Resource

Life Story: Changunak “Sinrock Mary” Antisarlook (1870–1948)

Reindeer Herder and Translator

The story of an Indigenous reindeer herd owner who became the wealthiest woman in Alaska.

Changunak Antisarlook

“Image of Mary Antisarlook,” in Sheldon Jackson’s Eleventh Annual Report on Introduction of Domestic Reindeer into Alaska, 1901, 1902. U.S. Government Printing Office.

This video was created by the New-York Historical Society Teen Leaders in collaboration with the Untold project.

Changunak “Sinrock Mary” Antisarlook Andrewuk was born in 1870 in Alaska. Her mother was a member of the Inupiat, an Indigenous nation in Alaska, and her father was from Russia. Russian settlers colonized Alaska in the 18th century. The United States purchased Alaska from the Russians in 1867. 

Changunak grew up on an island called St. Michael off the Alaskan coast. St. Michael was an important trading post. Russian traders continued to go to the island after Alaska became part of the United States. Many Russian merchants fathered children with Indigenous Alaskan women. The merchants did not usually settle in Alaska, and many of these children, including Changunak, grew up without their fathers.

Visitors from many different backgrounds traveled through the trading post at St. Michael. In addition to the Russian traders, there were American whalers, bootleggers, and missionaries. Because Changunak grew up in this diverse community, she spoke fluent English and Russian in addition to her native Inupiat by the time she was a teenager. She mastered many different dialects of Inupiat as well.

Changunak’s mother taught her valuable skills from the Inupiat people. Changunak learned how to sew and tan animal hides and how to get food from fishing, hunting, gathering, and harvesting crops. 

In 1889, Changunak married Charlie Antisarlook. Charlie was a successful Inupiat trader. She and Charlie moved to Cape Nome on the Seward Peninsula of Alaska. There they met Captain Michael A. Healy. Healy commanded a ship called the Bear, which patrolled Northwest Alaska. They also met Sheldon Jackson, who was the General Agent of Education of the Alaska Territory. In this position, he was in charge of establishing schools across the territory. Because Changunak and Charlie spoke English and Inupiat, Captain Healy asked them to assist in completing the census in northwest Alaska.

Jackson strongly believed that Indigenous Alaskans should be Americanized. He forbade them from speaking their native languages and required teachers to only speak English in schools. His policies led to a significant decline in native Alaskan languages, some of which are still not spoken today.

The Inupiat lived in houses made of driftwood and whalebone. Healy and Jackson were shocked by these living conditions. They were also concerned that the whaling industry had killed so many whales that the Indigenous people of Alaska could no longer rely on them as a food source. 

The assumptions Healy and Jackson made were wildly inaccurate and showed little understanding of the actual lives of people in Alaska. The Indigenous people of Alaska primarily hunted fish and seals not whales. In the late 1800s, their population was steadily increasing.

Changunak’s mother taught her valuable skills from the Inupiat people. Changunak learned how to sew and tan animal hides and how to get food from fishing, hunting, gathering, and harvesting crops.

Healy and Jackson brought reindeer from Siberia to Alaska as the solution to the perceived challenges faced by the Inupiat. They invited Changunak to travel with them as a translator. In this role, Changunak was able to advocate for her people. In Siberia, Changunak played an important role in making a deal between the Americans and Russian reindeer herders. 

After securing the reindeer from Siberia, the men brought the reindeer to Alaska where they planned to teach Inupiat people to be reindeer herders. They believed the reindeer would provide a reliable source of food. The government opened a reindeer station near Teller for this purpose. Changunak and Charlie worked at the station and helped process over 1,300 reindeer during the first four years of the operation. As a reward, the American government gave them a herd of 500 reindeer. They were the first Indigenous Alaskans to own a reindeer herd.

Changunak and Charlie cared for their herd in a small settlement in Sinuk called Sinrock. This is where Changunak received her nickname “Sinrock Mary.” The name Mary was probably a name she adopted when she started working with Captain Healy. 

In 1900, a measles epidemic in Alaska caused the loss of many lives. Charlie was one of the victims. Changunak wanted to keep the reindeer herd. In Inupiat tradition, the property of her husband would have been awarded to his brothers. However, under American law, Changunak inherited the herd.

Changunak grew her reindeer herd and eventually became the wealthiest woman in Alaska. She sold reindeer meat to the U.S. Army and to local businesses.

However, it was challenging for Changunak to keep and maintain her reindeer herd. American settlers often tried to steal her animals. They wanted the reindeer for meat or to use them to carry loads from local mines. Changunak recognized that this was part of a larger conflict between American settlers and the Inupiat. Americans seized control of Inupiat people’s possessions, forced their children to speak English, and attempted to suppress their cultural traditions. The American settlers also brought deadly diseases to Alaska, like the measles that killed Changunak’s husband.

In 1901, Changunak moved with her reindeer herd to Unalakleet. This move led to a lengthy dispute with an American man who accompanied her on the trip. He alleged that Changunak owed him money and took her to court. She argued that she had never hired him as a herder and that he just happened to be making the same journey. She also reported that he sold 80 of her reindeer without her permission, got her drunk, and stole her money. The jury ruled in Changunak’s favor.

After her arrival in Unalakleet, Changunak married Andrew Andrewuk, an Inupiat. They lived together until his death in 1918. 

In the last decades of her life, Changunak used her wealth to support her community. She helped feed and provide shelter for people in need. The measles epidemic left many children orphans. She adopted eleven orphaned children and taught them the traditions of the Inupiat and how to care for reindeer. She became known as the “Reindeer Queen” or “Queen Mary.” Changunak died in 1948.

Vocabulary

  • bootleggers: People who make or sell goods illegally.
  • measles: A highly contagious and deadly disease that causes fever and a skin rash.
  • missionaries:  People who promote Christianity.
  • whalers: Sailors who hunt and kill whales.

Discussion Questions

  • How did representatives of the U.S. government and white settlers view the Inupiat? How did the United States’s attempts to “civilize” the Inupiat shape Changunak’s life?
  • How did Changunak gain her wealth? What challenges did she face in keeping it?
  • How did Changunak use her wealth to support her community?

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