From Almost-Doomed to Domesticated: Restoring the Alaskan Musk Ox
In mid September, after the rush of summer visitors was over, we visited the Musk Ox Farm in Palmer, Alaska. The green pastures looked like home except for the shaggy musk oxen grazing the fields. The farm is committed to both the long-term domestication of these animals and sustainable fiber agriculture. These oxen found a home on the former site of a Matanuska Colony Project farm. The Colony was a Depression era resettlement effort - a place that offered a fresh start to families from the upper Great Lakes states. At the very same time there was a similar fresh start for musk oxen in Alaska.
In the late 19th century, overhunting contributed to the complete loss of musk oxen in Alaska. Standing to face their enemies in a defensive circle was effective against predators but no match for armed hunters. In the 1930s, with Congressional support for both reestablishment and potential domestication, musk oxen from Greenland were first released on Nunivak Island and later on the mainland. Today, the worldwide population is estimated at 80,000 to 125,000, found primarily in Canada, with over 5,000 in Alaska.
The arctic anthropologist John J. Teal Jr. is the father of the musk ox domestication effort, beginning in Vermont in 1954, continuing later at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, and finally under the non-profit Musk Ox Development Corporation in Palmer. Rather than importing domestic animals, Teal believed it was more desirable to utilize an indigenous animal well suited to the land and environment. In 1969, he also organized the Oomingmak Musk Ox Producer’s Cooperative to sell knitted items made by native Alaskans living in remote villages. The Large Animal Research Station (LARS) at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, still continues its research into the behavior and biology of musk oxen, as well as reindeer, and caribou.
As we walked the farm, coming face to face with the oxen, staff member Cole Harmon patiently answered all our questions. Cole did need to remind us more than once not to crouch down since we would then resemble a wolf. Adult oxen will defiantly charge and head butt a predator; however, we were struck overall with how at home the musk oxen appear. Remarkably they are contained in typical wire mesh fencing, and it is obvious they are handled kindly. Selection continues towards a gentler animal. In summer, the oxen eat valley grasses and browse as they would in the wild, supplemented with grain. Divided into different age and sex groups, the springtime babies were frankly adorable.
As the farm says – “the musk ox is not an ox and it doesn’t produce musk.” The more appropriate name is oomingmak, Inupiaq for the bearded one. The oomingmak is more closely related to goats or sheep than cattle or bison. Well adapted to arctic conditions with their stout bodies and short legs, they are almost completely covered with long guard and skirt hair and the valuable insulating undercoat called qiviut in the Inupiat language. During their first winter, young calves seek warmth under the dense skirts of their mothers. A fully-grown male stands 4-5 feet tall and weighs up to 1000 pounds. Both sexes have horns, although they are trimmed or tipped for safety at the farm.
Qiviut is shed naturally each spring and can be gathered from where it catches on bushes or on the ground. On the farm, the valuable qiviut is gently combed out in several sessions. There have been attempts to farm musk ox elsewhere, but they have not yet proven profitable just for their raw fiber. Cole also explained that they don’t cope well with sudden hot temperatures, limiting them primarily to northern climates. There also can be legal obstructions to private ownership of wild animals.
In Storey’s The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook; More Than 200 Fibers, from Animal to Spun Yard, Deborah Robson and Carol Ekarius describe qiviut (pronounced kee-vee-ute) as silvery gray to light gray-brown in color with no crimp, grease, or fiber memory. It also has no scales, which means it will not felt, shrink, or scratch. Reportedly 8 times warmer than wool by weight, qiviut is a superfine fiber softer and finer than cashmere, second only to vicuna as the most rare and expensive fiber. Farmed qiviut measures 14 to 16.5 microns, which is 2-3 microns lower than wild oxen. Qiviut quality also doesn’t significantly decline with age or differ between the sexes. An adult produces 6 to 8 pounds per year before cleaning and processing.
Like cashmere, qiviut needs to be dehaired of long guard hair either by hand or machine. An intermediate fine hair can’t be removed by commercial equipment. The intermediate hair can be left in the fiber or further dehaired for a very soft and pure qiviut. Although bleaching weakens the fiber, color can be over-dyed, creating natural subtle shades. Qiviut is usually knitted into softly draping items such as hats, scarves, or hooded nachaq or smoke rings worn around the neck. It can be extended or diversified by blending it with fine fibers such as cashmere, alpaca, Angora rabbit, silk, or very fine wool.
“Ah, qiviut,” Deborah Robson exclaims, “Amazing stuff. Lightweight, soft, warm. I have a qiviut gaiter - it's not even 100% qiviut, but mixed with silk - that weighs about a half-ounce. What's most wonderful about it is that in cold weather I can pull it up over my nose and mouth and breath through it - and there is no condensation to deal with! It's THE BEST in winter.”
The Oomingmak Musk Ox Producer’s Co-Operative purchases qiviut from the Musk Ox farm and wild animals harvested in Canada, processing it into natural brown yarn for its 250 members. The women knit with a different traditional pattern in each village. The Musk Ox Farm and LARS also have yarn and other products available for sale. For more information on the native communities, traditions, musk oxen, and the use of qiviut, I recommend Arctic Lace; Knitting Projects and Stories Inspired by Alaska’s Native Knitters by Donna Druchunas
If you visit Alaska - whether you are a fiber or animal lover - it is well worth a visit to both the farm and the store, both completely dependent on the support of their visitors and supporters. Sustainable northern agriculture is certainly a worthy goal. Domestication itself is a long process and a journey few animal species have actually made, but the future of wild musk oxen is also uncertain with the changes of climate and development. And I can attest, qiviut is simply the softest and lightest fiber I’ve had the pleasure to handle.
The Musk Ox Farm www.muskoxfarm.org
Oomingmak Musk Ox producers’ Co-Operative www.qiviut.com
Large Animal Research Station www.uaf.edu/lars/
All photos by author. All rights reserved. Do not copy or reproduce without permission.