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Hundreds in Fairbanks honor memory of 'Huslia Hustler' George Attla

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 17, 2015

FAIRBANKS -- Iconic Alaska musher George Attla achieved some of his greatest victories on an Open North American Sled Dog Race trail that crosses the Chena River not far from the David Salmon Tribal Hall, where hundreds of people gathered Tuesday morning to honor his memory.

Before a police escort and a procession to Fairbanks International Airport for a Wright Air Service flight that would carry the "Huslia Hustler" home, mourners described Attla as one who competed well and finished the race.

"So we say well done, well done George, you are and you remain a champion," said the Rev. Jim Falsey.

A homemade cross rested against the front wall, not far from the coffin where Attla was dressed in blue jeans, mukluks, a hooded parka and yellow gloves, as though ready for a long day on the sled runners.

The crowd included dozens of current and former mushers, including champions from Gareth Wright to Brent Sass. After mourners paid their last respects, pallbearers used a battery-powered screwdriver to attach the lid to his homemade wooden coffin. There were eight pallbearers and 79 honorary pallbearers, with surnames that included Attla, Pilot, Vent, Erhart, Huntington, Kokrine, Bifelt, Sommer, Nollner and Sam.

Attla, 81, died Sunday at the Alaska Native Medical Center after a battle with cancer. In keeping with a Huslia tradition, family members and friends kept watch over the coffin through the night in the tribal hall.

Eulogist Chris Simon, one of Attla's nephews, said growing up in Huslia, he enjoyed Attla's stories and always left his house "with a stronger mind."

"He had friends throughout Alaska and across the globe," said Simon.

People in the village called him the Huslia Hustler, a name that had first been given to the late Jimmy Huntington. Attla was also called "the King" or "King George," and "lately we had occasion to call him the Old Man, all signs of respect," said Simon.

As a child, the scourge of tuberculosis struck Attla down, forcing him to leave the village for years of treatment that left him with a bad right leg and a chip on his shoulder.

"Despite the obstacles, he became the greatest musher on Earth," Simon said.

Attla often told interviewers that dog mushing helped save him and gave him a way to channel his anger into something positive and develop a winner's attitude. Before he was through, he won the Fur Rendezvous World Championship in Anchorage 10 times and the Open North American eight times, competing in races for more than a half-century.

Simon said that when people from Huslia meet other Alaskans, the first question they get is "Do you know George Attla?" And the second question is "Are you related to him?"

Perhaps the most important thing that Attla taught young people, Simon said, is "to be proud of where you come from and don't let anything hold you back from being the best you can be."

His knowledge of dogs and dog training, along with his powerful "Attla kick," a product of his fused knee, helped him succeed in legendary battles with the likes of Wright, the late Dr. Roland Lombard and Merv Hilpipre, an Iowa auctioneer turned musher.

Hilpipre, who played the part of Gareth Wright in "Spirit of the Wind," the 1979 movie about Attla's early life, spoke at the memorial.

He said he just learned of Attla's death the day before and hustled to drive 180 miles to catch a flight from Minneapolis, reaching Fairbanks about 10 hours before the service.

"The greatest thing you must remember -- keep your hand in God's hand. And from then on, remember what really counts is the hands you shake and the smiles you make," Hilpipre said.

Attla is to be buried Thursday in Huslia.