Tag Archives: Ella

Bethel … House of God

Someone who may read my former blogs would said: “Poor Tony, he always find himself

Bethel, one day I will come again.
Bethel, one day I will come again.

obliged to make up new terms for his blog’s titles”. But believe me, this time I am not creating something new, Bethel literally means “House of God”! Its origin go back to the Ugaritic language – one of oldest alphabets in the world – which was discovered in Syria, my country… Continue reading Bethel … House of God

My Ella

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.

Kayaking group
Our small group of kayakers.

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.

Quyana and Ella on the Kuskokwim

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.

Marvel, my new friend from on the river.
Marvel, my new friend from the river.

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.


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


This week has been a whirlwind filled with learning, laughing, frustration with technology, and yawning. Lots and lots of yawning. (Oh and bagels today, thanks Carol you rock don’t ever change.)

Even after all of the preparation, the fact that we are going to Bethel for 15 days is still so surreal to me.

Throughout each of our eight hour days, I’ve learned how to shoot video, record audio, to interview, and how to combine those three skills. Well, I say that I’ve learned, but to be honest I still only barely grasp the basics…even after five days of camera tutorial by Tim.

Carol taught us about the ins and outs of interviewing. AND she gave us each our very own notebooks that look super journalist-y…like the ones journalists in movies use. Totally cool. (Once again you rock, don’t ever change…and I should definitely get an A on this post as compensation for all of this praise.)

We’ve also been able to learn about culture and religion and the relationship between the two through Dr. O’Keefe’s lectures. He made sure to educate us about the Yup’ic people. We are all now much more self-aware of the effects our obnoxious American presence could have, which was a concern of mine.

All of that learning has made me most excited to be in the type of place where the language has a single word, “ella,” that translates to English in three words: weather, the Earth, and the universe. It’ll be fascinating to be immersed in the Yup’ic culture, one that views nature as sacred. The spiritual value of nature is largely a lost concept in our society of technology, manufacturing, and concrete jungles.

The reflection this afternoon inspired me. Hearing from students that have participated in this program in the past, they all had generally the same message of the importance of staying fully present where you are, wherever that may be.

Those students also said that the most vital thing to remember is to be unafraid to step outside of your comfort zone…something I seem to be doing a lot of lately.

I can’t believe I’m going to ALASKA.

Okay that’s all for now. Time to finish packing!


Packing Things With Meaning

When something looks or sounds simple from the outside, it may seem boring or just ordinary. On the other hand, when something is found to be packed with a variety of aspects and meanings, not only will that item become more valuable, it also becomes more dynamic and influential.

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 12.57.27 AM
All packed up on coffee, maps, lessons, equipment, discussions, and excitement!!

While I’m not sure I can actually explain the craziness and dynamics of this past week’s “bootcamp” I can for sure tell you how valuable it has been. Mentally, we’ve had our brains packed with all kinds of information from settings, story ideas, interview practices, F-stops and ISOs, laughter, and preparation. It’s been great seeing how everyone is playing their strengths, packing what they’ve learned, and really seeing the team come together.

In a similar way, I’m becoming more and more excited about our immersion into the Yup’ik culture and its people. The Yup’ik people effectively pack meaning and importance into their culture, and I want to learn about them. The way they see meaning in such simple and beautiful actions and words astounds me; Words like “ella” that come together to mean weather, the Earth, and the universe. Compressing so many different meanings into one word just makes me want to learn more!

The fact that we are leaving for Bethel in just a few days is daunting to me. I know that time will move quickly, with how busy we’ll be. Therefore, I want to be sure to pack my Alaskan experience until I have to jump and sit on the case to be able to zip it all tight.

Rolled up somewhere in my sleeping bag are the things I’m worried about and my hopes for the trip. I want to be an active contributor to this project and my team. I don’t want to mess up, but I want to challenge myself,  and learn something new. I want to really get to know my team members as well; I mean some of us only go as far back as bootcamp. Establishing a community with this group to continue on after this month is really important to me.

Now while my personal packing (like actually putting things in my physical suitcase) is lacking, I know Sunday and this experience will be here before we know it. I just hope I don’t  forget something.#PackingAnxiety.

Alaska, Here We Come!

When I was told that the beginning of this course would consist of a “video boot camp”, I thought it was just a flashy way of saying “introduction to video”. Never have I been so wrong. This week has indeed been a boot camp. After the first four days, here are just a few things that are rapidly firing through my head:

  • I should pack soon
  • A big number means a small aperture…right?
  • Eschatology is fun to say
  • Wait, does a small aperture mean a small f-number?
  • The Fish People
  • No! A small aperture means a large f-number
  • What if I oversleep and miss the plane?
  • f-8 and be there

I’ve learned a lot of things and have been given so much information that it’s hard not to be a little nervous. At the same time though, the things I am most nervous about are also the things I’m most excited about. On one hand, I’m worried about using the video equipment properly, but on the other hand, I can’t wait to put what we’ve been learning into practice. I’m at once concerned that I won’t understand the Yupik culture and thrilled to immerse myself in a world so different from my own.

Just from our short conversations about the Yupik culture, I can tell that these people will have amazing stories to tell. I was a bit awe inspired today when we talked about the Yupik word “Ella”, which simultaneously encompasses the weather, the world, and the universe. One part cannot be changed without having an effect on another. As a Westerner, I have never experienced a culture that places such a profound connectedness between these three parts of the human experience. What a wonderfully wise concept.

I can’t wait to learn from the Yupik people, but I am just as excited to learn from my classmates. Even though I’ve only known some of them for a few days, I am struck by the immense talent that everyone has. Whether it’s an eye for the perfect camera angle, thoughtful insights into theological issues, or a creative way of asking interview questions, each person will contribute to the project in an unique and important way. We may be beginning film makers, but I think we have the ability to do the people of Bethel justice.

The day is nearly here! Before we know it, we’ll be braving the long flights to Alaska and saying hello to Bethel. After months of waiting, our adventure will finally start. To put it in the words of Tim, “We’re going to Alaska, freaks!”

We divided up the food today! We'll have rice and oatmeal for days! Photo taken by John O'Keefe.
We divided up the food today! We’ll have rice and oatmeal for days! Photo taken by John O’Keefe.