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.
Every other 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 across the United States. 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 scheduled for the summer of 2020 and will focus on deforestation in Eastern Africa.
We’re nearing the end of our time in Bethel and already we are thinking of how we are going to miss the community here, the sunlight (I’m writing this at 11:30 p.m. and it’s bright daylight outside as the sun is just starting to set.) and the amazing opportunities we have to talk to the diverse people here and learn about their lives and culture. We’ve been able to see and hear first-hand about the impact of climate change.
The stories we are hearing are not just technical, science-type stories, but stories deeply rooted in these people’s connection with the land. We’ve heard the tundra — which seems vast and barren at first glance — described as the “land’s plate” and the “people’s refrigerator” for the rich bounty of berries and greens that helps sustain people all year. Many of the people we have talked to learned about the land and respect for the land, sea and rivers and all that inhabit the environment from their elders. They talk of respect for the land and for the animals they catch, whether it’s salmon or moose or caribou.
Being from Nebraska, I know about sky and Plains stretching all around me. But here in rural southwestern Alaska, there’s more sky and more tundra. People have told us while on the tundra, they feel they can see the whole universe. It does feel that way. The respect for the land and for the elders is grounded in sharing what you catch and harvest with the elders, widows and, we have found, with strangers. We are overwhelmed by the generosity in fish, cookies, produce and a wonderful pot luck.
It took a while to get back to this blog; now It’s time for lunch, which today is fresh salmon from the test fishery. People working to conserve and preserve the king salmon on the river do test catches to see how many fish are running, what kind and when. The goal is to get enough king salmon to escape to spawn upriver. Part of today’s catch — which is often distributed to elders and others — will end up on our lunch plates. Our story comes full circle.
Sometimes the most inspiring moments of your life come when you least expect it.
Yesterday we reached day nine of our time in Bethel. As our trip is nearing its end we are starting to feel a bit sluggish. I know everyone seemed to be a bit sleepy this week, and naps have become a frequent occurrence for our group.
The day was expected to be pretty low-key with not a lot of activity. The weather was cold and rainy again after a few days of sunshine. We had gotten a lot of the video footage that we needed, yet I was still anxious to get back to Omaha to see how all of our interviews and B-roll would fit together. With only a few interviews left, our project was winding down in intensity.
In the morning as a group of us were eating breakfast in the church social hall, John walked into the room and wanted our attention. He had finally reached an important person who we wanted to interview and needed a video team to get ready to go immediately. I volunteered to help, and within minutes we were piled into two vehicles with our equipment and headed off in the rain.
Our interview was with a young Yup’ik man named Nelson, who just finished his freshman year at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks and is working at the Tundra Women’s Coalition in Bethel during the summer. During high school he worked on a documentary about climate change, which was an added bonus because he understood the video-making process and didn’t really need to be coached on interviewing.
I honestly didn’t expect a whole lot from the interview, partly because I hardly knew who we were talking to before getting there but also because Nelson was so young. I know for me personally how difficult it would be to get in front of the camera to tell my life story and open up to complete strangers, so I assumed Nelson would be nervous too. But from the moment he answered our first question, I knew this interview was the one we had been waiting and hoping for.
Nelson was wise beyond his years, and the video team was holding onto every word he was saying as he shared his life in Alaska with us. He discussed growing up in a village and how his family relied on subsistence to survive. He talked about how hunting, particularly for seals, seems cruel to many people but that the animals are never wasted; every part has an important purpose. To get such eloquent responses from someone who could speak from the perspective of younger generations was so important to our film after speaking to a few Yup’ik elders.
The most profound moment of the interview came when he told about the impacts of climate change on Alaska. He spoke earnestly about the harm we are doing to our planet, which is God’s gift to us. Nelson said that we need to tell the land that we are sorry and ask to be forgiven, which was the quote that really surprised me and touched every person in the room.
I was holding the boom mic during the interview and couldn’t see Nelson, but I could hear the pain in his voice and knew how deeply climate change has affected him. I could see the various people behind the camera starting to tear up as he spoke. Then I started to tear up. After he finished his answer, you could hear us all give an audible sigh. I knew that this moment was incredibly special and felt so thankful I was there to hear Nelson’s story.
After the interview we were all so excited because we knew how crucial it was to our documentary, and we didn’t realize it until it happened. We now had the emotional and personal story that we were missing.
A day that was supposed to continue our usual routine in Bethel turned into one of the best days of my life. Besides the interview with Nelson, I was able to see a dog sled team and watch them practice, met my new favorite dog Tanner (we have matching hair – pictures to come), shared a beautiful reflection time with my fellow Backpackers (yes, tears were shed) and have one last tundra adventure with great friends. This week was starting to blur together and I was forgetting why I was here. But then all of a sudden the world surprised me.
If you’ve known me for any amount of time, you know that I apologize a lot. I tend to sympathize with whoever I am with, and try to communicate that I feel with whatever they are going through. It’s been my way of trying to be there for another person. It’s me verbalizing a hug, or giving myself to that person.
But as if I don’t say I’m sorry enough times in a day, I’ve found a few more reasons to say it.
I’m sorry. To those affected by climate change, especially those here in Bethel. For too long I’ve lived in my own little bubble. Though I’ve always believed that climate change was an issue, I never saw its effects and therefore did not give it much thought. But the lives that it is affecting here in Bethel are real, and it has opened my eyes to the true damage that climate change is having on our world.
I’m sorry. For the times I’ve lived my life selfishly. Living my life with only my future and my plans in mind. The times that I fall into the mind set of forgetting all the other people, communities, and cultures in this world, and taking for granted the connections we all have as a global society.
I’m sorry. For the times I’ve been thoughtless and wasteful; Whether I mean in terms of material, resources, relationships, or abilities. I know that I have been blessed in my life with my father as a strong provider,my mother as a strong supporter, family and friends to rely on, and many opportunities and resources to help me get further in my life. And while I have been blessed with all these things, there are numerous times that I have taken them all for granted. I need to step back and take a look at my life, and keep myself and my blessings in check.
I’m sorry. For not believing in myself to be capable of invoking change and making a difference in this world. Too often I over look my own thoughts and beliefs as small and insignificant. I am only one person, out of millions. With the mentality of “What difference could I ever make?” I am never challenged to take a stand, and work towards change.
Nelson, I’m sorry.
I hope more people, in Bethel and throughout the world, can learn to be as well.
I do owe you thanks, though as well.
Thank you for your dedication and passion for climate change. Thank you for your words. Thank you for touching my heart, and helping me to see the true emotional affects happening because of climate change.
Thank you for inspiring me.
The last few days have been full of new experiences and adventure, and each day I continue to gain insight into this incredible place. I am seeing all types of landscape around Bethel, including the tundra. Last week a group of girls went out for a walk across the spongy ground to enjoy the fresh air and open skies.
I am also making an effort to step outside my comfort zone as we dive deeper into this project. I put my journalism skills to the test when I conducted my first in-person, filmed interview. Brian McCaffery, a biologist and director of the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, took the time to speak with us about the subsistence culture, conservation and signs of climate change in the region. The Backpack Journalism team read a reflection article written by Brian before we left for Alaska, so we had an idea of what he would have to say but never expected his interview to be so profound.
I, of course, was very nervous to interview Brian because I had never been in this type of sitation before and felt the pressure of expectation. In addition, I really cared about what he had to say and wanted to do the interview justice.
I felt this interview was also a culmination of my journalism education and concern for the environment. In ninth grade, I gave a persuasion speech in my speech class about climate change. I had just watched the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” and was blown away by this problem. Now I just chuckle to myself wondering what my classmates thought of this speech and if I actually persuaded anyone.
It’s been seven years since I gave that speech, and my concern for the environment has only increased as little has been done to solve the problem of climate change. The effects are starting to become more noticeable around the world, and now that I am in Alaska, I am in a place where most people believe climate change is happening and are greatly impacted by it.
When interviewing Brian, I asked him about many issues facing the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, including the king salmon fishing restrictions, the conflict between subsistence and environmental protection, and his analysis of climate change. Brian deals with these conflicts on a day-to-day basis as a job but also has a person who has lived in this region for a long period of time. He has a difficult task to try to maintain the natural resources of this region but also support the culture and lifestyle of its people.
I was completely amazed by Brian’s answers to my questions. In the corner of my eye I saw John give a huge thumbs-up to the people in the room, which I take to mean that the interview went well. I am looking forward to going back to listen to it again and seeing how it will fit into our documentary.
I am so grateful to have had this remarkable interviewing experience. If I hadn’t taken a chance and put myself out there, I would not have had the opportunity to talk to someone so knowledgeable and passionate about an issue I care so much about.
What a whirlwind of a week it has been! After five days of “video boot camp,” with several journalism and theology lectures mixed in, I have already learned so much in a short span of time.
The Backpack Journalism team will be leaving for Bethel in less than 48 hours, and now the trip is starting to feel real as I bring out my luggage and start packing. Even though my to-do list is long and I don’t know how I will fit everything in my bags, I can hardly contain my anticipation for this incredible adventure.
I view my decision to go on this trip as by far my most adventurous life choice, so it is only fitting that my motto for this experience is “Adventure is out there!” which comes from the delightful Pixar movie “Up.” If you haven’t seen it, please go watch it because it is the perfect film about taking risks, learning from the people around you and pursuing your dreams (this just so happens to be the Backpack Journalism Project in a nutshell for me). Here is a short movie clip from “Up” about the spirit of adventure.
Just like young Carl in the video, I am stepping out into the unknown as I spend two weeks in a completely new place filming a documentary. I have never left the country, nor been away from Nebraska for this length of time. I’m not going to hide the fact that I am pretty nervous, but I don’t want it to keep me from learning and growing.
As someone who loves to listen and soak in everything around me, I hope to be present and appreciate every moment while I am there without feeling too overwhelmed. I know that the first few days will be a lot to take in, but it will all be a part of the process of gaining greater awareness about the Bethel community and the world.
I also want to maintain joy and enthusiasm like the character Ellie during this, at times, very intense experience. During our class discussions throughout the week, we talked about potential storylines for our film. One topic we will explore in Alaska is climate change and its effects on the Yup’ik culture and way of life. Climate change is an issue I care about very deeply, so I’m fascinated to witness this challenge firsthand and excited to potentially bring the story to light. In the midst of long days of setting up video equipment, looking for the best shots and finding the next person to interview, I don’t want to forget our purpose for being there and the passion I have for this project.
Although I’m still not completely sure what to expect when I arrive in Bethel, I am already inspired by the Backpack Journalism team. We will be guided by great teachers and will have the support of each other as we experience Alaska together.
I am ready to dive in, forget my discomfort and experience the adventure that will be Alaska.
When I first heard about the Backpack Journalism Project as a freshman at Creighton, I was immediately intrigued and knew that someday I would love to be a part of this experience. Now more than two years later, I am just beginning what I consider to be the opportunity of a lifetime.
What first attracted me to Backpack Journalism, beyond the practical reasons like it fitting with my major, was the chance to travel to a new and compelling place with a group of Creighton students and faculty. In addition, I have always loved movies, and the idea of filming a documentary sparked my interest in the program even more.
When the 2014 trip was set for Alaska, I was thrilled for many reasons: no passport needed, beautiful scenery, cooler temperatures and the chance to see my favorite animal, the moose.
Once I committed to the program and continued to learn about Backpack Journalism, I realized how much more there is to this project than what meets the eye.
Even though this year’s group won’t be leaving the country, our destination will feel like a whole new world. Bethel, the town in which we will be spending most of our trip, is not in the “pretty” part of Alaska. The landscape is flat and wet (we were all instructed to purchase mud boots to pack), and it is one of the poorest regions of the United States. We will be immersed in a culture far different than the Midwest and encounter a new way of life.
Bethel is a place full of people with stories to be told. As we learn about important issues in this community, we will be reaching out to people to tell us about their experiences. The finished product of the trip, a documentary, will be a way to share these stories to a larger community and give a voice to the people of Bethel.
I know that I will gain so much from this experience far beyond filmmaking and writing. Being a part of Backpack Journalism is encouraging my love of learning in a new way. Stepping outside my comfort zone and experiencing a completely new place will be a tremendous challenge but one that will make a lasting impact on my life. Throughout this trip, I am excited to be exploring issues that interest me, including poverty, religion and the impacts of climate change. Beyond these topics and others, I look forward to learning by being with people and establishing relationships.
I have been anticipating this trip for so long now, and I am incredibly excited for this journey.