In the 1940’s and 50’s wild musk oxen were a disaster or two away from extinction and the villages of coastal Alaska were moving into a cash economy that had scarcely existed before. Where others saw two utterly insurmountable challenges, John Teal’s eyes sparkled and a vision was born. In this windswept and inhospitable land he saw an opportunity for Native people to live together peaceably with this animal such that both would thrive.
After more than a decade of research, Teal started what came to be known as the Musk Ox Project in Alaska. 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. Each year the herd grew. Each year their qiviut was combed and spun into exquisite yarn.
In 1968 the Project began workshops teaching Alaska Native women in villages such as Mekoryuk, Bethel, St. Mary’s and Tununak how to knit the unique lacy pattern for qiviut garments. Within a year, 1969, the cooperative was formed - Oomingmak, Musk Ox Producers’ Cooperative - and within ten more years over two hundred native women were earning a cash income that was vital to assisting with expenses throughout the year. Oomingmak was created to be the all encompassing organization that would engage in the gentle and sustainable husbandry that John J. Teal Jr. envisioned, harvest the qiviut fiber, oversee processing, knitting, and the final marketing of the beautiful hand-knit garments that were produced.
The Project Today
The farm became a 501c3 nonprofit in 1986, where the organization continues the work that began in 1954. While we may grow and change, our commitment to the gentle and sustainable domestication of the musk ox, and to the establishment of a cottage-based textile fiber industry remains a strong piece of our mission as when John Teal began the project in 1954.