Some aspects of Alaska seem to never change, their presence an unwavering constant. Alaska native culture is steeped in steadfast tradition. The shedding of musk ox qiviut each spring is just as constant. This soft underwool is a freeze-fighting, snuggly, sought-after fiber that is equally as Alaskan as salmon fishing. With this great renewable resource at hand, the Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers’ Co-Operative began with a group of Alaska native women from the village of Mekoryuk on Nunivak Island exactly 50 years ago.
Oomingmak creates luxurious but practical, hand-knit, heirloom hats, Nachaqs, scarves, and stoles. Their name was inspired by the Inuit word for muskox, umiŋmak, which means “the animal with skin like a beard.” The purpose behind the co-op was an outlet for the harvesting of qiviut and for remote villagers to earn money for cost of living expenses like heat.
We’re grateful that Oomingmak has worked with us since 2007 as longtime advertisers in our magazines and websites. Their people, especially Arthur and Marie, are truly wonderful to know. This fall they bestowed on me the highest honor imaginable. I received a custom-made gift from the co-operative, hand sewn by knitter Elaine Moses. They deviated from their custom village patterns that define Oomingmak to find a special fish scale pattern that Elaine sewed into a cloche made of qiviut just for me. It is an amazing gift that I will cherish the rest of my days, then pass on to my daughter.
I had the chance to learn more about Elaine, the sewer of this masterpiece. Elaine is from Newtok, a small village on the Ningliq River near Bethel. Elaine has lived in Anchorage since 1990, or as she puts it “has been away from home” since that year. She’s been sewing for the co-op since the 80s when co-op representatives came to her village to audition sewers to join. She used to be a constant hobby knitter. “As soon as I put it down, I would pick it up five minutes later,” she said. This job is well suited for Elaine who now works in the downtown Anchorage shop as a full-time sewer; it quenches her knitting thirst.
Over the years I’ve purchased several of Oomingmak’s hand knits because I love the natural beauty and comfort of the qiviut. I can’t wear wool next to my skin, but qiviut does not scratch. I’ve bought hats and smokerings for myself, my daughter, and as gifts for a couple best girlfriends. It’s as chic in Alaska fashion as XTRATUF boots.
Traditional patterns are drawn from aspects of village life and Eskimo culture. Sewers come from villages all around the state and currently number over 200 members. The way it works is members audition for the job, pay annual membership dues, then receive the qiviut and copyrighted patterns. They submit pieces at their pace and receive payment the next day.
This co-operative member-owned business has been going strong for 50 years. To celebrate they created a unique anniversary pattern and had a special yarn spun for anniversary Nachaqs (smokerings) that is the highest-quality yarn they’ve seen. The Mekoryuk 50th Anniversary Pattern depicts a 1,200-year-old carved ivory harpoon head. They have “50” purled into the solid panel and are slightly larger than their regular Nachaqs. Anniversary patterns are knitted by the most experienced members.
Tradition has been the foundation of Oomingmak all these years, and the next generation of First Alaskans are showing interest in perpetuating native Alaska customs while at the same time they are able to bring in a modern twist. They are encouraged to use nontraditional materials and colors combined with the qiviut to make items like qiviut bracelets, earrings and holiday ornaments. These one-of-a-kind items are available at the shop on the corner of 6th and H Street in downtown Anchorage in addition to their many beautiful traditional items—which can also be ordered online at qiviut.com.
If you see me on the river in my very special fish scale cloche made of qiviut, you’ll see a new tradition has begun. That is going to be one lucky fishing hat.
Melissa Norris is Publisher of Fish Alaska and Hunt Alaska magazines.
This blog originally appeared as the Alaska Traveler column in the December 2019 issue of Fish Alaska.