George Attla in his dog lot at his North Pole home in 1988. Photography: Jim Lavrakas/Anchorage Daily News
George Attla in his dog lot at his North Pole home in 1988. Photography: Jim Lavrakas/Anchorage Daily News

After living in hospitals for most of his teen years, George Attla was an outsider in his home village until he turned to dog sled racing.

There are many reasons to watch the 1979 film Spirit of the Wind. Filmed in Fairbanks using local talent, it is an Alaska Native film realistically capturing the lifestyle of modern Natives including Native humor.

It is also an unpretentious gem about going beyond a disability, the Athabasca way of life, and the culture of dog sled racing. The film won Best Picture Award at the 1979 Sundance Film Festival and garnered numerous awards at France’s prestigious Cannes Film Festival.

The film is about the life of famed Alaska Native musher George Attla and the personal barriers he overcame to become one of the most celebrated racers in Alaska history. Attla was born in 1933 in the wilderness of the Koyukuk Valley. His early childhood was one of camps as his father, George Sr., roamed the wilderness as a successful trapper.

At age 8, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the knee. For nine years, his life was spent in hospitals away from his family. His knee was eventually fused together and he returned home to the village of Huslia at age 17.

But Attla had been gone too long. He no longer fit in. In despair, he turned to dog sled racing deciding to enter Anchorage’s Fur Rondy Championship Race in 1958 using another man’s dogs. In spite of a stiff, nearly worthless leg, he came in first on the first day, second on the second day and crossed the finish line on the third day to win the event.

But he was chided for not having his own dogs. He watched how mushers trained their animals, determined not to use fear and pain. He believed he could work with his dogs’ minds by building their self-esteem and ego.

After four years of training, Attla entered his own team in the 1962 Fur Rondy Championship Race in Anchorage, winning it again.

“The dog never makes a mistake,” Attla later wrote in Everything I Know About Training and Racing Sled Dogs. “He is just a dog and he does what he does because he is a dog and he thinks like a dog. It is you that makes the mistake because you haven’t trained him to do what you want him to do when you want him to do it.”

Attla thrilled spectators with his famous racing rivalry against the towering Roland “Doc” Lombard. No other competitors could catch the two men as they raced across the wilderness neck and neck all through the 1970s. This is even more astounding considering that Attla lost vision in one eye and went through numerous stomach operations.

Lombard won his share of races, but Attla became a legend with 10 Fur Rondy Championships and eight North American Open Championships. He co-wrote with Bella Levorsen Everything I Know About Training and Racing Sled Dogs, which is now a bible for the sport.

While working on a cabin during the summer of 2014, he had to stop, finding he had no strength. It was cancer. Attla died at age 81 in February 2015.

Spirit of the Wind itself was almost lost, tied up in litigation over rights to the movie until Anchorage attorney Bill Timme stepped in, working for free to clear the air.

“When I first came to Alaska, I lived in Fort Yukon and the silent film Eskimo was shown and the place was packed,” Timme recalls. “There really hadn’t been a movie made about the Athabasca Indians until Spirit of the Wind.”

Timme found the film showed modern Native life such as fish camps that “won’t be around much longer.”

Read more about dog sledding in “The Women of the Last Great Race,” also by Mike Coppock, in the February/March 2016 issue.