Thursday, November 02, 2006

It is my great pleasure today to welcome Donna Druchunas to Fruitful. Donna is currently on a blog tour to promote her new book, Arctic Lace. I asked her to share how she weaves together writing and knitting and social responsibility (a mix that is central to her life). Here is her beautiful and inspiring response:
Hi Gayle,

Thanks so much for inviting me to post a guest entry on your blog. I am very excited to talk about social responsibility and how it relates to my writing and knitting. It’s something that I think we writers forget about sometimes, when we get sucked into the rat race of book sales or we focus too much on using our writing solely to fulfill our own creative needs.

When I first thought about writing my second book, Arctic Lace, my goals were basically selfish. I had read an article about a group of 200 Native Alaskan women who knit delicate lace using fur from the arctic musk ox. I wanted to know more. I wanted to read a book on the subject, but it didn’t exist! So I set off on a journey to follow my obsession with the story. I thought it would be straight forward and I would write a “normal” knitting book about my discoveries.

However, as I worked through my research, and especially as I traveled in Alaska in 2004, I began to realize that there was a lot more to this story than I originally anticipated. Not only is it the story of a unique style of knitting and an unusual type of yarn, but it is the story of empowering women, of protecting the environment, and of appreciating and preserving cultures that differ from the mainstream.

When the Musk Ox Project, as it was first called, began in the 1950s, it was headed by a Vermonter named John Teal who had a vision to domesticate the musk ox and to create a cottage industry that would provide income to Native Alaskan people living in rural villages. At the time, the only job available to most women was to be a man’s secretary. Several of the women who were very influential in the birth and development of the Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers’ Co-operative, as it came to be known when it was incorporated, were hired as secretaries. Today, however, the co-op’s director is a woman, most of the people who work in the retail shop are women, and the Musk Ox Farm’s manager is a woman. My how things have changed! But the lack of economic opportunities that provide independence for women is still a huge problem around the world.

In Eskimo villages around Alaska, life for women is more difficult than it is for those of us who live in cities, suburbs, and even in rural towns in the lower 48. Because the villages are so remote, the cost of every-day items is outrageously high. When I visited Unalakleet, a village of 600 on the West coast of Alaska, I went to the general store and did some comparison shopping. A pack of hot dogs cost $7, a gallon of milk, $6.99, a quart of apple juice, $4.59, and one pound of low-quality chop meat cost $3.49. In addition, most of the food available was processed and frozen, and the selection of fresh, healthy items was all but non-existent. At the same time, jobs are scarce, often seasonal, and usually go to men first. This is true all over the Yukon Kuskokwim River Delta, where most of the knitters from the Oomingmak Co-op live. With so few opportunities to make money and little healthy food available for sale even at high prices, the people there still depend primarily on traditional food gathering techniques for their survival.

Most of the Yup’ik people who live in the delta want to preserve their Native traditions and live off the land, but that does not eliminate the need for cash. Today snow mobiles have largely replaced dog teams for winter transportation and aluminum fishing boats have replaced kayaks for summer travel. Both of these vehicles run on purchased fuel. Traditional fur parkas have been replaced by modern Polar Fleece and ready-to-wear winter clothing. Indoor plumbing, heated houses, and computers have become necessities of life in Eskimo villages, just as they have for the rest of us. These are just a few examples of how modern technologies are being incorporated into the traditional subsistence lifestyle. And all of these things cost money.

Knitting gives women in these villages the ability to make money while they travel to fish camps and berry picking areas in the summer, preserve food for the coming winter each fall, and care for young children or elders throughout the year. (There have been a few male knitters in the co-op but none are actively involved today.)
Traditional Yup’ik society was much more egalitarian than today’s capitalist culture. Wealth was often redistributed at annual feasts and ceremonies, and families took care of one another in a way that is not common in modern American society. The changes that have come, in many places just over the past 40 or 50 years, have not been easy for many Eskimo people to accept. They struggle to maintain the important aspects of their culture while adopting modern tools to help them gain a stronger political voice and to make life easier for themselves and their children.

One of the most basic values of the Yup’ik people is the protection of the environment. A core philosophy is to make sure that any decision made and any action taken is not only right for the current moment, but also for the future of the next seven generations. It is often difficult for the older Native people to understand how the actions of those of us so far away in the lower 48 and around the world can impact their environment so destructively. And yet they stand almost powerless as they watch the polar ice melting and the sea swallowing their villages. At least two of the member villages of the Oomingmak Co-op will have to be moved due to erosion caused by global warming. In addition, the loss of polar ice disrupts the food chain, as marine mammals are forced to change their normal migration paths. While politicians in Washington ignore the scientific data that does not support their ideology or the goals of corporate lobbyists, Native Alaskans are watching their lives and livelihoods being washed out to sea.

In addition, the musk oxen that provide the fiber for the Oomingmak knitters, are not suited to living in warm climates. The animals evolved to live in a frigid, arid climate and they can overheat in temperatures as low as 70 deg F. They also cannot survive in deep or wet snow. Their hooves are suited to dig only through shallow snow to find food in winter, and they are so well insulated that if they are caught sleeping in an icy storm they can be frozen to the ground and die. With the climate in the arctic changing at a much faster rate than in other parts of the world, the future of the musk ox is, at best, in jeopardy.

As I learned about these things through my research, I decided I would have to incorporate all of these ideas into my book or I would be selling my readers short. Although some of the topics I discuss can be controversial, and I might have been advised that to talk about these things could diminish my book sales, I decided that I had to speak the truth that I learned.


Here are a few links for those who would like to help the Oomingmak knitters or other socially-conscious knitting related groups:

The Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers’ Co-operative sells unique hand knitted items, knitting kits, and musk-ox related gifts. The profits of the co-op are distributed annually to member knitters. A portion of my royalties for Arctic Lace also go to the co-op, and the book can be purchased directly from them, as well as at local yarn and book shops around the country.

Lantern Moon is an organization that sells beautiful and functional handcrafted products that provide income, education and self-reliance to Vietnamese women and their families.

Mango Moon sells recycled yarns and other products that help provide income and independence to women in Nepal.

Himalaya Yarn is a small company offering mostly handspun and hand-dyed yarns made with recycled and Nepal-grown fibers. The company provides business opportunities for local people. For instance, its recycled silk yarn is handspun by women’s cooperatives and the profits support women’s shelters and programs.


angel said...

gayle: this is absolutely beautiful! i write, knit and crochet and recently founded Loop By Loop, a collective which brings fiber artists together to knit and crochet for communities around the world. thanks so much for sharing donna's wonderful voice and spirit!


gayle said...

thank You, angel! Loop by Loop sounds like such a beautiful project--I am very happy to know about it. One day, I hope to learn how to knit or crochet--it seems like such a meditative act, and I love the generosity it inspires in people. It sounds like you and Donna have a lot in common!


Donna said...

Hi Angel, can you tell me more about Loop by Loop? I'd like to learn more about it. Thanks!

Donna Druchunas

angel said...

Hi Gayle: I used to say "one day" too, until a dear friend of mine told me she was moving to El Paso (read: far, far away from me) and met me at a local cafe with two bamboo needles and a skein of Brown Sheep yarn and said, okay sit down and learn this before I move next Friday. LOL.
Knitting makes me a better writer. I'm convinced of it. It gives me a creative place to go to when I'm stuck, when the prose isn't coming, and when I simply just don't know what I want to say. And it also makes me a better person because joy in the world begins when joy happens within. So start knitting!! LOL.

Donna: I'm slowly building a website/blog for Loop By Loop. If you go to and click on the About tab and the Mission Statement tab you can get a sense of what we're about. I'm also hoping to complete the 501 non-profit stuff by year end or early spring. We also have a Yahoo group were everyone meets.

Thanks Gayle, for this wonderful space,


Donna said...

Hi Angel, thanks. I'll check it out and be in touch.

Gayle, if you get notified of comments, there's a huge spam comment on this post.

gayle said...

Angel--I love your words about knitting and how it inspires your writing and your life. Gorgeous. I will check out Loop by Loop now.

And Donna--that was an obnoxious spam, wasn't it?!

I love that the two of you have connected here--may it lead to some fruitful sharing!