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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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A zoologist, a Presbyterian and reindeer

The story of the Lutheran church on Alaska’s Seward Peninsula begins with a zoologist, a Presbyterian and a herd of reindeer.

The zoologist, Charles H. Townsend, worked for the U.S. Fish Commission in Alaska after the territory was purchased from Russia in 1867. In a report to Congress in 1885, he suggested bringing domestic reindeer to Alaska, noting that the Chukchi people across the Bering Strait in Siberia husbanded the animals successfully.

The Presbyterian, Sheldon Jackson, was an early missionary to Alaska. In 1890, after visiting Eskimo villages all along the Bering Sea, Jackson began promoting the idea of reindeer herding to Congress, the U.S. public and the church community. He saw it as a way to improve food supplies in the region and assist indigenous people with adaptation to the encroaching capitalist economy.

In 1892, 171 Siberian reindeer were delivered to Port Clarence on the Seward Peninsula, along with four Siberian herders who were hired to train their Eskimo neighbors.

But cultural differences— and perhaps rivalries—between the Siberian and Alaskan Eskimos led to problems, prompting Jackson to advertise in Scandinavian newspapers in the United States for Sami (or Lapp, as they were then known) reindeer herders. William Kjellmann, a Norwegian herder who had emigrated to Madison, Wis., was hired. He procured the services of Norwegian Sami reindeer herders, who were willing to travel to Alaska on one condition—that a Lutheran pastor be provided. In 1894 Kjellman accompanied five Sami families and two single men from northern Norway across the Atlantic, across the United States, and north to the Seward Peninsula.

In St. Paul, Minn., Tollef Larson Brevig, a Lutheran pastor, and his wife, Julia, and their infant son joined the group. From 1894 to 1908 and 1913 to 1917, Brevig served as a pastor and teacher at the first government school in what is now called Brevig Mission (which recently lost its church and parsonage in a fire). Brevig and his wife were instrumental in developing Lutheran ministry throughout the Seward Peninsula, including the establishment of an orphanage during the measles epidemic of 1900.

Brevig’s wife and two children are buried in Brevig Mission’s cemetery, all three having died by 1908. From Brevig Mission, the Lutheran ministry spread across the Seward Peninsula to Teller, Shishmaref, Nome and Wales. Today these five congregations, plus the Alaska Native Lutheran Congregation in Anchorage, form the Seward Peninsula Lutheran Ministry. Support comes from local churches, mission partners in the “Lower 48” and the ELCA Division for Outreach. (For more information about the Seward ministry and the endowment, see www.onewheel.org.)

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