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Sami historian visits Cama-i to share reindeer herding history and reconnect with relatives

Cherie Biddle discusses Sámi connections to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta at the 2023 Cama-i Dance Festival on March 25, 2023 in Bethel, Alaska.
MaryCait Dolan
Cherie Biddle discusses Sámi connections to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta at the 2023 Cama-i Dance Festival on March 25, 2023 in Bethel, Alaska.

Visitors from all over Alaska traveled to Bethel for Cama-i in late March. Many have family ties in the region, but some of those ties came about in unusual ways.

Cherie Biddle is Yup’ik and Sámi, the Indigenous people of northern Scandinavia. She traveled to Cama-i from Anchorage to dance, but she was also invited to share the story of her Sámi heritage and the reindeer herds that brought that side of her family to the region more than a century ago.

“My grandpa, Tim Twitchell, was born here. My mom is Lois Stover. She was born in Akiak, but this is my first time,” Biddle said during the festival. “So I'm always blessed when I have that opportunity to share the Sámi story.”

Presenting on the stage during Cama-i wearing a traditional blue Sámi dress, leather snow boots, and a red shawl and bonnet, Biddle asked if anyone there was descended from her grandfather. She grew up mainly on Kodiak Island, far from where her mother’s side of the family comes from.

“It would be nice to reconnect with that side of the family,” Biddle said.

Biddle’s great-grandparents immigrated to the region from Norway in 1898 as part of the Alaska Reindeer Project, a plan to teach reindeer herding to Alaska Native people as a means of subsistence.

At the time, an influx of non-Native people to Western Alaska for whaling and other industries had decimated traditional food sources like caribou. Reindeer, a domesticated relative of caribou, were viewed not only as a sustainable food source, but as a potential economic benefit to Alaska Natives.

“It was a beautiful experience because it was Indigenous people from one country coming to teach our Indigenous people. And they blended well,” Biddle said. “They came from a cold, harsh climate to Alaska that can be cold and harsh in the wintertime.”

The original Sámi immigrants overcame starvation and difficult terrain in the early years, eventually growing the size of the herds to the point where there were over 600,000 reindeer in Alaska by the 1920s.

Still, challenges remained, including the fact that caribou would regularly absorb reindeer into their wild herds. These mixed descendants can still be seen in parts of Western Alaska today. Then, a political decision abruptly brought an end to the Sámi’s role in the industry.

“In 1937, the Reindeer Act was a law that allowed only Native people to have the reindeer,” Biddle explained. “But that was a problem because they did not grandfather the Sami, who were the kind of mentors and trainers that really knew how to manage large herds of reindeer.”

Today, reindeer still remain in parts of Alaska, but very few descendants of the Sámi herders live in the state.

“Some went back to Norway after the Reindeer Act when they could not herd anymore,” Biddle said. “They were allowed to herd if they married an Alaska Native person. And that's kind of the love story of how my grandpa and grandma met.”

Timothy Twitchell, who was part Yupik, married Anna Spein, the daughter of Sami reindeer herders.

It took a long time for Biddle to reconnect with her Sami roots. A 2008 trip to Norway with other descendants of the original group allowed her to meet family still in the original homeland of the Sami and learn more about the culture.

“It's important, I think, for everybody to know who you are culturally. And that you have something important to share with the world and to be proud of,” Biddle said.

But what about Biddle’s other goal, to reconnect with family members in Bethel?

On the final day of Cama-i, she said she’d been introduced to three people related to her grandfather and had spoken to more on the phone. She left satisfied and looking forward to returning to Bethel in the future to continue reconnecting with her roots.