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Home  >  Digital Archives  >  People of the North  >  Native Lives and Traditions
Sinrock Mary: Mary Antisarlook
By Tricia Brown Page 1 of 2   Next ยป

Mary Antisarlook was given the name Changunak in 1870, when she was born to an Iñupiaq mother and Russian father, a trader on the Seward Peninsula. But by the early 1900s, she became known as Sinrock Mary, Queen of Reindeer, a nickname she would carry for the rest of her life.

Changunak grew up in St. Michael at the mouth of the Yukon River, where the Iñupiaq people saw much interaction with foreigners: whalers, missionaries, gold miners, traders, Russian and English speakers alike. She was fluent in those languages as well as in her Native language. In St. Michael, Mary married an Iñupiaq man, Charley Antisarlook, in 1889 and the couple moved to Cape Nome.

As a young woman, Mary served as a translator on the U.S. Revenue Cutter Bear, with Captain Michael A. Healy at the helm, when the vessel was used to transport reindeer from Siberia to Alaska. Healy and others believed the imported animals would thrive in Alaska, providing meat and income for the Native people. Government officials established reindeer stations at various locations, and although the first dozen imported reindeer did not survive, those from subsequent trips did, and their numbers grew. Following an apprenticeship program, Charley Antisarlook received a few animals of his own and managed his herd at a place called Sinrock. He and Mary adopted several children and worked the reindeer herd together.

A reference to Sinrock Mary appeared in a January 1894 letter written by Ellen Kittredge Lopp, the wife of teacher and reindeer station manager Tom Lopp. She described a quiet Sunday in January when her husband and 10 herders had gone to move the herd. While they were absent, several households gathered into one, with one man, four boys, women and children together for the remainder of the winter -- with the exception of one woman. "The woman from the other house [Mary Antisarlook] was going to come," wrote Ellen Lopp, "as her husband has gone herding, but her husband was afraid she would get into trouble with some of the other women. She is half Russian, talks English, and is too much like an American." Five months later, on May 2, Mary served as Ellen's midwife when she delivered a baby boy named Dwight. Ellen wrote her mother about the birth. "I let the woman I had planned to have with me go fishing at about nine o'clock because I wasn't sure enough she would be needed to keep her. He was born at one. The woman I did have, Mary Antisarlook, did better, for she knows more of American ways. She was troubled because I didn't put on a tight belt and let her help me by pressing with her hands as the Eskimos do." (A collection of Ellen Lopp's letters from Cape Prince of Wales was published in 2001 as Ice Window: Letters from a Bering Strait Village: 1892-1902.)

In the winter of 1897-98, when eight whaling ships were trapped in the sea ice near Point Barrow, the Antisarlooks were part of a mission to deliver food to the starving crew members. The "Overland Relief Expedition" was organized by Lt. David H. Jarvis, who contracted with Mary and Charley for their animals, promising that the government would replace their number plus extra to account for the fawns that would have been born that spring. Charley accompanied the men who drove the reindeer north to Barrow.

In 1900, the couple's herd had grown to 500 head when Charley succumbed to the measles epidemic. As a woman and a Native, either of which would disqualify Mary from owning property, she had to fight to keep her half of the herd. A tenacious person, Mary was successful in her battle and held her assets, which eventually increased into the largest herd in the North. Eventually she became one of the richest women in Alaska.

With the discovery of gold on the beaches of Nome, the area was inundated with miners as thousands poured into the region. Sinrock Mary saw the effect of disease and unlawful activity on her people. And while she welcomed the miners' business and the friendship of some, Mary constantly had to protect her herd from those who wanted the animals to haul loads or to take them for food.

A savvy businesswoman, Sinrock Mary sold meat to local businesses and the Army station, and made her own fortune during Nome's gold rush. In 1901, she moved her herd to Unalakleet, where she married again. Her second husband, Andrew Andrewuk, was an Iñupiaq, but unlike her first husband, he was not interested in participating in the reindeer-herding business. Nonetheless, Mary trained some of her children and many other Iñupiaq men as reindeer herders.

This key figure in the history of Alaska remains a hero to many, remembered for her tenacity, generosity, and friendship. She died in 1948.

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Gallery of Images
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Herd of reindeer of N[orth]w[est] Alaska
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Reindeer Committee with Esther Oliver, Sinrock Mary, Mrs. Willie Aconran with children, Clyde and Pauline, Kliktarek [sic] corral
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Reindeer herder Sinrock Mary
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Mary Antisarlook

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