Attla: Filmmaker documents life of famed dog musher

by K.J. Lincoln

George Attla of Huslia was a world champion sprint sled dog racer in the 1950s to the 1980s. Throughout his iconic career, he won ten Fur Rendezvous championships, eight North American World Championships, nine International Sled Dog Racing Association unlimited class medals, and other sprint races.

He was known as the Huslia Hustler.

A young George Attla, known as the “Huslia Hustler” won many sprint sled dog races. Above is a shot from the historical archive footage that was included in Axley’s film.

Filmmaker Catharine Axley, who studied filmmaking at Stanford University, created a documentary about the life of George Attla for her project. She first learned about George when she came across an article about him during a trip to Alaska and she was hooked.

The film is entitled simply “Attla”.

“We were just talking about this with George’s sister and daughter,” said Axley regarding the name. “Attla means ‘beaver dam,’ coming from the Denaakk’e word, ‘etl’. According to a Koyukon Athabascan / Denaakk’enaage’ dictionary ‘The personal name given to old Attla by his grandfather who raised him. He often slept across the corridor in the cabin so he was in this way, like a beaver dam. This name later became anglicized to the family name Attla.’”

The premier screening of Attla was held in Bethel on November 21st at the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center. Screenings followed in Anchorage and Juneau. Another one is scheduled on Dec. 21st, again in Anchorage.

The film includes snapshots of Attla’s childhood, his rise to dog mushing fame, the undercurrents of having to overcome the struggles of cultural identity and substance abuse, and making mushing a way to establish himself despite having one good leg. His other leg was stiff from a childhood bout with a dreaded illness.

George at age 8 contracted tuberculosis, which affected his right knee. He was sent to Sitka to the hospital for treatment which lasted for nearly 10 years. During the years he was away, he lost the ability to speak his native language – Koyukon Athabascan.

The film, which is 60 minutes long, includes an account of George’s life during his final years and the mentoring project he dedicated himself to – teaching his grandnephew Joe Bifelt all about racing sled dogs and preparing him to race in the 2015 Fur Rendezvous Sled Dog Race.

“Dogs accept you as you are,” George is heard saying in the film. “They don’t care what you look like or sound like. They accept you.”

George had established, in his later years, the Frank Attla Youth & Sled Dog Care-Mushing Program in memory of his late son. Through this his legacy lives on, and so does the culture and tradition of dog mushing in Huslia.

“George started a new chapter. He started teaching kids about dog mushing,” said Axley. “And with Joe, it was a filmmakers dream come true – the intergeneration relationship and the cultural revitalization.”

The film is breathtaking with scenes taken from drone footage, which were filmed by Axley’s brother Andrew with a gopro.

“I’m so grateful for his diligence and his skill with the drone, as the landscape is so central to the experience of dog mushing, and it’s really hard to capture that without a birds’ eye view!” said Axley.

There are also clips from historical tape footage and photographs of a youthful George racing and winning races.

The Bethel audience loved the film. They laughed at the part where George was talking with Joe right after Joe’s first race. He had come in second. They were also tickled at the footage where children were shown participating and racing in their own one-dog community race.

“Dog mushing has real meaning to us here in Alaska,” said KYUK Manager Shane Iverson who introduced Axley during the screening. “So we’re glad to see this here.”

You may remember the 1979 movie “Spirit of the Wind” about George and how he won his first major race. Pius Savage, an actor from Holy Cross, Alaska played a young 24 year old George.

“The 1979 film Spirit of the Wind also contributed to his appeal and fame, and as we see in popular culture,” said Axley. “Celebrity is fueled by fans – many of whom were smitten with George. He was beloved by many across the state and beyond.”

George Attla was also an Iditarod racer. He ran the inaugural race to Nome in 1973 and placed 4th. He also ran the Kuskokwim 300, placing second in 1981 and also 1983.

By 2008, he was still running dogs, making it his 50th year of competitive sled dog racing. And in 2011, according to his obituary, George won the Bergman Sam Memorial Koyukuk River Championship in Huslia.

In February 2015, George passed away after a brief battle with bone cancer before Joe was scheduled to run the Fur Rondy. It ended up being cancelled due to lack of snow. But Joe rallied and trained for the Open North American Sled Dog Championship, which he did run completing and fulfilling his granduncles wishes.

Axley still had to finish her film and accomplish her goal, which she did. We were able to ask her a few questions about her project.

How long were you in Huslia each time you were there? What did you work on during those times?

I first traveled to Huslia in November 2014 with my classmate turned producer, Melissa Langer. She and I stayed with George and his partner Kathy Turco in their cabin in Huslia and filmed with them and Joe for about 2 weeks. I returned to Huslia for about 10 days over New Years with my twin brother, Andrew, to film the Huslia races. At the end of this trip, George traveled to Fairbanks due to his health, and though we didn’t know it at the time, would not return to Huslia.

I traveled to Huslia for a third trip on my own with Joe, to film him training apart from George, and to document his travel with the dogs to Anchorage. I had 1-2 more trips in Anchorage on my own to film Joe continuing to train, and then Melissa, my brother and I all traveled to Fairbanks to film the Open North American championship. That was our final trip in documenting the story of Joe training for the race, but I returned to Alaska many more times to conduct interviews, to collect some additional footage, and to work on voice over with Joe. I also traveled to Huslia and Fairbanks to share cuts of the film with those involved, and am now so excited that we’re able to screen the film for audiences!

Can you describe how it was like to first meet George?

I first met George in person in August, 2014, just a few days after his 81st birthday. Here I was going to be meeting this world champion dog musher whose career I had been obsessively learning over the past month, and not only that, he would determine whether or not he’d want to make a film together, so I was very nervous. Plus I had read that George could “read” people, and assess their character pretty quickly. To say I was starstruck would be an understatement, but George was so warm and disarming, that soon it felt like I had known him for quite some time.

That first day, the Morris Thompson Cultural Center in Fairbanks was screening the 1979 film, Spirit of the Wind, and so I had the incredible privilege of sitting next to him as we watched, hearing him narrate the behind-the-scenes commentary. I’ll never forget that experience.

Where did you get all that rare historical tape footage of young George racing and winning?

We were fortunate to be able to work with two incredible archives in Alaska: The Alaska Film Archives at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Alaska Moving Image Preservation Association.

Both of these organizations have meticulously preserved and catalogued reels and reels of films – amateur home movies, news archives, professional films… and it’s clear how central dog races were to Alaskans and Alaska visitors, since there are many in their collections.

We had a few magical discoveries by both organizations – late in the edit, we were searching for archival footage of trophies to help in our opening montage to visually establish George as a champion. I reached out to Angie at the Alaska Film Archives to see if she could help us find generic shots of trophies from the many races they have on film, and she pulled out a reel identified as “trophy ceremony” for a late 1960s/early 1970s North American race.

When she sent me a preview clip, she wrote, “I think I just found your trophy shot.” Not only had she found a great trophy shot, she had found a 30-something year old George Attla in his winning awards ceremony, holding a giant trophy, and glancing directly into the lens of the camera.

Then AMIPA had an early 1940s/50s reel from interior Alaska, and we were able to positively identify not only shots of George’s village, Huslia, but also that the young man sitting in the snow, looking into the camera, as he sips from a thermos was George!

We were also fortunate to be able to use early photos from George’s siblings’ personal archive collections, and beautiful color photographs taken with an Argus C3 by a missionary couple who lived in Huslia in the 1950’s. And then, because we knew that many Alaskans have documentation of races in their personal collections, we launched a community campaign for archival images and home movie footage, and found a few more great shots.

Do you know if Joe Bifelt is still running dogs today?

Joe graduated from UAF’s School of Education in May 2019 and is now teaching 4th grade at Ticasuk Brown elementary school in North Pole. While he does not have a dog team or enough time to train dogs, he is hoping to one day get back into it – and after training with George for the year, his dad, Fred Bifelt, started a dog team back home in Huslia! So now when Joe visits home, he’s able to take his dogs out, and see his young nephews and nieces growing up with dogs in their backyard – it’s pretty awesome.

Can you share how he (Mike Williams Sr.) is connected to your filmmaking of Attla?

Yes, Mike Williams Sr. is a very close friend of the late George Attla and of course a dog musher and advocate for sharing dog mushing with the next generation. We conducted an interview with Mike over three years ago (here in Bethel) to understand George’s role in the history of dog mushing over the past 60 years and to learn more about Mike’s take on the cultural significance of dog teams in Alaska.

While we ended up not using about 10 interviews we had conducted, since we decided to limit the interviews to George’s family and/or people who were present in the moments they describe, Mike’s interview and guidance have been key in our development of the film, and we’re hoping to share bonus materials from the film on our website in the near future.

Thank you for coming to Bethel.

Thank you for having me! I had a quick visit, but was so grateful to be here, meet some community members and spend time with the KYUK staff and meet their media interns. It’s so awesome to see KYUK’s programming and I’m very inspired by the media interns’ work – I teach film, and I’ve been looking at their short films, archival snippets, and Yup’ik word of the day videos since this summer, and I am inspired.

It’s so neat to see youth engage with film through these very different approaches – original short films, archival, and illustration/animation – and the attention and care they’ve put into this content is just awesome. I hope I can return soon.

***

Axley’s film is winner of this year’s American Indian Film Festival Best Doc Feature award, and also the BendFilm Best Indigenous Feature. If you would like to see it, it is scheduled to be aired on PBS on December 16th, 2019.

George Attla, as seen in Catharine Axley’s documentary “Attla” in his later years at his cabin home in Huslia.

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