All posts by Erin Kurvers

Erin Kurvers

About Erin Kurvers

My Name is Erin Kurvers. I am soon to be junior at Creighton University studying journalism. I love reading, writing, dancing, singing, learning, traveling, eating, and sleeping!

The Stories Still to Tell

Alaska. When I think of this place, I no longer only think of dog sledding, the snowy expanse, and drilling oil. I no longer see the population of 735,132 (provided by the United States Census) as a simple number.

What I now think of when I hear Alaska
What I now think of when I hear Alaska

When I think of Alaska, I think of Bethel. I think of the rolling tundra, the hazy blue sky, and the providing rivers. I think of the people, and I think of their stories.

And boy, did they have stories. After 13 interviews and even more interactions with the people of Bethel, I heard countless tales. It would take an entire two-week long documentary to share all of these stories and opinions with the rest of the world. And so, as a writing team, we had to reduce over 13 stories, to a single, 25 minute-long film.

The script we have written is good. It is true to Bethel and it shares the people’s commitment to a subsistence way of life and their fear that it, along with their culture, is coming under threat. It includes the difficult economic realities as well as the visible proof of climate change evident in the Yukon-Kuskokwim River Delta.

Yet, I cannot help but shake the feeling of shame at the fact that some of the stories will be left untold. The people of Omaha will not learn of the tragic cultural trauma the Yup’ik people underwent, nor will they grasp the full reality of the fishing restriction problem.

It is simply impossible to learn and write the story of all 735,132 people of Alaska. In the midst of all of these stories, we must simply choose which to share and which to save. We pick, and we choose, but at least I can find comfort in knowing that the 13 stories that were shared in Bethel will live on in my heart as well as that of the entire Alaska team.

Our job as journalists will never be over. There are always new stories to tell and new cultures to explore. Though our Alaskan film making adventure is coming to a close, I know that I will continue searching for new people to talk to and new stories to tell.

Learning through Doing

Yesterday, we all sat crowded around the projector in the Murphy media lab to watch a rough cut of what will eventually result in our final project.

photo-5

Just two weeks ago, we came to this same media lab with over 90 hours of footage, thousands of different story ideas, and with little to no video editing experience.

We have spent countless hours editing, writing, re-editing, and re-writing. Coffee, bagels, and Carol’s delicious cream cheese bars have powered us through as we attempted to develop a concrete story idea, but through it all, we have come up with a great film and learned journalism from an extraordinary perspective.

It is amazing that within the short span of two weeks, I now feel confident in trimming and marking video clips in final cut pro. I have learned how to create a storyboard as well as the importance of a concise narration. In addition, I discovered the tricks to Morgan Freeman’s narrating voice and the importance of reflection when creating a film.

I have learned more about journalism in this short 5-week period, than I have in my past two years of journalism classes and internships. I was able to witness and be a part of the entire process of making a documentary. From the interviewing, to the filming, to the editing and the writing, I have been able to see this project through and through.  The intense bursts of hard work were tiring, and sometimes seemed endless, but in the end I found it is what I love about the world of journalism.

From now on, I will never again watch a documentary in the same way. I will now analyze each shot that was used, looking for hints of foreshadowing and considering each word of narration.

Though the film still remains nameless and is nowhere near finished, I am confident that it will be a great and inspiring film!

A Job to Love

“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

These wise words by Confucious have been playing through my mind ever since I graduated high school and the most commonly asked question became, “What would you like to do with your life?”

Hearing this question, I always responded, “I want to do what makes me happy, I want to be adventurous and I want to make a difference in this world”. Yet, I always knew that this was not the answer my relatives, teachers, coaches, and friends were wishing for.

The truth was, I did not know the answer to their implied question. I had many passions and interests, but did not know how to mesh them into a single career that I would love.

After the backpack journalism program however, I can now confidently reply that I would like to be happy, adventurous, and make a difference throughout my career as a journalist.

Working hands-on to create a documentary film, I have come to the conclusion that journalism is what I love to do.

I love the adventure that awaits in every story, interview, or location. I relish in hearing fascinating stories, and I am motivated by learning about social justice issues. The spontaneity of the development process keeps me on my toes and I am energized by the complex writing and editing required.

Most of all, I love that through journalism, I am able to tell a story that needs to be told to the people that most need to hear. With a career in journalism, I see that there is a real possibility of making a difference in the world and I hope that this possibility begins now, with our Bethel documentary.

Journalists in action shooting footage in the Alaskan Tundra
Journalists in action shooting footage in the Alaskan Tundra

 

Traveling through Identity

The thing about traveling is that once I go somewhere, I am never again the same person. Different air penetrates my lungs, different ideas cultivate my mind, and new people enter my vicinity.

Traveling to Alaska, the things I witnessed and experienced in Bethel changed me.

The air that penetrated my lungs was crisp and clear. It was seemingly untouched by pollution and did not encapsulate me like a blanket, as does the harsh humidity in Omaha. The air was free in the wide-open spaces, and was not disrupted by high skylines. As the air cleared, so did my mind. Without the distractions generally present in the lower 48, I was able to truly connect with the beauty of nature and with my own thoughts. Among the fresh air, I was shown the power of reflection in nature and in life.

One of the moments in which I experienced the glorious Alaskan fresh air
One of the moments in which I experienced the glorious Alaskan fresh air

The ideas that cultivated my mind were different and exciting. I learned the idea of treating food like a guest with love and appreciation, and the concept that food has a memory, which has caused me to think about the story behind the food I purchase. The idea of “military showers” (showers where you conserve as much water as possible) inspired me to be more conscious of my water usage while the kindness and hospitality of the people of Bethel encouraged me to treat other people in a similar way.

The people who entered my vicinity were amazing and inspiring. Rose Dominic showed me the power of forgiveness. Cecelia Martz reminded me of the importance of maintaining culture and respecting elders. While Nelson exhibited more ambition and passion than I had ever seen before.

The air, the ideas, and the people I encountered in Bethel have made a permanent impact on my life. Through travel, my perspectives have altered, my opinions have changed, and the person I was four weeks ago no longer exists.

Yup’ik Museum Preserves Culture

By Tony Homsy and Erin Kurvers

In many modern day United States cities, it is not uncommon to encounter people stating they are 10% Polish, 15% German, 25% English, 20% Dutch, 10% Italian, and 20% Irish or some other combination of countless cultures and heritages. The recipe of heritages go on and on to the point where some people give up in trying to define a single cultural heritage.

Yet in Bethel, AK, the probability of finding a similar situation is much more unlikely. A small town in southwest Alaska, Bethel is one of the few places in the United States in which the native culture of the Yup’ik people is still visible in the everyday lives of the people living there.

Brian McCaffrey, one of the few non-natives of the town recognizes the incredibility of this, “There’s almost no where else in the world where you have an entire cultural group living in an area that is virtually in tact ecologically and in many respects still practicing practices that have gone on for centuries or millennia.”

One of the ways in which the Yup’ik people have worked to preserve their culture in a rapidly changing world, is through the Yupiit Piciryarait Museum.

The Yupiit Piciryarait Museum is the only museum of its kind in the Yukon delta region of Alaska. Founded in 1965 and containing around 2,500 cultural artifacts, the museum serves to remind the Yup’ik people of where they came from.

Eva Malvich, the museum director said, “The Yupiit Piciryarait Museum was put here because elders wanted people to know that even though we look a little bit different, maybe our diet has changed and we’re now working in a western society, we’re still Yup’ik people, we’re still relevant, we still value our subsistence lifestyle.”

Through the various exhibits that Malvich coordinates for the museum, she hopes to educate the younger Yup’ik generations as well as non-native people on the richness of Yup’ik culture.

The Yup’ik native said, “Our lifestyle is relevant and very important to us and we’d like to educate people on who we are and why were here.”

Melavich displaying the moravian children's home exhibit
Malvich displaying the Moravian children’s home exhibit

The museum has housed numerous exhibits in order to stimulate cultural education and honor the lives of generations past. For example, the museum’s most recent exhibit, featuring the work of Bethel local, Katie Baldwin Basil, is focused around honoring the many Yup’ik childhoods spent in the Moravian Children’s home.

While the event has been successful, Malvich explains that with every collection the museum faces difficulties. The extreme isolation of Bethel as well as technological setbacks are examples of problems that she cites.

The museum director said, “We have basic word on our computers, we have little printers just like in an office, we have a limited collection in the back as well, so we rely on people to donate objects or give objects on loan to us to show.”

Despite the setbacks, the museum hopes to build up a repository and hopefully gain more recognition throughout the community.

The museum is a nice beacon of hope for the preservation of culture in a country where distinctive heritage is slowly disappearing.

View the feature film here: The Yupiit Piciryarait Museum–Bethel

The Girl Who Makes a Difference

2007, in the small town of Norfolk, NE, the Norfolk junior high school cafeteria was crammed with students headed towards a large poster that hung across the wall. The students had been assigned the task of writing their future dreams upon the poster. One by one, children walked up and posted their dreams. A young boy approached the board and wrote “I want to be a doctor”, a giggling girl wrote, “ I want to be a singer”, and between the engineering wannabees and college basketball dreamers, stood a girl with a different idea of what her future would hold.

The girl with a mane of vibrant orange ringlets, glasses before her eyes and braces lining her teeth walked hesitantly up to the board. Though she was timid and soft-spoken, she was confident about her dream and she forcefully posted it to the wall. A dancer, track star, basketball player, and academic, the girl had her fair share of plausible dreams to write down. Yet unlike the other boys and girls, she did not wish to be a ballerina or an Olympian, she had one simple hope for her future, and it was this, “I want to make a difference”.

This young girl was Hayley Henriksen, and make a difference she has.

Growing up as the daughter of teachers, she has always had a passion for learning. This love of learning has led her to discover her numerous passions in which she hopes to leave her positive mark.

One such passion is climate change. As a ninth grader, Henricksen viewed the Al Gore film, An Inconvenient Truth, and was immediately impacted. This film led her to give a persuasion speech to her class surrounding the dangers of climate change.

Henriksen said, “It’s just kind of funny that as a ninth grader I was talking to my fellow students about climate change when they probably had no clue what I was talking about…But it’s been something I’ve been very passionate about.”

For the following Christmas, fifteen-year old Henriksen gifted her parent’s energy efficient light bulbs with the hopes that she could build a more climate change conscious household.

Henriksen’s knowledge and passion for climate change was once again heightened when she had participated on a service and justice trip in West Virginia. On this trip, she became aware the negative impact West Virginia’s high-energy usage and coal production was having on the environment.

“It’s just been like this issue that I cared about so much because I was overwhelmed by the problem.”

Through little acts of awareness every day, Hendrickson tried to make her own, small dent in alleviating the threat of climate change, but it was not until she embarked on the backpack journalism trip, that she saw how she could actually be making a difference for climate change.

Henriksen knew that in traveling to Alaska, there was a chance the topic of climate change would emerge, but the fact that the interviews have geared the documentary towards climate change more than exceeded her expectations.

Henriksen said, “Now there’s something that people can see that will maybe impact them and hopefully help them see that climate change is an issue that should be a priority.”

The climate change issue is just one example of the numerous times in which Hayley Henriksen has worked to make a difference in the world. She has also interned for the Obama campaign, been a part of the Cortina Service Learning campaign, and worked at the Salvation Army. She hopes to in the future work PR for non-profit organizations and to leave her positive mark on the Omaha community.

Hendrickson and her Alaska hat enjoying the view of nature and her favorite animal, the moose. Photo courtesy of Catherine Adams
Henriksen and her Alaska hat enjoying the view of nature and her favorite animal, the moose. Photo courtesy of Catherine Adams

“My life has been kind of a journey to try and find how I can make a difference.”

Henriksen has already lived up to her eighth grade expectations and is sure to continue making a difference throughout her life.

What the Future Holds

During the ten days I spent in Bethel, I heard numerous stories about the threats of climate change. I saw the tears of a young college student as he explained the reality of climate change. I heard the fears of Yup’ik elders, who could foresee an ominous future due to this reality. However, it was not until I headed to Seward, AK on our tourism portion of the trip, that I visibly saw the effects of climate change.

Saturday, our group had the amazing opportunity to explore the creatures and landscape of the sea on a six hour long boat tour.

The views were breathtaking and majestic. The earth stood untouched by humans and the sea was fresh and clear. Unlike most places I have visited in the lower 48, there was no smog or skyscrapers interrupting the nature as it played out before us.

I saw dolphins race beneath the boat and leap freely between the waves. I saw six sprightly whales traveling together as a family. Sea lions, tufted puffins, and bald eagles graced our presence as we witnessed the beauty and grace possible when humans are not misusing and abusing the land.

Then, our boat approached a glacier. The first thing I witnessed was its obvious beauty and massiveness, but not short after, I came to notice the chunks of ice floating in the surrounding sea. I then heard large rumbles followed by pounds and pounds of ice crashing to the sea and saw water trickling down the ice structure.

The glacier I saw on the boat tour
The glacier I saw on the boat tour

With each new drop of water or topple of ice, I thought back to the nature I had just witnessed in the open sea. I thought of how carefree and healthy they seemed living so far from an obnoxious human population. I then came to realize how wrong I was in thinking they were untouched by the human race.

Our pollution, waste, and energy needs are affecting creatures miles and miles away from us. With each new ice chunk that enters the sea, the habitat of the dolphins, whales, and sea lions is changing. In this moment, I  finally understood why the Yup’ik elders fear what the future holds.

Without a drastic change in our current behavior, species, food sources, and the land may not survive, and their literally may be nothing for the future to hold.

In the Words of the People

For the past week, I have spent every night writing and rewriting a blog that I have decided can never be written. I searched through my mental thesaurus for the perfect words to describe the great culture and wisdom that is present in this off-the grid town and discussed my ideas with anyone who was willing to listen. However, the more I wrote, the more I erased.

I then came to realize that my words would never be sufficient when attempting to explain the powerful relationship the Yup’ik people have between their identity and the landscape or when trying to emote the heart-brokenness displayed by the natives when they see the effects of climate change in their homeland. The only words that can create this impact, are the words of those who first spoke these truths to me.

Michelle Dewitt explained the complexity of the Yup’ik way of life.

“Cultural identity, language, and lands are interconnected in inseparable ways.”

Patrick Tam told of the unique difference between the Yup’ik subsistence lifestyle and the mainstream American food culture.

“A white man’s food has no memory.”

A man named Fritz warned of the danger tied to the looming king salmon regulations

“Lives could be lost…that’s a guarantee.”

A woman named Rose warned of the danger tied to our mistreatment of the land.

“If the world starts making noise, so will Mother Nature.”

And a boy named Nelson tearily explained that the noise of Mother Nature can already be heard.

“We’re living climate change; this is ground zero for us…We need to find a way to say sorry to the land”

The stories I have heard throughout my time in Bethel are not only important for the people of Bethel, but also for the people of the earth for generations and generations to come.

In the Yup’ik culture, stories are told from generation to generation and carry with them an important lesson or a moral. In continuation of this tradition, I hope that our backpack journalism program will be able to pass on the story of the Yup’ik culture, tradition, and land while promoting the idea that the land is a gift, and we need to treat it well.

The fish I cut and ate for lunch on my last day in Bethel. The Yup'ik people rely on fish such as these every day as part of their subsistence lifestyle.
The fish I cut and ate for lunch on my last day in Bethel. The Yup’ik people rely on fish such as these every day as part of their subsistence lifestyle.

Tears are Teaching

Today I wrote the date, 06/15/14, and simply stared at it in amazement. I cannot believe that an entire week has already past since I first boarded the plane headed for Alaska. I have spent this time listening, learning, and experiencing all that the Yup’ik culture and Bethel community have been willing to share with me. Tears of sadness, tears of adventure, and tears of laughter have been shed as each day offers new insight to my Alaskan experience.

Tears of sadness were shed on Wednesday, the most emotionally heavy day of the trip. We spent a whopping eight hours getting a crash course on the way in which Native people were treated by religious and government institutions and learning of the cultural trauma this atrocious treatment has caused. Villages were destroyed, families were torn apart, and a great cultural divide was created between the generational gaps of the Yup’ik people. I shed tears for the Native Alaskan’s as I heard of their stories, but I also shed tears of shame for the actions of my country and my religion. This was such a recent trauma, occurring during my grandparents youth. My grandparents, in being citizens of the United States and parishioners of the Catholic Church, were directly associated with the parties responsible for the degradation of the Yup’ik people. I am fairly certain they did not know what was being done to the Yup’ik people, but the idea that they were living ordinary lives while people in Alaska were having their lives torn apart, makes me wonder what terrible things may currently be happening in the world, while I am simply living my ordinary life. Wednesdays events taught me of the wise healing powers of talking and forgiving, while also inspiring me to become a more informed and active citizen.

Tears of adventure came about every time the crisp Alaskan wind whipped past my face, causing my eyes to water. They watered as I trudged through the Alaskan tundra, sped across the Kuskokwim river, and ran about Bethel shooting B-roll in the rain (B-roll is the fancy term for the videos that play during a voice over). Throughout my various Bethel adventures, I have come to see that everything in Bethel is tied to nature. The fish of the river, the moose of the land, and the berries of the tundra are all essential to the subsistence lifestyle of the Yup’ik people. After eating a freshly caught salmon and smelling the relaxing aura of tundra tea, I now understand how the people of Bethel can survive completely isolated from the outside world. The beauty and peacefulness of the wilderness is captivating and the way in which the Yup’ik people live seems to be the way in which humans were originally intended to live.

Finally, my week has been filled with tears of laughter. Whether it be from Tim’s conniving banana gram tactics, “C-teams” kayaking adventures, or Tony’s unique input on every situation, there has never been a dull moment on this trip. As our time left in Bethel is slowly diminishing, I hope that a few more tears of laughter are shed and that I am able to soak in every last moment of this wonderful experience!

The "C Team" kayaking- one of the many adventures when tears of laughter were shed. Photo courtesy of Catherine Adams
The “C Team” kayaking- one of the many adventures when tears of laughter were shed. Photo courtesy of Catherine Adams

Claire Storey wrote a great blog highlighting some of the laughable moments of the trip- view it here!

Also, a quick shoutout to my dad on Father’s Day:)- Happy Fathers Day Daddyo! You da Bomb!

Noise

Noise. The ever formal definition of this absurdly common word as defined by dictionary.com is, “A nonharmonious or discordant group of sounds.”

While this meaning may be sufficient on an ordinary day in an ordinary place, the word has gained an entirely new meaning for me in a place where so little is said and so little is heard.

In Bethel, a city of 6,000 people, miles and miles from the nearest skyscraper, McDonalds, or stoplight, I find the general noises that accumulate in my everyday life are absent. The stillness and silence of the landscape are only interrupted by the most meaningful of sounds, and these are the sounds that will tell our story.

The rain tapping on the pick-up roofs and the sloshing of our boots as they trudge through the mud, tell us of the bizarre weather patterns facing Alaska which we are coming to learn may be having a negative impact on the subsistence culture of the Yup’ik people.

The large humming noise that booms through the social hall in the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, our home for the next week and a half, which presents itself every time someone uses the bathroom or fills their water bottles, tell us of the lack of city wide water services and the need for the purchasing of water tanks, which are drained bit by bit with every activation of the water tank.

The ring of the doorbell interrupting our third interview of the day demonstrates the immense kindness, generosity, and hospitality of the Bethel community as a random stranger stops by to gift our group freshly caught salmon to welcome us to the community.

The strong gusts of wind picked up by our audio equipment every time a plane flies overhead reminds us that Bethel is a city only reachable by air, which causes the cost of living to be astronomical and the fear of famine to be a real problem.

The passion and assertiveness that resonates through the room as we interview Michelle Dewitt brings us all to attention. She speaks to us about how the eurocentric system is failing at solving the problems it originally created when trying to acculturate the Yup’ik people.

And finally, the emptiness of noise, the silence that is heard, completes our story.

The silence that overwhelms our entire group after we hear the tragic and inspiring story of trauma and healing, as told by Rose Dominic, a Yup’ik woman who has underwent horrendous tragedies mainly stemming from the insensitivity of organized religions and the United States government, grasps perfectly the immense heaviness of what we are investigating in Bethel. It reminds us that sometimes there are no words that can express the shame and awe felt when we learn of things our society has so purposefully forgotten.

We will maintain our purposeful silence as we continue creating our documentary, and let the only noise we hear be the noise of the people of Bethel, as they tell us their story.

IMG_1135