For the last four years, Mel Ortega has called upon the power of the Internet to open the world’s eyes to the Tohono O’odham.
The 60-year-old uses YouTube, a popular streaming-video site, as a host for his Tohono TV channel. The channel serves as an online resource for events and news happening within the O’odham community.
Ortega has more than 180 videos on his site, documenting basketball games, political discussions and historic events along with concerts featuring waila, the traditional dance music developed by the O’odham.
The most popular video, a clip from 2008 featuring the band Papago Warrior performing at the Tohono O’odham Nation Rodeo, has had more than 15,000 views.
More than a quarter of the segments on the site have had 1,000 views or more. Many are spoken in a mix of English and O’odham.
The Tohono O’odham Nation, the second-largest reservation in Arizona, stretches from Tucson west to Ajo, north to Casa Grande and south to the international border.
Ortega travels from his home in Ajo to shoot locations as far as Phoenix to get his stories.
One of his most recent videos in Tucson involved the dedication of “La Primera Vista,” a monument to the Tohono O’odham at the base of Sentinel Peak, in June. “If it is something that I feel people need to know about, I am going to cover it,” Ortega said.
The YouTube channel is Ortega’s latest project in more than three decades of documenting the life and culture of the Tohono O’odham people.
Ortega was 24 and living in Sells when he was recruited to be part of an internship program in mass communications at the University of Arizona in 1979.
It was dubbed The Papago Telecommunications Project. The goal was to teach Ortega and three other tribe members how to develop and run a radio station. They would then use that knowledge to launch a station on reservation land.
The station never came to fruition, but the skills that Ortega learned in the audio-visual realm during his two years in the program stuck with him.
He bought a video camera and took on freelance videography, while teaching physical education at a local elementary school to make ends meet.
His initial videos were small to-dos; a friend’s nephew’s wrestling match, a wedding, local birthday parties.
As word of mouth grew, Ortega was invited to cover larger events, things such as concerts and political meetings.
Eventually, Ortega began airing his tapes on the local cable channel, run by Oasis Cable, using sponsorships from businesses, mostly from Tucson’s south side. Contributing retail shops included Yosi’s Creations and Best Buy Furniture, both on South 12th Avenue.
“They weren’t doing anything like that at the time on that channel,” Ortega said. “It was a good opportunity.”
As Ortega developed his video and editing skills, he turned to Access Tucson to create a more in-depth news series.
The show, known as “Tohono Communications,” revolved around Tohono O’odham issues and went on the air in 2007.
“I called it the ‘60 Minutes’ of the Tohono O’odham Nation,” Ortega said.
Today, Ortega uses the name Tohono TV for his YouTube channel. With his two kids out of the house, he felt the time was right to take his passion on full time.
“I was willing to take the risk,” he said. “I saw it as a need that was not being met. I felt there was a lot of information that could be shared to improve our condition. We have so much to share, but we are separated by such large distances.”
Amid the entertainment videos on the site — the music and sports — are more serious topics, taped interviews that deal with reports of Border Patrol harassment and ongoing updates on the recall elections of several representatives from the Hia-Ced District of the Tohono O’odham Nation. The nation has 12 governing districts. The Hia-Ced, of which Ortega is a member, was recognized as an official district for the first time in June of last year.
The generous mix of information has been a huge attraction to members and nonmembers of the O’odham community.
Tohono TV has more than 450 regular subscribers that YouTube notifies when Ortega adds new videos.
Ortega said many of the subscribers are tribal members, but he is always surprised to see who is watching.
The channel has had viewers from around the world.
“I once had someone from Afghanistan watch a 36-minute comedy routine filmed at a wellness conference,” Ortega said. “I don’t know who he was, but he must have enjoyed it.”
Jesse O. Villa, a subscriber from Grapevine, Texas, is an avid fan of Ortega’s work.
Villa, 71, was born and raised in California, but his mother was born in Sells.
The retired ship welder didn’t have much exposure when it came to his cultural heritage when he was growing up.
He’s found Ortega’s videos to be invaluable.
“A lot of times, the news from a reservation doesn’t get farther than the immediate area,” Villa said. “This is very informative and helpful to people with very little knowledge of the place and its people.”
Ortega isn’t sure how long he is going to be able to keep his YouTube project going.
He loves the job, but the costs for gas, food and lodging when on the road are barely covered by what the sponsors are willing to pay.
When he films events in the Tucson area, he often double dips, using the trips into town to visit local businesses that might be willing to support what he does.
His goal is to someday hire an official camera crew and a sales director.
For the last year, his crew has consisted of his two nieces, Alexis Johnson, 16, and Destiny Josemaria, 11. The siblings operate the hand-held camera for Ortega. Alexis has recently started conducting interviews.
“It has been nice to learn something new,” said Alexis, a student at Sunnyside High School. “I don’t like public speaking, so interviewing people has helped me a lot.”
Ortega said that while he has toyed with the idea of taking on a day job, he feels that what he does is important.
“I would like to see it succeed,” Ortega said. “I want to do more.”