I must say RIP to a music legend A. Paul Ortega of the Mescalero Apache. Listening to his songs reminds me of my...

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Doug George-Kanentiio: A Mescalero Apache music legend passes on

A. Paul Ortega, Native Music Legend, Passes On

By Doug George-Kanentiio

I had the great fortune to know A. Paul Ortega, the Apache musician and traditional healer who died on May 17 at his home in Mescalero Territory, New Mexico.

Paul was a legendary musician who gave three historic albums to the world: Two Worlds (1964), Three Worlds (1969) and Loving Ways (1992). The last was with my wife Joanne Shenandoah and from that came a deep friendship characterized by humor, creativity and respect.

Paul was one of the few Native musicians from the past generation who had their songs heard across the country, primarily by word of mouth since most commercial record companies would not promote indigenous artists. As teenagers on the Akwesasne Mohawk territory we were desperate to find a performer who spoke to our experience as Natives and it was Paul, Buffy St. Marie, Floyd Westerman, Willie Dunn and Peter Lafarge who were bold enough to give aboriginal struggles the musical voice we needed.

Getting one of Ortega's recordings was not simple during that time and once found it was played until the grooves of the LP wore out or the cassette tape faded. But his songs about traveling the ancient mountain trails in Apache land or what it meant to be an Indian in modern times resonated across Native country.

He sang about the lonely times on the concrete streets of Chicago when he was one of those relocated Natives in the late 1950's followed by the teasing songs used in the Apache guessing games. Most of us who were fans of Paul's from the Native civil rights struggles can still sing, with varying levels of talent, his ballad in which begins, "As I walked down the streets of Chicago one day I spied a young Indian as cold as the clay".

He used his vocal and songwriting talents to ask why Natives were displaced, ignored, suppressed. He wanted to know why the promises made to the Native nations by the US were not kept and what happened to the education, health and housing programs guaranteed by treaty concluding with the phrase "that's a laugh". He wrote music which spanned any specific time, music which was meant to endure for generations.

YouTube: A. Paul Ortega - Bird Song

In 1991 our friend asked my wife to do a joint album with him and if she agreed he would move to Washington, D.C., where she was then living. Prior to the formal recording sessions he gave her advice as to composing. He told her to write music which would last, to agree to sing in whatever venue presented itself as the music would draw people together, people who might not otherwise be in the same place. He told Joanne that her songs of hope and peace were universal and needed to be heard across the planet.

So they did "Loving Ways" an album which is remarkable for its durability and its resonance for Natives everywhere. It has Paul's haunting Apache chants, Joanne's teasing songs (After the 49) and their joint testament to true aboriginal romance "Indian Love Song". Twenty five years later and Loving Ways remains on the playlist on every Native radio station and in homes from Alaska to Nova Scotia.

Paul was also a powerful Apache healer, capable of remarkable cures using his traditional knowledge as handed down over the generations. He worked for the Indian Health Service in both Washington and Albuquerque. When my wife had nodules growing on her vocal chords she turned to Paul and his family for help. Using his skills Paul and his sister were able to drive the nodules from Joanne's throat enabling her to regain her singing voice.

Paul and Joanne performed together for the last time two years ago at a special event at the Allan Houser Sculpture Garden south of Santa Fe, NM. Such was the power of their music that the Thunder Beings came to listen, riding a powerful wind. The electricity was disrupted by that did not stop the performance. With their acoustic guitars they carried one, the stage lit by flashlights, lighters and candles. As Paul wished, nothing was to stop the music.

"Save the last dance for me" was part of the lyrics in his song "Sweetheart" and that is what those of us who admired A. Paul Ortega knew he wanted for those who are in love, were in love and wanted to be in love.

One can see Paul, on one of those Apache trails, singing his chants, the sound resonating through the canyons, connecting this world to the next. Such was the artist, the legend.

A. Paul Ortega, the son of the late Toney and Ruth Marden Ortega, a former president of the Mescalero Apache Nation, is survived by his wife Kay, his sister Delores Ortega Perez, seven children, eighteen grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

Doug George-Kanentiio,Akwesasne Mohawk, is the vice-president of the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge. He has served as a Trustee for the National Museum of the American Indian, is a former land claims negotiator for the Mohawk Nation and is the author of numerous books and articles about the Mohawk people. He may be reached via e-mail at: Kanentiio@aol.com or by calling 315-415-7288.