Inuit women in Alaska have been turning straw into gold for more than 30 years. Their "straw," however, is actually hair, musk ox hair, which has created some golden opportunities.
In the 1960s, Arctic natives faced debilitating poverty. Hunting and fishing no longer provided a living for families in remote villages, so the men had to leave their homes for summer jobs. Additional sources of income were desperately needed.
Anthropologist John J. Teal Jr. sympathized with the Inuit and wanted to find a way to use natural Arctic resources as a solution. He decided the musk ox was best suited to the purpose.
One of the Arctic's oldest living species, the musk ox thrives in Alaska's open tundra and well-vegetated terrain. It is not actually an ox, and it does not produce musk. Instead, it's a cousin to sheep and goats and most resembles a bison.
Scientists believe the short-legged, massively built animals wandered across the Bering Straits on a narrow land bridge to North America hundreds of thousands of years ago.
Over a period of 600,000 years, musk oxen developed ways to stay warm during long winter months. For example, ankle-length hairs protect the animals against severe sub-zero temperatures. Beneath that outer coat there's a soft but dense undercoat known as qiviut (pronounced KIV-ee-ute), meaning "down" or "underwool" in the Inuktitut, the Inupiat language.
Adult musk oxen shed from five to seven pounds of hair during spring, allowing harvesters to comb or pull large puffs of the downy wool from the oxen.
Eight times warmer than sheep's wool 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."
In order to domesticate the musk ox, Dr. Teal needed help. Mekoryuk natives Esther Shavings and her husband, Edward, helped him capture some calves to start a herd for the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
That accomplished, he began recruiting women for a cooperative, whose members would knit the qiviut into finished garments. Knitting began in 1968 when a textile specialist for the project brought a supply of the musk ox yarn to the women on Nunivak Island.
Workshop instructors taught them to read patterns, and helped them learn the lacelike stitches and handle the fine-spun qiviut.
The older women helped adapt ancient patterns from traditional village life and Inuit culture. Village artisans soon developed their own unique patterns and named them for their villages.
Within a year they had formed the Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers' Co- operative.
The word Oomingmak is an Inuit term meaning "the bearded one." Co-op members say that Oomingmak and the Musk Ox Farm are the only ones of their kind in the world.
After the first year, 27 Mekoryuk knitters turned the qiviut into 291 scarves, stoles, tunics, and nachaqs (which means hat or hood). A nachaq (pronounced NA-chak) is a seamless, tubular garment that can be worn as a hood or pulled down around the neck, similar to a turtleneck.
Their success encouraged other villages to participate. Fran Degnan and her mother, Ada, were instrumental in bringing the co-op to Unalakleet in 1976.
During the time she wasn't busy knitting, Ms. Degnan wrote a book about her parents, "Under the Arctic Sun: The Life and Times of Frank and Ada Degnan," which won the 2002 Award for Alaska Native Literature.
Elsie Hooper, who lives in Tununak with her husband, George, joined the co-op when a workshop came to her village. Ms. Hooper has helped increase the membership in her home village and helps new members in surrounding villages as well as in her own.
She has also taught all three of her daughters, who became members of the co-op at a young age.
Being a member of the knitting group not only provides needed funds, Hooper says, but she and the other women are proud to know that the items they've made will be enjoyed by someone far away.
The cooperative has grown from 25 founding members in 1969 to more than 250 today. Member-knitters own the Oomingmak cooperative. They range in age from 9 to 90, and often include several members of the same family. Daughters and granddaughters of the original knitters are now participating in the group.
Members work from their homes in villages of 150 to 300 people. They work at their own speed and fit their knitting around their day-to-day activities and their family lives.
Then they send the finished garments to the co-op's headquarters in Anchorage by planes that regularly visit their villages.
The Oomingmak co-op buys most of its qiviut from the herd Teal helped establish. Because they found that processing the raw musk-oxen wool by hand was too time-consuming, a Rhode Island cashmere mill now prepares and spins the hair into fine yarn, which is then sent back to members of the cooperative.
The nachaq has been the most popular item the women make. Prices range from $110 for a cloche cap to $575 for a sleeveless tunic with a hand-braided qiviut belt.
Products made from musk ox hair do not shrink, and they don't scratch like wool. Warmth, lightness, and the silky softness of the garments contribute to their popularity.
Seventy-five percent of the garments are sold directly by the cooperative. The remaining 25 percent are offered through a gift shop at the Musk Ox Farm, which is located in Palmer, Alaska (see box at left).
Over the past 30-plus years, these sales have accomplished the original goal of meeting the natives' need for supplemental income. But they have provided more than just money.They have helped the women create much richer lives for themselves, and the activity fits well with the Inuit desire to live in harmony with nature.
Sigrun Robertson worked with Teal from the beginning. Through the years, she helped in various ways, and today serves as director of the co-op. She and a small staff run the co-op and maintain the mail-order business from its location in downtown Anchorage.
The little brown house that contains her office attracts visitors because of the unusual musk-ox mural on its exterior walls. Once they're inside, people are fascinated by native staffers and knitters who work on-site.
Ms. Robertson admits that some people may think the project is relatively small and has had only a limited impact. But that's not the case.
"The co-op was created not to make sweeping changes ... but to help with problems within the traditional mode of life," she explains. "This is not about making money hand over fist."
If being able to work at home for pay makes the difference between extreme poverty and enjoying a few extras, then Inuit families in isolated tundra and coastal villages must feel that a great deal of progress has been made.
The Musk Ox Producers' Co-operative is located at 604 H Street, Anchorage, AK 99501. Phone (907) 272-9225 or (toll-free from outside Alaska) 888-360-9665. The e-mail address is email@example.com. Visit the website at www.qiviut.com.
The Musk Ox Farm is located in Palmer, a 50-minute drive from downtown Anchorage, and is open for tours from Mother's Day through September. Read more about the farm at www.muskoxfarm.org.