University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives
Rural Cooperatives, March/April 2000, pp. 4-6
Published by the Rural Business and Cooperative Development Service 

Fingers and needles: Alaskan co-op turns cashmere-soft musk ox wool into hard cash

By Pamela J. Karg



Soft yet sturdy. Thin but warm. That's how Sigrun Robertson describes the garments marketed by the Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers' Cooperative.

"Qiviut is similar to fine cashmere," explains Robertson. She has been with the cooperative since it began in 1969 and now seryes as its executive director. "And our members love working with this beautiful fiber to make beautiful products. They're artisans," she adds.

Mention musk oxen to most people in the lower 48 states, and their questioning eyebrows belie the fact they know little about this cousin to sheep and goats. But in the open tundra and well-vegetated terrain of Alaska, Canada and Greenland, this short-legged, massively built animal with broad, down-curving horns and an ankle-length outer coat is well known. Alaskan agriculture has helped the musk ox evolve into a sustainable enterprise. But it wasn't always that way.

Bringing the musk ox back

Musk oxen are neither oxen nor do they have glands to produce musk, and they resemble bison. While their fossils have been found as far south as Ohio and France, scientists believe musk oxen wandered across the Bering Straits on a narrow land bridge to North America nearly 2 million years ago. By the 1850s, though, they had been hunted to extinction in Alaska.

In the mid-1950s, a Conneticut native set out to prove that musk oxen could be domesticated and raised sustainably. The late John J. Teal Jr. returned from World War II as a decorated B-17 bomber command pilot in the European campaign. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in anthropology from Harvard and Yale, respectively. Teal had a research fellowship at McGill University in Montreal and was teaching at the University of Vermont when he established the Institute of Northern Agricultural Research, headquartered in Huntington, Vt. The NAR's primary project was to re-establish musk oxen in the United States. Teal captured his first animals during a Canadian expedition in 1954. Eventually, he established a herd for the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and managed it for many years.

Teal's premise was simple. Rather than introduce exotic animals such as cows or llamas to the Alaskan landscape, he wanted to develop a cottage industry around an animal or plant native to the region.

The ankle-length guard hairs take musk oxen four to six years to grow and are essential in protecting the animals against temperatures that can dip to 100 degrees below zero. But beneath that outer coat, Teal knew, is a light brown, soft, dense undercoat known as qiviut (pronounced kiv-eeute, meaning "down" or "underwool" in the Inupiat Eskimo language).

Eight times warmer than sheep wool by weight and very lightweight, qiviut is one of the finest natural fibers known to man and is often referred to as "the cashmere of the North." By domesticating the animal, native people learned the undercoat could be combed out, cleaned to capture the fine qiviut, spun into yarn and used to knit garments. Rather than raising musk oxen for meat and hides, the animal could provide a renewable resource throughout their lives, Teal was convinced.

Co-op starts with 25 members

The domestication of the musk ox and the start-up of the Oomingmak cooperative are tightly inter-woven. By 1969, enough qiviut had been converted to yarn to put it into production. The first 25 knitters were all from Mekoryuk, Alaska, located on Nunivak Island. They were encouraged to try the fiber and they enlisted as the cooperative's founding members. Research had shown qiviut was better suited to knitting than weaving, and knitting was a skill Eskimos had learned from missionaries. The fine needles required for the delicate patterns also meant less equipment and little financial investment, Robertson says.

The patterns were adopted from traditional village life and Eskimo culture —from 1,200-year-old artifacts to beadwork designs. The patterns were converted into graphic instructions easily understood by the older women, most of whom were not familiar with the complex written English instructions used in typical knitting patterns. Workshops were held so members could learn how to read the patterns and complete the lace-like stitches. More importantly, members learned how to handle qiviut.

"It's spun much finer than what you're used to with other yarns," Robertson explains.

After the first year, 27 knitters from Mekoryuk turned the qiviut into 291 scarves, stoles, tunics and nachaqs (which is now the cooperative's specialty item and means hat or hood in Eskimo. The nachaq, also called a smokering, is a seamless, tubular garment that can be worn as a hood or pulled down around the neck like an over-stuffed, yet decorative, turtle-neck accessory).

Almost immediately, large retailers such as Nieman-Marcus featured qiviut garments. But the large orders, often requiring special sizes and particular colors in a short amount of time, exceeded what the small cooperative could produce.

"In retrospect, perhaps it was overly ambitious to think that handknit qiviut garments could easily step into the fast and fickle world of fashion," Robertson reported in a paper presented at the First Arctic Ungulate Conference in Nuuk, Greenland, in 1991. "Instead, the qiviut garments have found their own particular market, one that can accept their peculiarities and appreciate their very special qualities."

Over 200-members strong

Originally, the plan was to wash and block garments in members' homes or to start washing and blocking cooperatives in nearby villages. As it turned out, sending the garments to the cooperative's office and store in downtown Anchorage is a way to ensure quality. Five employees, including Robertson, wash and block garments, as well as inspect them to assure they are as perfect as possible. They also work the retail store six days a week and fill orders received over the Internet (www.qiviut.com). The boldly painted musk oxen adorning the storefront have made the cooperative a popular shopping stop for visitors.

Today, over 200 knitter-members, ranging in age from pre-teens to octogenarians, own Oomingmak. Many are related or are close friends who helped each other get started knitting and into the cooperative. All are women, though men have been members in the past, and nearly all the members are Alaskan Eskimos, who work from home in villages ranging from 150 to 300 people.

The cooperative buys most of its qiviut from the herd Teal helped establish, now kept in the Matanuska Valley near Palmer and operated by the Musk Ox Development Corp. as a private nonprofit organization dedicated to the development and domestication of the musk ox. The cooperative contracts with a cashmere mill on the East Coast to wash, de-hair and spin the fine yarn. Up to 600 pounds—or hair from about 100 musk oxen—are required by the mill for each run.

Back in Alaska, the yarn is sent to members. There are no quotas to fill. Members determine how much they want to knit and at what pace based solely on the amount of money they need for their families. After the finished garment is sent to Anchorage, the member is paid. Seventy-five percent of the garments are sold directly from the cooperative to customers. Prices range from $95 for a bell-shaped Cloche cap without a cuff to $495 for a sleeveless, open-sided tunic that comes complete with a hand-braided qiviut belt. Twenty-percent of the garments are sold through a gift shop at the Musk Ox Farm.

In fiscal 1999, the cooperative's sales were $600,000. After expenses, members receive a dividend check based on the number of garments they marketed through Oomingmak.

"In spite of the co-op's relative success, it probably has not made much of a dent in the many problems of the region," Robertson says. "However, the co-op was created not to make great sweeping changes in the native culture (thereby creating new problems), but to help with problems within the traditional mode of life. This is not about making money hand-over-fist."

Challenges and opportunities

Problems facing Alaskan Natives are attributed to the introduction of European culture and its need for cash to buy ammunition, fuel, electricity, clothing, and even food, she explains. Before that, Eskimos led subsistence lifestyles and took or created from the natural resources everything they needed.

Over 26 percent of the 50,000 rural Alaskan Natives have incomes below federal poverty levels, compared to only 9 percent of non-native Alaskans. The problem is perpetuated by Alaskan Natives' isolation from the cash economy.

While most Oomingmak members live in the Yukon Kuskokwvim region, which can be reached only by air, their lifestyles now depend upon a blend of subsistence and capital enterprise. Most people fish, hunt and collect berries in season, and many men leave heir communities for months at a time to find jobs in larger cities.

Isolation makes running a cooperative challenging, too. The six-person board meets quarterly, after which members receive a newsletter with updates on board actions, calving, sales and what satisfied customers are saying. Repeatedly, members have to be reminded that Oomingmak is their cooperative and what that ownership means.

The education process will start anew this year because a new product line is being introduced. After months of research, the cooperative will market garments from a luxurious fiber of 80 percent qiviut and 20 percent silk. For the first time since 1976, a membership drive is planned in new communities in the Yukon Kuskokwim and Interior regions, and St. Lawrence Island, where some of the state's highest unemployment rates -18 to 63 percent- exist.

The cooperative took out a loan to buy Canadian qiviut for the new line. The mill the co-op uses will add silk from its existing stock. The cooperative applied for grants to cover staff recruitment time and travel, and new member training on both the knitting and cooperative ownership fronts.

"The cooperative has successfully been in business for 30 years, providing rural Alaskans an opportunity to work part time and earn cash income for their families," Robertson says.

"Expanding the membership will offer this same economic opportunity to women living in other economically depressed communities in the state."

Taking the loan to buy the Canadian fiber was a big step for directors, but necessary. When the 100-percent qivint yarn is plentiful, members are encouraged to knit more garments and they respond, filling the shop with plenty of goods. But then the yarn supply runs low and the stocks drop. By starting up the qiviut-silk line, the cooperative may be able to ease the problem, which occurs about every four years.

"I'm not sure what tomorrow's challenges will be," she adds. "But I do know they will center around fingers and needles," she adds.

The Musk Ox Farm continues Teal's work:

In the 1940s and 50s, wild musk oxen were a disaster or two away from extinction and the villages of coastal Alaska were some of the most impoverished in the world. Where others saw two utterly hopeless situations, John Teal's eyes sparkled and a vision was born.

In this windswept and inhospitable land, he saw an opportunity for Alaskan Natives to live together peaceably with this animal so both would thrive. After more than a decade of research, Teal started what came to be known as the Musk Ox Project. Supported by funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, as well as assistance from the University of Alaska and countless volunteers, the project started Alaska's first domestic musk ox farm in Fairbanks in 1964.

Today, the farm (www.muskoxfarm.org) is situated outside Palmer in the Matanuska Valley, about 50 miles from Anchorage. It's managed by the Musk Ox Development Corp., a private nonprofit organization dedicated to the development and domestication of the musk ox, Ovibos moschatus Teal's youngest son, Lansing, oversees its operations today, spending the greatest share of his days at the farm with the herd.

Every year, thousands of visitors stop by the farm during regular tour times offered from Mother's Day through late September. At the end of the summer, visitors anticipate the impressive dominance displays of rutting bulls in preparing for the breeding season.

The famous head smashing occurs between males vying for breeding privileges. Two males will engage in a ritualized display designed to intimidate each other, including pawing at the ground, walking stiff-legged, and aggressively swinging their massive horns. Following the displays, the bulls will face-off and back up about 100 feet before charging together at speeds close to 35 miles per hour. The head smashing may continue for up to a dozen times before one bull quits and submits to the other.

Several separate harems form in the fall. Each harem consists of one bull and a selected group of cows. Breeding lines are chosen to promote qiviut production, tameness, health and to avoid inbreeding. Following six weeks in harem, the cows are moved to a separate pasture and monitored throughout their eight-month gestation. Calves are born any time from mid-April to early May, and can weigh up to 25 pounds. They are born with a full coat of qiviut and boundless energy. The calves are the main attraction on opening day—Mother's Day —at the farm.

Tour fees in combination with foundation grants and private donations help the farm continue the mission John Teal began nearly 50 years ago.

"Perhaps the most meaningful support that the farm receives is the many entirely voluntary contributions made by the Friends of the Musk Ox, the public membership arm of the project," explains Lance Teal. "A wide variety of people have contributed to the project. From 'Herd Parent’ Alex Trebek of Jeopardy! fame to local volunteers lending a hand repairing fences and fixing hay feeders, donors and volunteers have remained integral to the success of our work."


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