April 19, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann and Betni Kalk

Houses made of leaf shingles and bark tied together by vine. Tattoos created from soot and a rat’s tooth tool. Carved bamboo arrows used to capture prey that then becomes food.

Undoubtedly, the culture of the Sawiyano people in Papua New Guinea looks nothing like the cornfield-meets-city life of Omaha—or any other metro in the world for that matter.

For Betni Kalk, an artist who grew up with this tribe when her missionary parents were stationed there during her childhood, that’s exactly what makes this indigenous group both precious and precarious.

“People say you can leave New Guinea, but it will never leave you,” Kalk says. “I’m living proof.”

Though she moved to the states in her teen years, Kalk is still finding new ways to explore the village in which she was raised. She’s been back to visit twice—and sent her father on her behalf once—to capture the daily lives of this tribe through photography and video she is editing into a documentary. By doing so, she hopes to not only preserve traditional elements of culture for future generations of Sawiyano but also share this rainforest-hidden piece of the globe with others.

“My worldview was formed there, so I feel indebted,” Kalk says. “To me, it isn’t about fantastic cinematography and award-worthy filmmaking. My goal is to simply capture as much culture as possible to make something I can gift to them.”

Moving from Ontario, Canada, at the age of 3, Kalk’s first memories are of the rivers and bush in New Guinea’s East Sepik Province. From stumbling upon huge snakes while playing in the wild to watching her parents serve as missionaries, teachers, and impromptu medics, Kalk developed a deep appreciation for the simple, isolated life. Instead of flipping on Punky Brewster or Fraggle Rock, she passed the time drawing the landscape surrounding her.

Kalk and her family moved to the States after 10 years, and she would go on to receive a master’s degree in painting and drawing—the very skill she started developing in the bush as a child. Today, she is a professor of art and design at Creighton University and often shows work at exhibitions across the country, including one this June at Connect Gallery in Omaha.

“Coming to the United States, I just felt out of place at first,” she says. “When you sound like everyone else and look like everyone else but don’t think like everyone else, that’s hard.”

Kalk first went back to the Sawiyano territory in 1999, then again in 2012. Both visits, she brought video cameras to film all the pieces of daily life that make up this unique culture, including craft processes, food gathering, and creation of everyday objects. It wasn’t only her filming, though. She would rotate up to seven cameras among Sawiyano people to ensure authenticity of footage.

What began as short, subtitled clips of activities she would upload to YouTube has taken on a new form as she develops the documentary. For this 30-minute short film, three- to six-second clips are montaged with no subtitles and minimal music, immersing the viewer in the culture and leaving it up to them to interpret the experience.

“Telling a significant story in clips isn’t easy. I haven’t heard of someone else doing something like this, so that’s nerve-wracking, but it doesn’t scare me,” Kalk says.

Arriving in the village is no cakewalk either. Because most flights go to the capital city, traveling to rural areas requires months of planning. First, she flies into Port Moresby, where she stays with missionaries until she can find transportation beyond the city. She then takes a truck to the nearest river and floats from village to village by boat, setting up home once she’s arrived. Only then does the real work of filming begin.

“It’s all worth it,” Kalk says. “You can hear and read about things, but to be able to see it on video is a whole different story.”

Once Kalk finishes editing the film, she plans to show it at festivals, starting with those focused on sustainability or green issues. She has heard interest from museums in Germany and France wanting to show it.

And that’s just the beginning.

When it comes to telling the story of the Sawiyano, there’s no stopping Kalk. She’s already compiled a book of photographs of the region with accompanying descriptive text and is working on another made up of villagers’ drawings and paintings. In fact, Google “Sawiyano” and all the top results point back to this artist who is trumpeting a traditional culture through very modern methods—with profits on projects going back to the Sawiyano for medical and educational needs.

“I just want people to get a glimpse of how others live,” Kalk says. “Hopefully, this can help open worldviews, so we can start thinking about how things we do here have a ripple effect all the way to New Guinea.”


Visit b-e-t-n-i.com for more information.

This article was printed in the May edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Betni Kalk

Bethany “Betni” Kalk at Creighton University