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.
The smallest things can sometimes have the biggest impact on a person. I feel as though this is especially true here in Uganda. For me, there is no more poignant example of this than the thatch-roofed houses that cover every free inch of space not taken up by farmland in rural Uganda.
The thatch-roofed houses of rural Uganda are little more than mud huts covered by thick roofs of dried elephant grass. There is very little to these homes and almost nothing that differentiates one of them from the many others that dot the countryside. The floors of these homes are dirt and there are hardly any pieces of furniture or other interior decorations inside. To me, as a person used to the comforts of the new world it is absolutely insane that anyone person would be able live inside of those huts
After visiting a Jesuit school in Ocer County, Gulu, I had the opportunity to visit a family who was living inside a settlement of these thatched-roof opinions. Contrary to popular opinion amonst our group, the family of Roger Ocan who were living inside of this thatched-roofed hoisin complex was incredibly joyful and more than happy to share our home with us. They spoke of the traditional and emotional impact of the thatched-roof houses in their Achlor culture. This experience completely changed my negative viewpoint of the thatched-roof houses. Instead of being just meager abodes, these houses have a cultural significance that adds to the rich beauty of Uganda. Now, when I see a thatched-roof house, I cannot help but smile and think of the beautiful cultural connection that they have to the Achlor
After 72 hours of backpack journalism bootcamp, I lie in my bed absolutely exhausted and overwhelmed at how much information we’ve received, but confident that we’re making notable progress.
So far, we’ve spent some time learning about the art and technique of videography, foundations of feature writing, and introductory theology. More than anything, I feel as though today marks a huge turning point — the foundation has been set, and it’s time now to dive in.
We all have the skills now to “fake it ’til we make it” and from this point forward, I feel as though we’ll be applying these last three days of information constantly, pushing ourselves to live and breathe light meters, to begin to raise questions about our own personal definition of church, and to think about how to ask those same questions of others in a respectful but intentional manner.
Much to my surprise, I’m pretty excited to see how the theology class ties into our project. I was expecting videography training, dos and don’ts of interviewing, and a crash course in good storytelling, but the biggest curveball for me so far has been wrapping my head around tying theology into our agenda.
We’re working our way towards a better understanding of ecclesiology — the study of church. Specifically, we’ll be discussing the definition of church within the context of border culture in Nogales.
This past fall, my understanding of church expanded tenfold when I was blessed with an opportunity to travel to Philadelphia to join a million and a half others in celebrating Pope Francis’s visit to the US. As we held hands and recited the Our Father, giving each other peace in the streets of downtown Philadelphia, I had goosebumps witnessing faith and mass ritual bring people from all over the world together in prayer. My own definition of church changed that day, and I’m looking forward to seeing how migrant culture challenges that even further.
Christian traditions are practiced all over the world, but with each culture brings a new interpretation and understanding of faith and community. As we continue to prepare ourselves technically and emotionally for this border immersion experience, I have found myself newly ecstatic to experience and absorb a new and different definition of “church,” as understood by the people of Nogales.
In the midst of such trial, transiency, and systematic injustice, how do migrants keep their faith? How do those serving humanitarian purposes in that area find strength to keep working towards a distant goal? How do those negatively affected by an increasing number of immigrants strive to live like Christ?
At the start of this journey, I was looking for adventure. I hoped to learn and grow in my journalistic and video skills. I was excited to travel to Alaska, a new and fascinating place.
Now that we have completed our final day of the Backpack Journalism Program, I can say that I have accomplished all of this and so much more.
I can’t even come close to adequately putting this experience into words. It has far exceeded my expectations, and I feel so grateful for these past five weeks.
The Backpack Journalism team traveled to a place at the world’s edge, often unseen or forgotten by the lower 48. There we stayed in the small but welcoming community of Bethel where we learned about the Yup’ik culture, the people’s connection to the land and the effects of climate change. I was amazed by the openness of the community and how willingly people shared their stories with us. If they had not taken the time to be interviewed and filmed by us, the creation of our documentary would not be possible.
After learning about how climate change is affecting Alaska, this trip allowed me to reflect on my own life and how I live. Over the years, it has been easy for me to be critical of others who do not believe in climate change or chose to ignore it. But because climate change is a collective problem, I am as much a cause of this environmental crisis as anyone else. I recycle and walk to school, but I still drive a car and feed into the consumerism that is much of the cause of climate change. In the next few months, I will make the changes in my life necessary to live more simply and reduce the amount of energy and resources that I use.
Because of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I also gained a sense of confidence in myself and my abilities. I feel that I can now take on any challenge in life, which will be especially important as I begin my senior year of college and look to the future.
The memories I shared with my team members will be ones I’ll cherish forever, from watching the magnificent sunset during a boat ride on the Kuskokwim to the beautiful tundra walks to the countless games played in the social hall. The perpetual laughter of our group, no matter what the circumstance, made this experience unforgettable. The amount of joy that I have felt in the last month has renewed my spirits and inspired me to continue fighting for what I believe in.
I already miss the people and landscape of Alaska, but soon I will miss spending time with the 19 incredible people on the Backpack Journalism team. Thankfully we will always have a connection to each other and Alaska because of this film-making and community-building experience. Even though it was our last day of class today, I know that the journey is not over. We still have a great deal of editing to do on our documentary, and then comes the most exciting part of this project: sharing our film with others.
I feel blessed to be a witness to a part of the world that is hurting but still lively, rich in culture and appreciative of the land and community. I can end this five-week experience feeling as though I made a difference in some way, but I know that Bethel has made much more of a difference in me.
The reality of global warming hit me as I stood close to a melting glacier in the Kenai Fjords National Park and watched a small stream trickle off the edge of this massive, frozen form. Living in the Midwest my entire life I grew up concerned about global warming, but far removed from the issue. I have always believed in the reality of global warming but the changing weathers direct connection to me was minimal.
But as I hiked up the trail that lead to the glacier back in Seward, Alaska, I passed signs that had dates on them which marked what year the glacier had been in that spot. As I continued on, I noticed the rapid regression of the glacier. Even since 1994, the year I was born, the glacier has melted almost a mile.
Seeing this drastic environmental change made me think of a quote said by Nelson when we interviewed him back in Bethel:
For the people that don’t believe in climate change.. you know, I don’t blame you for being a skeptic, but there are no climate deniers here in Bethel or in the rural parts of Alaska because we are living climate change, this is ground zero for us…I think we just need to find a way to say sorry to the land, and sorry that we are doing something wrong, and if it is then just you know…please forgive us…we need you here …
I think one of the greatest struggles of humanity is that we fall in love with things that are not meant to last forever. People die. Glaciers melt. Friendships fade. Permafrost subsides. Culture clashes with modernity. While we try to cling onto things that are familiar, it would be remiss to think that the world keeps things stagnant. This is not to say that humans are not at fault for causing change to be made more quickly or for participating for destructive actions, but it is a struggle when things change.
As Brian McCaffery, a biologist we interviewed, pointed out- God is in control but we are His stewards. We are called to apologize for our actions, seek forgiveness, and resolve to find better ways to cope with God’s ever-changing world.
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.”
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.
On our last day in Alaska, our touristy group made a trip up to Exit Glacier. I was in an average mood; I was a bit tired, but excited for a scenic hike. I was excited for the thrill of reaching our destination and simply looking at everything around us, and enjoying our last true piece of our time in Alaska.
On the way up the trail, my thoughts just wandered. Each little break in the trees, we’d see the beautiful mountains and sky surrounding us, and each time I’d have to do a little spin around and smile with admiration for the beauty that is Alaska. It was hotter than I had expected, so after each little break, I’d rush myself just a bit to get up to the crisp glacier air a bit quicker.
As I got closer to the Glacier, I came to this point:
On that sign, it was noted as the location of Exit Glacier in about 1996. After reading, I began to feel slightly off, something I wasn’t expecting, as I finally began to feel the chilled wind from the face of the glacier. I was still a little far from the edge itself, but I began to look around and I slowly realized the true impact of me being there.
I watched people walk up to the edge, smile or make a silly pose and get a picture. I watched people take a long look, and then just walk away. In the most recent exposed rock from the receding glacier, scrapes and scratches painfully dug into the rock were being ran over and overlooked. I suddenly felt disgusted with myself for being excited to be there. I was no longer a happy tourist; I was a mourning visitor.
This glacier, this change, had happened and is still happening in my lifetime. I looked at the clawed rock and I saw suffering. I looked at those smiling and taking goofy pictures as ignorant (even though I did get pictures in front of it). This once massive, beautiful structure stood with pride, yet now it is literally melting, receding, and cracking, losing its place on earth.
In a way I could compare it to the Yup’ik culture we experienced in Bethel. The old ways and traditions were being pushed back, forced, by a new western outlook. The children didn’t want a part of the Yup’ik ways, they want the modern ways, and therefore don’t make room for the culture. Just as the glacier had clung to rocks, trying desperately to pull itself back, those who believe in the Yup’ik culture are trying to bring it back to the people of Bethel.
In our times as humans, we lose things. From friends, toys, or games, to memories, material goods, or history, things disappear from our lives and this world all the time. But something made this different for me. It’s happening now. When I was 5 years old, that glacier was bigger; now it’s not. That one moment, standing on the edge of Exit Glacier made me realize the harsh truth of the matter; if people don’t see the importance of things such as culture and climate change, they are just going to keep disappearing.
Though I was in no way expecting something from that hike, it taught me something. It showed me the importance of staying aware, and being on the side of seeing importance and value in my history, my traditions and culture, and those of others as well.
I’ve learned a lot from my time in Alaska. From all the people and stories and lessons shared, it was all an incredible experience. Yet I got my final push of remembrance and inspiration from that hike frozen in my mind; and it’s one thing that will never melt.
Starting a journalism-project blog with a story about a camera, typical I know, but bear with me. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been a visual learner. When I got my first camera, I took it out of the box, tossed aside the directions and simply played around with it until I understood how to use it. I wanted to watch and see until I could do it on my own.
The other morning, I went to Cecilia’s house to shoot some B-Roll. As we watched her cook and sew, she explained a very crucial aspect to the Yup’ik culture. Like any culture, the Yup’ik people had established a way for their children to learn and pass on their cultures and traditions. They valued and respected their elders, and therefore utilized them as teachers. Children raised in the Yup’ik tradition were taught by watching and memorizing.
A parent or elder would call the child over as they sewed, prepared dinner, got ready to hunt, etc. and say, “Come sit. Watch.” and from there the child would sit, watch, memorize, and learn how to properly perform the task.
My interest of listening and watching grew even more when we interviewed Charles, a young native Yup’ik. As he timidly sat in his chair, he explained that it was difficult for him to hold eye contact with us because of how he was raised. His grandparents had taught him that to show he was listening, he had to look at the person’s mouth, the complete opposite of western culture.
There is a deep tradition and beauty in learning from someone simply by being quiet and watching. It works along with the Yup’ik’s ways of community and connectivity. In order to learn the skills needed to survive, you had to be present in the moment. You needed to show respect and give attention in order to be successful.
When I tried to teach myself how to work my camera for the first time, I was confused and a little lost. I didn’t want someone to try to explain it to me using words, I wanted to see the different features, the different buttons and how they worked. This theme struck a chord with me. As I continue to learn more, it’s proving that while the Yup’ik culture is different, it’s also one that I could relate to. We both value learning by watching, and eventual doing.
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.
It’s already day four here in Alaska, and each day continues to teach me something new about myself, the Yup’ik people and their culture. We have been shown such hospitality and kindness in the short amount of time that we’ve been here.
When we first arrived in Bethel, I had a certain image in my mind of what we were going to see. We had been preparing for our trip months before through articles, videos, photos, and stories, but nothing could prepare me for what we’d actually be encountering.
As we’ve progressed through interviews, and heard a variety of different testimonials, I’ve noticed a common theme amongst many of the people here. We as journalists, as a group here to film a documentary and create and share a story, we’ve been asking a lot of the hard questions. We came here to address the issues facing Bethel; issues of historical trauma, institutional racism, depression, disconnection, and climate change. Yet it’s in situations like these that we forget to look at the positive side as well.
In high school, I remember that when a hard or sad situation was depicted in an area, those feelings of sadness and hardship are all I would associate that area with afterwards. It wasn’t until I got to college, and I got out into the world and heard stories of life, happiness, and positive assets to those communities. It gave me a new perspective and a better understanding. It opened my eyes to seeing both sides of a community, that a place will always been more than its negative qualities.
Bethel is so much more than its issues. It’s about its people; Their dedication to their culture, their tradition, their way of life. It is a society founded on connections, and family, trudging through the struggles of life together, on a beautifully simple path.
During my time here, as I continued to be reminded of this through my experiences and the people I meet and listen to, it helps me to see Bethel as an even greater place. This society is not one that needs me or anyone else to fix it, or address its problems, but instead is a good place.
As we’ve heard so many times in the last few days, from so many amazing people, Bethel is a place with so much to offer. It’s a place rich in culture, values, and love; and I’m falling more and more in love with it.