Amer­ica’s First Musk Ox Shep­herd

Wild Fibers 10th Anniversary - - Features - Story by Linda N. Cor­tright

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)

The world’s first musk ox shep­herd John Teal.

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