Klee Benally is a Diné musician, traditional dancer, filmmaker, silversmith and well-known Indigenous anarchist who was in Paris recently to perform a few concerts, and present his new feature, Power Lines.
Raised in Black Mesa, Arizona by a Jewish, Russian-Polish mother, folk musician and a Navajo father, who was medicine man and hoop dancer, Benally learned the traditional ways from a very young age.
As a teen, he co-created the group “Blackfire” with his siblings, Jeneda and Clayson, and played with the band for 20 years.
Self-taught, he explains his approach to his culture through music, “There is no separation between art and culture in Dine’ existence.”
After performing in Paris, and before leaving for the London Camden Fringe Festival’s event on “Indigenous resistance and liberation” Benally sat down with Indian Country Today to share his views on music, activism and cultural stereotypes.
Klee Benally - Paris Poster
How did your parents meet?
They met in Los Angeles, where my mother was working in a political club for Hopi elders. She then moved to the reservation, where we were raised on Black Mesa, with no electricity, or water, in a very remote place close to a small town, Pinon.
My father is a medicine man and very early, we were taught traditional practices, ceremonies, dances and singing.
My father has a great saying, “We do not see two different worlds.” So, it is an interesting question, because when on tour in Europe with Blackfire, we went to Bialystok, in Poland, the native place of my mother’s family, and felt no connection with it.
Did you start playing music because of your mother?
We could not touch my mother’s instruments when we were younger. (laughs) But we began to listen to tapes from the late 80’s, including the punk rock culture. We started to play very young, to convey our messages, and express our frustrations, on social issues, like families resisting forced relocation, and the removal of Navajos, in the context of the Navajo and Hopi land dispute of 1974.
And now you live in Flagstaff, close to the San Francisco Peaks?
Yes, I felt a calling to stay in Flagstaff to be a consistent force so that the area is protected: the San Francisco Peaks is one of the six sacred mountains for the Dine’, each one under threats, for resource extractions, recreation and skiing. Since 1996, I participated in the effort to stop this development, protesting, praying, and I made a documentary in 2004,The Snowball Effect. In 2002, they permitted the ski area to expand, and we continue to struggle to stop the development at the Peaks. We went back a few weeks ago, because of a new extension, and were threatened with trespassing: but how can we be? My whole family has been part of the protest, my father addressing the impact on human health.
Among all your interventions, which one was the worst?
They are all bad. But it is not so much about the interventions. The most traumatizing is to see this holy mountain, where we pray, and where the pipelines are digging, destroying hundreds of trees: and again two weeks ago!
Could you have been a medicine man?
The process of learning and practicing is through apprenticeship. I help work with people, but I would never say I am.
But don’t you represent a new generation of medicine men, as a global and environmental activist?
This is an important observation. Among traditional people, everybody has their own way. So we are all healers, or have a capacity to heal, when there is an imbalance in the world. The foundation of Navajo philosophy is the blessing way, to keep balance with other beings and ourselves. If you do not care for the land, it is not going to sustain you. As long as the society values the land as a commodity, we have a problem; global warming is a syndrome of imbalance with the earth, a consequence of society’s war against Mother Earth.
Among all the protests, which one matters most?
The struggle for our cultural survival; from our ancestors to the future generation, so we can still exist. So whether an auction, the destruction of a holy site, fracking, forced relocation, sacred sites, racial profiling, pollution: all those issues need attention.
Or like in Phoenix, where some Navajos were meeting Donald Trump, we protested, as it was inappropriate, like a tacit support. That is why I focus on providing media support and training with “Outta Your Backpack Media”, an Indigenous media center in Flagstaff for high school students from fifteen to twenty, where we teach film and media. Because it is important for the youth to understand their potential; and how social media plays a role in reinforcing racism through stereotypes.
How do you see racism today?
Until the ‘60s, there were signs in some places of the city, saying, “No Indians or dogs allowed.” Today, every year, the Flagstaff annual police report indicates the number of arrests. And every year, half of the arrests concern Natives. So there is a problem: either it is racial profiling, or one in two would be a criminal. And the city council allowed the contract on the San Francisco Peaks, a short term profit on the mountains, a place of cultural value to Indigenous nations. So racism is still there, and a lack of care for our values.
What are some of your projects?
I am focusing on my feature film release, Power Lines, which I consider to be a big accomplishment, and took many years of work. We are doing a tour and some screenings in the reservations. And in Europe, addressing the issues of cultural patrimony, like the auctions of sacred items: a real problem, as some people do not understand that it is not proper to share their pictures. Connecting internationally is important, as all over the world, people are struggling for social justice.
What was the European audience response like?
There is more appreciation here for independent music and art, a different understanding of Indian struggles, like the Leonard Peltier’s story: they would know more here than in the United States! (laugh) There is an interesting dynamic, more interest and awareness. Of course, it is hard to generalize, as some people fetishize us; but you find more political organizations in Europe then in the United States, and a bigger history of social and political organizations.
Don’t you think that the Native status is changing with globalization, and a different picture is taking place today, because of social medias, and international networking?
Globalized resistance is critical, and occurring today: that is why I am here, to find support, and let people know that being engaged in struggling against racism is part of the same fight. And over the years I found a lot of support, singing, talking to small venues, breaking stereotypes about Native peoples: interacting on a personal level can be powerful. And being able to demonstrate, through petitions, as it is important that the world watches: as marginalized communities, we face certain issues. But, yes, when people pay attention internationally, we are not alone in our struggle.
Klee Benally in Paris - Photo by Dominique Godrèche