Tag Archives: Bethel

A Difference Maker

Thank you to Scott Prewitt for capturing this moment.
Wearing my Alaska hat and taking in the beauty surrounding me. A special thank you to Scott Prewitt for capturing this moment.

At the start of this journey, I was looking for adventure. I hoped to learn and grow in my journalistic and video skills. I was excited to travel to Alaska, a new and fascinating place.

Now that we have completed our final day of the Backpack Journalism Program, I can say that I have accomplished all of this and so much more.

I can’t even come close to adequately putting this experience into words. It has far exceeded my expectations, and I feel so grateful for these past five weeks.

The Backpack Journalism team traveled to a place at the world’s edge, often unseen or forgotten by the lower 48. There we stayed in the small but welcoming community of Bethel where we learned about the Yup’ik culture, the people’s connection to the land and the effects of climate change. I was amazed by the openness of the community and how willingly people shared their stories with us. If they had not taken the time to be interviewed and filmed by us, the creation of our documentary would not be possible.

After learning about how climate change is affecting Alaska, this trip allowed me to reflect on my own life and how I live. Over the years, it has been easy for me to be critical of others who do not believe in climate change or chose to ignore it. But because climate change is a collective problem, I am as much a cause of this environmental crisis as anyone else. I recycle and walk to school, but I still drive a car and feed into the consumerism that is much of the cause of climate change. In the next few months, I will make the changes in my life necessary to live more simply and reduce the amount of energy and resources that I use.

Because of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I also gained a sense of confidence in myself and my abilities. I feel that I can now take on any challenge in life, which will be especially important as I begin my senior year of college and look to the future.

The memories I shared with my team members will be ones I’ll cherish forever, from watching the magnificent sunset during a boat ride on the Kuskokwim to the beautiful tundra walks to the countless games played in the social hall. The perpetual laughter of our group, no matter what the circumstance, made this experience unforgettable. The amount of joy that I have felt in the last month has renewed my spirits and inspired me to continue fighting for what I believe in.

I already miss the people and landscape of Alaska, but soon I will miss spending time with the 19 incredible people on the Backpack Journalism team. Thankfully we will always have a connection to each other and Alaska because of this film-making and community-building experience. Even though it was our last day of class today, I know that the journey is not over. We still have a great deal of editing to do on our documentary, and then comes the most exciting part of this project: sharing our film with others.

I feel blessed to be a witness to a part of the world that is hurting but still lively, rich in culture and appreciative of the land and community. I can end this five-week experience feeling as though I made a difference in some way, but I know that Bethel has made much more of a difference in me.

Learning to Live in the Moment

Yesterday, we created a small B-roll team to go shoot some footage around Omaha (it makes sense for the documentary, I promise). Myself and five others squished into Hannah’s vehicle, excited for the chance to take the cameras out again. We quickly realized something though: here in Omaha, people are terrified of cameras in public places. Everyone was very paranoid about our presence, and our filming was nearly always halted by security guards and managers.

We didn’t realize it at the time, but the greatest thing about Bethel was how open and accepting everyone was.

It seemed like everyone was willing to help us with our film. And we were able to take cameras everywhere: stores, public buildings, neighborhoods, wherever we needed, basically. And everyone we interviewed was honest, open and willing to share their stories. It was incredible.

Coming back home, it’s easy to see how differently we live as opposed to the people in Bethel. People here don’t seem as open or friendly. Everyone seems very closed off and in their own world. In Bethel, no one hesitated to ask about our cameras, our purpose, our background. Yesterday while we were out, no one cared what we were doing. In fact, it felt like everyone just wanted us to leave. Everyone was too busy moving onto the next thing they had to do, or walking around absent minded, distracted in the world of emails, texts or Twitter.

And I myself, am included in this. It’s very hard to break habits.

In Bethel, as you probably know, we didn’t really have cell service. For short amounts of time, we were able to connect to wi-fi, able to connect to friends and family. During the day, we were completely disconnected though, and sometimes it was really nice. We were present, we were observant, we were living in the moment.

Before our trip began, I had a feeling that we would learn a lot from this experience. I never knew how much it would teach us about the way we live, however. As I said before, it’s really hard to truly be present in the moment. I’m honestly terrible at it, craving a glance at my Twitter feed or needing to eliminate notification icons immediately.

I don’t want to continue these habits though. Bethel taught me how important it is to simply pay attention to your surroundings. When you step away from the problems of your own life, that’s when you gain the most from the world around you. That’s how you learn about the people around you. And that’s how you learn the most about yourself.

Blessed to learn and to love

It’s been five weeks, 35 days, 840 hours and 50,400 minutes. The whole trip, every single minute of it, was better than I had ever imagined it would be.

I’ve been thinking about how I was going to write this last blog post for the past 24 hours. How could I possibly sum up such a wonderful and impactful experience?  So to save you all from my rambling and incoherent thoughts, I want to share with you what I’ve learned from this trip:

1. Writing a movie script is different than any journalism story I’ve written. 

I’m used to telling stories using my words in my own style, letting others’ voices help me prove whatever statement I’m making. That’s what many journalists do, and that’s the privilege of being a journalist. You get to share stories, and it’s your job to tell the story to others. This experience has been different because instead of using our own voices, we help in another way.  We let our video and our interviewees tell the story. We rely heavily on them, while leaving ourselves out of it. Perhaps that’s what makes the best kind of story; when the subject is able to speak to a large group of others directly with only a little help from journalists.

2. I need practice shooting video, but hey, at least I know what all the buttons on the camera do. 

I can tell you how to set the ISO, aperture, shutter speed and white balance on a camera. I can tell you that when you don’t have time to set those features, shoot in Program mode. However, I’m not quite comfortable with a camera yet.  I hope to spend more time with a camera in the future (and maybe not with the thought of making an award-winning documentary in mind).

3.  Confidence is absolutely vital to a project like this. 

You need a lot of faith in yourself and in your team members to complete something like this. You need faith you’ll get the interview, faith you’ll get enough b-roll, faith you’ll find a good story, and faith it’ll all come together in the end. (I also learned I’m awful at hiding the times when I don’t have faith in myself; John had to remind me to be confident.)

4.  When you find a culture and a people as special as those in Bethel, you try to soak in everything you can.

I’m still trying to soak in all the lessons learned and the sights I saw. This culture is a welcoming culture, an open culture, a completely different culture than my own. Cecilia let us try on her parkas, pieces of clothing she hand-made and were a part of her culture and identity.  Nelson let a dozen people watch him cry as he told us how climate change is affecting the edge of the world and his life. If you’re blessed enough to be a witness to all of this, you keep a place for those people in your heart, knowing that truly good people, people who care, are out there.

5. Once you become aware of a moral evil or a social sin, you are held accountable for your actions. 

During our last lecture on Tuesday, we talked about social sins and modernity. We reflected on becoming aware of the social sin that has become climate change. Now that we are aware, we are held accountable to help make it right. As Nelson would say, we need to  find a way to say sorry to the land.

Carol asked us,”What is something you can do differently based on what you learned?”

I learned that climate change is not a hoax. I’ve seen the impact it’s had on people and on their culture. I’m now accountable for my actions. I can’t change the consumer society that is affecting climate change, but I can take little steps, like recycling and reusing items, and find out how to take bigger steps in the future.

6. It takes a lot to still love 19 people with whom you’ve spent five weeks, 35 days, 840 hours and 50,400 minutes. 

The Alaskan family. Photo courtesy of John O'Keefe.
The Alaskan family. Photo courtesy of John O’Keefe.

I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard sometimes. But, in all honesty, I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to spend over 50,000 minutes with. This trip and my whole experience wouldn’t be the same without them.  I  walked out of the classroom today with a happy heart and a feeling of gratefulness.

So again, I’d like to thank Carol, Tim, John and the rest of my peers for a life-changing experience.

Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened

Wow, today is the last official day of Backpack Journalism… and I don’t even know what to really say (but of course, I’ll think of something).  I am more just in shock with the fact that…

…it’s over.

For starters, I think that it is a given for myself that, not today, or tomorrow, but give it a week or two and I will be having some serious Backpack Journalism withdrawal. This experience is a perfect example of how life can fly right past your eyes when you blink. It feels like just yesterday that we were all worried and packing for the trip, but at the same time it feels like a long time ago.

I find it extremely hard to sum up all that this trip has done for me, and I am sure that it has done things for me that I don’t even have a grasp on yet.

These 5 weeks have helped me visualize things that I would like to do with my future, and directions I would like to lead it. It gives me a “hey I went on/did this, so I’ll be able to do this!” kind of vibe, if that makes any sense. It has helped me develop skills that I never thought I would learn, and an experience I could have never have gotten in any classroom.

Another thing this trip has done is reintroduce a passion into my life. For the longest time in college, I felt myself just drifting through my classes, getting sucked into the zombie routine of going in and out of class, not giving much thought on the future instead of the present. This experience, I can honestly say, has helped me think of my future, and all the doors that can be unlocked.

Something else to note that this trip has done for me, is that I will be forever plagued and gifted with awareness. I guess this trip was an “ah-ha” moment for me after all, or “when I first became aware”. I know that (even if they are just small things), I will be conscious of what I am always doing, such as taking long showers, wasting the gift we have here of electricity, and wasting food (which according to the Yup’ik people is a mortal sin). It has helped me to take a step back from my consumer lifestyle, question something you don’t even realize you are doing, and ask, “should I be doing this?”

I would like to say another thanks to John, Tim, Carol and Nichole for making all of this possible. It really means a lot to me that you all go out of your way to do this for students. Before the trip, I didn’t really doubt that we were going to go and make a documentary.  I just couldn’t really wrap my head around HOW we were going to do it in such a short time span, it is really amazing all that we accomplished while there. Even though I still have my self doubts about working the equipment and being involved and all that, I was glad to help and be a part of a team, I think that’s really the thing that I will miss the most.

Overall, this trip was nothing that I expected. Of course, I’m not sure I really knew what to expect. I can honestly say that this trip has done so much for me. It has helped me gain firsthand experience in areas of film/video in the best way possible. It has let me look into another culture through the eyes of the ones living there, and see what they value, what they believe, their struggles, and really who they are. It has taught me about myself, and what I believe, who I really think that I am, and even though I’m not exactly sure what it is yet, it has done something for me that nothing else could have.

I am trying to keep the “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened” attitude, and even though I will miss everyone on the team, I am overjoyed and so thankful that I was given the chance to experience this.

What is one thing I can do differently based on what I have learned? (Carol’s question). The one thing I can confirm that I am taking away from this is that opportunity isn’t going to come knocking on your door, you can’t just glide through life expecting the doors to open up for you, you have to take the step outside of your comfort zone and go seeking opportunities. That is one thing I am going to attempt to do different, look for opportunity, and try to make things happen for myself (something I need to keep in mind).

With that, it has been a wonderful experience to say the least, I especially need to thank Johnny Intensity for opening up these doors, and helping me grow in my life, and helping my spirituality grow in ways I never knew possible. And for being the Dad of the trip to all of us (you all know it’s true).

Until next time…

Alaska2014<3

The best team I could have asked for
The best team I could have asked for

Finally Seeing

If I had to choose one lasting image from my trip to Alaska, it would be the Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park.

exitglacier

I have never had any doubt about climate change, but viewing this glacier somehow made me see the issue in a new way, as if I had not fully grasped the situation our world faces.

I recently watched “Chasing Ice,” a documentary created by photographer James Balog, who uses time lapse images of glaciers to tell the story of climate change. It is a spectacular yet jarring film that shows how drastically glaciers are melting around the world, including sequences from Alaska.

To see a disappearing glacier before my eyes was an unforgettable experience.  I initially was excited to discover that we would be visiting the glacier, but during our hike up to Exit Glacier, I felt anxious about what we would find.

Yes, the glacier was extraordinary. But because of its noticeably shrinking size, I immediately felt saddened by the sight before me.

I admired the shades of blue on the ice but then observed that it was losing its pristine white color and instead acquiring a grayish tint from the rocks surrounding it. I saw the deep cracks throughout the glacier and a stream of water flowing down the ice mass.

A few weeks ago, Kenai Fjords National Park posted a picture on its Facebook page that illustrates the progression of the Exit Glacier’s ice melt. The changes are staggering.

If I return to Alaska someday and visit Exit Glacier, what will it look like? It’s a startling question to think about. Depending on how far into the future it may be, the glacier could look strikingly different.

It all depends on how quickly we act because we are running out of time. I see progress being made, but there is still so much more we need to do to curb the affects of climate change. I still have hope that our world leaders will be brave enough to take these necessary and urgent steps before it is too late.

As we put together our own documentary, a goal for the film is to tell the personal side of the issue and how it is truly affecting people in Bethel. Like “Chasing Ice,” I hope that our project will in some way make an impact on the community and shine a light on climate change to those who may not have seen it.

 

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.

Quyana

It’s almost time to wrap things up.

The end is nigh, and it’s staring me in the face.

There are some people who need to be thanked.

John O’Keefe: The master behind the madness, John kept it all together. He worked for over a year before the trip to make contacts and find threads for the project. Without him, we wouldn’t have a story. Johnny Intensity pulled through.

Tim Guthrie: Tim is a true artist. He miraculously taught us all video and photography to the point of competence within a week. Then he had enough confidence to throw us out in the field and let us do our thing. What a guy. Without him, we would have NO FILM.

Carol Zuegner: Carol had her eye on the ball. While the rest of us may have been goofing off or letting our attention slip, she was on point. She worked tirelessly with the writing team to ensure high quality, thought provoking, story-oriented questions, took copious notes that turned out to be invaluable, and discerned where the story was headed before the rest of us even knew it.

Nichole Jelinek: The logistics queen. She shopped for us, she managed equipment for us, and best of all, she drove us to the Tundra for late night time-lapses. Nichole not only was a great helper, but a phenomenal companion.

The Student Crew: Each person brought their own skill and personality to the table. The result was one of the most dynamic teams I’ve ever worked with. Y’all taught me what it means to live in communion.

The Interviewees: These people allowed us to set up a bunch of intimidating equipment around them and ask them difficult questions about a trying time. That takes some real bravery. They gave us the story.

The People of the YK Delta: They welcomed us with open arms. I would walk the streets and strike up conversations with random people. Fifteen minutes later it seemed like we had been neighbors our entire lives. I guess we had, in a way.

Sincerely and truly, from me to all of you,

Quyana

Tom: A Man Among Boats

Tom J. Usterman stands in the mud, slightly slouching against a service truck.

He whips out a pack of camels, quickly lights one, and takes a slow drag.

“I like to work with my hands,” he says. “My money makers,” he adds with a grin.

Tom works as a Port Attendant at the Small Boat Harbor on the north side of Bethel, Alaska. He’s a handy man, a jack of all trades. From general maintenance to helping the elderly, Tom is a perennial face at the Small Boat Harbor.

“I’ve got a facial recognition around here,” Tom said. “The people, I like to help them out, have small conversations…I like helping out people. It’s a great feeling.”

Tom’s initial interest in working the harbor came from a friend.

“I heard it from a friend who said ‘if you’re looking for a job, we need some help over here at the port,'” he said. “I applied and ever since then on a regular basis I’ve come here year after year.  It’s kind of something that is fun for me, because…sunshine, you get to meet new people, life along the water I guess.”

Through his work at the harbor, Tom is a firsthand witness to the thriving boat culture on the Kuskokwim river, the main mode of commerce and transportation for the people who call its banks home.

“For new vehicles, building equipment, and mass bulk production the barges that come up the river maintain a lifeline for Bethel,” Tom said. “I guess I want to say I want to be a part of that. ”

Boats are integral to survival on the Kuskokwim, from subsistence fishing to emergency runs to the hospital in Bethel. But survival is not their only use.

“About half of Bethel owns boats and come summer time when it’s 90 degrees, they’re not staying here, they’re going down the river…people can travel up and down the river, see family, go see gram, or go to fish camp,” Tom said.

Tom believes that boats are and will continue to be a strong part of the Kuskokwim peoples’ culture.

“The culture is still pretty much the same as it was twenty years ago,” he said. “Just faster boats and bigger motors.”

Check out the video of Tom’s interview here.

Treasure amongst the trash

Written by Mari Heller and Claudia Brock

Watch our video project on this topic here.

While in most parts of America, trash receptacles are not anything note-worthy. However, in Bethel, Alaska the dumpsters around the area are painted in bright colors and are even considered a tourist attraction by the residents of the city.

 Reyne Athanas, the current Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center Coordinator, runs the children’s art camp in the summer and is responsible for the dumpsters being repainted annually. With her Masters degree in Fine Arts and her 25 years experience as an art teacher, Athanas uses her expertise to guide over 60 kids during summer art camp sessions through various projects, including painting the dumpsters.

 “My sister-in-law, Janet Athanas, with the Bethel Parks and Rec. Department started that [painting the dumpsters] as a contest and that was probably, I want to say 2000. So the best dumpsters in the community got prizes. When Janet started it was communities or individuals would paint them but that kind of stopped, so with the art camp we decided we’d take it over,” said Athanas.

 The art camp, which has been holding sessions since 2005 has been growing every summer and offers a week of hands-on arts and crafts projects to children ranging in age from 8-13 years old.

 Most institutions in Bethel have their own painted dumpster, like the Bethel Health Clinic and the Cultural Center. Some dumpsters around the city do not belong to an organization but are used to promote a lifestyle choice such as birth control, being active, and engaged parenting.

 Because the art camp has become responsible for the maintenance of the dumpsters, Athanas must call around the city before the art camp starts to secure the unconventional canvases for her students.

 “I call the people who are in charge of the dumpsters and ask them to drop off I try to get eight per camp but this year they didn’t give us quite that many. So they drop them off, we paint them, they pick them up and put them back,” said Athanas.

 Athanas has not heard of any other city or town in Alaska who paints their dumpsters and believes that this form of urban art sets Bethel apart from other communities.

 While the dumpsters are made for disposable items, the messages and imagery on the outside of them are forms of lasting beauty in the city.

“Stanley Corp. The Everything Man.”

“Stanley Corp. The Everything Man.”

Stephanie Tedesco & Kari Welniak

Writers.

 

Stanley Corp is not just your typical guy. He can do pretty much anything. Seriously! He builds furniture for almost anything and anyone, he knows how to do maintenance work, and he built and takes care of his fish camp off the shores of the Kuskokwim River in Bethel, Alaska. And his profession of choice is barbering.

 

What brought Stan to Bethel? His sister was living in Bethel when he was in search of work. Bethel held many potential opportunities. So one Saturday Stanley Corp arrived to Bethel and was working right away that Monday. Stan has been there ever since.

 

Stan stays involved with his community by participating in Church activities and inviting groups to have a real Alaskan fish camp experience. He makes everyone feel at home by starting a warm fire and starts up the grill to make hamburgers, hot dogs, salmon, and s’mores. He showed us how to fillet a freshly caught salmon and play basketball Alaskan fish camp style.

 

On top of staying involved with his community in Bethel, Stan loves his job as a barber. Stan gets to know all of his customers and a lot about the town. He treats every customer individually and loves to get to know them for who they are and not from what he hears. He is always giving out advice to his customers that keep coming back.

 

His top advice he gives out to a lot of young people that come into his barbershop is to take pre-marriage counseling before getting married. It worked for him and his wife. It taught him a lot about not having jealousy and never holding grudges about the past.

 

At a potluck that was hosted at the Church, Stan was more than glad to make an appearance. He loves to socialize with longtime Church members and newcomers. He knows how to make everyone feel welcome. He is glad to share his knowledge, life experience, and advice with his customers. He even has a sense of humor and likes to laugh. His signature smile and laugh will always leave you with a smile on your face.

 

To learn more about Stan and hear more of what he has to say about barbering, watch our video! https://vimeo.com/99769605