Catharine Axley is a recent Stanford University grad who lives in Oakland, California. Her short film, In Attla’s Tracks, about world champion dogsled racer George Attla and his grand-nephew, Joe, explores important and complex issues of culture, identity and the challenges and celebrations of intersectionality.
Roni: How did you come upon the subject and the decision to document it?
Catharine: I have a friend who is a state representative in Alaska and he’s been doing a lot of legislative work on the revitalization of Alaskan Native Languages. I’m really interested in the intersection between language and cultural power … Alaska’s on the verge of doing that. So I was interested in that and meeting some of these leaders who are pioneering these efforts to bring these languages back.
Then I read about George Attla, who was an Alaskan Native dogsled champion. For five decades, he dominated this sport … his first race was in ’58 and he raced into his 70s. I had heard he had started a program in his village to reintroduce dogsled racing to the youth in his village as a way to talk about one’s culture and one’s history.
For him, it was a way to address the issues that a lot of Alaskan native villages are facing: substance abuse and really high rates of suicide, for Alaskan native young men in particular. For George, one of the reasons he thought this was happening was because there was kind of a disconnect with one’s cultural identity and the day to day life that Alaskan Native villagers are facing.
I was fascinated with the work he was doing, and it turns out he was going to train his 20-year-old grand-nephew, Joe, to race in the world’s largest dogsled sprint. It was going to be the first time a villager in this community had raced in basically the biggest sprint dogsled race in years. I thought that was a really interesting way to explore these issues. It was just a natural story.
R: The film brings this seemingly “old school” tradition into modern times. When you think of dogsledding in Alaska, it’s not only something you wonder if people do anymore, but if it is changing with the times. You see Attla’s grand-nephew, Joe, with a Go-Pro camera, giving all the dogs trendy nicknames. It’s not a way that you see a lot of Native Alaska portrayed in media.
C: I think the way our culture sees Native Americans and Alaskan Natives, we think of them as fixed in the past. It’s kinda the way our cultural imagination is. I feel that it’s destructive and it’s a stereotype. I really want to draw out how people are balancing their cultural traditions with the age in which we’re all living. One thing I love is how Joe is embracing his cultural traditions of dogsled racing, but he’s also a big basketball fan and those two worlds co-exist for him … his dogsled team is like his basketball team. He gave all the puppies the names of top basketball players!
R: It’s great how you bring that type of visibility to [this race]. It’s one of those things that if you don’t know — I mean, how much of us get exposed to Alaskan culture? How was the production process for you?
C: The village is such a close-knit community of less than 300 people. I was really aware that I was coming in as an outsider. I’m not from Alaska, I’m not an Alaskan Native. I really wanted to be as respectful as possible. There is a long history that’s complicated, and I don’t want to perpetuate [anything] … When I first got there, I wanted to not film for a little bit. I wanted them to be comfortable [in front of the camera] and be comfortable with me.
R: One of the most poignant moments in the film — that for me really embodied the importance of tradition, community and this dogsled race — was a line that Joe had where he said that [Native Alaskans] can’t be learning history that only happened in the lower 48 states.
C: A lot of their teachers who come are actually from the lower 48, and they’re only there for a year because it’s pretty lucrative to teach in a remote village. Their housing is usually covered, so a lot of them saw it as a chance to just …
R: Get out there?
C: … and make some money, and a lot of them are unable to teach that history. They learn the same things that they learn in, say Connecticut, which is where I’m from. It gets totally disconnected with their everyday life.
R: Would this have something to do with why the suicide rates are so high?
C: I’m not the expert, but from a number of people that I’ve talked to, it seems that there’s a combination of factors. The lifestyles of Alaskan Natives have changed so dramatically in the last 50 years, with the introduction of snow machines, for example. Along with the introduction to western education, when all of a sudden you’re getting this completely different set of morals, culture and everything.
One thing that’s really apparent is that, especially in Joe’s community, there’s this culture of not bragging, not talking about one’s accomplishments. I see that as a humble and wonderful quality, but in American popular media, we tend to brag. That’s what we do. So when you’re seeing all these people talk about their accomplishments, but [culturally] you don’t, you think that your community hasn’t done much. Of course that’s not at all the case, but in fact when I first met Joe, I met a lot of youth in the community, and they didn’t even know that his grand-uncle was a world champion. I think the budding of these two cultures together creates friction, and that’s one example, that can affect people’s self-esteem.
R: So what’s next?
C: I’m turning [In Attlas’ Tracks] into a feature film … we just hired a crew that’s all women. We talk about diversity in film, and it won’t happen until we provide opportunities for people. It’s really great to have a strong crew behind it.