Patty Talahongva, Hopi, is working with the community-development organization Native American Connections (in partnership with the Phoenix Indian Center) on restoring the historic music building at the Phoenix Indian School, a government-run boarding school that functioned from 1891 until 1990 to educate Navajo, Hopi, Apache and other children from Southwestern tribes.
She has highly personal reasons for being involved: not only did generations of her family attend the school, but it is where Talahongva got her start as a journalist. She talked with ICTMN about the school and her work, which has included print and broadcast news reporting and production, a stint as president of the Native American Journalists Association, and now, independent work as a documentary filmmaker.
How did you start writing newspaper stories?
I was fortunate to be at boarding school at a time when the language wasn’t suppressed, or the culture or even the religion. When my relatives went to the school, they were the ones who really suffered from the whole idea of taking away students’ Indianness.
My counselor recognized something in me and said I should apply for a position with the Phoenix Gazette. The paper’s Teen Gazette, which was published on Saturdays, was [written by students from] different high schools in Phoenix but they had never had a correspondent from Phoenix Indian School. “And they pay!” she said.
The entire city of Phoenix read our stories! For the correspondents who were good about turning in their stories on time, the Gazette would send out polls with questions for teenagers to answer about smoking or pregnancy, all kinds of things. If you were assigned a poll, you got bonus pay. I got a lot of polls because I turned in my stories on time and also because they wanted to hear the views of Native Americans.
How did you get into TV broadcasting?
In my senior year of high school I moved to Flagstaff to be near my family. I went to Flagstaff High School and totally lucked out because Flag had a TV station.
My classmate worked at the station and he encouraged me to apply for a job. I did surveys, calling different residents of Flagstaff to find out what programs they liked, just very basic work. But then they brought me into the news department and trained me to run big studio cameras. There were two cameras. If you were running camera one at the beginning of the newscast, you were in camera two’s wide shot of the studio.
This was the only station that really covered northern Arizona, so everyone on the rez saw me. My grandfather was so excited and proud that I worked for the TV station that he told everyone, “Patty’s on TV.”
I ended up graduating from running the cameras and learned how to direct the newscast. When I was a senior in high school, I actually directed the 5 o’clock and 10 o’clock newscasts.
Did you pursue journalism in college?
I started at Northern Arizona University and for some reason I decided I wanted to be a lawyer.
So did you end up going to law school?
No. I kept working at the TV station and loving it. … Then I transferred to Arizona State University and started working in the newsroom at Channel 10.
Were you the only Native American in the newsroom at that point?
In the whole city. There were no Natives in the news, not on air and not even behind the scenes.
And you were studying at ASU at the same time?
Back in those days the professors had no real-time experience in TV newsrooms. I could tell they didn’t know what they were talking about. So being the very bright person that I was, I decided I didn’t need college to do the work I was doing.
When I tell students my story I tell them I have not graduated from college and that it was a dumb choice. If you’re young, stay in school, get it out of the way, because it doesn’t take much—it takes commitment, but it’s not something you can’t achieve.
[Over the next several years, Talahongva worked at various Phoenix TV stations, took a year off to have a child, served as Miss Hopi for a year, and in 2000, struck out on her own.]
Why did you decide to become an independent journalist?
I got tired of not being able to get enough Native American news stories into the newscast.
What projects have you been working on?
I started working in radio as a fill-in host for Native America Calling, and I’ve gone back to print. I really enjoyed writing for magazines—Native Peoples, Winds of Change, Smithsonian, the NMAI magazine American Indian, Architectural Digest, Arizona Highways the Tribal College Journal. I also cover breaking news for CBS, stories like the freeway shootings in Phoenix last year and the Yarnell Hill Fire where 19 firefighters were killed in Prescott in 2013.
I’ve also been working in production doing educational videos. I want to bring out the Native voice, to enlighten people about Native Americans in general.
What documentaries have you done?
I’m also raising funds for a documentary about the start of the smoke-free movement in this country. It started with my tribe, on my reservation, in Keams Canyon. The hospital there became the first smoke-free health facility in the world. The tribe realized, yes, tobacco is sacred to us. And we know that the white man’s tobacco is not healthy because of the additives. With those two ideas in mind, they passed a smoke-free ordinance.
After Hopi went smoke-free, Phoenix Indian Medical Center followed. Then Indian Health Services and all the other government departments, like veterans affairs, and education. Hopi has a commendation from the World Health Organization for creating the very first smoke-free health environment.
What issues do you see as being the most urgent in Indian country?
When Sen. Dorgan asked me to join the board of the Center for Native American Youth, he said that their focus was on suicide prevention. I can’t really begin to tell you how many relatives of mine have taken their lives and how it has affected me, how it’s affected my family. I said yes immediately. We really tackle this issue and we talk about it more openly, which is key.
There are a lot of other issues that the youth have brought to us. Sexual abuse, and alcoholism is a big issue. It’s the underlying factor in everything. Then on top of that you have domestic violence that they witness and they are also victims of.