We are pleased that we could get Joe Bifelt, the grandnephew of legendary dogsled racer George Attla, to send us an update on his life since the film about George’s life, ATTLA, ended. George may have technically been Joe’s great uncle but as you’ll see here he considers George another grandfather, and despite George’s passing, his legacy and influence lives on. Learn more about the impact George made on Joe’s life and on others in Alaska, whether he’s still mushing, and the hardest thing about training to race dogs.
What are you up to these days, since appearing in the film ATTLA? Tell us about how you got involved in teaching…
Since the film, I continued my education at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and earned my Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education in May 2019. Then in Fall 2019, I got a job teaching 4th grade at TIcasuk Brown Elementary School. It’s been a ride!
Are you still interested in mushing?
I am definitely still interested in mushing. In fact, without mushing, I may have not graduated by now. Mushing has provided me with a connection to my biggest hero, my Grandpa George. Spending that year with him, the dogs, and his partner, Kathy, has taught me so much about life, my cultural history, and a winning mindset. Mushing has helped my social capital by bringing me all over Alaska to train and race dogs in just that one season and meet people from all over the world because mushing is global.
I felt that I didn’t only belong in the village anymore but I felt that Fairbanks became a second home for me after seeing all of my fans during the 2015 Open North American Championship Race. From late George’s teachings, I went on to foster a positive, winning mindset and made it a goal to finish my degree and then to continue to push myself by starting my first year of teaching.
I live and breathe mushing now. Though I do not have my own team right now, having a team and winning races is always on my mind. I want to get to a place in my life where I am ready to afford a dog team so I can start chasing my dog mushing goals.
How do you think Native Alaskans can increase their visibility in/access to high profile sled dog races?
I think Native Alaskans can increase their visibility in/access to high profile sled dog races by increasing interest in dog mushing in our rural communities by doing activities that include sled dogs, youth, adults, and elders. The dogs work as the glue to connect youth who are being taught by the elders while at the same time the adults are helping out with the dogs as the manpower. This is already happening now in the villages with programs like A-CHILL, and I have found that a lot of youth are becoming more interested in dog mushing and I know that a few have their eye on competing in the high profile dog races in the future.
Secondly, dog mushing is very expensive because, well, you’re caring for 20+ dogs who you have to feed, provide straw for, buy mushing equipment for, groom trails for, travel to other places to race them, etc. Therefore, any dog musher has to battle the high cost of supporting a team. For Native Alaskans out in rural Alaska, they are battling the shipping costs so I think that’s a major factor in their overall absence in the high-profile races.
There are a few ways that I think can help this: people can move to the road system to help with those shipping costs, they can work like heck to find sponsors, or they can do it like they did a long time ago and pool their dogs together to make a team for the high-profile races. I personally like the idea of pooling dogs together because it includes one of our biggest cultural values, teamwork.
What was the most surprising thing to you personally about training to race dogs? Or the hardest thing?
The most surprising thing to me about training to race dogs was how dog mushing is so, for lack of a better word, addictive! Once you start, you either don’t like it at all or you love it. You love working with the dogs, feeding them, training, racing, and seeing them flourish into one smooth team. You encounter so many obstacles throughout the season, travel to many places, and you build quite the bond with them through those experiences. It leaves you excited for the next season!
The hardest thing about training to race dogs for me personally was probably just the learning curve because I didn’t really know anything about how to read dogs, gauge their ability, pace them in the races, and let alone even learn the race rules. This was hard after Grandpa passed away in February 2015 because I raced a month later. My other late grandfather, Alfred Attla, took over as my coach but we were all still learning how to race today’s sprint sled dogs.
We found out we had to hold them back off the start which is a lot different than what they did a long time ago. They said the huskies were a little lazy and you had to get them to run hard off the start but today’s dogs want to run right from the get-go so you must hold them back or they’ll burn themselves out.
All of this I was still finding out right up to my race. The Open North American was only our 3rd race all season so we were learning a lot throughout the race. By the 3rd day, I finally learned how to kick (pedal) with the dogs. So the hardest part for me was just the learning curve because I wanted to win so badly and needed to learn in a short amount of time.
And how did your family react to seeing you up there in a movie, and seeing the family story told?
I don’t know how family reacted to seeing me in a movie but I do know that everyone who watches it, including myself, feels the pride in seeing our strong dog mushing history put into a film and also seeing our elders in the film who have now passed on. Every time I see the New Year’s Potlatch (community gathering to celebrate New Year’s) scene, it makes me happy to see our community hall filled with elders because it’s only been 5 years since the making of the film, and most of them have passed on.
What do you think your great uncle’s legacy ultimately was and is in Alaska? (And beyond.)
He was the greatest dog man who ever lived. He is the Muhammad Ali of dog mushing. He was not only a champion in the dog mushing world but also for his people and his family.
Is there any surprising story or anecdote about George that you’d love to share that maybe wasn’t in the film?
George introduced dog mushing as a form of cultural revitalization in schools in that A-CHILL program [mentioned above]. It started as a grassroots program in Huslia in 2012 as the Frank Attla Youth and Sled Dog Care-Mushing Program. I was among the first students in this program as I was a senior in high school in 2012 and I remember going dog mushing in school!
We got to listen to stories from elders about our local history and it really helped our education overall because our teachers started to show more respect and efforts towards cultural activity and we gained respect for them and behaved better in school. The program has since spread to other schools in the Yukon Koyukuk School District and to the Alaska Gateway School District.
Would you ever leave Alaska to live somewhere else or will it always be home?
Nope, Alaska will always be home.