Backpack Journalism at Creighton University is a collaboration between the Theology Department and the Journalism, Media, & Computing Department. It came about because of a theologian interested in social justice and filmmaking and a journalist and an artist interested in filmmaking and social justice.
Each summer, a small group of students travels to a community in search of a story. Led by professors Dr. John O’Keefe, Tim Guthrie, and Carol Zuegner, the students immerse themselves in the communities, interviewing, filming, recording, and writing. When they return to Creighton, they take the stories they have collected and develop them into a short documentary film. The Backpack Journalism documentaries have been accepted at several film festivals, including the Omaha Film Festival. The class has traveled to such far-flung places as the Dominican Republic and Uganda, Bethel Alaska and Nogales Arizona/Sonora. The next project is tentatively planned for Northern Uganda in 2018.
In Bethel, a small group of us went out on the tundra to catch the sunset for the last two nights. We would leave around 10:30 p.m. to watch the sun “set” around 11:30 p.m. And when I say “set,” it would never really go away, just dip below the horizon only to reappear a few hours later.
Some took shots for a time-lapse, others filmed more material for the mockumentary, or some just took a photo with their minds (and iPhones). When we were out on the tundra we talked and joked around or we were silent, just trying to take in the moment with every breath.
With my new appreciation of sunsets, we had arrived to our next destination, Seward, Alaska, just in time for the summer solstice. This part of Alaska was much different than Bethel. There were mountains, trees, and roads!
A small group of us set out again to watch the sun go down on the longest day of the year.
This time we didn’t actually get to see the sun because of the clouds and the mountains, but we watched a show of our own. As we settled on the rocks at the edge of the water, a sea otter came up and ate a long meal right in front of us. We sat there for quite a while.
There is something about sitting in silence with your friends before a perfectly serene scene of the blue water, cute wildlife, gigantic mountains, and low clouds. It’s where peace and love for the land is found.
It was transcendent—a moment I’ll want to remember forever.
It’s not hard to believe that a flame quickly spread when Jesuit Volunteers (JVs) first came to Bethel in 1964. Since then, JVs have remained in Bethel, and their roles have progressed from year-long volunteers to unfading members of the community.
Erin O’Keefe and Justin Brandt are two JVs that decided to stay in Bethel after their time as volunteers was over, similar to many other JVs that came to Bethel before them.
“It was love at first sight for me,” Brandt said, who served as a youth minister for the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church for two years.
Having put that particular position as his top choice during the selection process, he was determined to come to Bethel and seek a new adventure. His undying love for the outdoors drew him to one of the last truly wild destinations in the U.S.
O’Keefe first heard about the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) from her mother, who was a JV herself and encouraged her children to pursue it.
When O’Keefe learned that she would be a JV in Bethel working at the Kuskokwim Learning Academy, she didn’t think too much about it or the possible impact it would have on her.
“When I think about how I was a JV, I think about the worlds that it opened up for me in Bethel and Alaska,” O’Keefe said.
As stated on the JVC website, a part of their mission is “to be conscious of the poor, attuned to the causes of social injustice, and dedicated to service informed by faith.”
JVs spend a year or more in assigned locations in the U.S. or developing countries. In its beginning, JVC saw a need in Bethel and other parts of rural Alaska.
“One of the purposes of JVC is to expose people to poverty that they may not have experienced themselves and put them in positions where they are questioning their own life choices and to live in greater solidarity with those people,” explained O’Keefe.
Bethel’s 6,000 residents have struggled with various social issues, including homelessness, substance abuse and suicide, in one form or another.
“Bethel has a large number of problems for such a small number of people, and because it’s a small number of people, the problems are much more well known,” Brandt said.
Despite the needs of the community, Bethel is home to an enduring Yup’ik culture and lively people, making it a special location for JVs who serve there. While working with the community, JVs are immersed and embraced by the people of Bethel. They participate in traditional practices alongside the natives and develop to be unforgettable additions to the Bethel community.
“Bethel is a great place for JVs, and certainly Bethel does more for JVs than JVs do for Bethel,” O’Keefe stated.
When I think of Bethel, Alaska, I remember the constant sunlight, the flat, spongy tundra, the kind interviewees, and the amazing group I went there with. It did take some time to adjust, even to the simple things like no trees and constant sunlight.
During my two weeks in Bethel, I told myself to adjust and embrace.
Embrace the layers of long sleeves and sweatshirts you wear everyday. They’ll keep you warm enough to allow you to spend hours climbing on and filming B roll of the soft, never-ending tundra.
Embrace waking up every morning knowing your only footwear option is your rain boots. You’ll need them every time you go outside: on muddy roads, kayaking down a slough, and walking across (and almost getting stuck in) the little streams in the tundra.
Embrace the hoards of eyeball-sized mosquitos that seem to laugh whenever you attempt to keep them away with bug spray. You’d be too scared out on sitting on the tundra at sunset at 11:30 p.m.
Embrace the queen bed you share with three other women. You wouldn’t have been blessed to wake up to 30 seconds of Jesse McCartney’s “Beautiful Soul” before Mari would hit the snooze button three times.
Embrace the sunlight. It’ll never be too dark to take walks on the tundra, and it will light up the clouds in the most beautiful way you have ever seen.
Embrace the 19 other people you’ve spent the past five weeks with. They’ll help you learn, they’ll make you laugh, and they’ll take great selfies with you.
Embrace the adventure, the landscape, and the people; they will embrace you back.
On our final night in Bethel, Mari and I (we are the self-elected social chairs of the group and are in charge of boosting morale and suggesting we go out for breakfast) decided it would be fun to come up with superlatives for our funny little group and read them out loud to everyone at dinner. While we didn’t have dinner that night, we managed to call everyone together by saying that Dr. Z needed them…HA! suckers. Everyone was a good sport and we had a lot of laughs as we closed out our chapter in Bethel.
Here are the superlatives we gave everyone:
Carol Zuegner: Best at forgetting to warn us of pending manual labor (she agreed to have us clear brush at the mayor’s fish camp for an hour and didn’t tell any of us)
Tim Guthrie: Best humorous editor (he added funny word bubbles to the safety pamphlet on the airplane)
John O’Keefe: Best at looking like Brian McCaffery (the biologist we interviewed. “it’s like you’re my mirror, whoa, a mirror staring back at me” *must be read in tune with the Justin Timberlake song)
Claire Storey: Best at explaining card game rules (or not…well, maybe if you have 30 minutes…)
Stephanie Tedesco: Best blogger (she made us look bad by blogging everyday. You go girl!)
Morgan Ryan: Best sunset instagrammer (every night a new 2 AM Alaskan sunset)
Tony Homsy SJ: Best at “sensing” when we want to play BS (he was right about half the time…)
Nico Sandi: Best at light packing and water conservation (he wore the same T-shirt everyday and didn’t shower until we got to Seward…almost 2 weeks into our trip)
TJ Moore: Best at mastering “the Yup’ik yes” *cue eyebrow raise* (we saw that a lot)
Scott Prewitt: Best at making everything epic (he put ranch on his pizza once and said it changed his life. Okay Scott)
Hayley Henriksen: Best “head hang” (we see it most after Mari and I embarrass her by telling her she’s the cutest human)
Leah Renaud: Best at never not singing show tunes (if you like hearing the Frozen soundtrack 24/7, you would have LOVED our trip)
Kari Welniak: Best at falling asleep anywhere and everywhere (airports, fish camps, etc.)
Hannah Mullally: Best at consistently dressing like she’s about to scale a mountain (it was North Face pants and Columbia zip-ups all day, everyday)
Catherine Adams: Best one liners (she’s funny and swift)
Erin Kurvers: Best at reading 17 Magazine out loud (she read our entire room our horoscope, so let’s just say a lot of us are looking forward to coming into money in July)
Madeline Zukowski: Best at apologizing after being sassy (even though the apology basically cancels out the sassiness)
Nichole Jelinek: Best at frequently playing Bananagrams (solo, in a group, it doesn’t matter… Nichole is playing)
Last but definitely not least, the group gave Mari and I the superlative “best at avoiding bear attacks” because they said we are so loud the bear would hear us coming. We can feel the love! This group went from acquaintances to a family in a matter of days. Each student and teacher brought their own personality to the mix, making this trip an even more amazing experience than any of us imagined. There is no place we would rather be than with all of them.
“Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.” -Henry Ford
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.”
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.
After turning right and following the curve on Akiak Drive in the heart of Bethel, five buildings stand in a row, taking up about the space of two blocks. The three main buildings, placed one right after the other, are white with red roofs. The two other buildings, placed with space between them, are a light blue color.
This is the Kuskokwim campus (KuC) of the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) system, which according to its website, is the largest rural campus in the system.
KuC serves about 150-200 full-time and part-time students who take on-campus or distanced classes. KuC offers certificate programs, an Associate of Applied Science program, an Associate of Arts program and a Bachelor’s degree program.
Distanced classes exist to serve those students who live in the rural villages surrounding Bethel.
“Students can take classes from home,” Agnes McIntyre, the Emerging Scholars Program Coordinator at KuC and an academic advisor, said. “They use their landline phones to take classes or they can go on the Blackboard [an online learning system] using the computers. They have to have Internet and computer access to take those classes.”
Although many of the students who attend KuC live in outside rural villages, the campus has one dormitory, Sackett Hall, which holds 38 students. According to McIntyre, often times students who don’t have relatives in Bethel or can’t afford off-campus housing but want an one-on-one relationship with their educators live in the dorm. View our video about Sackett Hall here.
Much like Creighton Univeristy, KuC has a higher enrollment of females than males.
“I believe a lot of the females from the villages think beyond high school,” McIntyre said. “There’s education and they want to better themselves and they want to come back and get their degree and have a better job to raise a family. The males, right out of high school, they want to provide for their families [through] subsistence hunting and gathering food and I think they have that mind before they make major decisions of what they want to do.”
Unlike Creighton, the majority of students of KuC are older than the average college age of 18-22 years old.
“A lot of the students who are thinking about working in an organization with higher pay are those who went to school, dropped out and came back, because they know they have to have a degree to get a good paying job because everything is so expensive here,” McIntyre said.
A unique aspect of KuC includes the opportunity for students to take Yup’ik language and culture classes in order to make sure the Yup’ik practices are passed on to a younger generation.
“Some of the students, when they first come here, [are only] fluent in English and not in their own language,” McIntyre said. “We look at our Yup’ik language[and] it’s dying, but we want to make sure that it’s here for our younger generations.”
McIntyre hopes that enrollment at KuC increases in the future.
“I think we’re going to see more students out there with degrees in the future. I’m very very positive about that.”
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.
Exploring something new or somewhere new is on the bucket list of Morgan Ryan, a Creighton student from Omaha, Nebraska, studying graphic design, advertising, public relations, and digital development.
Ryan had no idea she would discover so many things in the computer and technology world that she loved and wanted to explore. With her various areas of study she was able to find a new passion of hers, photography and videography.
“I had one class with Tim, the video and photo class, and I just fell in love with it.”
When she found out about the Creighton Backpack Journalism trip to Alaska, she desired to immerse herself in her newfound passion and get that real life experience the trip would offer.
Ryan states that the best part of the trip was getting to see a new part of the world. The boat trip to the village of Napaskiak really made that a reality for her.
“I’ve lived in Omaha my entire life, and we never really took any vacations. It was exciting to go to somewhere new and explore.”
The worst part of the trip for Ryan was the knowledge that her and her classmates were experiencing Bethel, Alaska in a different way than the people living there experienced it. She claims she felt a little guilty that there are so many struggles present in the small town and her group wasn’t experiencing it.
Despite the guilt, this trip helped her decide what path to follow in the future.
“I loved getting B-roll and the interviews and now the editing process. This trip really helped me narrow down what I want to do once I graduate.”
After she graduates from Creighton in 2015, Ryan will look for a job. She isn’t quite sure what that job that is, but she knows one thing for sure. She wants to get out of Nebraska. This trip to Bethel has influenced Ryan in a way that makes her want to get out and explore new places in the future.
I have been home from Alaska for almost a week now, and I admit it still feels strange to be back in Nebraska. It seems that no time has passed, yet so much happened to me while I was away. I am definitely missing Alaska, from the community of Bethel to the mountains of the Kenai Peninsula.
Fortunately I haven’t had a lot of time to think about the twinge of sadness I feel as we dive head first into creating our documentary. I don’t feel a complete loss of connection to Alaska as I re-watch interviews and look at B-roll. I have enjoyed listening to the stories of people we interviewed early in our trip and finding the best quotes in our many hours of footage. It was a tiring week of transcribing and editing video, but we have made great progress in our project.
As I tell my family and friends about my Backpack Journalism experience, I feel a sense of excitement as I talk about the wonderful people we met in Bethel and the issues of the area that we learned about and witnessed firsthand. There is so much to tell, yet I can’t find the words to tell about everything. All I can do is try to express my love for the beautiful state.
I always seem to fall in love with the places I visit. My numerous trips to Chicago have led me to decide that it is my favorite city. Visiting Oregon and seeing its splendor helped me determine that I want to live there in the future. During my service trip to West Virginia, I was amazed by its beauty during the fall and inspired by its people.
Alaska was no different. I feel fortunate to have spent so much time in a part of the state rarely seen by tourists. I came to admire the Yup’ik culture and subsistence lifestyle. I saw tundra, ocean, glaciers and mountains, all in one place. The people I met and the stories I heard changed my life.
Being a Nebraska native, everywhere else seems to be more beautiful and exciting than the flat plains of the Cornhusker State. No mountains or oceans, just fields and rivers.
Yet being back, I have come to appreciate the beauty of where I grew up and the city I call my second home. On my first night back from Alaska, I looked out toward the sunset from my 10th floor apartment window. I thought about the stunning Alaska sky, but then I realized that Nebraska has pretty amazing sunsets, too.
From the outside looking in, the town of Bethel, Alaska, may not seem like the most exciting place. But for the people living there, it is home, and it is beautiful to them.
Our very last interview was with a woman named Susan, who worked at the Immaculate Conception Church where we stayed during our trip. She was born in Bethel and has lived there her entire life. Her love for the community showed, and there was no place she would rather be.
“Bethel is our paradise,” she eloquently stated.
No matter where I may end up living in my life, for now I will appreciate the beauty and comfort of Nebraska and the people here who have impacted my life. I hope that I have the opportunity to travel to Alaska again soon, but for now I am going to love the place where I am now.