Siblings Clayson, Jeneda and Klee Benally grew up on Black Mesa — the center of a political land dispute between a coal mining company and the Navajo and Hopi tribes. They couldn’t ignore what they saw as oppression and abuse of power, so they formed the punk rock group called Black Fire.
“There was a lot of anger channeling that anger and frustration and putting it into something positive,” Clayson Benally said.
Fast forward two decades. Klee Benally has become an activist, while Jeneda and Clayson have formed a new band called Sihasin, which means hope in Navajo.
“With Sihasin, everything is kind of reversed the energy,” Clayson Benally said. “Let’s make people dance. Let’s make people move and feel good not just smash stuff.”
Parenthood made Jeneda stop and think about the message she wanted to send her kids.
“I want my children to have hope,” she said. “I see the world as a different place. And I recognize that we have every possibility to make positive change.”
Now Clayson and Jeneda go into schools all over Indian Country to teach Native youth how to write their own songs.
Jeneda said on more than one occasion she’s helped a teen in a time of desperation find the right words in a song.
“Music is powerful,” she said. “Music can absolutely save lives!”
At Leupp High School on the western edge of the Navajo Nation only nine of 19 seniors are graduating this year. The class asked the Benallys to speak and perform at graduation.
“You carry our hope,” Jeneda Benally said to the class. “You carry our future within you. I don’t want you to feel burdened by that. I want you to feel empowered by that.”
“I wish I had gotten this speech a long time ago,” said graduate Crystal Puhuyesva.
She has been held back and pulled in and out of schools on both the Navajo and Hopi reservations. But an uncle believed in her, and then she met the Benallys, who’ve inspired her to graduate and achieve her goals.
“With all their encouragement, their words, it just it woke me up,” Puhuyesva said. “I do want to pursue my dream of becoming a nurse.”
Clayson Benally told the class people all over the world are lost. As Navajo and Hopi, you have a strong Native foundation and culture. Embrace it. Then make it your own.
For the Benallys, that means blending the Navajo language or the voice of their father singing a traditional Navajo song with their electric bass and modern drumbeat.
“For us to find a positive solution and to understand our own identity it’s this synthesis that has to occur,” Clayson Benally said.
Clayson said Native people have to take from what is surrounding them in this contemporary world but join it with the past.