Rumors and Reindeer

In the winter of 1962, Dr. W. O. Pruitt, Jr. alerted readers of Beaver magazine of a potential poison in the Western Arctic environment: radioactive reindeer. Given reported levels of strontium-90 and caesium-137 in the tissues of reindeer and Inupiat in Alaska, Pruitt inferred that fall-out would likely drift east, passing through the food chain from lichens to local residents in the Mackenzie Delta. Like the chemicals themselves, the news of Pruitt’s article traveled far and wide in the following months, attracting the attention of the Department of National Health and the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources—not for the details it contained, but because of the rumor it spawned.

Just a few months after Pruitt’s publication, a shocking account circulated around the Delta communities of Reindeer Station, Aklavik, and Inuvik: the Government of Canada was encouraging the consumption of contaminated reindeer meat in schools and hostels as an experiment on native northerners. Bureaucrats in Ottawa, so the tale went, were curious about the effects of radiation on the human body and native northerners were a perfect study sample. As a testament to the power of this rumor, the Superintendent of Game of the Northwest Territories reported in March, 1963 that residents of Inuvik and Aklavik had begun boycotting reindeer meat altogether

Rumors—whether in the past or present—often do not deserve our consideration of their truth. But this does not mean rumors have no value or impact. The presence of this rumor says something about the relationship between the Canadian Government and northern residents in the 1960s. Of course, the moment of the rumor coincided with the omnipresent fear of the nuclear era, the fervor of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and, more locally, the establishment of Inuvik. We will never know if the rumor was true, but the fact of its existence tells us Delta denizens did not trust The Powers that Be.

The rumor suggests something else: northerners had found a mechanism by which to negotiate the terms of their relationship with the Government. Sure, the rumor did not uncover a viscous plot to use Inuit, Gwich’in, and Metis as lab rats. But it did signal to Ottawa that their plans in and for the North no longer could be executed willy-nilly. Instead, governance should not exclude local people. By circulating an alarming story and changing consumption patterns, northerners consolidated the power of their voice and their dollar, letting the Government know that power existed. Soon after the Superintendent’s report, the Radiation Protection Division of the Department of Health and National Welfare authorized a study on radiation levels in Delta reindeer. Locals had effectively steered federal attention to the protection of their own interests.

This rumor was certainly no watershed moment in Northern history. However, it may be an early ripple in what became a wave of emotion, organization, and activism for local control of resources, heritage, and politics that built and crashed throughout the Northwest Territories in the 1960s and 1970s.

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