Sled dog on snow wintertime

Rooting young people through cultural heritage in modern Alaska

Professor Arleigh Reynolds, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at University of Alaska Fairbanks, shared a moving story at the One Arctic, One Health conference about George Attla, whose actions and example left a great mark in small Alaska Native communities.

Professor Reynolds emphasises that One Health thinking has always been part of the worldview of indigenous peoples. Comprehensive One Health does not mean just intervention in diseases but also the health and well-being of the individual and the community, which includes physical and mental health as well as cultural and spiritual well-being.

“George Attla was born in 1933 in Koyokuk, Alaska, on the Yukon River. He contracted tuberculosis as a child and spent 10 years at a tuberculosis sanatorium in Sitka, over 1,000 kilometres from his home village,” says Professor Reynolds.

“When he returned to his home village at the age of 18, George felt like an outsider and like he did not belong in the community, and became severely depressed. Fortunately for him, he discovered sled dog racing.”

Sled dogs are an important part of the culture of the indigenous peoples of Arctic regions, and in many places they were the only mode of transport. When snowmobiles and quadbikes replaced working dogs, many communities lost a part of their tradition.

“Dog sled races have maintained a connection with this tradition. George Attla became one of the most famous dog sled racers in North America, and his active sports career ranged from the 1950s to the 1990s. He was known in the dog sports circles as the Huslia Hustler.”

Dogs harnessed to help children and young people

George Attla and his son Frank lived in Huslia, a village of 300 people, and continued his dog sled career with him.

“In many native communities, including Huslia, the situation of young people at the beginning of the 21st century was alarming; there were teen pregnancies, depression, substance abuse and violence. Suicide is the most common cause of death of men under 30 in Alaska. The school completion rate is poor, with over half of young people dropping out.”

After George Attla’s son Frank died unexpectedly of an asthma attack in 2012, George established the Frank Attla Youth & Sled Dog Care-Mushing Program in his memory. The programme was targeted at all children and young people in Huslia from kindergarten to high school.

George wanted his programme to activate young people in dog sledding activities because he saw it as a chance to save them from social exclusion.

“Three times a week, all children and young people helped take care of the dogs and train them. They learned a variety of skills: they built doghouses, cleaned dog pens, fished for the dogs’ meals and rode dog sleds. At weekends, dog sled races were held in Huslia,” says Professor Reynolds.

There were also shared get-togethers organised for the village’s older and younger people around the theme of sled dog activities, where the older generation shared stories about their youth.

The programme produced astonishing results. No more fights took place, the school completion rate rose to 100%, and community spirit flourished. Over the past seven years, there has been only one suicide committed in Huslia.

“Children’s self-esteem and their knowledge of their cultural heritage go hand in hand. Today, Huslia is a stable and healthy community where people from outside the area move to.”

Frank Attla Youth & Sled Dog Care-Mushing Program served as a template for a four-year Alaska Care and Husbandry Instruction for Lifelong Living (A-CHILL) programme covering the entire state of Alaska, which started in 2016.

“Dog sledding can be substituted with any traditional trade, such as salmon fishing or whaling. The activities help improve people’s knowledge of their cultural heritage, self-esteem, confidence and commitment to developing the community as well as creating a sense of achievement and being needed.

George Attla died in 2015 at the age of 81 years. His legacy lives on strongly in the young people of Huslia, in whom he wanted to instil faith in their own abilities.

Professor Arleigh Reynolds, University of Alaska Fairbanks: Sled dog husbandry as approach to supporting transfer of traditional knowledge and resilience to at risk youth in rural Alaska.

Author: Satu Räsänen

Photos: Unsplash

Last updated: 22.3.2019