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.
The thing about traveling is that once I go somewhere, I am never again the same person. Different air penetrates my lungs, different ideas cultivate my mind, and new people enter my vicinity.
Traveling to Alaska, the things I witnessed and experienced in Bethel changed me.
The air that penetrated my lungs was crisp and clear. It was seemingly untouched by pollution and did not encapsulate me like a blanket, as does the harsh humidity in Omaha. The air was free in the wide-open spaces, and was not disrupted by high skylines. As the air cleared, so did my mind. Without the distractions generally present in the lower 48, I was able to truly connect with the beauty of nature and with my own thoughts. Among the fresh air, I was shown the power of reflection in nature and in life.
The ideas that cultivated my mind were different and exciting. I learned the idea of treating food like a guest with love and appreciation, and the concept that food has a memory, which has caused me to think about the story behind the food I purchase. The idea of “military showers” (showers where you conserve as much water as possible) inspired me to be more conscious of my water usage while the kindness and hospitality of the people of Bethel encouraged me to treat other people in a similar way.
The people who entered my vicinity were amazing and inspiring. Rose Dominic showed me the power of forgiveness. Cecelia Martz reminded me of the importance of maintaining culture and respecting elders. While Nelson exhibited more ambition and passion than I had ever seen before.
The air, the ideas, and the people I encountered in Bethel have made a permanent impact on my life. Through travel, my perspectives have altered, my opinions have changed, and the person I was four weeks ago no longer exists.
One of the phrases that accompanies this trip is “blessed to be a witness,” and these last few days has showed me what that truly means.
I’ve felt unbelievably blessed these past few days to experience the things I have, to hear stories, reflect on what I have heard, and hang out with some of Creighton’s coolest.
On Wednesday, we had the privilege to experience a full-day workshop on cultural trauma, which is experienced by many natives in the area. Rose Dominic is in charge of a program that helps natives in the healing process after experiencing trauma, and she hosted us in her home.
She told 20 strangers the story of her life and stories about the trauma her family has experienced: her grandpa being separated from her grandma, her uncles being taken out of their homes to attend boarding school, only to come back not being able to interact with family members or fit in with the culture.
She also told us stories about the trauma experienced in her own life and in her brothers and sisters’ lives. She and her older siblings were taught the Yup’ik language when they were young. Most of her older siblings went to boarding school, but she did not. Although she was not in boarding school, every time she spoke a word of Yup’ik in school she was slapped on the wrist by a nun. She experienced all of this at the age of five.
As she’s telling these stories, you can see her depth of sadness and hurt. She started to talk about sexual abuse experienced by her siblings and the alcohol abuse that has affected many of her family members, because it’s the only way they can pretend the trauma hasn’t touched them.
On Thursday, we talked to a Yup’ik elder named Cecilia, who also attended boarding school and further reinforced the idea that the sense of Yup’ik identity and culture was extremely discouraged in her early years.
This topic of boarding school and the discouragement of showing pride in culture is a topic that has interested me since day one. The Catholic missionaries and Jesuits are often mentioned with these topics, which is probably why I find them interesting. It’s hard for me as a Catholic to imagine someone who shares my faith to do such a horrible thing as separating children from their families, but I have to wonder if at the moment they thought they were doing what was best for the people.
The government is rarely mentioned but is still pertinent in the discussion. The United States at one time had a native population of 40 million. That number has now dropped to 50,000. Read that again: 40 million to 50,000. It could be called a genocide or a holocaust. We don’t like to think of the United States being associated negatively with the words “genocide” or “holocaust,” but in reality, those two topics are and should be associated with each other. But we don’t learn about it, because we’re never the bad guys in our history books. We could never admit that.
A lot of this talk is hard to hear, but the people on this trip are great people to discuss and talk to about the topics we hear all day.
We all have different talents. Some of us shoot video extremely well, others of us do not. I’ve grown fond of the group that struggles shooting video because, well, I can’t shoot great video no matter how much I want to.
On Thursday, a group of us went out to shoot B-roll, and a number of us were those that have had very little video experience. I was paired with Claudia (she’s great and you should check out her blog!) and John, one of our faculty advisors, pretty much had to talk us through our first couple of shots. We later joined up with Erin and Catherine and John assigned us to shoot a gas tank. It’s a stationary object, so it’s not too difficult to shoot. We shot it from several different angles, gaining more confidence on the cameras.
By this point, it’s pretty much decided who’s on the video team. Yesterday the video team got to go on boats and shoot fish camps while a group of six of us stayed home. We call ourselves the C-team. We got the opportunity to ride kayaks on a pretty stream, which turned into a nightmare on the way back, paddling upstream against the wind. The story is too good not to tell in person, so hit me up when I return.
For now, just picture my physically-inept self struggling to paddle for 40 minutes. That’ll give you a few laughs.
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.