Tag Archives: subsistence

The Stories Still to Tell

Alaska. When I think of this place, I no longer only think of dog sledding, the snowy expanse, and drilling oil. I no longer see the population of 735,132 (provided by the United States Census) as a simple number.

What I now think of when I hear Alaska
What I now think of when I hear Alaska

When I think of Alaska, I think of Bethel. I think of the rolling tundra, the hazy blue sky, and the providing rivers. I think of the people, and I think of their stories.

And boy, did they have stories. After 13 interviews and even more interactions with the people of Bethel, I heard countless tales. It would take an entire two-week long documentary to share all of these stories and opinions with the rest of the world. And so, as a writing team, we had to reduce over 13 stories, to a single, 25 minute-long film.

The script we have written is good. It is true to Bethel and it shares the people’s commitment to a subsistence way of life and their fear that it, along with their culture, is coming under threat. It includes the difficult economic realities as well as the visible proof of climate change evident in the Yukon-Kuskokwim River Delta.

Yet, I cannot help but shake the feeling of shame at the fact that some of the stories will be left untold. The people of Omaha will not learn of the tragic cultural trauma the Yup’ik people underwent, nor will they grasp the full reality of the fishing restriction problem.

It is simply impossible to learn and write the story of all 735,132 people of Alaska. In the midst of all of these stories, we must simply choose which to share and which to save. We pick, and we choose, but at least I can find comfort in knowing that the 13 stories that were shared in Bethel will live on in my heart as well as that of the entire Alaska team.

Our job as journalists will never be over. There are always new stories to tell and new cultures to explore. Though our Alaskan film making adventure is coming to a close, I know that I will continue searching for new people to talk to and new stories to tell.

10 things that I will miss about Bethel

1. Having the ability to get things done in daylight at 11pm (although I am loving having night back)

2. Randomly getting delicious freshly caught salmon

3. The people there, who (for the most part) were kind and welcoming

4. Waking up early each day with kind of a job to go to, but having random things happen throughout my day


6. Getting strange looks from passing people as our large group walks down the street

7. BS and bananagrams

8. Team breakfasts and dinners

9. A limited use of technology

10. The tundra and boardwalks

The beautiful view during a walk in Bethel, Alaska

The Journey Continues

It was 4:30 p.m. this past Monday. I was running on two hours of sleep. I watched many suitcases ride the baggage claim carousel and pulled my bag off when it came around the corner. I grabbed the handle of my suitcase, more than ready to go home, call my mom, shower and sleep.

John, the head faculty advisor, shouted, “I’m going home. I’ll see you all tomorrow at 1 p.m.”

Wait, what?

Reality hit me hard. We entered the classroom on Tuesday afternoon with two weeks of class ahead of us.

The fun goes on and on, and for good reason. Making a documentary isn’t just about filming video, conducting interviews, and gathering information, it’s about editing and cutting footage and picking interviews that communicate to our future audience what about our 10-day experience touched us most.  In short, we have to sum up our Alaskan adventure in 20-30 minutes. It’s an almost insane goal if you think about it.

In order to achieve this goal, we all became friends with Final Cut Pro, if we weren’t already. We spent all day Tuesday  with our new friend, re-naming and organizing hours and hours of video clips.

We then started to transcribe the dozen or so interviews we conducted while in Bethel. That is, we listened to the video of each interview and typed out word-for-word what the interviewee said. It sounds boring. Listen, pause the video, type and repeat a million times. But I had so much fun.

I think I just got lucky, because the interviews I transcribed were not interviews I had the chance to sit in on while we were in Bethel. I had the chance to transcribe Nelson’s interview, which was the most amazing interview we conducted while we were there.

I remember the team coming back from that interview. There were lots of high-fives and the room immediately  filled with energy. His interview was a last-minute interview. We took a chance on him and he told us exactly what we wanted to hear and more.

He’s the most well-spoken 19 year old I have ever heard, and he has an awesome story.  I wanted to be his best friend by the time I was done listening.

I also transcribed part of Anna’s interview. She was a senior in high school who is going to study at the University of Minnesota next year. You could tell right away she was really nervous, and I think I had forgotten how often teenagers use the word “like.” It made transcribing a bit trickier.

After we were done transcribing, I got to know Final Cut Pro a little better. I made multi-cam clips of the interviews and marked important quotes. It’s not much, but I’m glad Final Cut Pro and I got along well.

After that initial work was done, the class was split into essentially two groups: the video team and the writing team. I am part of the writing team, and I’ve been really excited about the work we’ve done on writing the story/script.

We arranged all of the noteworthy quotes into categories like subsistence, fishing restrictions, climate change and Yup’ik spirituality, which are all categories that will make up our story. We then cut out all of the quotes into strips of paper and arranged and re-arranged them into a basic and rough script. It’s like fitting pieces into a puzzle.

The writing team spent Friday afternoon rearranging these quotes.
The writing team spent Friday afternoon re-arranging these quotes.

It’s hard to believe we got back from Alaska six days ago. Since then, we’ve put in four full days of work. It was a short yet entirely long week.

The amount of work we still have left is tremendous, so here’s to one week more and an endless amount of editing.




Food for Thought

My day started at 6:45 this morning when a few of us got to go four miles down the river on a small boat and witness subsistence fishing firsthand.

Tad was the fisherman who showed us the ropes (literally). Besides a fisherman, he is a high school science teacher and a Pentecostal minister… talk about a variety of interests. Having multiple careers seems to be pretty common here, though. The mayor of Bethel is also a doctor, and Stan the subsistence fisherman who showed us his fish camp is also a barber.

Tad removing a fish from his net.
Tad removing a fish from his net.

Tad checked his nets, and patiently explained to us the different types of fish he caught. He even let me hook the line and I didn’t let go. So basically I am a professional fisher(wo)man now. Not really though, I would make a terrible fisherman… Fishing here requires early mornings that consist of freezing wind and water (I was freezing in like 20 layers and a hat and gloves). Also, upper body strength is also a requirement and I don’t have much of that.

He explained to us how the fishing restrictions put into place to save the King Salmon population require fishermen to lay down nets with four inch holes, rather than the usual six inch netting. The smaller netting makes it easy for King Salmon to avoid getting caught because they’re too big for the small net. That way fishermen can still catch smaller fish such as trout, silvers, reds, and whites.

A few of us were able to attend a forum in the Fish and Game building here in Bethel. The forum involved representatives from different fishing interest groups from all over Alaska. Commercial fishing and subsistence fishing representatives were present, in addition to tribal leaders from the upper, middle, and lower portions of the Kuskokwim River.

Many concerns were voiced by all regarding the unusually low number of fish being caught throughout the Kuskokwim River region. People were generally diplomatic and polite, but things did get heated. At one point a tribal leader said, “If things continue down this route, there will be bloodshed.”

Witnessing a fisherman check his nets, sitting in on the town meeting, and hearing the serious concerns of the locals made me realize the importance of fishing to this region. If the people, mainly those in remote villages, can’t catch enough fish in the warm months they have a hard time getting by in the winter months.

After all of that I got to shower today!! This is a huge deal because I was on day four of not being showered. I will never again take my shower in my apartment for granted… (I have showered a total of three times in two weeks, yikes).

The Catholic Church, where we’re staying, hosted a potluck today…or a “potlatch” as they call it here. I tried a variety of native food..including:

Yummy moose stew
My delicious moose stew

-herring eggs dipped in oil (basically just imagine eating small, tasteless, rubber bubbles)
-moose stew (which was probably the most amazing stew I’ve ever eaten)
-seal soup (…..tasted interesting…..basically fishy-tasting meat..)
-regular salmon (so good)
-salmon soup (yum)
-moose stir fry (interesting combination of flavors)
-fried bread (pretty much tasted like a funnel cake)
***Read this, Mom: I ate a veggie quinoa salad that wasn’t really a native recipe but Mom I had two helpings and it contained lima beans so I am proud of myself.

After cleaning up the potlatch dishes, us students went on a walk to the boardwalk. We’ve all been going on frequent walks every night after dinner in smaller groups, but tonight we all went together. This group is definitely something special. This adventure in Alaska would have been so much less incredible if we all didn’t get along so well. They make every day better, and getting to spend 15 days learning in such a beautiful place with such beautiful people is such a privilege.

This is why we love going on walks here.
This is why we love going on walks.

Expect another blog post on Thursday!




Do two rights make a wrong?

This morning I saw subsistence living in action. Because my little group (affectionately called the “C Team”) was not able to go on the trip to the village a few days ago, Dr. O’Keefe arranged for us to go along with Tad to check his family’s fishing nets. Tad is a high school science teacher and a Pentecostal minister and was able to explain to us how the nets worked, identified the fish he was pulling out of the water, and demonstrated how he broke the gills of the fish to bleed them out.

Tad described how his wife’s family has been fishing in that particular channel for several generations and how the smaller net size, which complied with the salmon fishing restrictions, meant that he would catch mostly red salmon and not king salmon.

Tad pulling the fish from his nets onto the boat.
Tad pulling the fish from his nets onto the boat.

Other types of fish will run up the river in the coming months but for the people in Bethel and surrounding villages who rely on fish as their only source of food, depending on only the possibility of food means the possibility of food insecurity.

Later today the writing team had the opportunity to sit in on a hearing about the subsistence restrictions at the Office of Fish and Game. The meeting included representatives from the government, several conservation groups, and local village elders. It was interesting to see the conflict between the governmental conservation groups and the native people.

Local citizens are devastated by the fishing restrictions (which include only fishing with nets with smaller sized mesh to prevent catching king salmon) because they believe it threatens not only their cultural way of life, but also their access to the one of the only foods they eat. I heard local people say things like “we are scared,” “why should a sacred way of life conform to a permit system?” and even a warning by a tribal council leader who said that local people will start defending their rights to fish with guns and violence.

The government is trying to conserve the king salmon for future generations because of the monitoring of low populations of the fish for the past several years. They are trying to impose conservation restrictions that are similar to those in the lower 48. However, the other states in the union do not have a majority who keeps a sacred way of life through hunting and gathering. This intimate connection with food is not practiced in other parts of the country.

This situation is difficult because both the natives and the government have noble goals that conflict one another. It is hard to pick sides because both sides have valid points, and it is arguable whether conservation or tradition should be held in higher value. Both parties are trying to respect the land but are doing it through the lens of two different cultures. Ideally the run of later fish up the river quells the fears of subsistence fishers and the government works to respect the common way of life in the region, but time will tell.


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