Tag Archives: fish

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 potluck of personalities.

A potluck of personalities.

Last night we had the privilege of having a potluck hosted by the Catholic Church. Church member were very generous and brought us all kind of native foods that I’ve never even heard of or tried before! There’s always a first for everything! Some of the foods featured at our potluck that I sampled personally were seal soup, moose stew (one of my favorites), fish chowder with white fish and salmon, hering fish eggs dipped in olive oil (very interesting texture I’d say), caribou stew, moose stir fry, and salmon every possible way you can imagine. I decided not to be apprehensive about trying the new dishes because how many people can say they’ve eaten seal meat? All of the dishes tasted amazing! Our Creighton group decided that we should bring some form of Nebraska to the table. So of course we made a dish that included corn. Everyone loves cornbread muffins!

Samples of all the food that was hosted for us.
Samples of all the food that was hosted for us.

Not only was it great to see the variety of foods that were brought forth to the table, but it was also even better to see the people and friendships we’ve made during our short time in Alaska all come to the potluck. It just goes to show how great this community is. Some our friends that came were Connie and Arvin who showed a few of us to their fish camp the other day; Brian McCaffery, acting Yukon delta NWR manager and deacon of the Catholic Church; Cecilia, a Yup’ik woman, and her husband Mike; Alisha, our friend and fixer; Stan, a barbershop owner and amazing person who hosted all of us at his fish camp, Susan, who runs the Catholic Church behind the scenes; and Sarah, our guide and former Jesuit volunteer at the Catholic Church. Not only did our new friends show up, but members of the church also came to help us feel more at home and gift us with more food.

After our amazing feast all the students including Tony and Nicole all went on a nice long walk after dinner to unwind and goof off at the end of a long day. During our long walk, I realized that our own group is a potluck of personalities. The group wouldn’t be the same without everyone. It also wouldn’t be the same without everyone who was willing to help us out and make our time here in Bethel memorable and one for the books.

It also really hit me the various things I’m going to miss the most about Bethel. I’m going to miss these late night 11 pm strolls while it’s still light out. I’ll even miss seeing kids still riding around on their bikes at night with nothing but one layer on while you see me with four layers on. I’m going to miss just spending time with everyone literally 24/7 and eating every meal together like a giant family. I’ll miss our attempts at “jumping pictures”. It’s random moments like these I’m going to miss the most. I do know for a fact these memories will still continue to be made even after we come back from Alaska. I won’t lie. I was little homesick a week ago (Yes mother I’m admitting it!). Normally you are supposed to feel homesick after you leave a place. Now I’m starting to feel the post-Alaska homesickness. It’s incredible we’ve only been here a week and a half, but I feel like it’s not enough time. There’s still so much more to explore and learn from Bethel. Perhaps I could continue this exploring and come back one day. Maybe by that time I’ll be in or done with dental school and I could use my skills here. No matter what, I see myself coming back to this place I can call a home.

Quyana to all that have made this experience amazing!

Goofing off on our late night walks.
Goofing off on our late night walks.

Fishin’ Around

Yesterday’s topic of the day was fish, which only seems appropriate, considering the people in Bethel live off of fish.

I mean that quite literally. We’ve seen this theme, living off of the fish one works hard to catch, in many of our interviews. In fact, subsistence and the king salmon fishing restrictions are the main focus of our documentary.

I heard the impact of the fishing restrictions on subsistence lifestyles today at a town hall-style meeting. It was hosted by the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group, a group that makes recommendations about fishing and listens to villagers’ and city residents’ issues caused by the restrictions.

I heard lots of comments about fear of starvation and eventual death because of the restrictions. Villagers, who live both upstream and downstream, are concerned that there are no fish on their drying racks. (After a fish is caught, it is cut and then hung to dry.) One man started to yell, accusing the members that they have fish on their racks but they don’t seem to care about those who have caught nothing.

This is an example of salmon drying. This was taken at Cecilia's house; she has a small shack full of fish that have been hung to dry.
This is an example of salmon drying. This was taken at Cecilia’s house; she has a small shack full of fish that have been hung to dry.

One man went so far to “guarantee” that if the restrictions continue, lives will be in danger. He stated that people were going out with riffles. (We think he means people are attempting to shoot at Alaska State Troopers who patrol and see what people are catching, making sure they are not catching king salmon.)

We stayed for three hours of the discussion, and none of us knew how long the meeting actually lasted. We had to leave because we had a potluck dinner at the church.

Yesterday morning, the C-team got to go out on a boat with a true fisherman (it was arranged because we didn’t get to go on other adventures earlier in our trip). I was freezing. I had five sweatshirts, two layers of socks, a hat and gloves on, but my toes and fingers were still frozen by the end.

Despite the cold, it was a really cool experience. Tad, the fisherman, was going out to check his net as well as his brother-in-law’s nets. He checks them twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening.

He probably caught between a dozen to 20 fish in his nets. The majority of them were red salmon.

As we watched Tad pull his nets into the boat, it was exciting every time we saw fish caught in them.
As we watched Tad pull his nets into the boat, it was exciting every time we saw fish caught in them.

He pulled his net out of the water little by little. When he came across a fish, he untangled the fish from the net. (I tried to suppress my squeals as I saw a fin or gill move.) As the fish fell to the ground of the boat, he put his pointer and middle fingers in the gills of the fish and broke them, causing the fish to bleed out of its gills. He threw them one by one in a bucket full of water.

He threw two fish on top of the bucket, explaining he would feed those fish to the dogs. These fish were rotten; they were previously caught in a net and had escaped only to run into his net.

I have to admit seeing a bucket full of fish and blood was pretty gross at times, but seeing part of the process of preparing fish is probably something I won’t ever see again.

I think back to yesterday, to the fisherman, to the commitment and effort he has to put in in order to catch food for himself and his family and how he goes through that process twice a day. It certainly made me appreciate the fish I was fed at the potluck. (The hard work the fishermen put in definitely pays off; the salmon here is absolutely amazing, by the way.) It also makes me fearful that I’m going to have a hard time going back to eating my mom’s salmon, which is bought at the grocery store.

 

My Aha moments.

My “Aha” moments.

Dog selfies on the boat that took us to Stan's fish camp!
Dog selfies on the boat that took us to Stan’s fish camp!

Last Wednesday we had the privilege to participate in an all day long workshop with Rose Dominic, a Yup’ik woman, and Ray Daw, a Navajo man. Rose and Ray hold these workshops for villages allover the main Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and throughout Alaska. These workshops are intended to help the people through their healing process and understand what happened to them when change was brought about so rapidly and suddenly to them. Many of my classmates have already written about the workshop because this day was a very important day for all of us. I believe the workshop really set the course for our documentary and helped us get rid of our Eurocentric views and really understand what life was like when missionaries came and boarding schools were set up. Not only did it help us understand what happened, but I believe it made us feel, know, and understand what it means to be and live in the Yup’ik culture.

My Aha moments so far on this trip:

  • When Ray stopped in the middle of his speech and sang his Navajo song and explained what Aha meant. Aha means when you are experiencing a moment of happiness and wonder that you just have to sing from the mountaintops. That is what an Aha moment means.
  • During Ray’s song I flash backed to standing and looking out on the hill in the tundra that took forever to walk and climb to. We saw all of Bethel on one side and on the other tundra that just seemed to go on forever.
  • Realizing how isolated we are in Bethel. There are no roads, highways, or streets that lead anywhere outside of Bethel. There are only roads within Bethel with no stoplights.
  • Sitting on the bank of a river and diving into my fresh salmon caught 20 minutes earlier.
  • Listening to the Yup’ik people tell their story in all of our interviews.
  • Enjoying the golden hours and the sun set that lasted about 4 hours all with my new friends Arvin and Connie and with my camera crew, Nico, Tony, and Tim.
  • Meeting people that are just so welcoming and will come up and talk to you.
  • Sitting by the warm fire on a cold day at Stan’s fish camp.
  • Going to mass and hearing the Yup’ik songs at the beginning and finding myself catching onto the language and singing along with the Yup’ik hymnal towards the end of the mass.
  • Learning new Yup’ik words.
  • Taking walks along the Kuskokwim river and chatting with friends.
  • People gifting us with native food and just being so generous.
  • Waking up in the morning and walking out to the lake behind our little “cabin” and seeing a complete reflection on the lake
  • Playing basketball Alaskan fish camp style at Stan’s fish camp!
  • Going to sleep with the sun still up and waking up with no alarm to the sun. goodbye annoying alarm!
  • Wondering how blessed and random it was that I got to go on this trip and the trip to the fish camp. The universe has a weird way of working doesn’t it.
  • When Rose explained what a family structure meant in Yup’ik culture. At the heart of a giant circle is spirituality. That is surrounded by the young people and children in the tribe. Around the children is the elders who provide the wisdom and teach the children the ways to live. Around the elders are the women of the tribe who care and nurture for everyone. Then around the women are the men who protect and secure the tribe. She showed us in a demonstration and had us actually sit in a circle. I got to be a child in the center!
  • Realizing how blessed I am and what a great Alaskan family i have here. I know for a fact that these are some great people that I have the privilege to share this experience and journey with them.

Cheers to the beginning of week #2!

Walks along the River are the best!
Walks along the River are the best!

The Definition of Hospitality

Creighton brings in students from many different places around the country. One thing that everyone mentions is that “classic Midwest hospitality.” But the hospitality we’re experiencing here in Bethel outdoes anything I’ve ever experienced.

Despite the struggles of poverty and the tough living conditions in Bethel, people have been so incredibly generous towards us. For example, people here have water tanks that get refilled weekly. What that means is that if you use too much water, until your tank is refilled you’re out of luck. As you can imagine, the 20 of us need quite a lot of water and make a pretty big dent in the water supply. That doesn’t stop people from offering their showers and washing machines though. One lady even stopped me today with the sole concern of making sure we had enough opportunities to shower, and I reassured her that we do indeed have at least two different shower locations.

The people of Bethel have also been very generous with their food. We’ve had 3 frozen (but like fresh frozen, still has eyes kind of frozen) salmon, prepared salmon and sheefish (Google it, that’s not a typo), the most delicious salmon dip there’s ever been in the entire world, plentiful snacks and cookies, fresh veggies, salmon jerky (dad please learn how to make this) a freshly salmon straight from the river and eaten 20 minutes later, and even a fish egg pasta (which was so weird but so great!)

Sorry we ate you little guy!
Sorry we ate you little guy!

And just the people we encounter while we’re roaming around the town. Everyone is so friendly and curious about our purpose, where we’re from, what we study. It’s been incredible just to talk and get to know some of the people here.

A common thread that we’ve been hearing is that everyone loves Bethel because of the people here, and I can absolutely see why why. The hospitality has truly been one of the greatest aspects of this trip and I will forever be grateful that I got to experience it.

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.

Subsistence

We were blessed to have been given three salmon from last years harvest. We prepared them three different ways (parmesan & garlic, mayonnaise & dill, and pepper & lemon). Talk about YUM!! Photo by Kari Welniak
We were blessed to have been given three salmon from last years harvest. We prepared them three different ways (parmesan & garlic, mayonnaise & dill, and pepper & lemon). Talk about YUM!! Photo by Kari Welniak

Lately I have found a recurring theme in almost all of our interviews so far. Almost everyone has mentioned that even though there are problems in the community, there are also many strengths. Just by talking with our friend Alisha, I have learned why many of these people stay and come to love this community. So far I have come up with my own reasons (with a few quotes from our interviewers) why I have already fell in love Bethel, Alaska.

1. The tundra is like a giant squishy mattress that just runs on forever. Not to mention that it is really fun to jump in the mud and accidentally get stuck in!
2. The people are so welcoming! While we were on our walking tour the first day, people rolled down their windows and yelled, “Ya Creighton!” (20 people walking around with cameras in a town of 6,000 people tend to stick out like sore thumbs).
3. You don’t survive as an individual in this community, but everyone supports and takes care of one another.
4. There is a strong sense of when you take from nature you also give back to nature.
5. The Yup’ik culture. I am so fascinated with the interconnectedness with the community’s sense of faith, culture, and nature.
6. The word “ella” (pronounced sla) is one my favorite Yup’ik words. This word means many things. In fact some people respond by saying it means everything. It means universe, nature, and weather.
7. Subsistence. You only take what you need in order to survive.
8. All food and where it came from has a story. Buying things off the shelves in a grocery store has no story. You don’t know where it came from or how it came to be versus if you were to grow it yourself, hunt, fish, or gather your food.

Quyana! Thanks for reading!

Our new home for the next two weeks is at the Catholic Church. A statue of Mary sits right outside the Church with a view of the small pond right by the Church. Photo by Kari Welniak
Our new home for the next two weeks is at the Catholic Church. A statue of Mary sits right outside the Church with a view of the small pond right by the Church. Photo by Kari Welniak

Fish are friends, not food. But actually it’s delicious.

It is only half way through the week and I think this is the most fish I have eaten ever eaten in 1 week. The other day a parishioner stopped by with two types of fish. It was a gift to thank us for being here. I was a little worried about trying something new because I don’t usually eat a lot of fish, but if tried it anyway. I have had sushi and fish and chips before but nothing quite like this. I also tried some fish jerky at lunch. It was a sample Yup’ik food. Last night for dinner we decided to make fish and rice. One thing John, or any of us for that matter, didn’t expect were three full un-gutted salmon. I got to watch some of my classmates gut and fillet a fish. I was there taking pictures, but now I kind of wish I actually stepped up and tried to prepare the salmon.

We made each fish differently. One was a traditional Alaskan Salmon with mayonnaise and dill. It was delicious! The next one was made with olive oil, salt and pepper, and lemons. Again, delicious. The third one had parmesan cheese on it. I cannot remember if there was anything else on it. I wasn’t really around when it was being prepared. But anyway, delicious.

I absolutely loved this meal. It was amazing. I am surprised I liked it so much. I have never really been a fish person. We were all making Finding Nemo references while Hannah and Mari were filleting the salmon. I am not sure if that was appropriate, but now i want to watch that movie and I have “Just Keep Swimming” stuck in my head.

Be Free

I wish I had access to a video or sound clip of the song that most likely began to play in the heads of any member of the trip whose eyes glanced over this post. It was a song sung to us by young girls in Abia and what I understood/can currently remember of the lyrics are as follows:

Be free in the water, be free in the air, be free like a fish, oh yes, oh yes.

When you I heard this song for the first time, I thought it was a strange concept to be free like a fish. Typical symbols or images of freedom are a majestic bold eagle flying in front of the American flag (out of sheer curiosity has anyone actually witnessed an eagle casually soar by a flag?) or the United States Constitution. However, as we listened to the song I was forced to imagine a new vision of what it meant to “be free.”

I am a citizen of the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” but I have never been able to wrap my  mind around what that actually means. When I thought about what it could mean to be free like a fish, I actually began to understand why it could be the ideal way of living. To be free like a fish in water means to be free to explore, to swim in new directions, ride new waves, and go deeper. It means challenging yourself to face obstacles with courage, embrace the world around you, and carefully observe your surroundings.

It means allowing yourself to let go of worry, leave the past behind you, and enjoy the present moments that are creating your future. Oh yes, oh yes.

Keep on keepin’ on,

Gabby

Just keep swimming.” – Finding Nemo