Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Alaskan Native Dog Drivers in the Serum Run

About 3/4 of the 20 mushers who participated in the 1925 Great Race of Mercy were Alaskan Natives, either Athabascan Indians or Eskimos*. Most of the names we read in articles or books about the serum run list the white participants by name, but give short shrift to their Native colleagues. Consequently, most students of Alaska history know a great deal about Leonhard Seppela or Gunnar Kaasen, but have never heard of Titus John, Harry Pitka or George Nollner.

The fact is, in the early twentieth century the Native dog drivers were the very best that ever were, and they remained the very best well into the second half of the century when George Attla (the Huslia Hustler) and Gerry Reilly stood in the winner's circles much more often than not.

They weren't good dog men because of some secret spiritual connection with their animals, though I'm quite certain that some of them were indeed "dog whisperers". They were good dog men because they were born to a dog sledding culture. For some of those guys sled dogs were their cradle mates as infants, their playmates as children, their means to expression and freedom as adolescents and the guarantors of their livelihoods as adults.

As a general rule, the Alaskan Indian and Eskimo dog drivers were also in unbelievably good physical condition. Here is an example I pulled from an on-line biography of Leonhard Seppela.

"In 1916 the Nome Kennel Club was challenged by the Ruby Kennel Club. The native drivers from the Yukon River had a reputation of being extremely tireless and possessing fast teams; none of the Nome mushers wanted to accept the challenge. Sepp decided to give it a try, but was appalled on his dogsled trip to Ruby when a native with a crosscut saw appeared out of nowhere and trotted easily alongside his sprinting team, keeping pace effortlessly."

While planning our shooting sequences for the Weather Channel's documentary, I encouraged producer Stacy Robinson to contact my friend Silas Alexander. Silas is an Athabascan Indian who grew up in the village of Fort Yukon. As a child he as a part of the dog culture I wrote of earlier, and as an adult a frequent winner of foot races run on snowshoes. In his youth Silas and his brother once hiked 35 miles on snowshoes in two days, simply because they had missed an airplane flight.

Silas has agreed to represent the Athabascan dog mushers of the historical serum run in this documentary. I am very, very pleased that Towers Productions has seen fit to recognize the efforts of the Indians and Eskimos that played such a huge role in the historical serum run and that Silas will be the one representing them. He is a good man, and will bring them great honor in his depiction.


* In Alaska, most Alaskan Natives refer to themselves as either Indian or Eskimo. Indians frequently include the name of their home village while Eskimos describe their particular moiety. For example, one of my friends describes himself as a Quitch'n Athabascan Indian from Fort Yukon, and another describes himself as an Inupiat Eskimo. Although more "politically correct" terms are frequently used by non-Natives, I prefer to show my respect for the people of these ancient cultures by using the terms they most commonly use when referring to themselves. If you don't like it that is just too stinkin' bad. Get over it.

Here is website, written by a 'real, live Lower-48 Indian' that does a nice job of expressing the point of view of most of the Indians, Eskimos and other Native people I know.

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