Today’s #MediaMonday comes to us from Kristina Morago, photojournalist for the Ak-Chin O’odham Runner newspaper. On staff since September 2008, the Runner newspaper is printed the first and third Friday of each month.
As the official newspaper of the Ak-Chin Indian Community, the Runner is in its 26th year of existence, having started out as a newsletter, eventually growing to a color print publication with a circulation of 1,500 that is home-delivered to the Ak-Chin members and is available at select businesses and all schools in the neighboring city of Maricopa. You can also view it on-line at www.ak-chin.nsn.us. Staff started out small as well, from one to two people, now a full-time staff of six.
If you sat down to chat with Kristina, chances are it would be an interesting conversation as she has pretty much worked in a variety of fields - healthcare, retail, tribal government, and gaming. It has been working in those fields that provide her with a foundation to do what she does… capturing a moment with the camera and writing stories about the people she meets.
So, Kristina, time to share!
I’ve lived in Arizona my entire life! And at this point, I feel I’m doing what I was truly meant to do, which is write and take pictures. But my path getting here was a little different than most in the business, but one I wouldn’t change.
I remember being 8-years-old and my late aunt, who I’m named for, gave me a camera. That day I remember going out into the desert, taking pictures of cactus and desert plants. When they were developed, she looked at one that was a close-up of yellow poppies and said, “This is good enough to be in Arizona Highways!” Those encouraging words gave me a dream.
My love of writing began the next year when a writer-in-residence visited our school and encouraged our fifth grade class to write about an experience, with a focus on poetry. But it wasn’t until high school, junior year that I became interested in journalism, writing stories about school events. In my senior year, I became editor-in-chief of the Casa Grande Union High School newspaper, The Cougar Growl, the first Native American to do so.
I grew up on the Gila River Indian Community where I am an enrolled member, and call Sacaton my home, but I also am of Tohono O’odham and Apache descent. After graduating from high school, I decided to attend Northern Arizona University majoring in journalism. After two years and a crazy spin in my car on black ice, I came home.
On a lark, I walked into a Walgreens drug store and asked for a summer job. That job led to a 12-year career with the Walgreens company, first on the main floor, then working inside the pharmacy. What I enjoyed about Walgreens were the staff, the people that walked in the door, and learning first-hand what it takes to run a business. While there, I took a class at the newly created Chandler-Gilbert Community College and became a state certified EMT. I actually worked part-time for three months!
Seventeen people sit on the Gila River Tribal Council and in 1995, I was asked to run. Running on the platform of making positive changes for the community, I served two three-year terms. To help be a part of improving the living and social conditions of the community was a great experience. During my tenure, we took over the functions of the local hospital from Indian Health Service, creating healthcare to truly meet the needs of the members, and expanded casino and economic development projects.
When I left politics in 2001, I decided to work at the tribe’s casino. For two years, I learned the inner workings of casino finance, and was eventually selected by the council to sit on the board of directors. Thinking the casino was now my future, in 2004 I was asked to return and run for council again. Elected, I left the casino and served on council for three more years.
During all those experiences, I never let go of taking pictures. Or writing, sharing an occasional story with the tribe’s newspaper. When I left politics the second time in 2008, I decided to take 30 days off and have “me” time. On the 31st day, I saw the position for photojournalist at Ak-Chin. I applied, was selected for interview (where I quickly put together my portfolio) and was hired.
Assignments have had me at youth and adult sports tournaments, community events, Harrah’s events, and tribal functions in neighboring Native American reservations. Also with the young members attending school in the Maricopa Unified School District, I’ve also covered school assemblies and sporting events.
Since I’ve been here, the Community has continued to grow and expand with various projects such as the Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino hotel expansion, creation of the Ak-Chin Library and Education building, and the Wastewater Treatment Facility, which has received international honors. The tribal seal includes the phrase “equality for all, for a brighter tomorrow,” and the leadership works hard to fulfill that vision.
There have been some amazing moments as a photojournalist here. Growing up being taught to appreciate your elders, a favorite has been meeting one-on-one with elders for the “Elder Profile” feature which spotlights their personal story and what words of wisdom they would share with the current generation. They have powerful messages that are shared in the simplest way. Last year during their Christmas program, they honored me with a traditional O’odham basket, as a way of saying “Thank You” for covering their events.
And then there are busy moments. On one Saturday, I remember covering three events. Outside for the entire day, I was at a rainy parade in the morning and then a torrential downpour at the rodeo that afternoon. Happy to be heading home, I was asked to cover the Jack Ingram concert at Harrah’s that night. My hair full of dust and exhausted, I psyched myself up for one more assignment. It was an exciting performance and a great impromptu meet and greet (and photo!)
I think the best comment I received about the paper was from someone who I met at the casino. I tried to hand him a copy and he said, “I pick up your paper every time I visit. I may not know anyone in the paper, but I love it because it reminds me of home, back in Wyoming.” Our readers are from all over, we even have a subscriber from Japan!
It became a full-circle moment for me when I was hired, as being a journalist is what I had set out to do so many years ago. My “other” experiences have provided networking possibilities that continue to grow. And people skills of listening and connecting that school just can’t teach.