When searching for interviews, much to my surprise, I was told of another lady who had come to Hooper Bay several years back to film a documentary also, which was released in 2010. It’s called The Yu’pik Way by a gal named Beth Edwards. I heard all sorts of stories about this filmmaker.
Essentially, most everyone who spoke with Beth felt betrayed. My guess is she hasn’t been in contact with any of the folks she interviewed since filming four years ago.
The end result for me, was nobody would talk to me. Not on camera at least. I couldn’t film the bi-lingual classes because the school district felt Beth did not accurately convey the message by then vice-principal Scott Ballard, who is now principal.
One fellow, running an awesome program called Native Aspirations, who told me an incredible mushing story, and who had amazing insight into the alcohol problems of the community, as well as a beautiful philosophy to overcome it, talked to me at length, but wouldn’t go on camera. Only by begging & pleading could I snap a few photographs of his office. He told me directly that he was concerned about backlash, because of the result of the “other film”. People were so unhappy with it, he didn’t want to risk his efforts at community building to help me out.
Never have I been so frustrated, angry, and simply flummoxed in a village since I began these travels. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to write this Beth Edwards lady a nasty-gram. But, I don’t know her side of the story, and what’s done is done. Better to save my precious energy & time for my own project.
Still, it’s irritating; instead I tried to hear where the Hooper Bay-ers were coming from. I tried to separate out the words from the feeling of always being misunderstood. The message really conveyed was, “We are good, honest, hard-working people. Yes, we have problems, but we don’t appreciate outsiders coming in & telling us how to fix them, or judging us for our failings. We may have flaws, but so do all people, so stop assuming we’re bad!”
When I spoke to one lady, and told her my project was about building communities of hope, she told me the “other” film lady said the same thing. I wish Beth Edwards got the message I got.
After watching her film, I felt empty. It dropped off a cliff at the end, with no hopeful uplift, no way to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I felt numb. What was I supposed to “do” with this information? Where was I supposed to take it in my life?
Additionally, two other things really bothered me:
1) it seems Beth never set foot in an Alaskan village prior to this film. All the aspects of harshness, the cramped living conditions, teens having babies, dropouts, booze, etc., are part of every Alaskan village. Nothing about Hooper Bay’s supposed “loss of culture” was different than any other indigenous group around the world today. Her portrayal seemed very pitying.
2) Beth Edwards never faced hardship before. It really came out when she interviewed the young man who made “homebrew”, when he spoke about suicide. She replied off camera, “Don’t talk like that!”. She missed a golden opportunity for this young man to open up, speak about his real feelings from his heart, and maybe heal the wounds that were festering all these years. I know this because I’ve seen it happen again & again in the interviews I’ve collected. When not judged, when given the freedom & space to speak truthfully, with a compassionate witness, people have told me about some really challenging, horrible things. This young “homebrew”-er was reaching out, testing Beth to see if he could get vulnerable with her; and she shut him down. She simply could not “go there”. Or maybe it was an agenda she didn’t know she had. It was a gut-wrenching part of the film for me.
I’m sure this young woman had all the best of intentions. I’m sure she really thought she was doing a service to the Hooper Bay community. Unfortunately, it didn’t actually work out that way. Sadly, her unintended efforts greatly harmed the residents there, not to mention my ability to film there.
Get Up, Stand Up
I gotta tell ya, the best part about Hooper Bay was the kids! They were so friendly! I met some teenagers who later I saw at the Elders & Youth conference in Anchorage! They were part of a group called Natural Helpers, who designed a peer-to-peer counseling program for suicide prevention.
When chatting with these teens, conversation came to the “problems” of Hooper Bay. I asked what kind of problems they had, and one gal said, “Too many suicides”. I was shocked at her honesty. That’s what made seeing her in Anchorage that much more awesome! One of the Hooper Bay-ers got up in front of the crowd, and talked about how the program changed his life, and how he was able to keep 12 kids from killing themselves that year. Wow!
I don’t want to sound Polyanna-ish about the challenges Hooper Bay must face. But, I do want to say that with the awesome guidance of some key elders, key adults, & key teachers/counselors, the kids in Hooper Bay will find an incredible, dynamic, creative, and just plain awesome path forward into the future. There is no doubt in my mind about this. They all just had this presence, this confidence about themselves, and thus are natural leaders. Even a guidance counselor saw this.
Yeah, ok. Some had piercings and weird colored hair, and earbuds permanently attached to their ears, but what teens don’t in this day & age? That’s where I feel Beth Edwards’ film went astray. Native Alaskan middle age & elder folks lament the loss of the “old ways” and culture, but I see the communities facing the same teen issues that teens face all around the world: making it to adulthood in one piece, including an intact self-confidence. Whether the Yu’pik culture comes with them or not, kinda doesn’t matter. What matters is whether they love themselves. Self-love, confidence, and a desire to help others is what will keep the Yu’pik culture alive amongst these youth. Besides, it’s still possible to seal hunt if your lip is pierced.
Soapbox Wrap Up
Ok, I’m really gonna wrap it up this time.
In conclusion, I feel the only “problem” Hooper Bay really has is its own self image. People there seem tired of constantly defending the place. This village has gotten a bad rap for what I don’t know. Like before, there’s nothing especially horrid about this village compared to all others in Alaska.
AND! Personally, I saw so many wonderfully positive things in the community. So many kids are tired of the craziness their parents put them through when drunk or high. One young person wrote a letter to the editor of the Delta Discovery, talking about how hurtful it is for their parent to be drunk at Christmastime. What a courageous step!
These young people, with the group of active adults helping them, will make Hooper Bay a really fantastic place some day. The foundation has been set, and even a few steps of this path have been trod. It’s now up to the village leaders, and their youth leaders, to keep at it, keep walking down that path of a vibrant future.
There will be setbacks at every turn, but there’s no reason why Hooper Bay people shouldn’t be loving themselves & their village by now. I feel like the folks in Hooper Bay just need to stop listening to the critics, to the manipulative Beth Edwards’ of the world, and just start listening to themselves. They have awesomeness flowing in their veins! They just need to keep living it!
PS: Special thanks to all the fabulous teachers & guidance counselors at the Hooper Bay school, who showed me a super good time, especially Cate Koskey, John Hale, Gene Armstrong, Dr. Don, Scott Ballard, and the other two “Johns”, & anyone else I missed. You rock!