A baby girl born in 1865 would become the richest Native woman in the North and grow famous for her reindeer herd. Born to an Inupiaq Eskimo mother and a Russian trader father, Mary Makrikoff grew up in St. Michael on the southern shore of Alaska’s Norton Sound. Her mother called her Changunak.
Mary grew up speaking fluent Russian, English and Inupiaq. Her skills with these languages made her an invaluable resource for ship captains and government officials who traveled to her village.
In 1889 she met and married Charlie Antisarlook. The couple moved to Nome, which Mary found quite different from St. Michael. Later in life she said, “There were no people there (in Nome). Not any groceries, either. Their food wasn’t like what the Eskimos of St. Michael work hard to have.”
Her new life in Nome meant she had to learn how to live on “real simple food, like whale meat, seal oil, rabbits, and ptarmigan.” But the determined young woman did learn the subsistence ways and her family thrived.
Mary and Charlie lived in a settlement outside of Nome called Sinrock, where they helped the U.S. government with its reindeer herds. Years later, she and her husband became the first Natives to be given their own herd, numbering 500.
Charlie died during a measles epidemic in 1900. After his death, Mary fought hard to keep her reindeer. Because she was a Native woman, her brothers-in-law asserted that she couldn’t own property. But after a lengthy legal battle, she eventually won the right to keep her herd and became known as Reindeer Mary, as well as Sinrock Mary.
However, her good fortune brought problems. Gold rush prospectors started courting her, offering her money, liquor and even marriage so they could gain control of her herd. She finally got fed up with their uninvited attentions and left Nome.
Mary and her herd moved to Unalakleet. Over the years she increased her herd to 1,500 and sold reindeer meat to the U.S. Army, stores in St. Michael and to the miners. She eventually married Andrew Andrewuk, who had no interest in reindeer herding.
Mary never had any offspring of her own, but she did adopt 11 children. She taught them, as well as Inupiat men, to care for reindeer. And many of her children grew up to have herds of their own.When “Reindeer Mary” died in 1948, she left a legacy of compassion and generosity. People still tell stories about how she shared her wealth in the Eskimo way.