When I walk into the Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers Co-Operative in Anchorage it reminds me of my grandmother’s and even my great-grandmother’s house. There are generally a couple of ladies sitting there talking, enjoying each other’s company, knitting away, making hats, scarves, smoke rings (like a Baclava) stoles and tunics. This co-op makes the connection between Native Alaska and the rest of the world.
The co-op began in 1969 and its members are Alaskan Native men and women, who live in the remote villages of Alaska. They originated the production of Qiviut (pronounced KI-VEE-UTE) items. The remote location of the villages makes it extremely expensive to start businesses and maintain a profit margin. Because of this, there is a lack of available jobs for most local people. Many end up leaving the villages to get a job that provides an income that can sustain a family. Knitting the beautiful, handmade Qiviut allows them to earn a supplementary income to enhance their mostly subsistence lifestyle.
Qiviut is the Yupik word meaning ‘down’ or ‘underwool’. Qiviut was the spelling adopted by the Co-Op in 1969 and is the most well-known. In the spring the musk ox naturally shed their qiviut, allowing them to cool off in the warm summer weather. People in areas where the musk ox are wild will find the qiviut on the ground or in bushes where musk ox rub up against the trees while they are eating. It can take three to six years to collect enough fiber, spun into yarn, for an article of clothing. The co-op’s first workshop was held in Mekoryuk, where the original 25 members knit a pattern based on a carved harpoon head.
The knitters use this wild-gathered wool to make the beautiful designs of the Qiviut. The wool is both incredibly lightweight and incredibly warm. The quality, beauty and durability are uniquely Qiviut. The Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers Co-operative maintains those standards, proven through 27 years of accreditation by the Better Business Bureau. There are ten different patterns to choose from; each pattern represents one of the original knitters’ Native villages. The Qiviut are shipped around the world but they can only be purchased from the co-op right in Anchorage.
Oomingmak is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Manager Hillery Baerny told me they are all excited at this milestone in their journey, “helping out knitters and Alaskan Native people continue to live the subsistence lifestyle.” Fifty years on, the co-op still has that wonderful quaint feeling, where you walk through the door and immediately feel as though you’re visiting grandma’s house.