All posts by Hannah Mullally

Hannah Mullally

About Hannah Mullally

My Name is Hannah Mullally and I'm a student at Creighton University. I'm majoring in Environmental Science and minoring in English and Sustainable Energy.

Beauty in All Directions

First of all, I just want to say that this has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. I never thought that I would completely fall in love with a culture, photography, and a group of classmates as I have now. Even after I committed myself to going on this trip, I still didn’t imagine how wonderful it would turn out.

The open tundra
The open tundra

I came into this class with almost zero photojournalism experience. During the first day of video boot camp, I thought that I would never remember any of what we were learning. I was overwhelmed with information. About a week later though, I was out on the tundra, taking shots of the river, and setting up interviews. By the end of the week, filming almost seemed like second nature to me.

I’m pretty sure that I’ve told almost everyone about this, but the absolute highlight of the trip for me was our boat ride on the Kuskokwim. The overwhelming beauty of everything that was around me cannot be put into words. Overwhelming beauty was kind of a theme for me during this trip. A lot of my classmates probably got used to me getting overly enthusiastic about things, sometimes to the point where I couldn’t form coherent sentences. Everything from the sweeping tundra, to the clear Kuskokwim River, from the midnight sun, to the wisdom of the people is too exquisite to describe.

A heart in the tundra
A heart in the tundra. (Photo courtesy of Tony Homsy)

When we talk about the highs and lows of the trip, it is hard for me to think of an actual low. Yes, there were moments that were hard or difficult, but that doesn’t mean that they were not good moments. One of those instances was when Rose talked to us about historical trauma. Her raw emotions touched me deeply and made me extremely sad, but it was also beautiful in its own way. It was one of those rare times where a connection is made with another human on a level much deeper than sympathy. I feel so incredibly privileged that she shared her story with us.

Alaska is gorgeous and this trip was life-changing, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as amazing if I didn’t go with such a fantastic group of people. In a little over a month, we formed our own type of family. Every member contributes something unique and valuable to the group. I’ve learned just as much from them as I ever have in the classroom. I think I’ve had a smile on my face for the majority of the past five weeks. This group of people is truly special, and I could not be more grateful for each individual’s friendship.

Our wonderful family
Our wonderful family

Going forward from this trip, it seems like so much has changed. The way I look at the world, how I see our resources and my understanding of culture has greatly shifted. All of this change can be a lot to handle at times. However, I know that there is one thing I can change based on what I learned while in Alaska. Going forward, I am going to change the way I interact with the people around me. Through this experience, I’ve learned that everyone has a story to tell. I may not recognize the story right away, but I have to keep listening until I do. A person is so much more than they appear. Behind the outer shell, there is a soul that has memories and experiences you will never know about unless you ask and listen.

Bethel has taught me to see the intricacy in the dull and the beauty in the plain. Wonder and mystery can be found all around you. I won’t attempt to try and convey the depths of this wonder and beauty because, as I’ve said before, there are simply no words. Instead, I will leave with a Navajo saying that we heard while in Bethel:

“Everything in front of me will be beautiful,

Everything behind me will be beautiful,

Everything on my right will be beautiful,

Everything on my left will be beautiful,

Everything above me will be beautiful,

Everything below me will be beautiful,

Everything around me will be beautiful,

Everything that comes from my lips will be beautiful.”

-Quyana.

Still Hard at Work

Coffee is the fuel of our lives.
Coffee is the fuel of our lives.

It’s been over a week now since we have returned from Alaska. For some reason, I had the idea in my mind that the majority of our work would be done once we were back in Omaha. Yet again, I was wrong. From the day we returned, we have been hard at work. Each day it seems that I’ve learned something new about the film making process. Here are some of the things that I’ve learned: Continue reading Still Hard at Work

Sarah at the Saturday Market

Early on a Saturday morning, craftsmen and artists set up their tables in the Bethel Cultural Center. Traditional ulus, handmade jewelry, and beautiful wood carvings are laid out in a gorgeous array. Browsers stop to chat with vendors about the goods that are displayed. One of those vendors is a woman named Sarah.

Sarah sits at a corner table, threading beads onto a wire that will eventually become a pair of earrings. Her young nephew sits beside her, also hard at work threading beads.

“I’m teaching him so he can sell his own one day. He’s working hard so he can get an iPod,” she says with a smile.

In front of her, Sarah has a table full of colorful jewelry, as well as some wooden and ivory pieces off to the side. This day, she is looking after two sets of merchandise. Her friend is the one who creates the necklaces and bracelets made of vibrant stones. Sarah specializes in walrus ivory and wood.

The Saturday market is not just a fun activity, it is an important part of life in Bethel. Many people, such as Sarah, rely on the market as a second source of income. Prices of everything are sky high in Bethel, and hunting can only stretch limited budgets so far. The craftsmanship of the vendors has been passed down from generation to generation.  In order to balance out those costs, many families participate in the market for at least part of the year. Sometimes though, the extra money still doesn’t cover it.

“People can come here and trade for the things that they need,” Sarah says. Even if a person is running low on money, they can count on the Saturday market to supply at least a few of their needs. Although the markets were only started in 2005, the long tradition of trade and community support continues to flourish here.

By scanning around the market, one can see the great diversity of both the people and the products. Elders sit behind tables of traditional Yup’ik dress, while young girls are knitting their own variation of the latest trendy hat. Despite the differences, everyone is conversing. Both instructional and lighthearted conversations fill the air.

“I like coming here,” Sarah reflects. She takes a brief pause to correct her nephew’s beading technique. “It’s good to be here where I can talk to family and friends. We help each other out. I like coming here.”

See our video of Sarah at the Saturday Market here.

Story by Morgan Ryan and Hannah Mullally

Living with Joy. A Profile of Tony Homsy S.J.

Let me set the scene. We’re out on a hill in the middle of the Alaskan tundra. The sun is just setting at 11:30 pm, and there are monstrous mosquitos flying around our huddled group. Suddenly, a Syrian man stands up, smiles, opens his arms wide as if embracing the annoying insects, and makes us all roll with laughter. This is Tony Homsy S.J.

Tony with the mosquitoes.  He never fails to make us laugh. (Photo courtesy of Tim Guthrie)
Tony with the mosquitoes. He never fails to make us laugh. (Photo courtesy of Tim Guthrie)

For two weeks, Tony was in Bethel, Alaska using his photography skills to help create a documentary. Not only was he in Alaska, but he was also just about as far away from his home country of Syria as he could be. He was literally on the other side of the world.

“Funny story,” he said when I asked him why he chose to come on this trip. How Tony ended up in Alaska actually happens to be the fulfilment of a joke he made with a friend a year before. While Tony was still studying in Lebanon, his friend was studying in Paris.

“Okay, I’m going to Alaska,” Tony said when his friend started teasing him. He never thought it would actually happen. What was once a silly exaggeration became a reality when he signed up for the Backpack Journalism course about six months later.

Originally, Tony is from the largest city in Syria, known as Halab to locals and Aleppo to the rest of us.  It’s been awhile since he’s seen his family in person. In fact, it was May of 2013 when he last saw is brother and July of 2012 was when he last saw his sister. Despite all of this, Tony still manages to be the most joyful person I’ve met.

Enjoying the mountains. (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Tedesco)
Enjoying the mountains. (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Tedesco)

“Wherever you are, live with joy.” This is what Tony told me he learned while he was in Bethel. At first, he said he was skeptical about how people could spend a part or all of their lives in Bethel. Then, he spent a day with a man named Arvin. Tony could see that, even though Arvin was living in the middle of nowhere, he was still filled with joy.

“Not because he was wealthy…just because he embraced his life.”

For the past year, Tony has been a student (more specifically, a special student as he makes sure to tell us) at Creighton studying photojournalism. Photography and journalism are not new interests for Tony. He’s been practicing for years now. For him, it’s become much more than a hobby.

“I feel like photography and digital journalism is not just service, but it’s more of like a vocation,” he said. “This is the special gift that God give to Tony, and Tony, if he is Ignatian person, he needs to go more.”

Tony is always ready to take the perfect shot.
Tony is always ready to take the perfect shot.

And what a gift it is. Anyone who has seen Tony’s photos knows that he has a very special talent. Photography holds a special meaning for him, which he effortlessly conveys in each snapshot. For his daily Instagram photos, he tries to select a photo and a single word that embodies what the day meant to him or the most meaningful part of his day. You can visit Tony’s Instagram here.

We all like to joke about Tony being a Jesuit. He loves to give it right back to us too. One of my favorite moments on the trip was when I had just borrowed Tony’s bug spray.

“Thanks Tony,” I said. “I really appreciate it.”

“Ah, that is the Jesuit way,” he replied. “We share. You want bug spray, I give it to you. You want to use my Macbook…”

“And you give it to me?”

“Ahhh no!” he shouted. “Are you crazy?”

But in all seriousness, Tony exemplifies Ignatian spirituality. He is constantly searching for God in all things. As Tony sees it, nothing, not even the mosquitoes or a town in the middle of nowhere is out of God’s reach.

Never without a camera. (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Tedesco).
Never without a camera. (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Tedesco).

“We embrace everything that leads us to God,” he shared. He embraced Bethel, and he will embrace Syria when he returns in August. Embracing life and joy is something that Tony seems to do better than anyone. Through his talent in photography and his wonderful sense of humor, it’s easy to see that Tony will continue to help people live their lives with joy.

Normal is Relative

We are home. After two weeks of being in the most northerly state in America, the CU backpack journalism team is back in Nebraska.

It feels strange to be back. I know that’s probably weird to say, given that I was only gone for two weeks, but everything is just so normal now. My laundry is done, I went to class for a few hours today, the sun is already setting. All of these things are what normally happens on any given day of the year. Still though, it feels strange. Isn’t there any more B-roll to get? Shouldn’t I be filleting a salmon? Aren’t we going to take a walk on the tundra?

Maybe what has happened is that I’ve realized normal is relative. For the people of Bethel, it is normal to drive on the frozen river during the winter. It’s normal for their water to be trucked in. It’s normal to live a subsistence lifestyle. Some things even became normal for me. For example, I didn’t think twice when I looked in the bed of our truck to see two giant salmon staring back at me.

A normal pre-meal picture in Bethel.
A normal pre-meal picture in Bethel.

Here in Omaha, I think it will take me a little while to straighten out my own version of normal. It’s as if the two types of normal that I’ve grown used to have blended together. I did my laundry today (normal) and in the back of my mind I thought, “I shouldn’t do this because the water tank might be low,” (also normal).  I wore shorts today (normal), and at first I was surprised that I wasn’t cold or attacked by monster mosquitoes (also normal).

Where you are and where you’ve been dictates what is normal. We’ll see if my sense of normality ever shifts back to the way it was before I experienced Alaska. I’m willing to bet that it doesn’t. I hope it doesn’t.

Quyana, Bethel

Today was our last day in Bethel, and I think all of us are feeling a little sad. We’ve grown to love this small town. I know that for me personally, I will always feel a connection to this part of the world. At the beginning of the week, I said that Bethel seemed like a wise place. This continued to be true throughout my entire time here. Almost every day, this community taught me something important.

Bethel taught me to be patient. There is a different sense of time here. The only time to rush is when the weather is perfect for fishing. Actions are methodical and intentional. Responses to questions are proceeded by a short pause in which the person responding truly thinks about what they will say.

The natives taught me to be generous. We were given delicious food that people either caught or prepared themselves. The people of Bethel offered us boat trips and opened up their fish camps to us. They gave us their time to fully answer every question we had.

The tundra taught me to be present and look for beauty in everything. The tundra is constantly changing. You could miss the most amazing view if you aren’t paying attention. Not only do you have to pay attention, but you also must make a decision to see the beauty before you. Out in the tundra, it’s cold, there are mosquitoes everywhere, and the landscape appears barren. However, if you look closely, you will see how intricate the whole ecosystem is. Every foot of it is a sea of diverse life.

Finally, this part of the world has taught me to be fearless. Yes, I will gut that fish. Sure, I’ll try that piece of seal. Yeah, I’ll go on a river trip to a remote village. And of course I’ll trudge out to the tundra at midnight with water and mud up to my knees to watch the sunset.

The beginnings of a midnight sunset on the tundra.
The beginnings of a midnight sunset on the tundra.

I’m so thankful for everything I’ve learned here. When I first came to Bethel, I never imagined that so much wisdom would be shared with me. Now I can’t imagine my life without that knowledge. As we prepare to leave Bethel, the only thing I can think to say is thank you. Quyana, Bethel.

 

A Yup’ik Potluck

Last night, we had a potluck with some members of the church. Unlike the potlucks that I’ve experienced in Nebraska, there were no pies or pots of chili. Instead, there was a delicious variety of traditional Yup’ik foods. Here are a few of the dishes that we tried:

  • Smoked salmon
  • Mayonnaise and dill salmon
  • Salmon chowder (my favorite)
  • Moose and vegetable stew
  • Seal stew
  • Caribou stew
  • Herring eggs with oil
  • Spicy beans with ground moose
  • Fried bread
  • Rhubarb and ginger cake

What made this meal so special was hearing hunting stories about the meat I was eating and listening to the way some dishes were prepared. In the case of the Yup’ik people, nothing is wasted. Every piece of meat is taken off the bones of salmon, the scaly skin is sewn together to create a waterproof coat, and the fermented heads are considered a delicacy. While I’m not sure if I’m ready to try a fermented fish head, I’m so grateful that I had the chance to try some traditional foods.

 

Quyana and Ella on the Kuskokwim

If there is one thing I’ve learned in Alaska, it’s that the Kuskokwim River is magical. As the largest river in the U.S. that isn’t dammed, it is incredibly expansive. While we traveled down the river with our guides, Chris and Donna, I was struck with the knowledge that I was actually in the real Alaskan wilderness. No roads, no power lines, just tundra dotted with the occasional fish camp.

Marvel, my new friend from on the river.
Marvel, my new friend from the river.

The river was not only magical because of the surrounding wilderness, but also because of the isolated villages that crop up along its banks. We stopped in a tiny village to shoot some footage. In the place of pavement and cars were boardwalks and bikes. Smokehouses filled the air with the delicious smell of salmon drying. Almost the instant we stepped foot on the boardwalks, curious children were swarming our cameras. They were absolutely adorable, constantly wanting to get in our shots or take pictures. While we clamored back into our boat, all of the kids waved at us and shouted, “Quyana!” which means “thank you” in Yupik.

Several hours later, we were still on our journey back to Bethel. At this point is was midnight and the sun was finally close to the horizon. As we turned around a river bend, I could see gorgeous rays of light bursting through the clouds. River water was spraying my face. Everything from the river, to the islands, to the sky was absolutely perfect. Actually, it was more than perfect. Right then and there, I understood the Yupik concept of Ella. As everyone who was with me will tell you, I kind of freaked out about it. The whole experience seemed divine and otherworldly. I was totally alive and connected. I had my Ella moment.

Culture, fish, and spirituality

As I spend more time in Bethel, I realize that traditional culture is deeply imbedded into everyday life. From the food the people eat to the landscape that they live on, everything can be tied back into native Yupik tradition. As a person from a Eurocentric society, I find this concept hard to grasp. I don’t consider the German and Irish ways of my ancestors when looking at the world around me. In fact, I know very little about my cultural roots. Maybe that’s why I can’t help but feel a little envious of the Yupik culture.

This culture can be so empowering. I was lucky enough to get a small taste of it when I gutted and filleted a salmon a couple of days ago. I was taught to use an uluaq in the proper way, how to strategically cut the fish, and how to correctly prepare it for a meal. Most importantly, I learned to cut off as much meat as possible, because every little piece is valuable. I’ve never had a more satisfying meal in my entire life. Simultaneously, I felt a refreshing freedom from the modern world and a connection to the natural world around me. Yes, someone else caught the fish, and no I didn’t do this in a fish camp, but for a brief moment I was a part of the Yupik culture.

The native culture here can be just as humbling as it is empowering. As part of a presentation that was given to us, we simulated how a traditional Yupik society functioned. At the center is spirituality, represented by a hand drum and smudge. In the circle directly around spirituality is the children of the society. Myself and three other of the youngest members of our group comprised this circle. Around the children sat the Elders. Traditionally, it was the Elders who passed on cultural wisdom to the children. In the next circle was the mothers who took responsibility for caring for the family. The final circle was where the fathers stood. They functioned as the protectors and providers of the society.

Sitting in the middle of the circle, surrounded by so many people, I felt such an overwhelming sense of safety and protection. A sense of love and importance. There was no question of where I belonged in the society and no danger of being left behind. In a world that’s so complicated, our circle was beautifully simple.

The simple beauty of the Kuskokwim River.
The simple beauty of the Kuskokwim River. Photo courtesy of John O’Keefe.

Bethel: Welcoming and Wise

Arriving in Bethel on Monday was like arriving in a different country. As the plane descended, the only thing that could be seen for miles was the green arctic tundra. Suddenly, the small patch of buildings that is Bethel appeared.

Our view from behind the church where we're staying.
Our view from behind the church where we’re staying.

As soon as I stepped off the plane, I knew immediately that I would love Bethel. Maybe it is the comforting smell of a recent rain, or maybe it’s the kindness of the people I’ve met, but Bethel feels so welcoming. On just our first full day, we were given two freshly caught fish for supper. It’s truly humbling to be met with such open arms.

I’m beginning to see already how different Western culture and Yupik culture is. While interviewing today, we were told a fantastic story about the meaning of subsistence living to the native Yupik people. While talking to a friend, a native Yupik woman was saying that “white man’s food” (food from the grocery store) doesn’t fill her up. When asked why, she replied, “Because there is no story behind it.” For her, it not only mattered that she had food, but also who hunted the moose, which family caught the fish, or where the berries were picked at.

I think that all of us have a lot to learn from the people of Bethel. From our first interviews, it’s obvious that everyone has so much wisdom to share. I can’t wait to learn more as the weeks progress and begin to integrate these new world views into my own life.