Tag Archives: Michelle DeWitt

In the Words of the People

For the past week, I have spent every night writing and rewriting a blog that I have decided can never be written. I searched through my mental thesaurus for the perfect words to describe the great culture and wisdom that is present in this off-the grid town and discussed my ideas with anyone who was willing to listen. However, the more I wrote, the more I erased.

I then came to realize that my words would never be sufficient when attempting to explain the powerful relationship the Yup’ik people have between their identity and the landscape or when trying to emote the heart-brokenness displayed by the natives when they see the effects of climate change in their homeland. The only words that can create this impact, are the words of those who first spoke these truths to me.

Michelle Dewitt explained the complexity of the Yup’ik way of life.

“Cultural identity, language, and lands are interconnected in inseparable ways.”

Patrick Tam told of the unique difference between the Yup’ik subsistence lifestyle and the mainstream American food culture.

“A white man’s food has no memory.”

A man named Fritz warned of the danger tied to the looming king salmon regulations

“Lives could be lost…that’s a guarantee.”

A woman named Rose warned of the danger tied to our mistreatment of the land.

“If the world starts making noise, so will Mother Nature.”

And a boy named Nelson tearily explained that the noise of Mother Nature can already be heard.

“We’re living climate change; this is ground zero for us…We need to find a way to say sorry to the land”

The stories I have heard throughout my time in Bethel are not only important for the people of Bethel, but also for the people of the earth for generations and generations to come.

In the Yup’ik culture, stories are told from generation to generation and carry with them an important lesson or a moral. In continuation of this tradition, I hope that our backpack journalism program will be able to pass on the story of the Yup’ik culture, tradition, and land while promoting the idea that the land is a gift, and we need to treat it well.

The fish I cut and ate for lunch on my last day in Bethel. The Yup'ik people rely on fish such as these every day as part of their subsistence lifestyle.
The fish I cut and ate for lunch on my last day in Bethel. The Yup’ik people rely on fish such as these every day as part of their subsistence lifestyle.


Noise. The ever formal definition of this absurdly common word as defined by dictionary.com is, “A nonharmonious or discordant group of sounds.”

While this meaning may be sufficient on an ordinary day in an ordinary place, the word has gained an entirely new meaning for me in a place where so little is said and so little is heard.

In Bethel, a city of 6,000 people, miles and miles from the nearest skyscraper, McDonalds, or stoplight, I find the general noises that accumulate in my everyday life are absent. The stillness and silence of the landscape are only interrupted by the most meaningful of sounds, and these are the sounds that will tell our story.

The rain tapping on the pick-up roofs and the sloshing of our boots as they trudge through the mud, tell us of the bizarre weather patterns facing Alaska which we are coming to learn may be having a negative impact on the subsistence culture of the Yup’ik people.

The large humming noise that booms through the social hall in the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, our home for the next week and a half, which presents itself every time someone uses the bathroom or fills their water bottles, tell us of the lack of city wide water services and the need for the purchasing of water tanks, which are drained bit by bit with every activation of the water tank.

The ring of the doorbell interrupting our third interview of the day demonstrates the immense kindness, generosity, and hospitality of the Bethel community as a random stranger stops by to gift our group freshly caught salmon to welcome us to the community.

The strong gusts of wind picked up by our audio equipment every time a plane flies overhead reminds us that Bethel is a city only reachable by air, which causes the cost of living to be astronomical and the fear of famine to be a real problem.

The passion and assertiveness that resonates through the room as we interview Michelle Dewitt brings us all to attention. She speaks to us about how the eurocentric system is failing at solving the problems it originally created when trying to acculturate the Yup’ik people.

And finally, the emptiness of noise, the silence that is heard, completes our story.

The silence that overwhelms our entire group after we hear the tragic and inspiring story of trauma and healing, as told by Rose Dominic, a Yup’ik woman who has underwent horrendous tragedies mainly stemming from the insensitivity of organized religions and the United States government, grasps perfectly the immense heaviness of what we are investigating in Bethel. It reminds us that sometimes there are no words that can express the shame and awe felt when we learn of things our society has so purposefully forgotten.

We will maintain our purposeful silence as we continue creating our documentary, and let the only noise we hear be the noise of the people of Bethel, as they tell us their story.


We’ve arrived

After one incredibly long day and night of travel, we are in Bethel. The long journey is a good reminder that we are far from home and of the incredible vastness of Alaska.

The students are settled into various sleeping places. The women have called their Sunday-school-rooms converted into sleeping space the cabin.

We went for a walk around the community of Bethel, then had pizza with CU grad Michelle DeWitt, Bethel teacher Alisha Coplin and Father Mark.

Today we start our interviews. The journey really begins.