All posts by Mari Heller

Mari Heller

About Mari Heller

My Name is Mari Heller. I am a Senior Journalism, Public Relations major from San Antonio, Texas.

The experience of a lifetime

At the beginning of the Alaska trip, I really had no idea what to expect.

We all had an idea of why we were going to Bethel and a vague series of expectations about all that this trip would bring. However, for me, the 15 days spent in Alaska far exceeded every expectation that I had.

I started out knowing nothing about videography or editing, and very little about interviewing. I ended this program with much more knowledge in all of those skills (well, mostly in editing and interviewing…yay C Team!).

Traveling with a group of people and living in constant close quarters with those same people definitely taught us all about tolerance and patience.

However, that was a highlight of this trip. Getting to know this group as well as I did really added to the experience. It was so great to hear everybody’s differing perspectives on just about everything. That highlight just reinforced the lesson I learned in Bethel, that there is not a one-size-fits-all perspective or philosophy. Each person and culture hold something that is inherently valuable because they are so different. This group, along with the Yup’ik people, collectively taught me that there are so many different fabrics and colors that make up the tapestry of life.

That definitely surprised me. While I was expecting to learn life lessons from the natives in Bethel, I was caught off guard by all that I learned from my peers.

My peers made the trip a happy one, despite the questionable living quarters and the insane amount of misadventures (and mosquitos).

The incredible ability of the Yup’ik people to respect the land resonated deeply with me. I think many people, including myself, take the Earth and all it offers for granted. That is what I am trying to put effort into changing in my daily life. Also, the Yup’ik spirit of giving. They are such a giving people, who truly practice the idea that whatever you give you will get back tenfold. Just another lesson that I can, with effort, apply to my daily life. And I intend to do so.

We have all learned so much, about the camera equipment, about ourselves, and about people.
Learning is exhausting, and I think we are all still mentally drained from our hard work in Bethel and more recently in the classroom. We are exhausted, but enthusiastic.

I can not wait to see the final results of our labors, none of which could be possible without Tim, Carol, or John. Each of which brought their own unique, important contributions to the team.

This has been the most rewarding experience of my life, and I will always be grateful for every single moment of this Backpack Journalism program.

 

 

C Team Forever!
C Team Forever!

 

QUYANA, everyone!

 

 

 

 

 

Seward: Heaven on Earth

After a beautifully scenic descent into Anchorage, and after making sure everybody had their baggage (ahem, Tony…), we walked outside into the beautiful Alaskan air to meet our tour guides. Patrick (or Francois, according to Claudia) and Todd met us outside of the baggage claim area in their Levis and crew neck sweatshirts. They were personable and welcoming, just like everyone else we had met in Alaska so far.

Welcome to *paradise
Welcome to *paradise

From Anchorage, Patrick and Todd drove us to Seward, which is on the Kenai Peninsula. It was about a three hour drive because we kept stopping to look at the beautiful scenery. The water with the backdrop of the mountains was breathtaking.

Hours after our departure from Anchorage, a tired group arrived in Seward. This beautiful coastal town was truly one of the prettiest places I have ever seen. I think the group would agree that even though we were in the middle of this place, it still didn’t feel real. It felt like we were living in a scenic postcard.

That night we all got to sleep in real BEDS, which was absolute Heaven. After spending so many nights on a floor in a sleeping bag, a clean bed felt better than ever. We also all were relieved to have easy access to showers and unlimited warm water again. Even Nico finally showered (his first time to shower since we left Omaha).

My glacier and I
My glacier and I

On our first full day in Seward, we were lucky enough to ride in a big boat to see some ocean wildlife and glaciers. That all-day boat ride was probably my favorite thing we did in Seward. The dreary weather that day was perfectly suited for seeing whales and sea otters, among other things. The glacier was enormous, and we got to watch parts of it falling off. The ride back to the dock was amazing because the skies cleared and we were able to get some incredibly beautiful photos of the mountains and some animals.

The next day was our last day in Seward, so as Patrick and Todd drove us back to Anchorage to catch our flight, they stopped at a wildlife reserve. We got to see moose, caribou, bears, and wild eagles, just to name a few.

That night as we slept peacefully and comfortably in the Anchorage airport (haha…), we all dreamt of the beauty that is Alaska, and reflected on what an incredible few weeks it had been.

Both Bethel and Seward offered such different experiences and I am so grateful to have been able to see both sides of Alaska, the native aspect and the tourism aspect.

Quyana, Alaska, for showing us your hospitality and beauty.

I will be back!

Great Scott!

“Stories exist in the world independent of us. All we are are conduits through which they flow.” Earnest Hemingway is that you? No, no, it’s Scott Prewitt.

You may all known Scott as a dramatically eloquent writer and speaker. Because, well, that’s what he is.

Last Thursday, over a cup of Campbell’s instant soup, Scott told me in expressive “Scott-style” detail of his major, why he chose Creighton, what he learned from this trip, and everything in between. (Check out his blog to see what I mean by “Scott-style”: http://cubackpack.org/author/scott-prewitt/)

Scott is a Journalism and English double major from Kansas City, Missouri (it is of upmost importance for me to clarify that he is NOT from the Kansas side of Kansas City).

Why a double major you may ask? He believes the two majors go hand in hand. The career he wants has to do with multimedia content creation. Therefore, English teaches him the aesthetics of media use and analyzes it from an academic context, while Journalism will give him experience with things like video and interviewing skills.

He heard of Backpack Journalism through one of his friends and ex co-workers who was a journalism major at Creighton. He immediately knew it would be something that he would enjoy. This program was a perfect fit for him because he had always wanted to do a study abroad program but didn’t want to take off a whole semester. He felt the need to get out of his personal context and break his conception of what the world is and to expand it, because he hasn’t traveled much outside of the basic lower 48.

To Scott, this trip was better than he expected. Due to his enthusiasm in the use of the Panasonic camera, he was nicknamed “Mr. Panasonic.” He loved it because having sole custody of that camera gave him the independence to be anywhere at any time and to do his own thing. He had this “go for it” mentality that resulted in some really cool hands-on experiences with videography.

 

Mr. Panasonic in action during a walk to the tundra.
Mr. Panasonic in action during a walk to the tundra.

Through his adventures with the Panasonic and shooting B-roll, the most important thing he learned is that “people are people, and any barriers that we put between ourselves are artificial.”

 

The multitude of lessons learned over the course of the trip were invaluable, and greatly affected Scott. Learning more about the affects of climate change made him much more environmentally conscious, and will be riding his bike rather than driving to campus whenever he can. Also, he is now going to start doing his own short videos. To him, class is just not enough. Learning by doing is the name of the game.

“The Alaska trip was a really passionate and spiritual experience I think that was enhanced by being in a kind of group setting and being in a community and us doing this work in communion was probably the highlight of the trip for me,” said Scott with expressive hand gestures.

Always keep your passion and intensity, Scott, it’s what makes you… well, you.

 

Quyana

It’s our last day in Bethel…cue the tears. The list of things I will miss about this place is much longer than the list of things I won’t miss (i.e. the excessive mud and the lack of available showers).

Eskimo ice cream
Eskimo ice cream

Last night we all tried Eskimo ice cream. It  sounds yummy…but it wasn’t made from actual ice cream. The only three ingredients in said “ice cream” were Crisco, sugar, and blueberries. It wasn’t bad, but one spoonful was definitely plenty.

The generous gift of a King Salmon
The generous gift of a King Salmon

Also, this morning we were given two salmon by this sweet lady on the left. One King Salmon, and one Red Salmon..YUMMY.

So today we had our last two interviews, which means we are officially DONE recording interviews. Tomorrow we leave early in the morning to fly to Anchorage, then onto Seward. Once we get there we’ll be able to see some more mountainous Alaskan landscape, rather than the flat tundra. We’ll also get to do some tourist activities (such as hike a glacier, woohoo).

Speaking of interviews, I compiled a few of my favorite quotes from various interviews that we’ve conducted throughout these past 11 days.

-“Cut through the bullshit and live intentionally”: Dr. O’Keefe’s daughter told us she learned that during her time here as a Jesuit Volunteer. Everything people do here has a purpose, they don’t waste time or resources.

-“What you share you’ll get back even more of.”: John Active, a Yup’ik we interviewed said this of the philosophy of his people. We’ve seen that firsthand here in Bethel, so many people have shown us kindness and have share with us precious fish and food to make us feel welcome.

-“You must face the pain to overcome it.”: A native Yup’ik, Rose Domnick, focused on that idea during her lecture to us about cultural trauma and the repercussions felt by her own family as a result of the Catholic missionaries trying to convert the natives.

-“It’s not about religion, it’s about how you practice your beliefs.”: Ray Daw, a behavioral health specialist that spoke to us, said this during his lecture last week. I think it can be difficult to remember that just because people may not practice spirituality or religion in the same way we do doesn’t mean that there is a wrong or right way.

-“If you follow Yup’ik spirituality, you’ll be the best Catholic in the world.”: Cecilia, a Yup’ik elder that we interviewed, said this. Yup’ik spirituality puts an emphasis on the sacred value of all human life and of all nature. They see everything as valuable in some way, and therefore have immense respect for both humans and nature.

…Also, a bit of what I’ve personally taken away from this trip so far:

-Gutting a fish is fun, but the fishy smell is hard to get rid of

-Moose stew is my new favorite type of stew

-I actually can get tired of eating peanut butter

-People are more often pretty great than not

This list could go on forever, but I’m happy I could get to know so many Creighton people that I probably wouldn’t have met otherwise… I am so grateful for my 16 new friends.

Quyana (Thank you), Bethel, for all that you’ve taught us.

Life IS so good.

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Food for Thought

My day started at 6:45 this morning when a few of us got to go four miles down the river on a small boat and witness subsistence fishing firsthand.

Tad was the fisherman who showed us the ropes (literally). Besides a fisherman, he is a high school science teacher and a Pentecostal minister… talk about a variety of interests. Having multiple careers seems to be pretty common here, though. The mayor of Bethel is also a doctor, and Stan the subsistence fisherman who showed us his fish camp is also a barber.

Tad removing a fish from his net.
Tad removing a fish from his net.

Tad checked his nets, and patiently explained to us the different types of fish he caught. He even let me hook the line and I didn’t let go. So basically I am a professional fisher(wo)man now. Not really though, I would make a terrible fisherman… Fishing here requires early mornings that consist of freezing wind and water (I was freezing in like 20 layers and a hat and gloves). Also, upper body strength is also a requirement and I don’t have much of that.

He explained to us how the fishing restrictions put into place to save the King Salmon population require fishermen to lay down nets with four inch holes, rather than the usual six inch netting. The smaller netting makes it easy for King Salmon to avoid getting caught because they’re too big for the small net. That way fishermen can still catch smaller fish such as trout, silvers, reds, and whites.

A few of us were able to attend a forum in the Fish and Game building here in Bethel. The forum involved representatives from different fishing interest groups from all over Alaska. Commercial fishing and subsistence fishing representatives were present, in addition to tribal leaders from the upper, middle, and lower portions of the Kuskokwim River.

Many concerns were voiced by all regarding the unusually low number of fish being caught throughout the Kuskokwim River region. People were generally diplomatic and polite, but things did get heated. At one point a tribal leader said, “If things continue down this route, there will be bloodshed.”

Witnessing a fisherman check his nets, sitting in on the town meeting, and hearing the serious concerns of the locals made me realize the importance of fishing to this region. If the people, mainly those in remote villages, can’t catch enough fish in the warm months they have a hard time getting by in the winter months.

After all of that I got to shower today!! This is a huge deal because I was on day four of not being showered. I will never again take my shower in my apartment for granted… (I have showered a total of three times in two weeks, yikes).

The Catholic Church, where we’re staying, hosted a potluck today…or a “potlatch” as they call it here. I tried a variety of native food..including:

Yummy moose stew
My delicious moose stew

-herring eggs dipped in oil (basically just imagine eating small, tasteless, rubber bubbles)
-moose stew (which was probably the most amazing stew I’ve ever eaten)
-seal soup (…..tasted interesting…..basically fishy-tasting meat..)
-regular salmon (so good)
-salmon soup (yum)
-moose stir fry (interesting combination of flavors)
-fried bread (pretty much tasted like a funnel cake)
***Read this, Mom: I ate a veggie quinoa salad that wasn’t really a native recipe but Mom I had two helpings and it contained lima beans so I am proud of myself.

After cleaning up the potlatch dishes, us students went on a walk to the boardwalk. We’ve all been going on frequent walks every night after dinner in smaller groups, but tonight we all went together. This group is definitely something special. This adventure in Alaska would have been so much less incredible if we all didn’t get along so well. They make every day better, and getting to spend 15 days learning in such a beautiful place with such beautiful people is such a privilege.

This is why we love going on walks here.
This is why we love going on walks.

Expect another blog post on Thursday!

 

 

 

Lately

The past few days have been pretty busy. Today we got a break to work on individual projects and relax.

I have recently learned how to gut and prepare a fish, which was pretty neat (and bloody).

Two days ago a few of us had the chance to go kayaking down the Kuskokwim River. So we did…and the trip downstream was beautiful. Calm waters, beautiful green marshes, AND it was an incredibly beautiful sunny day, which was nice after days of constant rain and cold.

But definitely the best part about that trip was when we were kayaking down a remote area of the river. I saw a truck with “Go Spurs Go” written on the back. So naturally I shouted “YES! GO SPURS GO!” I wasn’t expecting a response, but a man shouted back “We are gonna win this year!” So basically, Alaska has Spurs fans y’all, and it makes me so happy.

But anyways, the ride back on our kayaks upstream was slightly less enjoyable, to say the least…but I will link you to Claudia’s blog post about it because she tells the story better than I could.. so ENJOY, hehe —-> http://cubackpack.org/alaska2014/paddling-upstream-2/

The next day we went to the Saturday Market at the cultural center down the road. Saturday Market basically is when the local artists and craftsmen display and sell their work. There were fishing knives, jewelry and traditional tunic-type shirts worn by both men and women. These people are incredibly talented, and it was an opportunity to see some unique artwork and jewelry not found in typical souvenir shops.

Yesterday evening we all had the chance to ride on the mayor of Bethel’s boat to see a real fish camp (where people hang, dry, and prepare fish). A person named Stan is the owner of the fish camp, and he was incredibly hospitable to our entire group. We grilled hamburgers and hotdogs and gorged ourselves with s’mores for dessert. After dessert, Stan disappeared for a bit and returned with a freshly caught salmon in his hand. We got to watch him expertly gut and prepare the fresh salmon and then cook it on the grill. So that was our second dinner…but it was seriously the yummiest fish I have tasted. No wonder Alaskans are snobs about frozen fish, I mean YUM.

Stan gutting the fresh salmon for us.
Stan gutting the fresh salmon for us.

This morning we attended Catholic mass. The presiding deacon was Yup’ik and gave the homily in the Yup’ik language. The choir also sang in Yup’ik, and it was beautiful. The rest of the mass was rather ordinary, but I did notice that the sign of peace was much more of a drawn out ordeal than at any church service I’ve been to. People went out of their way to give friends and all those even remotely near to them a sign of peace. That was a perfect depiction of the closeness of this community. They wanted to give peace to one another, not just to a couple of people but to as many people as they could.

The following week is going to be jam-packed filled with interviews and projects. Then we are headed to Seward, Alaska, to go whale watching and do more touristy-type things.

More soon-

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The sun “setting” just after midnight

 

Hi Dad!

Hi pops,

Just wanted to say Happy Fathers Day again, and that I love you. I wish I could be there to celebrate with y’all!

Thank you for all that you do, you are the best. Thank you for letting me go on this amazing trip, it is seriously the best thing I’ve done in a while.

Today we had a huge breakfast, and in your honor I put peanut butter on mine (and told everyone about how you put peanut butter on basically everything- even hot dogs- yum….)

Also, shout out to you Grandma–happy birthday!!!
And Happy Father’s Day to you Grandpa. Love you both so much

Love you mucho, cheers on the Spurs for me! Wish you were here to see all the cool sea planes, I’m sure you would know the names of all the different kinds. image

my peanut buttered covered pancake 🙂 —->

See you soon I miss you!!!

*Will post a blog later tonight as an update on the past few days of activities

 

 

“Bethel is the place to be”

On our descent into Anchorage, we got a small taste of the beauty that is Alaska. Snow-covered mountains, a green valley lit up with city lights, with gorgeous bodies of water sprinkled throughout.

We had an amazing view of the mountains from our terminal in the Anchorage airport. We also got to see the beautiful changes in the sky throughout the night- none of which involved the sun actually setting. This was fascinating for those of us who have never seen the sky lit up at 1:30 in the morning.

After flying through the night, the leather seats in the terminal felt welcoming and we all fell asleep for a few hours (nearby dozens of other strangers-apparently it’s a normal thing to sleep in that airport). Boarding Alaska Air to Bethel was a relief. After that exhausting day of traveling, we were happy to be on our final leg of the trip.

Our descent into Bethel was much different from our descent into Anchorage. The flat land of the river delta landscape was beautiful as well, though slightly anticlimactic after seeing the mountains and scenery of Anchorage.

The freezing weather hit us the second we stepped off the plane. It didn’t warm up all day though, a constant cold drizzle of rain continued for the remainder of the day, and would intermittently turn into a hard, slanting (oh, and freezing) rain. If this is summer in Alaska, I honestly would never want to experience winter here.

I’ve also never seen so much mud in my life. Our walking tour of Bethel consisted of trekking through miles of mud-covered ground. It was almost impossible to tell the difference between the road and the mud on the side of the road, as every square inch of ground everywhere is covered in a layer or two of mud. We walked through the main part of “downtown” Bethel, which was basically just a four-way intersection. Many of the houses throughout Bethel are littered with scrap metal, wood, furniture, broken down cars, and trash. All the clutter is a result of poor methods of disposal in the town.

Above-ground water pipes also spread throughout the town. The pipes have to be above-ground because the permafrost is too solid, making it difficult to dig and bury them in the ground. Some neighborhoods receive direct plumbing from those pipes. However, most houses have to get their water tanks delivered by a truck on a bi-weekly basis. The Catholic Church where we are staying had to get a tank delivered this week as well as next week in order to accommodate our water usage as guests.

Despite my dreary descriptions, there are beautiful parts of Bethel. The dock and the waterfront are scenic, almost every dumpster in town is painted colorfully with images or words, including one that reads: “Bethel is the place to be.” And I guess it is. The people are great here. The Yup’ik people welcome visitors with open arms, as long as the visitors express a sincere interest in learning about them in a respectful manner.

The sense of community is so strong here that many people that visit to do volunteer work end up staying for years, or even moving here permanently. Many of the white citizens that live here only meant to be here for a year or two, but have ended up living here for almost 20 years.

All in all, the first day in Bethel was cold and wet, and we are all still getting used to the constant daylight…or trying to at least. Right now it’s 10:35 p.m. and the sky looks like it’s about 5 p.m. Anyways, sorry for the lengthy descriptions, I figured my mom will appreciate knowing the finer details since she can’t text me right now–hi mom!

More soon-

Here’s where we are staying!

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Living for others

Day one of filming is complete!

We interviewed three people today- whew. It may not seem like a lot, but the amount of preparation and setup that goes into each interview makes each interview take a while.

Each of the interviewees had a different perspective to bring to light regarding the major problems plaguing Bethel, including substance abuse, violence, and the lack of access to education. One highlighted the economic problems facing the people of Bethel, one focused on the connectivity between the land and the spiritual lives of the people, and the third one discussed the value systems of the people.

Each of the three people we interviewed discussed the issue of subsistence living in Bethel, or lack thereof. The effects that the inability to live a subsistent lifestyle have been devastating to the Yup’ik people, whose value systems are based off of subsistence. It was the glue that holds families together, and without it the entire family dynamic is changing. They are a people formed by the landscape in which they live. For example, children are often named after the place where they are from…it is literally their identity.

Despite the difficulties faced by the Yup’iks, they are resilient. This culture is one of beauty and strength, and one that focuses on the importance of gratitude.

Gratitude- something our consumerist society in the lower 48 often forgets about. The Yup’iks are grateful for every little thing. When they go hunting, if they kill a moose they take the time to pray and be thankful that the animal chose to give itself to them. They don’t boast their personal triumph of killing a moose, but rather treat it as a special guest they respect, rather than a piece of meat for their

No one lives for themselves out here. Children are traditionally named after the last family member who died. That dead family member is believed to live through that new child. They believe this so strongly that the life of that person comes back through the life of a newborn family member that they even celebrate the birthday of the deceased namesake with the new child…who never even knew the relative.

The Yup’ik culture is deeply rooted in the values of community, family, and togetherness and the proof of those values are seen everywhere here. Not only within the family unit, but outside of the family unit as well. For example, a parishioner of the Catholic Church we’re staying in brought us two plates of freshly caught (and deliciously prepared) fish, for no other reason than to thank us for visiting.

The community here is a beautiful one seemingly willing to accept us, and we’ve only been here a short two days.

More later-

(here is the closest thing to a sunset I’ve seen so far…and this was taken around midnight)

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Surrealaska

This week has been a whirlwind filled with learning, laughing, frustration with technology, and yawning. Lots and lots of yawning. (Oh and bagels today, thanks Carol you rock don’t ever change.)

Even after all of the preparation, the fact that we are going to Bethel for 15 days is still so surreal to me.

Throughout each of our eight hour days, I’ve learned how to shoot video, record audio, to interview, and how to combine those three skills. Well, I say that I’ve learned, but to be honest I still only barely grasp the basics…even after five days of camera tutorial by Tim.

Carol taught us about the ins and outs of interviewing. AND she gave us each our very own notebooks that look super journalist-y…like the ones journalists in movies use. Totally cool. (Once again you rock, don’t ever change…and I should definitely get an A on this post as compensation for all of this praise.)

We’ve also been able to learn about culture and religion and the relationship between the two through Dr. O’Keefe’s lectures. He made sure to educate us about the Yup’ic people. We are all now much more self-aware of the effects our obnoxious American presence could have, which was a concern of mine.

All of that learning has made me most excited to be in the type of place where the language has a single word, “ella,” that translates to English in three words: weather, the Earth, and the universe. It’ll be fascinating to be immersed in the Yup’ic culture, one that views nature as sacred. The spiritual value of nature is largely a lost concept in our society of technology, manufacturing, and concrete jungles.

The reflection this afternoon inspired me. Hearing from students that have participated in this program in the past, they all had generally the same message of the importance of staying fully present where you are, wherever that may be.

Those students also said that the most vital thing to remember is to be unafraid to step outside of your comfort zone…something I seem to be doing a lot of lately.

I can’t believe I’m going to ALASKA.

Okay that’s all for now. Time to finish packing!

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