In 1914 Carl Lomen and his two brothers appeared upon the scene. The brothers Lomen recognized a good deal when they saw one and began buying reindeer from the Eskimos as fast as the government gave the animals away. In practically no time at all they owned the largest herd in the territory and employed Eskimos—hunters though they might be—to care for them. By the 1930s the herd had increased to 250,000. The Lomen family had a solid corner on the reindeer market and a meat-and-fur business that was making money faster than it could be banked. This was good for the Lomens, but a minor help to the Eskimos.
In September 1937 Congress passed a bill making it illegal for white men to own reindeer in Alaska. The territorial government then bought up the Lomens' reindeer for $6.50 a head and started all over again trying to give them away to the Eskimos. The new generation was no more enthusiastic about the idea than its predecessors had been.
From time to time an atypical Eskimo gave herding a halfhearted try, but usually failed without the knowledge and direction of experienced managers like the Lomens. In the less than three decades since the Reindeer Act was passed, the U.S. Government has spent more than $3 million on reindeer. Besides Stalker, this investment has produced only 14 active reindeer herders from an Eskimo population that has grown to 22,300.
"At that rate," says John Zumstein, "the government could have saved money by keeping those 15 Eskimos in The Waldorf-Astoria for life."
Reindeer have declined drastically during this period. There are now only about 40,000 reindeer left in Alaska. This figure varies depending upon the expert consulted, but whatever the actual count it is grotesquely low compared to the 600,000 animals of 30 years ago. If one considers that reindeer, when properly managed, normally double their numbers every three to five years, it is shocking.
So now Zumstein comes into the picture. Zumstein first started thinking about reindeer some 15 years ago, not in Alaska but, improbably, while vacationing in Los Angeles. The sight of crudely built papier-m�ch� reindeer at a Christmas pageant made him wonder why real animals were not used instead. On his way home to Oregon, he inquired at the San Francisco and Seattle zoos, neither of which had reindeer. He was told that no zoo in the U.S. had reindeer, because they were northern animals which could not survive in warmer climates. When Zumstein suggested that polar bears were northern animals, too, the experts shrugged. This was not good enough for Zumstein, who had 40 years of livestock farming behind him.
He wrote for a permit to buy several reindeer for export outside Alaska, where the prohibitions of the Reindeer Act do not apply. Nothing happened for two years. Then a letter came advising him to be in Alaska for the government's annual fall roundup.
John Zumstein had never actually seen a live reindeer when he arrived, in September 1951, at the little Eskimo village of Golovin, some 75 miles from Nome. He knew almost nothing about the animals, nor, he discovered, did anyone else know much more. He nevertheless looked over the herd, picked out the fastest and the best-antlered and set about roping 10 of them. It was dark when he finished, so he tied them up for the night. By morning, five of the deer were dead.
Zumstein managed to get the remaining reindeer from Nome to Seattle by plane, but on the truck trip from the airport three more of the animals died. By the time he reached his home in Redmond all Zumstein had to show for an expedition that had cost him $10,000 was two sick deer.
"Anyone with sense would have quit there," Zumstein says, "but my dad, who was a smart old Swiss, used to say the only time quitting made sense was when you weren't learning anything. Well, I'd sure learned one thing on that trip. Never tie up a wild animal. I figured it was an important enough lesson to warrant another $10,000."