Behind the Lens: Catharine Axley

by Sarah Richmond

This past October, crowds gathered in Anchorage and Fairbanks to watch the premiere of ATTLA, a documentary following the life and legacy of George Attla, a Koyukon Athabascan dog musher from Huslia. George’s story simultaneously embodies and defies the classic image of a star-athlete.

The film shows how he grew from a child struggling with tuberculosis to a young man who made history by winning a record number of dog sled racing championships throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Most notably, ATTLA traces George’s story after he retired from racing, and highlights the passion that led him to spend the last part of his life teaching youth dog mushing in his home village.

Following the Anchorage premiere of the film, the Alaska Humanities Forum sat down with director Catharine Axley to discuss her experience working with George Attla and the conversations she hopes his story will inspire.

Catharine, who is originally from New England, first came to Alaska in 2014 to learn about efforts around indigenous language revitalization in the state. At the time, she was enrolled in a graduate filmmaking program at Stanford University and was seeking out potential stories for a short film for her thesis project.

She first came across a story about George while rifling through local newspaper archives in Sitka. “I had never heard about George and knew nothing about dog sled racing”, she shared. “The fact that he looked like a rock star and had such an incredible career was intriguing enough on its own. But what really stood out to me while reading the article was how he was dedicating his life to introducing dog mushing to his village.

It wasn’t just about training kids to become the ‘next George Attla’ or to win races. It was a form of cultural revitalization. Through dog mushing, George was introducing kids to a cultural practice and in doing so, providing a way for them to learn more about their culture and history, and to spend time with elders in the community. The story really stood out to me, even given my unfamiliarity with dog mushing at the time”.

Through a series of mutual connections, Catharine got hold of George’s number and made the call, nervous about how he would react to a proposal from a young filmmaker based in California who wanted to make a documentary about his life. To her surprise, he was open to the idea, and soon afterward Catharine found herself traveling to Huslia to meet George in-person.

What began as a project to create a short film for her graduate thesis eventually developed into a multi-year endeavor ending in a feature-length documentary. During the same period that Catharine was filming, George’s great-nephew, Joe Bifelt, decided to take a year away from his studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks to live with George and George’s partner Kathy, and to learn dog mushing from his great-uncle.

Watching the film, it is clear that the relationships formed among family and community, especially between elders and youth, are what inspired both George and his nephew Joe to continue dog sled racing. Throughout the course of filming in Huslia, Catharine found she became a part of this network of care and support.

“Getting into Huslia, it was really important for me to balance the time when I was behind the camera and the time I was off and just getting to know people” Catharine shared, reflecting on how the relationships she developed influenced her both personally and as a filmmaker.

“Sometimes, I wear my filmmaker hat and sometimes I wear my human hat. Oftentimes those hats overlap, but there are times when they really don't. When I'm in the documentary filmmaker mode there is something a little scary about it because it’s easy to fall into thinking I need this material or to capture a specific moment. It's important to find a balance between filming and just being a person.”

During the same time that Catharine was filming and Joe was training, George’s health began to decline. Just weeks before Joe was supposed to compete in his first dogsled race, George was hospitalized in Anchorage. He passed away soon afterward, in February of 2015 at the age of 81.

“It was absolutely devastating for everyone”, Catharine reflected. “Afterward, Joe was so determined to complete the race that George had been training him for, in honor of both George and his community, which had been supporting him along the way. When we finally made it to the race [later that year], everyone almost lost it. The face that Joe was on the trail after everything that had happened was a huge accomplishment.''

In perhaps the happiest divergence from a more traditional sports story, the most triumphant moment of the film is not one of George’s many first-place finishes during his championship reign in the 1970s and 80s. Rather, it is the moment when his great-nephew starts out on his first race, proudly continuing his cultural legacy.

One year later, Catharine returned to Huslia with the help of an Alaska Humanities Forum mini-grant to conduct interviews with George’s family and friends. “It's not easy to be interviewed after someone so close to you has passed away,'' she shared. “A year later, it was still very, very difficult. I felt really fortunate that people were able to open up in that way”. In the film, these interviews illustrate how even after his death, George’s passion for revitalizing cultural traditions continues to impact people in Huslia and beyond.

In the past several years Alaska Care and Husbandry Instruction for Lifelong Living (A-CHILL), the program George co-founded with his partner Kathy to bring traditional dog sledding and other animal husbandry practices to schools, has continued to grow. As of 2018, the program served 17 different communities in the Alaska Gateway and Yukon-Koyukuk School Districts.

Catharine hopes that ATTLA will not only illustrate the importance of the cultural revitalization that George and so many others in Huslia have been working toward, but will also inspire people all around the state and the nation to start conversations about what it might look like to revitalize cultural traditions within their own communities.

“We really hope that this film reaches young Alaska Native audiences,” Catharine said, speaking on the impact she hopes the film has. “Joe didn’t even know about his grandpa George’s story until he was in 8th grade. I think both George’s story and his passion for passing down his cultural traditions need to be shared with young people. George’s story of perseverance as a child and re-dedication of purpose as an elder is really inspiring. I hope that people in the lower-48 can recognize him as one of our great sports heroes as well, even though dog sled racing is a niche sport and Alaska can seem very far away. Despite all of this, there’s a lot that can be gleaned from his story. I also hope that the film sparks dialogue around other forms of cultural revitalization. I came into this experience being slightly skeptical about what dog mushing was as a form of cultural revitalization. I didn’t believe it until I saw it. If other communities see this film and it inspires them to put a little more effort into some practice or tradition they want to revitalize and pass down to the next generation, then we will have achieved our mission.”

Catharine is currently teaching as a filmmaker-in-residence at the University of Kentucky.

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