Elusive Musk Oxen

Dispatch:Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland

70.48°N, 21.97°W

Only an Inuit could love a Musk Ox. Not pretty but oh so useful in the harsh Arctic regions of Northern Greenland.

Musk oxen exist in abundance here or so it seems from the leftover skulls and skeletons. They thunder across the hills, a large male with his women in tow, fighting off the junior males who challenge him. It’s tough to spot them except from a distance. Native hunters and even neophyte visitors can track them easily by the evidence they leave behind on the bushes. But the dozen or so we saw, watched from a distance avoiding the paparazzi.

Musky has a place in this culture. Consider what this burly beast gives back to his community:

Meat: In a place where seal, whale and char would be tbe entire diet, a musk ox kill is a welcome gift. The Inuit fry the meat. Looks and taste like it might make a good pot roast for a bit of tenderizing.

Bones and horns: Skulls with their magnificent horns are littered across the hills. Not much deteriorates in the cold and few bacteria can exist to consume leftovers. What remains could be a hunt from hundreds of years ago. Bones become harpoons, fishing hooks, spoons, ornaments.

Fur and skins: No need to catch the illusive beast to shear or kill it for a pelt. The softest and strongest fibers are scraped from the musk oxen’s low hanging underbelly by the scrabble growth covering the hillside. A knitter needs only to collect it like gathering rose petals.

Or use a polar bear skin and make pants. More difficult to hunt and limited by a quota which was thirty-five for the village of Ittoqqortoormiit (population 500)make it even more difficult to hunt than the musk ox. There is no quota for musk oxen.

Musk ox fur, called Qiviut, an Inuktitut word for the underfur that is light weight,is as soft as vicuna and apparently strong. It has a spiral twist to the fibers and locks in warmth between the air pockets. The natives twist it into cords and ropes for lashing kayaks together and making harpoon lines as big as 1” thick and strong enough to hold onto a punctured whale.

Nifty right? A great long winter project to card and clean it, spin it, knit or weave it and … voila! Can’t wait to tell my friend Clare who owns Slip Knot back in Philly that she needs a musk ox in the parking lot.

Or fashion a design for those seal skin boots with a trim of musky fur. The intricate pattern on boots and wrist warmers is unique in Inuit culture, probably a gift from early Vikings. The boot design is made–ready for this– from seal esophagus. Crafty stuff for wintertime fun. Nine months of wintertime fun.

Meanwhile I’ll take photos of the fleeting fall (it’s August) color covering the hills with tiny bilberries and providing unforgettable vistas of icebergs and glaciers. It’s a floating island dessert in a sea about to freeze up for the long winter where nothing can bloom. Inuit babies will snuggle under that musk fur blanket as they ride in their mini sleds or on an after-market box on Dad’s 4×4.


  1. Linda,

    I hope you collected enough musk ox fur for both of us to knit some winter items.


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