Remembering 'The Arctic Moses' | Viking Fest

Three Alaska Native boys with a reindeer, in an undated photo from the National Archives. Anders, or Andrew, Bahr of Poulsbo delivered a herd of reindeer across the Alaskan Arctic to help supplement the Inuvialuit subsistence economy.                         - National Archives
Three Alaska Native boys with a reindeer, in an undated photo from the National Archives. Anders, or Andrew, Bahr of Poulsbo delivered a herd of reindeer across the Alaskan Arctic to help supplement the Inuvialuit subsistence economy.
— image credit: National Archives

POULSBO —  Anders Bahr’s gravestone at Poulsbo Municipal Cemetery gives no indication that this is the final resting place of a Sami reindeer herder who helped save the lives of countless Alaska Natives in the 1920s.

The marble headstone contains the names of Bahr and his wife, Marith, the years of their births and deaths, and this Bible verse, “And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire. Rev. 20-15.”

What isn’t described is how Bahr came to be known as “The Arctic Moses.”

Bahr was born in 1872 in Kautokeino, Norway. He was Sami, the indigenous people of the Arctic region of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia’s Kola Peninsula. He was a skilled reindeer herder, and arrived in Alaska in 1898, according to the local history book, “The Spirit of Poulsbo.” He herded reindeer in Eaton Station at Unalakleet and mined gold near Nome.

Then, in 1929, the Canadian government initiated a project to deliver reindeer to the Inuvialuit people to bolster their subsistence economy. The Canadian government bought 3,442 Alaskan reindeer from the Lomen Corporation, Bahr’s former employer. The company asked Bahr, now 60 and living in Seattle, to take the reindeer from Nabaktoolik, Alaska to Kittigazuit, Northwest Territories.

“The Canadian Reindeer Project is to take 18 months, but it becomes known as ‘The Great Trek’ when the 1,200-mile reindeer drive stretches into a perilous five-year journey,” according to the International Sami Journal. “Severe weather, high mountain ranges, ravenous wolves, and supply shortages contribute to constant delays and the death of many reindeer.”

Despite all challenges, Bahr accomplished the journey.

Poulsbo resident Norma Hanson couldn’t recall exactly why her grandfather’s nephew — or second cousin — went on the trek. The Canadian government needed the reindeer herd moved to the Northwest Territories, Bahr was the best at the job, and it's possible he wanted the work. “I guess he was very fond of reindeer,” Hanson said at her Poulsbo home.

Hanson met her relative when she was a child, but didn’t know of his accomplishment earlier in life.

“I had no idea,” she said. “Absolutely none.”

Hanson said she didn’t know she or Bahr were Sami until later in life, learning of her indigenous roots after her grandparents died.

“They never talked about the Sami — in front of us kids, anyway,” Hanson said. “There were a lot around here.”

The Sami traditionally live in the northernmost parts of Finland, Sweden and Norway, known now as Sapmi. But Sami were denied many rights in those countries and experienced a forced assimilation policy similar to the Native Americans.

In the late 1800s, when the U.S. was experiencing mass European immigration, many Sami were recorded as Norwegian, Finnish or Swedish and didn’t correct that identification.

Hanson’s grandfather was one of those immigrants who hid his Sami roots. Her grandfather was Mikkel Anderson Bahr, who moved from Norway to Minnesota in the 1880s. After meeting his wife, who was from southern Norway, the family moved to Poulsbo around 1915. Hanson grew up with Norwegian traditions, on family land off Liberty Road in West Poulsbo.

Hanson is featured in a book about Sami descendants in the United States, “We Stopped Forgetting,” by Ellen Marie Jensen.

Bahr and his adventure are detailed in many writings, including “Arctic Exodus: The Last Great Trail Drive,” by Dick North.

Today, the Sami culture is enjoying a renaissance and Sami people have their own congress. Feb. 6, 2012 marked the 20th anniversary of Sami National Day, in recognition of the resolution passed at the 15th Sami congress in Helsinki.

Poulsbo is a sister city of Kautokeino, which is considered by many the cultural capital of the Sami and home to several prominent Sami educational and artistic institutions, according to Poulsbo Mayor Backy Erickson. Some Sami stayed in Alaska, some returned home to Scandinavia. And some moved to other parts of the U.S., including Poulsbo, to join other Sami who had settled here. Many of these families were early residents of the City of Poulsbo.

Though it’s unclear exactly why early Sami settlers moved to Poulsbo, one reference says a “local descendent surmised it may have been the influence of Johan Ulrik Xavier, president of Pacific Lutheran College, whose ancestry also stems from Kautekeino.”

Back to Andrew Bahr: In 1935, he returned to the area and married Marith Rist in Poulsbo. He lived here until his death in 1945.


Above: The approximate route of the great reindeer drive from Napaktolik, Alaska, to Canada's Northwest Territories. Courtesy: Rangelands

Top: Anders, or Andrew, Bahr. NEA AcmePhoto

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