Courtesy Mel Ortega
The family trio that makes up TOHONO TV, from left, Destiny Josemaria, Mel Ortega, Alexis Johnson.

Tohono O’odham Life in Video Thanks to Mel Ortega and TOHONO TV

Lee Allen
8/28/14

If the subject deals with Native America, more specifically Arizona’s Tohono O’odham Nation, you’ll hear about it from videographer Mel Ortega, content producer for his YouTube channel --- TOHONO TV.

He’s now built up an archive of more than 180 videos dealing principally with O’odham affairs – everything from tribal elections to basketball games to historic events and traditional waila music concerts – all of which provide a global glimpse into American Indian life in the Southern Arizona desert.

“It was a need not being met and I was willing to take the risk because we have so much to share,” says the 60-year-old tribal member. “I have thousands of hours of unedited videotape dating back to the mid-1980s. When I started doing this, I was originally filming sporting events as part of an internship program in mass communications at the University of Arizona called The Papago Telecommunications Project.”

The goal of the project was to teach a small group of tribal members how to build and launch a radio station on the reservation, the second largest reservation in the state that covers hundreds of miles, much of it in remote, rural desert. The station never got built, but Ortega’s training launched him into freelance videography shooting weddings, birthday parties, and sports activities – a mission that grew in scope as his reputation grew.

As his filming and editing skills expanded, his tapes began showing up on the local community channel. “They weren’t doing anything like that at the time and it was a good opportunity,” he said. Later, a more in-depth news series he called “The 60 Minutes of the Tohono O’odham Nation” aired. When he retired from a teaching career, continuing efforts to document history called to him.

“I grew up in Sells in a semi-traditional way, in a home without running water where we chopped wood and cooked outside. Summers were spent at my grandmother’s Pima reservation where, after our chores were done, we spent our days playing in the desert. Today’s youth who are satisfied to stay home and play video games don’t know what they are missing. Grandparents and tribal elders are great resources of history and, once a trust bond has been formed, they are willing to share the old days and what things were like when they grew up. I’ll interview anybody who is willing,” he says.

Limited funding limits the scope of his efforts however. Tribal member and independent businessman Fitzpatrick Ignacio has provided regular financial support from the start, but incoming revenue doesn’t come close to outgoing expenses and costs for gasoline, food, and lodging on location shoots are barely covered by what sponsors contribute.

“There’s always something happening and I could cover a lot more topics, but I’m limited by my ability to even get to an event because I’m scraping by week-to-week and frequently don’t have gas money. If I had the funding, I’d be on the road all day/week/month going from site to site because there’s so many interesting people and places to capture on film.”

To help offset the dearth of dollars, Ortega has worked for the past year and a half with part-time helpers, 16-year-old high school student Alexis Johnson, and 11-year-old Destiny Josemaria (his nieces), who operate hand-held cameras.

“They’re interested and are learning as we go along, details like lighting and sound and camera angles. Alexis has started doing some of the interviews while I write funding proposals, organize coverage details, do the driving, and the film editing. The more load they can take off of me, the better, and I need to put more time and effort into training them so they can eventually take over.”

Regular subscribers to Tohono TV are notified when Ortega adds new videos to the existing mix of entertainment, sporting, and musical features as well as more serious topics like interviews that deal with Border Patrol issues and tribal politics.

“Although I’m not making a living at this because I have no tribal or corporate funding, it isn’t a hobby. I went to school for this. I understand the part the media plays and the fact that communication is power. I want to concentrate on the positive things our tribe – and Natives in general – have done, can do, and are doing—and I want to be there to document these happenings.”

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