Inside KYUK, tucked deep in the station, sits the world’s largest collection of videos documenting life in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. No one knows what all 5,000 tapes contain. The cataloguing is inconsistent, and the hours of footage are uncounted. But the station believes that it’s all important and is taking steps to save it.
“So the tapes have to be packed in bags, in these totes, in a plastic bag to protect them,” John McDonald says while working in KYUK’s old, florescent-lit television studio. In front of him stands a long row of shelves filled with multicolored videos. “And they’re not supposed to be bulging out of the case at all.”
McDonald is one of the few people alive who can make sense of the material. He places the videos in a black bag, and then in a gray tote for shipment to Summit Day Media in Anchorage. There they’ll be stored in a climate-controlled vault and hopefully, if KYUK can get the money, digitized. He has spent the last month organizing, cataloging, and packing the thousands of tapes, reels, and cassettes, and he’s only made a small dent.
“There’s tapes here from, I’m going to say, every village," said McDonald, "all up and down the river, along the coast, up on the Yukon.”
McDonald would know; he helped shoot, direct, or produce most of them. He arrived in Bethel in 1975 from California and quickly got a job in the television department. KYUK was the first native-owned public television station in the nation, and McDonald helped document a moment of immense change.
“We have interviews of people remembering seeing their first airplane, and then people showing us how to make a blackfish trap," said McDonald. "Someday people are going to look at those tapes and they’ll be able to hear people who were around in the 1800s and early 1900s.”
One video McDonald is keeping his eye out for was filmed in the 1980s in Mekoryuk on Nunivak Island. In it, an elder in his nineties tells a story passed down for generations in his family. Once, the elder says, his ancestors hunted a large animal. Speaking in Yup’ik, the elder then sweeps his arms away from his face in a wide curve.
“Long teeth, curly, giant teeth coming out of a mouth, with his hands, he described,” McDonald said.
The man was explaining hunting wooly mammoths.
“So those are the kinds of things that…that tape is in here somewhere," McDonald said. "I mean, it’s a super valuable collection.”
But the value of the collection also depends on the quality of the tape. Some tapes have not been played since they were created, which can cause the film to bind together. Other tapes were used multiple times, and sections filmed over. Many tapes have collected dust and and have broken. The damage will be assessed and, hopefully, repaired in Anchorage.
“We have no machines now at the station, at KYUK, that can play any of these tapes. So we, I, can’t look at them, but I know what most of them are,” McDonald said.
They include the raw recordings and masters from documentary films and television shows produced by KYUK over decades: like the weekly magazine show “Delta Review;” the quiz show “Ask An Alaskan;” the statewide syndicated “Tundra Terror Theatre;" and years of nightly television newscasts. The KYUK television department thrived from the mid-1970s to mid-1990s, when the state was flush with oil money and the federal government more generous.
John McDonald was there through it all and ended his career at KYUK as General Manager. Two decades later he’s returned to help save the work that he and so many at KYUK helped create, and to preserve the stories of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
KYUK thanks Ryan Air and Everts Air Cargo for providing free shipping of our video collection to Anchorage.