The Queen of Reindeer

The remarkable story of Mary Makriko

[by Laurel Bill]

THE QUEEN OF REINDEER, AS SHE WOULD LATER BE CALLED, was born in 1870 as Mary Makriko to an Inupiat Eskimo mother and a Russian father who was a trader on the Seward Peninsula. Raised in St. Michael on the southern shore of Alaska’s Norton Sound, Mary lived in a village that became the staging point for supplies bound for interior trade on the Lower and Middle Yukon River and a gathering place for large numbers of Alaska Natives who traded furs for European goods.

In 1889, Mary met and married Inupiat Charlie Antisarlook, and the couple moved to Sinrock, near Cape Nome. Soon after, the reindeer came into her life. Serving as a translator for Capt. Michael A. Healy on board the U.S. Revenue Service Cutter, Bear, she found the vessel laden with reindeer in transport from Siberia to Alaska. Healy, the first African-American to command a ship for the U.S. government, was one of several captains patrolling the waters of western Alaska who were concerned for the wellbeing of Alaska Natives living in villages along the Bering Sea, whose livilihoods had been decimated by the departure of the whalers. Healy believed he could teach Alaska’s Native people how to raise reindeer with the same success he’d seen firsthand with the Chukchi Natives of eastern Siberia.

So Healy brought reindeer and Siberian herding instructors to the Teller Reindeer Station at Port Clarence, about 72 miles northwest of Nome, without realizing that the Siberian Chukchi herders were longtime rivals of the Inuipiat.  The experiment failed. Still, two years later, Healy tried again.  This time he brought several Scandinavian families, herding dogs, and sleds over to teach the Inupiat instead. 

This group taught the Inupiat the skills of reindeer husbandry, how to lasso and harness the animals and how to make the reindeer work as draft animals, pulling sleds.  The Laplanders also showed the Inupiat how to milk the reindeer and make cheese, as well as how to make glue from the animals’ hooves.

Mary’s husband apprenticed in the program, and, after successfully completing his training, was given a few animals of his own. Charlie and Mary assisted the U.S. government with its reindeer herds and grew the population of their herd to 500, until a catastrophic epidemic swept across parts of Alaska during the summer of 1900, and Charlie died from measles.

“Mary, a large, imposing woman with dark curly hair and a traditional Inupiat tattoo on her chin, didn’t budge.”

After his death, Mary fought hard to keep her reindeer. Because she was an Alaska Native and a woman, her brothers-in-law asserted she couldn’t own property. After a lengthy legal battle, she won the right to keep half the herd. 

The tide again turned in her favor following a gold discovery that brought thousands of miners into Nome. By July 1899, almost every potentially valuable claim had been jumped at least twice. 

Then gold was discovered in the sands of Nome’s beaches. Known as the “poor man’s gold rush,” the discovery of gold along dozens of miles along Nome’s coast meant anyone could work the public property without staking or recording claims. 

Thousands more poured into Nome during the spring of 1900 on steamships from San Francisco and Seattle. Soon a tent city stretched along the treeless coastline for 30 miles, from Cape Nome to Cape Rodney. Twenty thousand hungry men camped out next to Mary’s once-small village.

Mary seized the opportunity. She sold her reindeer meat to the miners, as well as to the U.S. Army station and the multitude of stores springing up.

Her successful reindeer-meat business soon made her the richest Alaska Native woman in the North. With money came unwanted notoriety. She constantly dodged gold-rush prospectors (men desperate to steal her reindeer to use as food and for pack animals), as they followed her across the tundra.

When she refused to give them the animals, the men called her names and shot at the reindeer to scatter the herd. Mary, a large, imposing woman with dark curly hair and a traditional Inupiat tattoo on her chin, didn’t budge.

So the miners tried to court Mary, offering her money, liquor and even marriage so they could gain control of her herd. Mary successfully fought off the prospectors’ advances, but fed up with the miners’ threats and uninvited attentions, Mary moved with her herd to Unalakleet in 1901.

A year later, she married Andrew Andrewuk, an Inupiat who had no interest in her reindeer. Mary tended her herd for many years, and eventually grew it to more than 1,500 animals before she died in 1948.

While she was successful multiplying her reindeer herd, Mary never had offspring of her own. She did adopt 11 children, though, and taught them, as well as Inupiat men, to care for reindeer. Many of her children grew up to have herds of their own. And so the Queen of Reindeer left behind a legacy of compassion, generosity and friendship. People still tell stories about how she shared her wealth in the Eskimo way.

Author Laurel Downing Bill loves sharing stories from the Last Frontier’s colorful past.