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INDEPENDENT LENS: Attla

Airs Monday, Dec. 16, 2019 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV + Thursday, Dec. 19 at Noon on KPBS 2

George Attla and his daughter, Amanda.

Credit: Courtesy of Rob Stapleton

Above: George Attla and his daughter, Amanda.

Discover the Inspiring True Story of Legendary Alaska Native Dogsled Champion George Attla

“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, Dec. 16, 2019.

ATTLA | Trailer

"ATTLA" tells the gripping story of George Attla, a charismatic Alaska Native dogsled racer who, with one good leg and fierce determination, became a legendary sports hero in Northern communities around the world.

Interviews with family members, sportswriters and contemporaries, combined with never-before- seen archival footage and photographs bring Attla’s story to life.

Born into a semi-nomadic family in the remote interior of Alaska in 1933, Attla grew up living off the land until a diagnosis of tuberculosis of the bone forced him to spend more than nine years of his childhood in and out of hospitals.

Over 750 miles away from home, in a sanitarium in Sitka, Alaska, Attla learned English but lost most of his Native Koyukon language.

This early isolation from his family and culture contributed to Attla’s complicated and fraught sense of identity, driving him to find a niche where he could define who he was and who he could become on his own terms.

That niche became dogsled racing.

Due to his fused kneecap and stiff leg, Attla’s rapid ascent to world champion dog musher surprised many. But it was his ongoing rivalries with better-financed white dog mushers, his public persona, and his longevity in the sport that made him legend.

As the film begins, Attla decides to emerge from retirement, driven by the rising tide of substance abuse, mental health issues, and suicide he witnesses in his own village and others around the state.

He wants to bring hope to his hometown of Huslia in the way he knows best — through dogs.

George asks his grandnephew, Joe Bifelt, to return home so he can train him to compete in the Open North American Championship, the same race that Attla won eight times.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Catharine Axley

Joe Bifelt, grandnephew of George Attla.

To do so, Joe must leave his college campus and spend his sophomore year taking online courses, but he knows the chance to spend time with his great uncle is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn the stories, knowledge and history that are rapidly being lost with the passing of elders.

After months of training together and with only weeks left before the race, Attla becomes ill and must leave Joe to undergo treatment in Anchorage. Joe is suddenly forced to put his training into action and prepare the dog team alone.

Following his great uncle’s passing, “ATTLA” culminates in Joe’s participation at the Open North American Championship dogsled race, where he is determined to carry on his great uncle’s legacy.

RELATED: Still Mushing: An Update from Joe, George Attla’s Grandnephew by Craig Phillips

RELATED: Mush! One Day in the Life of a Dogsledder by Blair Braverman

"Rich Man's Sport"

In a scene from "ATTLA," the grand-nephew of legendary Alaska Native dogsled racer George Attla reflects on growing up not fully appreciating how much of a champion his great uncle was, in a culture where you don't brag about your accomplishments. Together they watch an old TV interview in which Attla predicts dogsled racing is destined to become a less accessible "rich man's sport."

“‘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,” said Lois Vossen, INDEPENDENT LENS Executive Producer. “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.”

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Credits:

Director: Catharine Axley. Producers: Melissa Langer and Kristine Stolakis. Executive Producers: Jamie Meltzer, Sally Jo Fifer, Shirley K. Sneve and Lois Vossen. Supervising Producer: Shana Swanson. Associate Producer and Cultural Adviser: Evon Peter. Editor: Catharine Axley. Consulting Editor and Additional Editing: Lawrence Lerew. Composer: William Ryan Fritch. Cinematography: Catharine Axley. Presented by ITVS, the series is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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