Navajo Tradition Finds an Outlet in Punk Rock

To Jeneda and Clayson Benally, passing music and traditions on to the next generation is critical. Their family shares traditional Diné (Navajo) dances with some of the same festival audiences where the duo’s punk band, Sihasin, spreads its message of hope.

Born into a political land dispute on the Black Mesa Navajo Reservation, where a fence separated them from their traditional homeland and family, conflict was part of their lives from the start. “We grew up going to protests and trying to understand why outsiders wanted to take our land and move us away from our sustainable way of life. That kind of emotion is intense for a child to grow up with.”

Fortunately, the siblings also grew up in a loving home, rich in both culture and music. “Our father (Jones Benally) is a traditional medicine practitioner—hataa?i. That directly translates: singer,” says Jeneda. “We grew up going to ceremonies, helping our father, and singing all night. So, for us, music and song are a part of healing.”

Watch the Benallys Perform

Navajo-punk-trad-2Their mom was born in Chicago and grew up in New York City, where she was a folk singer. She personally invited many of her musician friends out to the reservation. “She would bring out people like Jackson Browne, Richie Havens, Taj Mahal, Albert King—all those amazing artists that we got to meet,” says Clayson. “That gave us an awareness that music itself is a way of communicating.”

“There are so many incredible musicians that are a part of our family, that have helped to guide us, to mentor us,” says Jeneda, adding that their punk group is greatly influenced by The Ramones.

Jeneda and Clayson have shared their culture, in the form of music and dance, with the outside world from the time they were small children. It is something their father, a traditional hoop dancer, began. This year Jones was honored with the Heard Museum’s Hoop Dance Legacy Award at the World Champion Hoop Dance Contest for more than 75 years of dancing and mentoring young dancers. “He started traveling around the world and became an ambassador for indigenous culture,” says Clayson. “We started dancing as soon as we were able. As a child, traveling and performing was such an empowering experience.”

“A large part of why I personally share our traditions is to educate people. We break down the stereotypes and let people see that there is so much beauty in our culture, and hopefully build bridges of respect and community,” explains Jeneda.

Equally important to the duo is passing on the traditions to the next generation. They often visit schools when they travel and organize youth empowerment workshops. Their own children— Jeneda’s daughters Dyatihi, seven, and Deezhchiil, three, as well as Clayson’s daughter Bahiyyah, five—appear on stage.

Navajo-Punk-trad“My daughters love to share their culture with people. It’s important for them to grow up and think that there are not two worlds—a traditional world and a Western contemporary world—but to understand that they have a strong Diné foundation. They can do whatever they want in this modern world, but they will still be traditional Diné,” says Jeneda.

Jeneda and Clayson were 13 and eight, respectively, when they joined with their middle brother Klee to form the punk rock group Blackfire. “My arms couldn’t reach to the end of my bass guitar,” recalls Jeneda, “Clayson was so cute. You couldn’t even see him behind the drumset.”

Wise beyond their years in terms of political awareness, they often wrote songs about the issues of the day and what they saw happening in the community. “Blackfire was very much about action. There were so many issues, and obviously our struggle to protect sacred places,” says Clayson.

A good example is their struggle to block the use of reclaimed wastewater for snowmaking at a ski resort in the San Francisco Peaks. Aside from the byproducts of hazardous waste being dropped at a pure water source, Jeneda and Clayson explain, the mountain is sacred to more than 22 different tribes. Medicine people used the plants that grow there. The duo formed their new band Sihasin, meaning “hope,” after they lost that case in court.

“To be angry for so long can be harmful, so we wanted to focus on what comes after anger,” says Jeneda, explaining why they decided to launch the new project.

“Songs are powerful and I had to have something that represents transition in my life—being a dad,” says Clayson. To him Sihasin represents the message he wants to give his own child.

Although the duo’s punk music may seem at odds with their traditional performances, a deeper look reveals plenty of their culture in Sihasin’s tunes. Clayson plays a custom drum kit that incorporates a handmade 10-inch tom and a 20-inch powwow drum. Some tunes are influenced by traditional Navajo songs. “For a Navajo kid to pick up a CD and hear their language represented, that’s a powerful thing,” says Clayson.

Navajo-Punk“From folk to punk to world music, it’s all the same. It all just represents the heartbeat and emotion—bringing a voice to an emotion or an issue happening in the world,” says Jeneda.

Throughout Sihasin’s music are themes of hope and empowerment. “For example, the CD’s title song ‘Never Surrender’ is about not giving up. There is so much at stake; we are making decisions for our future generations,” says Jeneda.

But, they also want to entertain. “We don’t want to beat the listener over the head and make it preachy,” adds Clayson. “We want to make people dance and feel good. When you write a song and give it to the world it is open for interpretation.”

Jeneda and Clayson visit festivals to help teach and preserve their culture and traditions, while inspiring the next generation to pick up where they will one day leave off.

“It’s crucial for us to embrace our youth and that’s part of the reason we chose Sihasin for our band name. We want to focus on youth empowerment. Our youth are so disempowered. We see high suicide rates on reservations across North America, and a lot of terrible things happening—gangs, bullying. We have to be persistent as parents and community members, to remind our youth that we love them, we care about them, we care about the decisions they make. So in the way our ancestors always made decisions with us in mind, we have to be proactive and make decisions with our future generations in mind,” says Jeneda.

“There’s a critical state of emergency we are all in with the loss of language and culture, negative influences that have poisoned, not just indigenous people, but communities worldwide,” says Clayson. “There are beautiful languages and cultures that have solutions to the problems we see. If we don’t do anything, and just allow them to be lost forever, that’s a tragedy.”

This article is from our November-December issue.

Cherie Yurco is a former editor at Making Music and has worked as a freelance editor and writer for over 20 years.

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