“A sled dog, without him,
we would not have survived."
In the 50th Iditarod, Alaska Native mushers confront the past
– and a cultural divide
It was 2:32 p.m. on the first official day of this year’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race when Ryan Redington, an heir of the competition, drove his 14-member team of huskies out of Willow, Alaska. “Hike!” he called out, straddling wet snow atop the rails of his featherweight sleigh. The wide sky against his signature lime green parka popped with color – a cloudless blanket of blue with sunny temperatures at thirty-four degrees.
"T-shirt weather,” said his Iñupiat mother, Barb, perhaps the event’s biggest booster. Her husband Raymie Redington, Ryan’s father, rode with his son to the race line – his sturdy sled hauled by a team of huskies. The chute they entered lent a backstage vibe as they met the ceremonial archway beneath a large sign that shouted “START”. There, enthusiastic fans lined two waist-high walls, a seamless stretch of banners branding a few of this year’s race sponsors: one, a local gold mine, another, a national oil and gas company. On Redington’s race bib, number “17”, he wore the logo for a statewide telecom carrier.
Redington is thirty-nine, a “veteran” by competitive racing standards, though he has a baby face compared to the grisly-looking mustachioed mushers of decades past, those whose beards turned crusty with icicles by the checkpoint. A father of two, he has an innocent smile and kind eyes that crinkle at the corners. Pulled this year by a pair of brothers – Henry and Senior – Redington’s towline of dogs come from two different kennels: his and his fathers. “I feel honored to have some of my dad’s dogs on my team,” he said. “It’s going to be the best of our two kennels combined.”
One of the huskies came from fellow musher, Mike Williams, Jr. who was forced out of the Iditarod before it began because – appendicitis. “I was just lucky I didn’t burst while out on the trail,” Williams, Jr. said. A family man from Akiak, the Yup’ik fishing village upriver from Bethel, he was now trying to make back money lost on equipment, dog care, and most recently, dozens of "drop bags" to feed his team while racing. That’s how close he was to running the Iditarod again – his eighth time. “I’m bummed,” he said at the start of the contest. “I felt I let my sponsors and my helpers down, but I had no control over it. I’m healthy and getting better.”
“Albert is a cool dog,” Redington said of his purchase from Williams, Jr., mentioning what he knew about the huskie's racing history. In last year's Iditarod, the dog was on a team that finished fourth with longtime musher Wade Marrs, according to Redington.
Raised in a family synonymous with the Iditarod, Redington could list off names of racers past and how he knew them. Marrs was sort of a childhood friend who grew up in the same Cook Inlet community of Knik, northwest of Anchorage. Williams, Jr. was about the same age, and like Redington, was born into mushing from his father, Mike Williams, Sr. Upon the race’s fiftieth anniversary, such connections were emblematic of how tight-knit the mushing scene had become in Alaska, and how family dynasties had formed across generations.
Ryan’s grandfather, Joe Redington, Sr., is known as the “Father of the Iditarod” for starting the race in 1973. Born on the Chisholm Trail in Dust Bowl-era Oklahoma, it seemed only fitting that another storied route in Alaska would help seal his legacy. The National Historic Iditarod Trail is the only Congressionally-designated trail in the state, largely due to Redington’s advocacy. The winter passage had been used by Iñupiat, Athabascan, and Yup’ik families long before territorial settlers ever arrived. But in Redington’s mind, the trail belonged to “the old-timers”– early prospectors who once relied on mushing to mine Indigenous lands for gold. He also saw the preservation of the path as a way to save dog-sledding, an Alaska Native tradition. The way he told it, dog teams were dwindling in the villages he visited, and he blamed it on the arrival of snowmobiles. Recognizing this history, he dreamt up an epic long-distance race that drew early skepticism as to whether he could pull it off at all – the first Iditarod that promised big prize money for anyone tough enough to endure days of below-zero terrain unreachable by any road.
Ryan’s dad, Raymie, raced fourteen Iditarods, and his Uncle Joee placed in the top ten twice. Along with Joe, Sr., all three today are in the Mushers’ Hall of Fame. Ryan’s Iditarod career began when he was fourteen, competing in the junior version of the race in 1992. It was the year his grandfather endured the Iditarod for the last time. He was eighty, a sixty-five-year age gap between them. Ryan likes to say he’s been mushing “ever since he could hold onto the sled.” Once, he said he took a team of dogs from a visiting racer from Sweden, without asking, setting off a daylong joyride that spurred an all-night search party. He was ten at the time, and his heroes were those who were changing the game: Charlie Boulding, Martin Buser, and Susan Butcher. But there were others that drew him in and for deeper reasons – mushers like Herbie Nayokpuk, nicknamed “The Shishmaref Cannonball." Some of his most loyal fans were Iñupiats from Unakaleet where Ryan’s mother was raised. And they were known to cheer for him well before the musher ever reached a point where he could hear them.
“I think it’s really cool to have a Redington in the race this year,” he said before referencing his mixed white and Native heritage. “And I definitely think about my family in Unakaleet and how cool it is to be Iñupiat and to be in the race.”
No Redington has come close to nabbing victories like other Iditarod dynasties such as the Seavey’s or the Mackey’s, though across the decades, the Redington family has placed many times in the top ten. It took Ryan several years to find his pace, but today, he isn’t shy about pursuing his birthright. “I’d like to bring home my grandpa’s trophy,” he told me on the eve of this year’s Iditarod. (The trophy literally is a bronze bust of Joe Redington, Sr., holding a husky.) “I think that’d be pretty special," said the grandson.
Only five Alaska Native mushers have taken home the top Iditarod prize across five decades: Carl Hungtington (Athabascan) in 1974; Emmitt Peters, the “Yukon Fox” (Athabascan) in 1975; Jerry Riley (Athabascan) in 1976; John Baker (Iñupiaq) in 2011; and Pete Kaiser (Yup’ik) in 2019.
In many ways, Indigenous participation in the 50th Iditarod bears little resemblance to the early 1970s when Native mushers represented roughly a third of all racers. Today they make up less than ten percent. Out of 49 people who started out on the Iditarod Trail this year, four Alaska Native mushers entered the race including Redington, Kaiser, Richie Diehl (Dena’ina Athabascan), and Apayauq Reitan (Iñupiaq).
The sled-dog competition, meanwhile, has surged to become a $5 million event attracting multinational corporate sponsors and its own brand of cryptocurrency. A revision of rules and fancier equipment has also intensified the human endurance of the race. What once took twenty days to complete is now done in as few as seven. Such changes have elevated long-distance mushing into what one Canadian racer called “a rich man’s sport.” But it would be far too simplistic to suggest that these financial realities alone explain why fewer Natives are entering the Iditarod.
While dog mushing may be what has kept Indigenous Peoples of the North alive for generations, in the last half-century, Alaska Native life has been one of navigating staggering loss – of dogs lost to technology and carbon consumption; of land lost to colonization and over-extraction; of family and friends lost to depression and violence; and of lifeways lost to rising sea levels and melting permafrost. For Native mushers then, the Iditarod is a vital exercise in not losing; of not vanishing – of resisting erasure across a thousand frozen miles in some of the least accessible areas because of sled dogs, the irreplaceable companion that has sustained Indigenous life despite everything. They turn up at the end, still here.
Robert and Owen Ivan, two Yup'ik brothers from Akiak, Alaska departing Anchorage at the start of the first Iditarod in 1973 when they ran together as a team. Anchorage Daily News
Robert and Owen Ivan, two Yup'ik brothers from Akiak, Alaska departing Anchorage at the start of the first Iditarod in 1973 when they ran together as a team. Anchorage Daily News
The Iditarod bills itself as “The Last Great Race On Earth" – a marketing strategy that flirts with Indigenous origins of mushing, but that mostly celebrates Alaska’s gold insanity. It was, after all, the once-bustling townsites like Iditarod that went boom-to-bust during the territory's storied Gold Rush. Today, what remains in the ghost town is a hollow bank vault and a blighted brothel. More importantly, the site has preserved its namesake of the time-honored trail.
The Iditarod is also a link to an Indigenous Arctic in which Alaska Natives have, for the most part, swapped furs for Gore-Tex, harpoons for firearms, and sleds for snow machines. But among an elder generation of mushers, like Joe Garnie, dog teams are what have kept him connected to a culture that has survived settlement and the disease, displacement, and destruction it rendered. What will become of authentic mushing in the 21st century has yet to be seen.
Garnie was born in the Iñupiaq village of Teller, north of Nome, in 1953, seven years before Alaska statehood. His parents survived the Spanish Flu in 1918 and a diphtheria outbreak a few years later. He began mushing for subsistence by the age of six and when he turned sixteen, a daisy chain of planes shuttled him to a federal Indian boarding school three thousand miles away in Oklahoma. The Chiloco Indian School was made scandalous for beating its students, at times, resulting in death. “The emotional scar that I got from that place shook the very foundation of my being,” Garnie told me.
The following year, he transferred to Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon where the mission was the same – assimilation – though Garnie said with less abuse. There, he bonded with other Alaska Natives like Mike Williams, Sr. of Akiak, where both kept vivid memories of what life was like in their respective villages before they left, before the oil boom, and before an extractive economy forever altered an Indigenous one. Garnie returned to Teller just as the inaugural Iditarod was set to begin in 1973, a mega-marathon from Anchorage to Nome along the long ago trails once journeyed by his ancestors.
The first Iditarod was a half-baked, but formidable experiment achieved by the will of grizzled dreamers, gutsy thrill-seekers, and Native mushers who felt right at home. Thirty-six teams signed up, but only twenty-two racers finished (twenty-three if you count the Yup’ik brothers, Robert and Owen Ivan of Akiak, who ran together, on the same sled, that year). Garnie’s uncle, John Komok, was among six Native entrants who finished in the top ten. It took him twenty-two days, four hours, thirty-six minutes, and thirty-four seconds to complete. He placed eighth and took home $1,800 in prize money. Dick Wilmarth, a white miner and trapper from Red Devil, Alaska, took home top honors, the only time he'd run the race. But it was Native mushers like Bobby Vent, Isaac Okleasik, and Herbie Nayokpuk who made names for themselves in that first Iditarod, a trend that would energize other Indigenous racers, including Garnie, in those early years.
In the beginning, racers ran their dogs by day, set up camp at night, and at times, snowshoed to break trail for their teams for miles. Garnie entered his first Iditarod in 1978 at the age of twenty-five after a trifecta of wins by Athabascan mushers Huntington, Peters, and Riley. This winning streak by Indigenous-led teams inspired more than just Garnie. In 1976, nearly half of the 34 entrants that year were Native racers. But whatever momentum that had been building hit a snag when Riley was short-changed his prize money. He was supposed to get $12,000, but instead received $7,200, a deficit that Iditarod organizers blamed on the budget. “Finances were tight in 1976,” said Dick Mackey in his 2001 autobiography, One Second to Glory. “Those of us on the board never knew if the race was going to survive,” he said. (In the first Iditarod, Dan Seavy, the third-place finisher, was talked into taking an I.O.U. for half his purse, but eventually received the rest of the money.) Riley is the only winner in Iditarod history that was never paid the full prize payout earned, said Mackey. By the time Garnie entered the race in 1978, the number of Native entrants had dropped in half, from roughly forty percent of all entrants down to twenty percent.
Garnie wasn’t expecting to get rich off of competitive distance mushing, but he made a living out of it. From his first Iditarod, he went on to compete in fifteen races and countless other long-distance contests. Like so many Native mushers before him, running with dogs was first a lifeway before it ever was about competition. “Our culture is sled dogs,” he said. “Even back when we had sod houses, we made a place for our dogs. They’ve assisted our lives, here, for thousands of years.” But when Garnie returned to Teller after boarding school, he noticed fewer dog teams around. He also spotted, for the first time, a strange new contraption that villagers called “snow-gos” or snowmobiles. Innocently, he asked his uncle if these machines could outrun the dogs. “He thought I had lost my marbles,” Garnie said, wryly. It only took one try at hunting by snowmachine before he rejected the whole idea. Engines died, he thought, but dog teams were full of life. What threw him most, though, was how quickly such change had taken over his boyhood village – and within the four short years he had been away at boarding school. “I remember watching it all with sadness,” Garnie said of the depletion of sled dogs. “It was all happening at a very influential time in our lives – when we weren’t there.” One advertisement at the time even perpetuated the idea of the vanishing Alaska Native hunter, a depiction featured as backdrop to a showy pack of high-powered snow machines and a damning sales pitch: “Ski-Doo has replaced the dog team.”
At the turn of a new decade, something else was happening. In 1970, the State of Alaska had just tripled its state budget virtually overnight. One year prior, the first successful lease sale of oil-rich land on the North Slope of Prudhoe Bay had generated $900 million in revenue. But the land was not officially Alaska’s to lease; it belonged to Iñupiaqs who had never relinquished their title to the territory – not to Alaska or to anyone. Lawmakers had a term for the overlooked real estate conundrum – “the Alaska Native problem” – and feverishly looked for solutions to solve it. The plan, the largest land claims settlement in U.S. history, was passed by Congress in 1971. Known as the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), it extinguished aboriginal title to 365 million acres of Indigenous homelands, and from this, allocated 44 million acres and roughly $1 billion in compensation to private corporations – for-profit companies that Alaska Natives were required to establish. Nowhere in the deal did it secure hunting and fishing rights for tribal communities, a cornerstone commitment in essentially every treaty involving land cessions between Native nations and the United States.
Fifty years on, some see ANCSA as a grand experiment in American colonization, a deliberate departure from federal Indian policy. Others criticize Native negotiators for not holding out for more. A good majority, though, believe it was the best deal at the time. But for Garnie and Williams, their thinking about ANCSA was more radical. They call the land deal something else, entirely: an act of “termination,” the federal Indian policy that is just as it sounds – the elimination of tribes and its citizenry. The two men had a front-row seat to these genocidal attempts while attending the Chemawa Indian School. There, along the Pacific Northwest, Natives in the region were getting arrested and staging Standing Rock-like protests to defend their treaty-protected fishing rights. Agitated state governments argued these entitlements were “special rights,” but the Supreme Court, in a landmark decision, ultimately affirmed the Indigenous protection to hunt and fish as legitimate. The so-called “Fish Wars” changed Garnie and Williams’ young worldviews. In ANCSA, they saw a promise that had failed these virtues. “It was a systematic disconnect – to break ties and reinvent you,” Garnie said of the termination era that he grew up in, and that was indelibly marked by ANCSA. “Unfortunately, we were the ones they were targeting.”
Since Chemawa, Garnie and Williams have remained such good friends that they know each other’s phone numbers by heart. On any given day the banter between them rests with things they know more about than anything – the impact that colonial models of education have had on Alaska Native families and the cataclysmic loss that has intensified over the years. “The bad side of boarding schools is they are having a rapid change on our traditional way of life,” Williams explained. “And I think we’re going to have to talk about it more to heal because a lot of people had bad experiences.” He went on, “We’ve lost a lot of people to suicides, too, so we’re going to have to deal with that.” Such dialogue between the two Native men hardly met the mushing-specific talking points of other racers, but then again, their clear-eyed perspective on running sled dogs went beyond trophies and prize money. Garnie, who is the only person in Teller to keep a team of huskies anymore told me that he hasn’t come across any young people interested in carrying on mushing traditions. “A lot of ways are getting lost in our culture,” Garnie said. “But one thing we should always remember is a sled dog, without him, we would not have survived.”
2022 IDITAROD (Northern Route)
There are two routes used for the Iditarod Trail. The Northern Route is run during even-numbered years and the Southern Route during odd-numbered years. When the race began in 1973, only the Northern Route was used but organizers failed to consult with Native villagers about the annual influx of people and dogs that had become taxing on their tribal communities. Native leaders raised concerns and in 1977, the Iditarod Board of Directors made the decision to split the routes across alternating years.
Ryan Redington was the first musher to arrive at the Rainy Pass checkpoint on Day Two of the Iditarod. It was a Monday morning, about 150 miles from where the race began. In between, he made two short stops in Yentna and Skwentna - his team, he described on social media, as feeling strong. But they had encountered a moose, and this bothered Redington. Heavy snowfall and unusual winter rain had made survival difficult for these animals; deep snow caked with a layer of ice meant herds were getting stuck and the moose were starving. More than anything, they were scared of predatory wolves. It was no wonder, then, that an aggravated bull attacked a team of sled dogs during a day of training weeks before the big race, near Fairbanks. “I might rest a little longer just to give somebody else a chance to scare that moose off,” said Redington as his dogs fed on kibble and slept on beds of straw.
After four hours of rest, Redington paced his team towards Rohn, testing his sled-handling skills on tough snow. But it was Albert whose stamina had started to slip. The four-year-old husky that Redington bought from his mushing friend, Mike Williams, Jr., was limping by the time the team reached Nikolai at 8:11 a.m. Tuesday. It was a slower run across the Alaska Range, rough and windy, but Redington had longtime family friends to look forward to visiting. (The Runkles have been Iditarod volunteers to the Redingtons for over 40 years.) “It’s so cool hearing stories from when my dad and grandpa raced,” he said. Added to these were now the volunteers’ caretaking of Albert who would book the dog a flight to Anchorage and help arrange his transport to Redington’s kennel in Knik.
A well-paced sled dog team travels around nine miles an hour on groomed trails, and about half as fast going uphill. For the first several checkpoints out of a total of twenty-three, Redington actually slowed down his team. “Normally, I average a little over 11 miles per hour,” he told a film crew providing updates to the official Iditarod website. But he said he had started to step on the drag mat to preserve the dog’s energy. It was logic that reflected enduring a 1,000-mile race as opposed to just running one. Mostly, Redington said the trail was uneventful, staring ahead at a line of husky tails against a canvas of whiteness. The only quips about the weather, meanwhile, had been how incredibly warm the first days had been. For this reason, many frontrunners, including Redington, began resting by day and driving by night.
The aurora borealis oozed in the darkness in between pit stops at small Athabascan villages and bygone mining towns. By Wednesday, the fourth straight day of racing, a pack of five mushers bedded their teams down for late-day naps in abandoned Cripple, the halfway point on the trail. Eureka racer, Brent Sass, was first to arrive, a feat awarded with three-thousand dollars in gold nuggets.
Dogs spread out in long lines near skinny spruce trees. After a seventeen-hour run, Ryan Redington was among the last of the leaders to arrive ahead of Mitch Seavey, the oldest musher to ever win the Iditarod – once in 2013 at age 53, and again in 2017 when he was 57. As race regulations require, the mushers were taking a mandatory 24-hour layover and chose Cripple as their resting place. There, they exchanged field notes, swapped laughs, and learned what others with Internet access already knew: that this was likely to be a contest between two racers each vying for victory for two different reasons. Sass, wanted to win his first Iditarod, ever, while Dallas Seavey, Mitch’s son, was attempting his sixth win – what would break records.
Redington tried to downplay his disappointment after realizing he had probably lost his shot at taking home his grandpa’s trophy. “I’m way too far behind,” he told the camera crew as he sat casually on the rails of his sled. He appeared in his element, though bags had started to form under his eyes. “We’ll still do the best we can."
He had already lost a dog heading into the race. Wildfire, a veteran from his team that finished seventh last Iditarod, had been struck in a hit-and-run snowmobile collision while training in Wisconsin in early January. “I filed a police report,” Redington said in disbelief. Wildfire’s hind leg had been broken in three places. Vets performed surgery, and the GoFundMe plea to help with medical costs exceeded forty-thousand dollars within days. On the trail, Redington dropped another dog, Yentna, as he moved on from Cripple, bringing his towline down to twelve huskies from fourteen. He also replaced Henry as leader with a runner named Whip. “I like my team a lot and they’re healthy and doing pretty good,” Redington said, but complained that softer trails due to warmer weather were slowing down the team. “When we get on a good trail we cruise pretty good.”
For at least a week before the Iditarod, Anchorage is a lively scene for mushing. The community crawls out of their winter dens for Alaska’s official sport, sled-dog racing, as if to signal they’ve endured another winter. “Fur Rondy and Iditarod times” is how Mike Williams, Sr. describes the season, a pair of weekends bookended by sled dog races that have defined Alaska. The Fur Rendezvous, the three-day sprint that made Athabascan musher, George Attla, a world-renowned champion, sparks festivities in downtown Anchorage in late February. The following weekend, the first Saturday in March, the ceremonial start of the Iditarod draws another wave of spectators, many of whom are Alaska Native mushers.
At the first heat of the Fur Rondy there was Rocky Riley, Grant Beck, John Simon, and Fred Bifelt – retired Native racers with salt-and-pepper hair who, along with Mike Williams Sr., cheered on teams starting out at 4th Avenue and D Street. Days later at the annual Iditarod pre-race dinner, a blue-eyed woman with a wide smile and pixie haircut posed for a picture with Williams. Tekla-Butcher-Monson was eleven-years-old when she rode a portion of the Iditarod Trail with him. That was in 2007, the year she spread her mother’s ashes at Old Woman Cabin. The ghostly spot was a favorite of Susan Butcher’s, the four-time Iditarod Champion who perhaps remains the sport's most celebrated musher – even fifteen years after her August 2006 death. “Susan was a close friend of ours, sharing her dogs with our kennel,” said Williams in a social media post featuring the photo of him and Tekla. Also with Williams that week was Joe Garnie. The two men, like brothers, met up with their wives, shared a meal, and reminisced about their Iditarod days together. One memory that came up was the steak dinner they shared on a minus-seventy-degree night at Farewell Lakes, the watershed afoot the then-barren Farewell Burn, an area on the trail named for a massive lightning fire, there. Back then, what may have seemed treacherous was the stuff that they laughed over now.
Williams, who is sixty-nine, was never a top contender in the Iditarod, only once breaking into the top twenty. But that didn’t stop him from entering a total of fifteen races. He has the build of a teddy bear and kind energy. His compassion for others, so apparent in the words he chooses and the causes he advances, has branded him a known tribal leader in Alaska and across greater Indian Country. It was a path of surviving boarding school, alcohol dependency, and crushing loss including the deaths of all six of his Yup’ik brothers to drinking-related incidents. Sobriety changed his life and may have even saved it. In 2015, he published a memoir. “People were drinking because they weren’t adjusting to the quick life changes of the healthy Alaska Native,” he said in Racing Toward Recovery. He traced the hardships to disruption sowed by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Some people got rich. Others didn’t. More than anything, the ancient economy of living off the land had started to collapse. “Families that for generations had been solidly relying on subsistence hunting and fishing were going on welfare, public assistance,” Williams wrote.
In the process of these cultural shifts, Alaska Native men had been emasculated, argued one of the state’s most respected economists, the late George W. Rogers. A Berkeley-educated social scientist, Rogers arrived in Alaska in 1945 and advised territorial governors onward to statehood. He also chronicled the rural dynamics of Alaska Native communities largely segregated from the big changes shaping the era. “Heavy-handed attempts to enforce school attendance disrupted the seasonal movements of families in pursuit of their subsistence economies,” Rogers wrote in Anthropologica in 1971. “[It] turned the village society inside out by making unwed mothers and the aged the principal sources of income, and rendering the able-bodied male economically redundant.”
To be sure, the strife across Alaska Native villages had been building for generations. More modernly, throughout the twentieth century, hardships were drawn from decades of discrimination. Nowhere was this more evident than on the mining front. Indigenous prospectors, just as lucky to find gold, were denied their fortunes. That's because mining claims could only lawfully be made by U.S. citizens, a status that had been denied to Alaska Natives until 1924, well after the gold boom had gone bust. The inequality lingered after World War II. Alaska Native troops, regarded as “Eskimo Scouts,” mushed with extraordinary competence to patrol the territory's Pacific front – an essential military contribution akin to the Navajo “Code Talkers” fighting the same war. And like their Dinè comrades, they returned to their villages as patriots, though unable to vote. Longstanding literacy laws requiring “English-only” ballots severely restricted a mostly Native-speaking electorate which also included Native veterans. This lack of political representation soon spilled over into public schools where access was denied to students deemed too “uncivilized.” Eventually, decisions by the federal government delivered dramatic rates of displacement. Children were sent to federal Indian boarding schools, and modern-day hunters were handed one-way tickets to "relocate" and work odd jobs in American cities – two destructive policies stemming from the Termination Era.
These were the everyday realities of Alaska Natives that Oklahoma-rooted Joe Redington, Sr. failed to grasp when he toiled at rural fish hatcheries in his early years in Alaska. “When I went into the villages in the ‘50s there was a dog team behind every house,” Redington told biographer Katie Mangelsdorf in 2011. “When I went back in the ‘60s the dogs were just about all gone.” From this, he made a single assessment. “The snowmachine had taken over,” he said. And it became a cornerstone narrative to promote the first Iditarod race to wary investors – an event he argued would save an endangered mushing culture. It worked. Within a year, the Alaska Legislature made sled-dog racing the official state sport, and Governor William Egan helped Redington, Sr. reserve bigger planning meetings at the Gold Rush Hotel in Anchorage. Few if anyone challenged the simplicity of Redington's “preservation movement” or the Iditarod's contradictory ties to the mass migration of gold miners. Even fewer suggested that true preservation of mushing would be to find a way to restore such cultural heritage from the bottom up – in Alaska Native villages – that by systemic colonization, alone, has set up these communities to lose, and lose again.
The romance of traversing the Iditarod Trail by sled dogs – an epic route relied on by preachers and teachers, miners and militias – hardly fits neatly with understanding the encroachment on Indigenous Alaska. But by 1900, migrants had outnumbered Natives for the first time making them new minorities in their own homeland. Nome had drawn some twenty-thousand settlers who had used the trail to scatter about the region's rivers and creeks, scouring for profits. Some struck it rich, but most didn't. That didn't stop them from greatly reducing the local food supply. Moose, caribou, and small game had reportedly been overhunted, and gold mining had resulted in the siltation of many salmon streams, destroying them. When writing the Handbook of Alaska in 1909 (one of the most culturally relevant chronicles in Alaska history), former senior Army officer Major General A.W. Greely expressed enthusiasm for the region’s mineral wealth but noted its dire impact on Alaska Natives. He called it “disgraceful” and asked: “Having largely destroyed their food supplies, altered their environment, and changed their standards and methods of life, what does a nation that has drawn products valued at $300,000,000 owe to the natives of Alaska? Will this nation pay its debt on this account?”
For Native mushers, the Iditarod is at once a vital exercise in not losing; of not vanishing – of resisting erasure across a thousand frozen miles in some of the least accessible areas because of sled dogs, the irreplaceable companion that has sustained Indigenous life despite everything. They turn up at the end, still here.
Williams was doing his part to make the storied trail maintain its Indigenous dignity. In 1992, the year of his rookie ride in the Iditarod, the suicide rate for Natives had reached four times the national average and fetal alcohol syndrome was occurring at a rate 2.5 times more among Native women than other women in general. Alcohol had become the greatest threat to life in rural Alaska, explained Williams on why he had dedicated his race to a Native sobriety movement that year. In his sled, he carried the signatures of more than 400 Alaska Natives who had pledged an ongoing commitment to stay sober. One Athabascan elder, moved by his activism, was Edgar Nollner. He was the last living musher of the 1925 diphtheria serum run which had used the trail to deliver antitoxin, saving the lives of hundreds in Nome. The elder waited to meet Williams as he slept in Galena, and when the racer awoke, the Nollner compared the serum emergency to the Yup’ik leader’s own mission: a race against death, he said. Williams was gobsmacked by the new symbolism. “That gave me incredible strength,” he said.
Williams’s race for sobriety stirred more than Native elders. His fellow racers that year voted him “Most Inspirational Musher,” an honor he received again in 1998. Joe Garnie was given the award three years later. It was diplomacy that may have helped smooth tensions within the Iditarod community that had been mounting throughout the 1980s.
Friction between Native and non-Native mushers made news in 1986 when Garnie was a top contender against Susan Butcher. At the Unakaleet checkpoint, she implied that Iñupiat villagers had stolen her dog food drop bags as a way to rig a victory for Garnie. (The pair were engaged in a neck-and-neck race that year.) “They want to see Garnie win,” Butcher was quoted as saying to the Wasilla Frontiersman. But the Iditarod Trail Committee President discounted the allegations saying that other mushers had been missing dog food, too. More than anything, the conflict laid bare how financially uneven the Iditarod had become. One mundane indicator was straw. Today, every racer has hay bales to bed down their dogs on the trail, but back in 1986, Garnie said few could afford it let alone have it air-shuttled to every checkpoint. “Butcher had it at every point,” said Garnie. Native spectators noticed the disparity, too. In White Mountain, one of the last villages before reaching Nome, Garnie rode in to find Iñupiat fans gathering dry grass from an area hillside for his trail-weary dogs. Then as now, the gesture made Garnie tear up. “They just wanted to help me and my team,” he said. “It was above and beyond anything I’ve ever experienced out on the Iditarod Trail – a very touching moment.”
Mushing, like most niche communities, is too small for open toxicity or for languishing grudges to exist. In many respects, it reflects an Iñupiaq value – to avoid conflict – because you never know who you may need to rely on to save your life. But neither was mushing an Indigenous artifact to be pawned away and forgotten about. The year that Garnie finished runner-up to Butcher, only one other Native had entered the Iditarod out of fifty-five entrants, that year. There was a sense that mushing had taken on a new direction; an expensive one. “We were just people who had dogs for subsistence,” said Garnie. “Then this race came on deck and changed everything.”
Within three days of Butcher’s victory, she had reportedly been contacted by Coca-Cola, American Express, and Chase Manhattan Bank, seeking her endorsement. It was the first time corporate attention had fixated on the Iditarod, some say elevating the race outside of Alaska. As Butcher continued to win and break records, she became a national icon famous enough to spark a T-shirt fortune: “Alaska – Where Men Are Men and Women Win the Iditarod.” The strategy of sled-dog racing had started to shift, too. Many mushers started following Butcher’s lead of keeping kennels with as many as 200 dogs, and of breeds that had been prospected in Native villages. Garnie said this blew his mind. “How do you even remember all of their names?” he asked rhetorically about the dogs. It got to be big money, he said. “That’s when I realized I didn’t want any more part of it."
At the top of his game, Garnie could never attract a lucrative sponsor like Butcher. But such abandon might have been reflective of the mushing philosophy he shared with Williams, a more humble approach that they had both been raised with. “It’s more than winning and racing for us,” said Williams. “The dogs, you know, are part of our family; our way of life.”
“Like our inherent sovereignty, nobody can take mushing away from us,” Williams said.
The year Garnie won the Most Inspirational Musher award, he spent eighteen hours looking for his dog team lost in a heavy snowstorm.
Ryan Redington, grandson to the "Father of the Iditarod," Joe Redington, Sr., navigates his sled up a hill in the 50th run of the Iditarod. Dave Poyzer
Ryan Redington, grandson to the "Father of the Iditarod," Joe Redington, Sr., navigates his sled up a hill in the 50th run of the Iditarod. Dave Poyzer
On the Yukon River, it got windy and colder: single-digit temperatures at night, and mid to upper teens by day. The trail had also turned faster. Pete Kaiser of Bethel was steadily gaining on a pack of frontrunners when he arrived in Kaltag, the last checkpoint on the Yukon. He rested on the river for four hours before pushing on to Unakaleet. As daylight faded Sunday, a full week on the trail, Iñupiat villagers gathered around Kaiser’s sled to watch the first Yup’ik Iditarod champion pack up and mush away. Few knew he was hauling precious cargo. The family of Dick Wilmarth, the first Iditarod winner, had asked Kaiser to carry his ashes on the race’s fiftieth anniversary. “Obviously he’s from the Kuskokwim River, just like I am, and we’re both Iditarod winners,” said Kaiser – which to him meant Wilmarth, who died in 2018, was like kin. He called the memorial ride "a total honor". Arriving on Front Street in Nome at 9:45 p.m., Tuesday, March 15th, Kaiser finished in fifth place.
Richie Diehl’s dogs had impressed him early on near Ophir when they helped break trail in snow that at times was waist-high. It did little to slow him down. Diehl maintained a front-of-the-pack lead by the time he reached Ruby on Day Six. If he had been first to reach the Yukon River community, instead of fifth, he would have been rewarded with a five-course meal. That prize went to Brent Sass who declined the dinner to stay on top of his racing schedule. And Diehl made a similar move when fans ordered fresh pizza to be delivered from a local restaurant to his sled upon reaching Unakaleet. But he left six minutes after checking-in, and without the pie. When he turned up at the finish line in Nome, he seemed surprised, in a good way, about his race results. “What the hell is going on around here?” he joked, dryly, while being interviewed beneath the famed burled arch on Front Street. He arrived seventeen minutes after Kaiser, notching his ninth Iditarod run and his third top-ten finish.
The day before in White Mountain, Diehl and Kaiser had shared an arctic oven tent on a mandatory 8-hour layover, the second to last checkpoint on the Iditarod Trail. When they got to Nome, they were welcomed by the same crowd of family and friends who flew in from Bethel to celebrate their races. The squad would have been cheering on Mike Williams, Jr., too, had he not been forced to drop out of the race. The three Native mushers had formed a brotherhood since high school. They had raced and trained together; attended each other's weddings. Like Kaiser’s connection to Wilmarth, it was a connection felt all along the Kuskwokim River including at its northernmost point in McGrath. There, young fans from the Athabascan village waved handpainted signs for Diehl and Kaiser and asked for their autographs. “It’s like one big family,” Diehl said about Kuskokwim ties and the new memories he made on the trail.
The last musher to check-in at White Mountain was Apayauq Reitan, the Iñupiaq trans woman from Kaktovik, Alaska. She rode her towline of eight dogs into the village on Friday, March 18th, at 4:37 p.m. By Saturday afternoon, she was still there waiting out a wild wind storm. Two rookies, fourteen miles ahead, were knocked off the trail from gales reaching forty miles an hour. The mushers were injured and required rescuing. A third rookie turned his team around for similar reasons. All three scratched in the final 77-mile run of the race. Reitan said she was driving her dog team at a forty-five-degree angle just to fight the ground storm in that last stretch to Nome. She crossed the finish line late Saturday, March 19th, winning the Red Lantern, the prize given to the last dog team, and was awarded a $1000 prize. She is the first openly trans woman to complete an Iditarod.
After visiting with Iñupiaq cousins, uncles, aunties and friends in Unakaleet, Ryan Redington fought off a bad case of leg cramps by the time he reached Shaktoolik on the edge of the icy Norton Sound. But whatever delays he met there, including an electrolyte fix that had turned his vision black for a bit, he made up for it, clocking through checkpoints on his way to Nome. Mushing straight through Elim, he reclaimed his spot in the top ten. Meanwhile, Brent Sass, who had already taken off from his long layover at White Mountain, had maintained the lead he’d held since nine checkpoints back in Cripple, crossing the finish line early Tuesday morning, March 15th, for the win. At Koyuk, the third to last stop on the trail, Redington dropped Sven from his pack of dogs, which left him with nine. At White Mountain, he unhitched another – one his leaders, Whip. The whole team was sore from what had turned into a hard trail.
Just after midnight in Nome as Day Ten turned to Day Eleven, cowbells rang out amid throngs of people lined up downtown to receive the grandson of the Iditarod. He pulled up to the finish line, hugged his team of dogs, which had dwindled down to six, and smiled. He had finished in ninth place. Barely visible beneath the short ruff of his sealskin hat, when asked what it meant to compete in the fiftieth anniversary of the race, he gave a nod to other Native racers throughout Iditarod history. “I think a lot about the great mushers like Herbie Nayoukpuk, ‘The Shishmaref Cannonball,’” Redington said. He also mentioned Isaac Oleasik, the Iñupiaq champion of the 1967 Centennial Race – the contest that gave birth to all that Joe Redington, Sr. had dreamed up. “I think my grandpa would be very proud of the race and the mushers,” he said. “I’m proud to be a Redington.” ◾️
Published in collaboration with Mushing Magazine
How this story was reported:
Indigenously spoke to several sources, including mushers, mushers’ family members, advocates, historians, Iditarod organizers, and Alaska residents, and reviewed dozens of materials including social media entries, biographies, memoirs, past press clippings, video documentaries, archival records, and Iditarod.com field recordings past and present.
Cover: Aerial view of Iñupiaq musher John Baker and his dog team racing in the 2011 Iditarod which they won. Jeff Shultz
Other Images: Iditarod ®, Alaska Sports Hall of Fame, Anchorage Daily News, KNOM, The Nome Nugget; Jerry Riley (John McDonald)
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