Experts say that musk oxen accompanied the woolly mammoth across the Bering land bridge straight into Pleistocene North America, but unlike their massive traveling companions, the heavy-coated oxen are still here to talk about it. One might wonder how any prehistoric animal could survive the ages. Part of the answer lies in the musk ox’s unique adaptation to live where relatively few competitors or predators dare – where temperatures can dip to minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Surviving cold like that can be a bit of a trick. For the musk ox, called oomingmak or “bearded one” by Native Alaskans, it’s all about an undercoat called qiviut (pronounced KIH-vee-ute). But it wasn’t always so easy.
Survival of the musk ox (Ovibos moschatus) to the 1800s was no problem, but they then were hunted to near extinction by the 1850s. Luckily some animals survived in Greenland and, with a bit of governmental intervention and the hard work of forward-thinking conservationists, musk oxen once again thrive in Alaska and Canada. One healthy herd resides at the historically significant Musk Ox Farm, established in 1964 as part of a renewed domestication effort in Alaska.
Farming for fleece
In the 1930s, an Alaskan project to domesticate musk oxen from Greenland was attempted, but it failed, and the remaining animals were released on Nunivak Island where the herd turned wild. In 1964, anthropologist John Teal captured 33 calves from the Nunivak Island herd and established his Musk Ox Farm in Unakaleet, later moving it to a location near Talkeetna. Teal succeeded at his goal to domesticate the musk ox for its qiviut.
The Musk Ox Farm relocated to Palmer about 20 years ago. Palmer is situated in the Matanuska Valley in the central part of the state. George Palmer established the town as a trading post along the Matanuska River. In 1935, more than 200 farming families from the Midwest relocated to the valley with dreams of developing the area’s agricultural prospects. This Midwestern migration was part of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration’s New Deal program, which was designed to help alleviate rampant unemployment. Some of the buildings still in use at the farm were built by those Midwestern families.
Today, the Musk Ox Farm annually hosts nearly 25,000 tourists who come to see how the unusual arctic animals live and to see firsthand how the musk ox helps the Alaskan economy thrive.
Each spring, the musk ox at the Musk Ox Farm shed their qiviut. This extremely soft wool, eight times warmer than sheep’s wool, is collected by combing as it pushes through the animals’ dark outer hair.
Qiviut grows from every part of the musk ox, including face, belly, ears, hooves and under the horns. “They don’t shed the qiviut all at once,” says herd manager Sandy Belk. “Qiviut can grow up to 6 inches thick, so we have to comb them several times each spring.” A mature musk ox produces about 6 pounds of qiviut per year.
Qiviut is hidden by the musk ox’s outer hair, called “guard hair.” On a mature male’s face, guard hair can touch the ground, giving them a wild and woolly look. Guard hair also provides a skirting and mane for the musk ox that offers added protection against cold temperatures. “The animals would not live long without guard hair,” Belk says.
Amanda Kristinat, the Musk Ox Farm gift shop and tour manager, encourages visitors to slip their hands between two layers of qiviut she keeps at the front desk. The heat one feels inside the fiber gives an idea of how the beasts survive months of below-freezing weather.
At the end of each summer season, bagged qiviut is purchased by the Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers’ Coop-erative in Anchorage, where it is accumulated until sufficient quantity exists to ship to a cashmere spinner. The resulting yarn is distributed to more than 250 women throughout the state to be knitted into beautiful stoles, hats, headbands and head coverings called nachaqs (pronounced no-shuks). Qiviut’s taupe color combined with lacy knitting patterns produces elegant garments that can be worn even in moderate temperatures.
Each knitter creates garments with standard designs unique to her village. “The patterns usually have a historical reference to the villages,” Kristinat says. “They can include traditional symbols used in beadwork designs.”
The women send the completed garments back to Oomingmak, which pays for the work.
Oomingmak then sells the garments to tourists from its location in Anchorage. The money Oomingmak earns is used to purchase more qiviut from the Musk Ox Farm and helps to run the business. “We are separate business people, but we help each other,” says Marie Texter, manager of Oomingmak.
The symbiotic arrangement of the ancient musk ox producing a product used to create delicate garments, which in turn contribute to the Alaskan economy with their sales, is somewhat complex. But Belk says that is part of the mystique of the musk ox. “They are docile, yet wild beasts,” she says. “We still get our toes stepped on.”
Visit the Musk Ox Farm’s Web site at www.MuskOxFarm.org.