The documentary “Attla” premieres on PBS tonight, December 16. It’s a loving look at George Attla, the Native American icon who became a ten-time world champion dogsled racer despite having the use of only one leg.
The documentary, directed by Catharine Axley, follows George’s career from his very first race in 1958 in Anchorage, Alaska — which he won, against all odds — to his waning years as he teaches his grandson Joe how to be a dog musher.
George suffered from TB as a child, which resulted in him spending several years in a hospital far from his home town. Doctors were able to fuse his leg bones, which resulted in him having a permanently stiff leg. But he only needed one good leg for dog mushing, and quickly became the highest-ranked champion in the field.
Discounted as a “cripple” by his community, he was driven to prove himself to them. And to the world at large, at a time when businesses in Anchorage still posted signs saying, “No Indians or dogs.”
Working with dogs had an extra benefit: As he says in the film, “Dogs accept you for who you are. They don’t care what you look like. They don’t care what you sound like. They’ll accept you.”
Sled dogs weren’t just for racing in George’s village in Huslia, Alaska. “When I was a kid, all of us were raised with dogs all around us. We used dog teams to get our wood in in the wintertime. They were necessary to get through life.”
His sister recalls that even before he began racing, George relied on the dogs more than any one else, “The dogs made it easier for him to go from place to place. They were like his legs.”
The film cuts between George’s past glories and him instructing Joe before his first big race. The lessons, which George monitors via video, also end up being a race against time due to George’s failing health.
Whether Joe wins his race or not becomes a secondary objective as he vows to continue George’s legacy and teach new generations about dog mushing.