ATTLA: ‘The greatest musher of all time’

Vincent Schilling

PBS documentary premieres December 16 on Independent Lens about George Attla

A new documentary on PBS’s Independent Lens highlights the successful dogsledding career of Alaska Native dogsledder George Attla, Koyukon Athabascan, who was born and raised in Huslia, Alaska, a village with a population of 266.

More than just covering the career of Attla, director Catharine Axley also delves into the intricacies of the Alaska Native community in Huslia, who battle against the struggles of addiction, loss of culture and loss of language.

The film primarily focuses on the relationship between George Attla and his grandnephew Joe Bifelt. Bifelt is invited by his Granduncle to train for the world championship dogsled competition, the North American Race.

ATTLA documentary - courtesy PBS (3)
ATTLA tells the story of George Attla, 'the greatest musher of all time,' who shares his knowledge of dogsledding with his grandnephew Joe Bifelt. Bifelt is invited by his Granduncle to train for the world championship dogsled competition, the North American Race. Credit: Catharine Axley.

Though Bifelt says he has only been on a dogsled a few times, he asserts it is an opportunity “he just can’t pass up.” He takes a year away from school, and perhaps one of the most interesting moments in the documentary is when school administrators say Bifelt can participate in distance education classes to study English requirements such as Shakespeare and British literature. The moment is a visible contrast between learning his non-traditional language while also training and learning the cultural ways and dogsledding.

Bifelt says, “In school these days they don't really teach you about our culture. Back in our village, we're losing a lot of our knowledge, our stories, and history”

Also highlighted in the documentary is the backstory of George Attla, who as a child was discovered to have tuberculosis in the bones of his right leg. He would eventually have to have his knee fused, which forced his leg to stay straight for the rest of his life. Additionally, Attla’s medical journey kept him largely in hospitals for about nine years of his childhood. When he returned to his village, he had forgotten his language and cultural ways.

Attla, who had only the full use of one leg, found he could use the dogs to trap and hunt, thus they helped him get around much easier. Attla found refuge in the team of dogs. “Dogs accept you as you are. They don't care what you look like, they don't care what you sound like, they'll accept you,” he said in the documentary.

Other issues came about, the introduction of the snowmobile saw the decline of dogsledding teams in Native villages. And as the costs of keeping a team of dogs increased, the sport increasing became as Attla says in an interview. “A rich man’s sport.”

The relationship between George Attla and his grandnephew Joe Bifelt is heartfelt and the importance is apparent as Bifelt listens, learns and manages to accomplish impressive race times. 

In the course of his learning and training, Bifelt discovers that his granduncle was a world champion and was considered “the greatest musher of all time.” 

ATTLA documentary - courtesy PBS (2)
George Attla at a race, shares a charismatic smile with his daughter Amanda. Credit: Rob Stapleton

The documentary wasn’t short on inspiration and detailed how in 1958, the entire village raised the $600 necessary to get Attla to the Fur Rendevous Race in Anchorage, Alaska. When he won, the village was collectively in disbelief but also excited that he had won.

As George Attla continued to win races, his son, also named George Attla said in the film that he remembered hearing a non-Native man say at a race, “Those goddamned Natives are taking over,” to which he said, “Yeah I guess we were.”

As Independent Lens Executive Producer Lois Vossen, stated in the film’s release, “ATTLA is a rare sports film that blends the excitement of an Iditarod race with the humanity of a cultural icon dedicated to giving something back...During the 1960s and 70s most of the money in competitive dog sledding was being made by white men when George Attla showed that a Native person could beat the odds to become a champion and a star. Even more impressive was his commitment to help his Native community and future generations.”

George Attla died in 2015.

Film Information from Independent Lens / PBS

ATTLA tells the gripping but little-known story of George Attla, an Alaska Native dogsled racer who, with one good leg and fierce determination, became a legendary sports hero in Northern communities around the world. Part dog whisperer, part canny businessman and part heartthrob, Attla rose to international fame during a unique period of history when Western education, economies, and culture penetrated the Alaskan village lifestyle and forever changed the state with the discovery of oil in the late 1960s. The film interweaves the story of Attla’s racing career into the final chapter of his life, as he emerges from retirement to train his 20-year-old grandnephew to compete in one of the world’s most popular sprint dogsled races.

Directed by Catharine Axley, ATTLA premieres on Independent Lens Monday, December 16, 2019, 10:00-11:00 PM ET (check local listings) on PBS, and the PBS Video App.

ATTLA received co-production support from ITVS through its Open Call funding initiative, which supports projects through completion for broadcast on public television. Ahead of its broadcast premiere on Independent Lens, the film won Best Documentary Feature at the American Indian Film Festival in November. Independent Lens is an Emmy® Award-winning weekly series airing on PBS Monday nights at 10:00 PM. The acclaimed series, with Lois Vossen as executive producer, features documentaries united by the creative freedom, artistic achievement, and unflinching visions of independent filmmakers.

About George Attla (1933-2015)
George Attla, Koyukon Athabascan, was one of the most celebrated sprint dog sled racers in Alaska. A ten-time Fur Rendezvous world champion and eight-time Open North American champion, Attla raced across Alaska, Canada, and the northern United States for five decades, attaining a sports hero status across the region. Born in 1933 into a subsistence lifestyle in interior Alaska, Attla lived through a childhood bout with tuberculosis that required hospitalization for nine years. The disease left him with a fused kneecap. His leg and cultural isolation from family and community made a transition back into subsistence living challenging, but Attla soon discovered a passion for racing dogs. In 1958, he traveled to Anchorage for the first time and won his first Fur Rendezvous World Championship.

His racing prowess and ability to identify and train exceptional dogs soon became a legend, as he attracted audiences to sprint racing from across the state, the country, and beyond. In his retirement, Attla founded the Frank Attla Youth & Sled Dog Program in Huslia to introduce a new generation to dog mushing as a sport and cultural activity. Attla worked with the community and youth in Huslia until his death in 2015. A new youth dog mushing program inspired by Attla, A- CHILL (Alaska Care and Husbandry Instruction for Lifelong Living), was launched in 2016 in interior Alaska.

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