The foundation of the Frank Attla Youth & Sled Dog Care-Mushing Program (FAYSDP) is to provide young people with hands-on experience working with sled dogs under the guidance and mentorship of experienced dogmen and Native elders. This grassroots pilot program was made possible through the assistance of local sled dog kennel owners/mushers who provided dogs and other assistance. The FAYSDP has been part of the curriculum of the Jimmy Huntington School (JHS) for four years (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015) and involved over 30 high school and middle school students. High school students earned academic credit by taking a veterinarian science class from an accredited animal husbandry teacher. The middle school students earned credit by taking a class related to their Native cultural heritage.
Kennel owners/mushers, the JHS teaching staff, local AmeriCorps service members, and approximately 50 community volunteers worked together to plan classes and to support youth in hosting their own junior sled dog races on weekends. FAYSDP school based classes worked to improve student literacy and numerical skills while the kennel based classes taught dog care related to feeding, maintaining a dog yard, and monitoring overall dog health. All of the FAYSDP students learned dog handling and mushing skills involving harnessing, hooking up, training, and racing a team. Both school based and dog yard kennel classes offered students a unique opportunity to practice leadership and life skills. With help from their community, the program’s high school and middle school students mentored 60 kindergarten to six grade students and a group of National Head Start Association youngsters.
Participation in the FAYSDP had a noticeably positive effect, including an increase in students attaining their school’s honor roll and teachers reporting that participating students were more engaged in learning and had a more positive attitude toward education. Students in the program shared that they felt happy working with sled dogs and their parents reported an increase in self-esteem. Some adult members of the Huslia community expressed their belief that young people naturally feel more at ease with themselves when working with dogs because a dog accepts any person without judgment.
Program Highlights: Over the winters of 2012-2013 and 2013-2014, the community of Huslia, JHS students, and George Attla raised funds for junior mushers to compete in championship races. In 2012-2013, two junior dog handlers assisted two junior mushers to compete in the 4-dog and 6-dog class of the 2013 Junior North American Championship held in North Pole, Alaska. In 2013-2014, two junior dog handlers assisted one junior musher to compete in the 6-dog class of the 2014 Junior North American Championship. This young musher won all three-race heats to become Huslia’s first Junior North American Champion. Also, another Huslia junior musher was selected by the state to represent Alaska in the 2014 Arctic Winter Games held in Fairbanks, Alaska. It was the first time a Huslia junior musher competed in the Arctic Winter Games. This young musher won two out of three race heats to win a silver medal for Alaska. With the help of the community over both winters, all of students in the FAYSDP worked together to care for and train the dogs used in these championship races.
Over the winter of 2014-2015, a FAYSDP graduate was mentored by George Attla while also enrolled full-time at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF) via their distant education program. He helped teach the FAYSDP classes to students who, in turn, helped him care for and train a sprint race dog team to compete in adult open class championship races. This young musher raced in the Open North American Championship to represent the FAYSDP and the community of Huslia. Over this past winter of 2015-2016, the community of Huslia continues to run the FAYSDP for 9th grade students.