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.
These past five weeks are something I never could have expected.
At the beginning of this Backpack Journalism project, I didn’t really know what to expect and looking back at my first blogs, I can only laugh. I was clueless of the greatness that would unfold in the next few weeks. Now that class is officially over (we got out today at 11:00), I can only feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude towards everyone we met, the CU Backpack Alaska team, and Bethel.
Thank you to Carol, John, and Tim for guiding, teaching, and letting us learn hands-on how to film, write, and create a documentary. Without all of the work you had done in preparation and throughout our trip, it wouldn’t have been possible in any way.
Thank you to Nichole for all of the behind-the-scenes work you did. And for also believing Morgan when he said that he was going to use the net to catch sea otters.
Thank you to all of my peers who have gone through video boot camp, traveled 2,999 miles to Bethel, and worked the past two weeks starting to piece our film together along side me. Thanks for diving into this project and motivating me to do my best. Ily.
I haven’t laughed this much or this often in such a long time. Thank you for almost giving me a six-pack. Seriously, these people are hilarious and brought so much happiness to my days. For evidence, check out our superlatives or the catches phrases from the trip.
This experience has shown me much joy–in people, in our work, and in myself.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
If there is one thing I’ve learned in Alaska, it’s that the Kuskokwim River is magical. As the largest river in the U.S. that isn’t dammed, it is incredibly expansive. While we traveled down the river with our guides, Chris and Donna, I was struck with the knowledge that I was actually in the real Alaskan wilderness. No roads, no power lines, just tundra dotted with the occasional fish camp.
The river was not only magical because of the surrounding wilderness, but also because of the isolated villages that crop up along its banks. We stopped in a tiny village to shoot some footage. In the place of pavement and cars were boardwalks and bikes. Smokehouses filled the air with the delicious smell of salmon drying. Almost the instant we stepped foot on the boardwalks, curious children were swarming our cameras. They were absolutely adorable, constantly wanting to get in our shots or take pictures. While we clamored back into our boat, all of the kids waved at us and shouted, “Quyana!” which means “thank you” in Yupik.
Several hours later, we were still on our journey back to Bethel. At this point is was midnight and the sun was finally close to the horizon. As we turned around a river bend, I could see gorgeous rays of light bursting through the clouds. River water was spraying my face. Everything from the river, to the islands, to the sky was absolutely perfect. Actually, it was more than perfect. Right then and there, I understood the Yupik concept of Ella. As everyone who was with me will tell you, I kind of freaked out about it. The whole experience seemed divine and otherworldly. I was totally alive and connected. I had my Ella moment.
Talk about one heck of a week. It can’t already be the end of week #1! There is so much Bethel has to offer. It is hard to explain in words my experiences so far to anyone else. Maybe thats just the Biology major in me struggling in this Journalism field. 😉
Here’s a glimpse of some of my Bethel experiences:
Bethel pizza is amazing. Ramen (was amazing that first day! )and oatmeal on the other hand get kind of old after having it for one week straight.
Gas is almost $7.00 a gallon.
We walked to our first Bethel Saturday Market and saw all the gorgeous local native pieces of artwork, clothing such as Kuspocks, food, and tools. I bought fireweed jelly (YUM!) and some cool eskimo paintings to take back.
I’ve gone to two fish camps so far and seen the delicious Red Salmon butchered right before my eyes. Call me a pro now at butchering fish.
I had the privilege to join Nico, Tony, and one of our professors to shoot B-Roll on a fishing boat of a man and his wife while they checked their nets, bring back their fish to their fish camp, and enjoy a little taste of heaven while sitting outside watching the Alaskan sunset on the Kuskokwim river.
We also stopped by the Napaskiak village and filmed some B-Roll of some kids and the Orthodox Church on our way to fish camp. This village did not have any main roads. The roads were all made of wooden boards and people drove 4-wheelers to get around!
I witnessed firsthand my dinner caught in a net, brought back to a fish camp, filleted before my eyes, and barbecued on a grill right before my eyes.
I love filming B-Roll!
After 12 hours of filming we went back to their house and ate more fish! Salmon spread, pressure cooked salmon, and more salmon jerky!
If there is an apocalypse I’m moving to Alaska and living in Bethel. These people spend June fishing and drying their fish for the winter. They spend the next few months moose hunting. And then in the fall they spend their time berry picking in the tundra. I think I’d be set for life.
Tundra tea is probably the best tea I’ve ever had. Especially with a Bethel crud cold.
We walked on the tundra for an hour and a half! And yes I couldn’t feel my legs the next day. Walking on a squishy mattress is exhausting!
One night I managed to stay up to 3 AM and witnessed the sun set and rise all within a matter of 4 hours.
Homemade berry cinnamon jam is the best thing ever!
Learning Yup’ik words are so cool! Kenka means unconditional love. Quyana means Thank you. Goudak is eskimo ice cream (crisco/seal/fish oil, sugar, berries) which I still have yet to try.
The river is FREEZING! I wore 6 layers on top and 3 layers on bottom when we were in the boats.
We explored an old abandoned BIA boarding school which was pretty spooky.
Basketball played at a fish camp with deflated basketballs, no net, and on grass is the way to play basketball. I think we can all agree the game of Knock Out will never be played the same!
Showering after 5 days with no shower really does make you feel and look like a new person with all the dirt and fish smell washed away.
Salmon egg salad is the way to go people.
On top of all my experiences so far there is still so much to learn about the Yupik culture and native town of Bethel.
Kari’s great Alaskan adventure to be continued…Quyana!
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.