• It’s all about the storytelling
By Christina Whiting
Wendy Erd thinks of her life as a series of threads. One of them, she says, is the “love of language and story.”
It’s a common thread she continues to weave throughout the fabric of her life — as well as the many lives she touches.
In 1973, Erd and her then boyfriend, now husband, Peter Kaufmann, headed to Alaska. They settled in Homer, where they worked various jobs, including scrubbing crab legs at the cannery, working field camps at Seldovia Lake and Kalgin Island with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and set netting in Bristol Bay. Erd also taught folk dancing, tutored at Paul Banks Elementary School, ran a landscaping business and worked at the Pratt Museum.
While at the Pratt, Erd’s interest in people, stories and language deepened, and in the early 1990s, she became the museum’s community liaison. Her job was to help curator and project director Betsy Webb — as well as other museum staff — conceptualize an exhibit called “Kachemak Bay, An Exploration of People and Place.”
Erd and the team imagined how to set up a framework of telling bigger stories by asking community members questions that would garner smaller stories.
“These stories were told in their voices and with multiple perspectives,” she said. “They were wonderful both for the surprising honesty of stories, stories we’d never have known as ‘experts’ and for the process of community-based work which generates connection and pride among and between the storytellers.”
“Kachemak Bay, An Exploration of People and Place” is a permanent exhibit at the Pratt Museum. Erd and Webb’s collaboration continued from there.
The two worked with local filmmaker Daniel Zatz, folklorist Susan Fair, Pratt Museum staff and individuals from the fishing industry in the communities of Homer, Halibut Cove, Port Graham and Nanwalek to create the first community-based documentary film in Homer in 1998.
The film is called “Qackimam Pikiyutai: The Lore of Fishing and Marine Harvesting” and is also a permanent exhibit at the Pratt Museum.
Nurturing a growing passion for helping communities tell their own stories, Erd worked with Port Graham’s Vera Meganack, a community co-facilitator, and Homer videographer David Parker to help facilitate storytelling in the community of Port Graham ten years ago. Village elders and youth came together to share their stories and create a film about why their community lost their language and if they will be able to get it back. The film is called “Kiputmen Naukurlurpet – Let It Grow Back.”
Erd presented this film during a documentary film festival in Yunnan, China in 2005.
“It was amazing to listen to Port Graham voices live-dubbed into Chinese and to see how the mixed ethnicity of indigenous peoples in the audience deeply connected with the story,” she said.
This film project was the catalyst for Erd’s continued work in Asia, sharing this community-based storytelling process.
Following the film screening in Yunnan, Erd worked with two Tibetan colleagues on a collaborative China and Vietnam project under Vietnam’s Academy of Social Sciences, to help indigenous people create their own documentary films and facilitate community stories. The vision was that the project participants would make a film with members of their own villages. Project teams incorporated both a researcher and someone from the village, bringing their expertise together.
At the end of three years, the group went on a mobile screening tour, traveling to each of the project’s remote villages to share the films among the different ethnic cultures.
“It was amazing to watch the connections and understanding grow between Musuo and Tibetan, Akha, Hmong, Tai and Dao peoples,” Erd said.
Today, Erd works as a consultant in Vietnam, where she trains individuals at museums and in the TV industry how to become community facilitators to create stories “with” rather than “about” those featured in their exhibits and documentaries.
Erd and Kaufmann together recently completed a three-year project with staff from Hanoi’s National Museum of Ethnology and Vietnam’s indigenous TV station, called Community Based Media in Vietnam, First Voice Stories. Through this project, they helped train staff to become community-based teachers themselves.
Erd also works in Bhutan, arranging travel to the Himalayas through Sacred Himalaya Travel, a Bhutanese travel businesses. She just returned from organizing and participating in a women’s writing retreat, “Women’s Voices In A Sacred Land,” where a group of seven American writers and one Scottish poet traveled in Bhutan for two weeks.
Erd continues to share her love of language and story through her own writing as well.
“I’ve been writing forever,” she said. “Writing, writing, always writing – creative nonfiction and poetry especially.”
Erd’s writing can be found in the Copper River watershed, where she worked with watercolor artist Kristin Link to create colorful, interpretive permanent road signs for the Copper River Watershed Project. She also helped to create Poems in Place, a statewide project that places original and nominated poems by Alaska writers in State Parks around the State.
Erd was recently awarded a writing residency from Bunnell Street Arts Center to create poems to be placed along the Beluga Slough Boardwalk, behind the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, as part of the revitalization of Old Towne Homer.
“It would be easy to pass by this place without seeing its beauty,” she said. “I was given a reason to inhabit it, to spend deep time and to really listen.”
Erd’s poems will be unveiled on April 26 in celebration of Earth Day.
She is inspired by William Stafford’s poem, “The Way It Is;”
“There is a thread you follow. It goes among things that change. But it doesn’t change…”
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