Joe Bifelt saw firsthand how a cultural connection could transform school for young people in his home village of Huslia. A dog mushing program started by his late grandfather, legendary racer George Attla, changed his relationship with the high school teachers in his senior year.
Today, Bifelt is a teacher himself. After graduating with an education degree from UAF in 2019, he began working at Ticasuk Brown Elementary School in Fairbanks.
As a young person in Huslia, a village of about 300 people on the Koyukuk River, Bifelt didn’t connect well with his teachers, he said.
But when his grandfather started a program to promote dog mushing among young people, teachers got the local students involved.
“Before that, they were just sort of teaching us about someplace 1,000 miles away and not really connecting it to our culture or who we are. There was just a disconnect,” he said. “Once they started taking us to the dog yards and to the elders and showing, basically, respect for our culture, we started respecting them more and paying attention better in class.”
Bifelt also found he really wanted to mush dogs. So, after his freshman year at UAF, he stayed in Huslia in fall 2014 to help Attla train a team for the World Championships in Anchorage later that winter.
At first, Bifelt said, his friends and family worried he would drop out of school. But he continued to take distance classes. He’d run the dogs in the day with a GoPro camera attached to his chest and review the footage with Attla.
“Then I’d do my homework in the evening,” he said.
Bifelt said he hadn’t known about Attla’s sled dog racing record when he was growing up in Huslia. Attla, who mostly lived in Fairbanks until he moved back to his home village late in life, won 10 World Championships and eight North American Championships during a 53-year racing career.
“People try to be humble and that’s part of our culture,” Bifelt said. “So no one ever talks about Grandpa George being a world champion or anything; he was just Grandpa George.”
Attla grew ill in December 2014. He died at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage on Feb. 15, 2015, at age 81.
All that winter, Bifelt continued to train the team, moving first to Fairbanks, then Willow and then Tok to avoid cold weather and keep the dogs in shape.
Warm weather canceled the World Championships, so Bifelt entered the 2015 Open North American in Fairbanks. His team placed 19th among 24.
Bifelt returned to UAF in fall 2015 to continue his education nonstop, taking summer classes and doing research. He and friends would travel to a Yukon River fish camp on summer weekends and hunt moose in the fall — a big part of the reason he chose UAF. “I could practice subsistence hunting and fishing in summer and on weekends,” he said.
In his senior year, Bifelt worked daily at Watershed Charter School, a K-8 school in Fairbanks, while also taking classes. It was a tough schedule.
“UAF has a great elementary ed program,” he said. “I wasn’t very happy when I had all the work assigned, all the homework, but I’m happy in the aftermath when I’m all prepared, or as prepared as I can be.”