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.
Over the last week, we’ve been exploring the relationship between identity and landscape. During our interviews, we would ask what the Yup’ik word “Ella” meant. Ella has been explained to us as a word for earth, universe, weather, sky and everything. Sitting in the interviews and never having experience the Alaskan wilderness yet, I had to take their word for it.
A few nights ago I finally got my own taste of Ella.
A small group of us who weren’t going to a fish camp or a village that night had a chance to go kayaking. The weather was absolutely beautiful, one of the nicest days since we’ve been here.
We rushed over to the in-home kayak business and slapped on the lifejackets so we could get going while the tide was high. We lowered six single kayaks and one two-person canoe into the slough and set off.
It was amazing, beautiful, almost sacred. The low shrubbery and trees blocked any strong wind as we paddled down the winding path, but there was just enough breeze to rustle the grass. The slough’s width varied any where from two to 10 yards, each side crowded with branches and grass. I paddled alone most of the time with just faint voices of my other kayakers around me. Even though it was past 7:30 p.m. the sun was still high, reflecting off the ripples in the water.
I felt thankful for being able to feel the warmth from the sun and hear the birds around me as I drifted down the slough. Thankful to whom? God, the creator of Ella, lucky circumstances? I’m not sure.
Kayaking down the slough with a sense of peace became my version of Ella and I began to understand the encompassing concept of nature, earth, universe, and everything.
The past few days have been a total blur. I have been taking notes at interviews, learning about the painted dumpsters of Bethel, and practicing shooting with the camera.
My pal Madeline and I were paired up to shoot B roll, (the footage of landscapes or action that will play over the interview in the film) and let’s just say we will be a bigger asset to the writing team as opposed to the filming one. Alongside our friends, Catherine and Erin, we tried to navigate the cameras enough to shoot a gas tank. Despite gaining confidence and experience the gas tank ended up being out of focus, so when a film team was assembled to go to a remote fishing village none of us were shocked when we weren’t chosen to go along.
Before you start feeling sorry for me, the 6 of us not able to go to the village had the opportunity to kayak through an Alaskan creek to the mouth of the Kuskokwim River. The way downstream was beautiful with the rare sun shining, a light breeze blowing, and picturesque marsh-land around us.
However, the way back was a little less than pleasant. The route downstream that was supposed to take us 40 minutes actually took us 90, and after a miscommunication with our chaperone we had to carry our kayaks up a beach only to have to put them back in the water to paddle back after being told we would be driven back to our base camp. The way back was hard. We were tried, against the current, against the wind, and paddling upstream. But, after 35 breathless minutes and a climb over a beaver dam later- we were welcomed back to shore by Dr. Zuegner and taken out for ice cream.
While I was blistering my thumbs due to paddling frantically back and trying not to think about the storm clouds that were rolling in, I started comparing the hardships of the Yup’ik (native Alaskan) people to paddling up stream. A few days ago we experienced a workshop on cultural trauma given by a woman named Rose, who shared her own families experience with historical trauma that included marriages being separated by outside forces, being forced into Catholic boarding school where they experienced corporal punishment for speaking their native language, and alcoholism. We also interviewed a Yup’ik woman named Cecelia who taught Yup’ik spirituality at the local college. She spoke about how the native culture is disappearing because the Yup’ik language and culture was not accepted for such a long time. Now people are struggling to bridge the gap between pop culture and the past due to their lost culture and history.
Paddling upstream is difficult. However, even though the current and the wind is working against you, your destination is no less noble. Every stroke because increasingly deliberate and time is not wasted when paddling upstream. My hope is that even though the struggle to reclaim the Yup’ik culture seems like an uphill (or upstream) battle, the people of Bethel see that there is hope. Even though there is work to be done, there are great leaders like Rose and Cecilia who are not only able to acknowledge the pain of their people but are also able to look towards the future. I think that an Alaska that incorporates both the Yup’ik and modern culture is not too far off even though it will require work and dialogue. In this incredibly muddy town there are evident signs of a stressed community, including poverty, alcoholism, and domestic abuse. But even in the hardships there are also signs of a welcoming community and proof that life is good.