day. I visit him in the hospital where he’s recovering from the flu. “I guess he’s doing if for mom and dad. We keep telling him when you work with reindeer you don’t make money. Sometimes I feel like we should drive them to the mountains. It’s an interesting life but it’s coming to an end.”

BINDER'S PHONE RINGS. “Lloyd,” he answers. There’s a pause. “Regular 20 pound box? Oh, saddle roasts. Okay I’ll bring one by.” This is Binder’s business in a nut – a cottage industry (last year he slaughtered 120 animals) serving Inuvik with the wraith of bigger potential constantly looming overhead. Is there really potential in reindeer, I ask? “Absolutely,” Binder says. “The reality is the caribou aren’t going to be here soon.” He’s sold 1,200 kilograms to local governments to feed his newest market – elders. “A lot of the elders are happy to get a replacement at a reasonable price.”

Though Binder’s near horizon looks a bit brighter, perhaps this is just another light in an endless tunnel. Writ large in reindeer experiments around the world is initial success, which seeds hope, then a slow withering failure that punishes any who hold on. Consider the challenges. Meat is the main product and can supply the local market without much infrastructure. Moving up to national distribution requires massively improved facilities for slaughtering, packaging, refrigeration and shipping – not to mention good marketing and bureaucracy gymnastics. Taking that international requires more again. Reindeer Station had a slaughterhouse that could process 100 carcasses a day; out on Richards Island, Binder says his two man crews can process four animals in a 12-hour day. The other potential product is antler velvet. Several Asian countries swear by the stuff as a health supplement, and both male and female reindeer grow antlers. Unfortunately, Canadian velvet imports to Korea have been crippled since 2002, when Chronic Wasting Disease was found in Elk herds in Alberta. The Arctic also has an incredible number of predators – wolves, bears, lynx. Even ravens kill reindeer, pecking out the eyes of fawns then attacking them in groups. There’s the ever-present threat of caribou luring reindeer away and turning them wild. And it’s the North, so any equipment required will break down in the cold.

That he has failed against these odds should allow Binder a kind of ultimate peace, a time when it’s okay to lay down his arms. But Binder has been galvanized into a reindeer-or-nothing attitude. Without the animals, his life would be without its gravity. He’s still hot about what his parents faced as a result of the reindeer project. “It’s run them to the ground,” he says, bitterly. And as he says, as a herder his retirement savings are held in reindeer. But as we talk, I sense the real drive is to make something positive come of tragedy. Binder is a man who defines his life by his family and seems haunted by the events that have touched it through herding. In 2003, he tells me, his cousin Hiram went missing while working with the herd. “It was December 24 and I got a call from Hiram,” Binder says, dragging deeply on a du Maurier and slugging back a mouthful of Budweiser. “There was a blizzard. My father told him to stay put. But there was no call from him the next day. There was no call the next day again. We thought we’d make it for sure but we just didn’t have the equipment and had to turn back. On the third day we finally made it. There was no fire in the cabin, snow was blown over the door, the cellphone was dead. No Hiram. We did a full-scale search with helicopters and Rangers. We found his skidoo, but no Hiram. We haven’t found him yet. I feel responsible. I can’t figure out why he went out,” he says. He looks at me for a while then continues to smoke his cigarette.

After a while I ask, ‘Why are you still doing this?’ “What’s kept me going is not my virtue,” says the head of Canada’s last reindeer tribe. “I’m bull-headed and ignore people. Maybe if it weren’t for those character flaws I would have fallen through years ago. Reindeer herding is not rational. It’s a point of lifestyle and pride. It’s an affinity I’m cursed with, not blessed.”

(Originally published in Up Here magazine.)