“Ten Feet Tall and Bulletproof, Alaska Natives: Blazing the Iditarod Trail”
By Judy Ferguson and the Yukon-Koyukuk School District; Epicenter Press, 2020,2022; 240 pages, $19.95
These days the Iditarod is not just Alaska’s signature sled dog race. It’s a highly competitive professional sporting event that draws entrants and fans from all over the world. When the first Iditarod was run in 1973, however, it was a minimally-funded, barely-organized scramble across the roadless expanse of Alaska, employing the traditional method of winter travel over lands that had been home to Alaska Natives for tens of thousands of years. Contestants had to rely on themselves, each other, and the residents of the tiny, predominantly Native communities along the route. It’s not surprising, therefore, that in its early years, the race was dominated by Athabascan mushers who knew that land and how to traverse it better than anyone else.
While organizers of the race still reference its Native roots, this aspect of the Iditarod has been largely lost on the public. In an effort at compensating for this oversight, as well as to encourage young Alaska Natives to embrace their heritage, Judy Ferguson, Alaska’s most prominent oral historian, has teamed with the Yukon-Koyukuk School District to produce a volume of stories from 13 Athabascan men and women who have completed at least one Iditarod. The result is a book that combines personal histories with tales from the race that will keep readers on the edges of their seats.
“Ten Feet Tall and Bulletproof, Alaska Natives: Blazing the Iditarod Trail” — the title originates in a quote from Yukon-Koyukuk School Board member Fred Bifelt — is shorter than some of Ferguson’s previous works, but follows what has become a familiar format for her. Other than a brief introduction and whatever background information is crucial to understanding the context of each story, Ferguson acts as editor rather than author. The accounts here are told in the voices of those who shared their stories. It’s an approach that leads to highly readable narratives that feel like the personal conversations they began as, rather than the composed summaries of a reporter working from notes. Readers come away feeling like they have met the individuals whose stories she brings us.
Many of the 13 contributors gathered in this collection were early entrants in the Iditarod, and their tales are of a very different race from today’s high-tech event. In the 1970s, when the race was still a new idea, the barriers to admission were low. Particularly the entry fee, which today is all but prohibitive for anyone lacking significant sponsorships. This made it relatively easy for village residents to build sleds, assemble teams, and show up at the starting line. The race itself was more of a camping trip than a competition, and many of the entrants knew each other from their daily lives in rural Alaska. Before the international media took interest and big money started flooding in, it was a uniquely Alaskan event with a small-town feel, and this was in no small part due to the Native heritage that it incorporated.
This heritage is what Ferguson zeroes in on. While the adventures that each of the contributors had on the trail are the hook that will draw readers in, how they open up about their own lives and the lives of their parents and grandparents is where the real value of this book lies. Many of the narratives begin with lengthy family histories that situate the stories being told in the historical context of Athabascans finding themselves newly governed by a foreign culture that had moved into lands they had lived on for millennia. We learn how they made their way through this upheaval.
Nowhere is this seen more vividly than in the story told by Rose Albert. The first Alaska Native woman to both enter and finish the race, Albert tells of her parents’ divergent ways of coming to terms with American culture. She triumphed on the trail, and hers is perhaps the best of several thrilling race stories. But she subsequently faced tragedies and serious challenges in her personal life before finding solace in art and faith. This is where we discover her true strength.
Jerry Riley, the 1976 champion, begins his story in 1910 with his parents, then tells of his early life living hand-to-mouth in the villages of Alaska, overcoming hardships that forged his character and gave him the determination to win. His tales from the trail also sparkle with excitement.
The other accounts share this blend of family background, personal struggles, and action-packed race recollections. The result is a book that expands our understanding of 20th century Athabascan history, while providing fresh insight into the early Iditarod. “There were a lot of Natives,” Ken Chase recalls from those days. “It was a good time of joking, sharing, camping, and having a lot of fun.”
A word on Judy Ferguson. I’ve long admired her work and have been particularly vocal about her efforts on behalf of Alaska Natives, now spread across three books. She has collected and transcribed hundreds of their stories, earning the trust of her subjects by including them in every step of the process from her initial interviews to the final editing, ensuring that their stories are told in their words, as they wish them to be heard. Then Ferguson has brought those stories to the printed page, often at her own expense — this book, published by Epicenter Press, is an overdue acknowledgment from a publisher of the importance of her work.
Ferguson will never come close to financially recouping all that she has invested in her numerous books, wherein Alaskans from all walks of life are able to share their stories with the world. Long after all of us are gone, however, historians will be consulting her collected works to better understand how Alaska’s history was experienced by those who lived through consequential times. This is a priceless gift. I cannot think of another person in Alaska who has devoted so much time and energy to such an effort. We are tremendously fortunate to have her.