George Attla was a hero and inspiration to many in rural Alaska as well as the big city of Anchorage. He was considered a rock star in the Last Frontier, dominating the mushing scene for five decades.

But Attla's reach and influence spanned well beyond sport. Through his own self-discovery, and through his dogs, the "Huslia Hustler" aimed to instill pride and resilience in his community.

"ATTLA" is a new PBS documentary that will debut in December. Director Catharine Axley got the idea for the film while in Alaska learning about language revitalization.

"But then I read an article about George and I read that after so many years in the spotlight, he had started a youth dog mushing program in his village in Huslia. And I was really interested in kind of looking at that as a form of cultural revitalization,” Axley said.

Attla's grandnephew Joe Bifelt is featured in the film. He was 20 years old and preparing for the Fur Rendezvous World Championship Sled Dog Race, which Attla had won 10 times.

Growing up in Huslia, Bifelt credits his granduncle's youth dog mushing program for his success in school and for shaping him into the person he wanted to become.

“It was just hard for teachers to kind of connect with the students in the village in rural Alaska," Bifelt explained. "And basically the program instilled culture into schools and built pride because we knew our history and everything, and it kind of just gave me identity and allowed me to use that as a vehicle through college.”

Now Bifelt is a teacher in Fairbanks. He says he treasures the opportunity he had to train with Attla. 

“One thing I’d like to encourage youth to do is find something they can do with their elders because once you start doing that, they can start teaching you a lot. And when you’re working they can tell you a lot of stories," he said. "One thing that dog mushing did for me is it allowed me to build a relationship with him and a lot of my other elders and family members, just through dog mushing. Because they lived the life, and I wanted to learn it.”

 

Axley says there are two things that stand out from her experience making “ATTLA.” One was being able to connect with Attla’s family and learn about him from people who were present throughout different parts of his life.

“The other thing that’s been really wonderful is working with state archives here,” Axley said. “We’ve been working with [the Alaska Moving Image Preservation Association] based in Anchorage and the Alaska Digital Archives based at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. And just being able to digitize some of this footage and use some of this footage of George in his heyday, that has been a real highlight to look in these archives and work with them.”

The film is slated to be screened at the upcoming Anchorage International Film Festival next month. It airs nationwide on "Independent Lens" on PBS Dec. 16.

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