Courtesy Chuck Schaeffer
Chuck Schaeffer, Inupiaq, raced in the 1985 and 1990 Iditarods, finished second in the 1991 Kusko 300 and third in the 1992 Kusko 300, and finished fifth in the 2011 and 2012 Kobuk 400.

Road to Iditarod: Rural Native Mushers Dwindling Because of Funding

Richard Walker

To Alaska Native peoples, the sled dog is as much a part of the culture as the canoe is to indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast. And the Iditarod Sled Dog Race is as important to Alaska Native mushers as the Canoe Journey is to Native American canoe families in the Northwest. “It’s our history, it’s our way of life,” said Yup’ik culture bearer Mike Williams Sr., veteran of 15 Iditarods and three-time Most Inspirational Musher of the race.

Since before memory or record, dogs have been a valued part of Alaska Native families. They’ve hauled and packed supplies, helped hunt and track, watched over children, and warned of potential danger. “It’s something we want to tell the whole world: we’ve always had dogs in our villages,” Williams said. “We’ve hunted and camped with our dogs for thousands of years and they’ve helped us. We want to continue to keep that culture alive, to share our culture and why we run these dogs and why we have kept our dogs. We do it for more than competing.”

Alaska Native mushers are prominent in the Iditarod’s history, and three of the four earliest Iditarods were won by Athabascans: sprint and distance musher Carl Huntington, 1974; Emmitt Peters, “the Yukon Fox,” 1975; and Jerry Riley, 1976. John Baker, Inupiaq, won in 2011 and has 13 top 10 finishes.

But the number of Alaska Native mushers in the Iditarod – considered the premier long-distance sled dog race -- is dwindling. As of Jan. 15, only four of 75 mushers registered for the 2015 Iditarod, which begins on March 7, are Alaska Native. And that has some Alaska Native mushers worried.

In many rural communities, the sled dog is being replaced by the snowmobile. And some Alaska Native mushers fear that without an indigenous presence in the Iditarod and other big races, interest in mushing among young Alaska Natives will continue to wane. “I look at it from a traditional standpoint,” said Chuck Schaeffer, an Inupiaq musher who will race in his third Iditarod this year. “My dad was the last one to own dogs in Kotzebue when the snowmobile came along … On [training runs] from Nenana to Kotzebue, I go through a lot of Yukon River and Kobuk River villages. There’s not too many [Native] mushers anymore. It’s something that is being lost in our culture.”

The obstacles faced by Native mushers in bush Alaska: It takes longer and it’s more expensive to travel for training and competition. And it’s hard to take time off to travel and train and compete. “Our Costco is in the river and in the land,” Williams said. “We have to fish in the summer and put food away and take care of our families in the village. That’s what we depend on to survive.”Richie Diehl, Dena’ina Athabaskan, finished 36th in the 2013 Iditarod and 14th in 2014 and was the 2014 Iditarod’s Most Improved Musher. Courtesy Real Diehl Racing

Some mushers say it can cost more than $100,000 a year to cover the cost of food, shelter and veterinary care for the dog team; mushing equipment and gear; fuel and transportation costs; and time off for training. In the bush, that kind of money is hard to come by, and Alaska Native mushers make up the difference between sponsorships and expenses out of their own pockets (Some mushers say sponsorships can range from in-kind donations to more than $10,000).

Removed from road systems, rural Alaska Native mushers are located far from potential sponsors and economic opportunity that can help cover the costs of training and competing. Several mushers on road systems operate businesses in which tourists can experience a dog sled ride, go on an excursion, and enjoy an overnight stay.

“We’re not in a road system. There’s no tourism,” Williams Sr. said. “A lot of those mushers that are in the road system, and are close to urban areas, and transportation and airports, they seem to do well in terms of entertaining tourists and telling the dog-mushing and Iditarod story. There are folks that pay to see that and feel that, but out here in the boonies in Akiak, we see hardly anybody.”

RELATED: Mushers Test Teams in Races Leading to 2015 Iditarod

To be winningly competitive in the Iditarod, a musher must train and compete year-round. Depending on the season, training requires that you travel to where the snow is. There are approximately six mid-distance races in Alaska, two long-distance races (three, including the Iditarod), and several club, festival and local races.


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sleddogaction's picture
Submitted by sleddogaction on
Alaska Native peoples did not create the Iditarod. It was the invention of Joe Redington, Sr. and Dorothy Page. The 1,000-mile Iditarod has a long, well-documented history of dog deaths, illnesses and injuries: Most Alaskan Natives oppose animal abuse. In fact, Alaska Natives complained about Ramy Brooks beating and kicking his dogs during the Iditarod. No animal should be abused in the name of culture.