America’s First Musk Ox Shepherd
Undaunted by entreme terrain and frigid waters, John Teal’s passion for the musk ox launched many a wild adventure.
No one, in the history of the world, had attempted to domesticate the musk ox. John Teal, a bold and brilliant World War II bomber pilot thought it was about time someone tried. The magnitude of his escapades are unparalleled,
as is the breadth of his heart.
Technology has seriously mucked with modern- day explorers, replacing dog sleds and whale blubber with GPS and instant oatmeal. The battle of man against nature, once staged on inaccessible terrain, has morphed into a dance of fancy gadgets and high- tech gear, guaranteed to keep all but the most insufferable of fools alive in any corner of Planet Earth.
Gone are the days when gnawing the sinewy thigh of a less fortunate compatriot was the only ticket to survival. Now “explorations” are often catered affairs featuring research vessels converted into steely yachts, with an entire film crew on board to document the event in HD. Leif Erickson would be appalled. The world has not entirely expunged its fearless swashbucklers, but it has been a very long time since the likes of John Teal forged a new frontier. Though Teal didn’t stab the American Flag into either Pole or climb in the shadows of Everest, his place in the world of daring exploits is no less heroic. More than twenty tons of four- footed behemoths now grazing in the exurbs of Anchorage, Alaska, attest to it.
In 1954, John Teal had the dubious distinction of being the only musk ox shepherd in the world. He would, in time, launch the first musk ox domestication program ( The Musk Ox Project) and the formation of Alaska’s most successful hand- knitting cooperative: Oomingmak ( the Eskimo word for musk ox meaning “bearded one”).
Every year, thousands of tourists venture into Oomingmak’s retail store in downtown Anchorage. This unmistakable landmark features a herd of musk ox painted on its exterior. Visitors pull out their credit cards one minute and walk out the next toting luscious hats and scarves made of qiviut ( the undercoat of the musk ox) hand- knit by Alaskan natives. It is the near culmination of Teal’s dream. The 60th anniversary of Teal’s first musk ox capture is just a few months away: a remarkable milestone for a project that more than a few regarded as insane.
In a world that has often turned a blind eye to indigenous peoples, Teal was at the forefront of creating an economic development program for Alaskan natives based on a natural ( and native) resource: qiviut. The project’s cornerstone was the domestication of the musk ox, an animal that is neither an ox, nor possesses a musk gland, but has roamed the planet since the last Ice Age producing a fiber that is softer than cashmere.
Ten years ago, when I sat down to write the first article for Wild Fibers about the Musk Ox Project, I was both mesmerized and inspired by Teal’s vision. Without his ever knowing it, he had laid the groundwork for much of how I would ultimately define my editorial mission: a thoughtful blend of anthropological drive and natural resource united for the sake of economic opportunity. He had proven how natural fibers both define and support native communities.
With his legacy firmly ( and formidably) intact, I have often wondered about this spirited upstart named John Teal: a man raised among the finery and fluff of Greenwich, Connecticut, who chose a life of frozen adventure instead.
The story begins at the beginning. Literally. Day one, the day in 1921 at New York City’s Sloane Hospital, where
John Teal and Friends (page 56)