Rock ‘n Roll Resistance at Big Mountain, Arizona
“One of the greatest tragedies in American history is still happening in the region of Big Mountain. This is a land with about 14,000 displaced people that were forcibly relocated and removed from their homeland. We never relocated. We were part of that resistance.”
The most recent chapters of Native American history are filled with coercion, decimation, and forced assimilation. It’s a cultural genocide that continues today. As struggles for justice and autonomy continue across North America from Standing Rock to Pine Ridge, many Navajo (Dine’) Nation families at Black Mesa/Big Mountain in Northern Arizona continue the struggle to protect their sacred land and traditional lifestyles. The Native American rock band Sihasin and it’s earlier incarnation Blackfire were birthed out of the struggles at Big Mountain to stop the continuation and expansion of coal mining by the Peabody Coal Company, which began in 1967, and to resist forced relocation by the United States government, a practice initiated in 1974 by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Blackfire was formed in 1989 by three siblings, two brothers and a sister from the Benally family, with support from their folk singer mother Berta and their father Jones, a traditional Dine’ medicine man. Blackfire featured Jeneda on bass, Clayson on drums and Klee on vocals and the family band combined traditional Dine’ singing with high-energy punk rock. Their debut five-song EP was produced in 1994 by C.J. Ramone from the legendary punk band The Ramones. And Joey Ramone appeared on later Blackfire recordings including the song “No Control” which was the final project Joey Ramone contributed to before he died in 2001. “No Control” was later featured in an episode of “What’s New, Scooby Doo?”
Sihasin is the latest incarnation of music/activism from Jeneda and Clayson Benally and the band’s name is a Dine’ word that means, “To think with hope and assurance.” Their new album, Fight Like A Woman, is being released on Earth Day (April 22) and is a renewed call for resistance and revolution against environmental degradation and cultural genocide. On the title song Jeneda gives a call out to courageous women who have resisted patriarchy, militarism and racism including Angela Davis, Vandana Shiva, Rosa Parks, Anne Frank, Harriet Tubman and Janet McCloud, who was involved with the American Indian Movement (AIM) and co-founded Women of All Red Nations (WARN) in 1974. On the song “Strong Together” the band sings of solidarity: “We can, we will, we are strong together!”
In recent years many Dine’ elders who led the struggle against forced relocation have passed away, leaving a younger generation to continue the resistance through traditional practices and education, community-based media, political and legal actions and music. “Quite a few of our elders have passed. It’s heart breaking. Katherine Smith passed away last year,” Clayson Benally told Z Magazine, referring to the courageous matriarch who died on March 29, 2017 at the age of about 100. Smith was famous for firing a warning shot from a shotgun at workers hired by the U.S. government to install a fence that created a border between Hopi and Navajo tribes. The Hopi-Navajo Land Settlement Act of 1974 shifted control of 1.8 million acres of mineral-rich lands to the federal government and led to the forced relocation of about 6,000 Navajo and 100 Hopi.
I recently spoke with Clayson and Jeneda Benally about their bands Blackfire and Sihasin, their indigenous roots and the power of punk rock to change the world.
DINE’ (NAVAJO) PUNK ROCK at BIG MOUNTAIN
– FORCED RELOCATION
MALKIN:You combine high-energy punk rock with Diné (Navajo) singing and philosophy. Tell me how important it is to combine those realms.
BENALLY: For us to talk about how Blackfire and Sihasin developed we have to talk about the land – Big Mountain, Black Mesa, Arizona. Those are our roots and foundation. We are traditional people living off the land and being self-sustaining. We call ourselves Diné, which means the people. Of course Navajo was the name given to us. There are a lot of parallels between punk rock and being a native person, Both have been considered outcasts at one point or another. There’s a lot of racism and hardships that our people have endured and one of the greatest tragedies in American history is still happening in the region of Big Mountain. This is a land with about 14,000 people that were forcibly relocated and removed from their homeland. That’s right where we’re from and our families were all impacted. “Relocation is genocide,” is what our elders would say. Because the moment you sever yourself from your birthplace, your land, the livestock and the culture, that is when you disappear and cease to exist.
JENEDA: When we were growing up on the reservation back home, we had a very traditional lifestyle where we would chop wood and work by the light of the day, by the sun. That dictated your day. Having to haul water was such an important lesson because every drop of water meant something; you didn’t ever waste water. We had a lot of sheep, livestock and horses in our family’s area. In the early 1980s the federal government—the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs)—was forcing our people into relocating.
CLAYSON: Congress enacted the Relocation Act in 1974 and started forced relocation. Basically they had surveyed and discovered one of the largest deposits of coal and there was a very lengthy land dispute. BIA stands for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but in modern terms in the Gulf War they created a similar type of situation also called the BIA, the Bureau of Iraqi Affairs. The original BIA was set up by the Department of War (1824) to access resources and land, viewing the people as resources as well. So there’s a lot of historical trauma.
When the BIA created this land dispute they pitted two tribes against each other—Navajo and Hopi. Two nations that needed each other, that survived for millennia living side by side helping each other. It was a symbiotic relationship. When the United States federal government intervened they basically said, “There’s going to be bloodshed,” and they spent millions of dollars on PR trying to promote a war that wasn’t there. They utilized that to divide and re-district the land. Where once there was a joint use area, where many tribes could utilize it and have joint jurisdiction, they separated the land—“This is Hopi and this is Navajo and anybody on the wrong side of the fence will be removed.” That is what our family was faced with. We never relocated. We were part of that resistance. Our grandmothers and a lot of our elders would go to Washington DC constantly and there’s so many different stages that we went through in order to try and prevent relocation. But at the time our people were looked at as wards of the United States government. We had no voice. We weren’t given the right to vote until after the code talkers had fought in World War II.
JENEDA: We weren’t allowed to vote as Native Americans in the state of Arizona until the 1960s. Even though it was our Navajo language, the Diné language, that was used as the code for Americans during World War II.
CLAYSON: This land dispute is what we were born into. We would go to different chapter house meetings, on a local level, and we’d see our elders really trying to comprehend what this law was and who these people in Washington D.C. were who had signed away all of our rights. As traditional people they never had a bill to pay or electricity. We were completely self-sufficient with enough livestock and animals to live off the land. Our law was natural law. That is parallel to ideals of anarchism or punk rock. Natural law and living off the land is something we got to see and experience and it’s something that’s been carried on by our ancestors for generations upon generations; millennia. To see that lifestyle being taken away and to have the United States government and mining companies take over; that’s really where that fuel and that anger started to inspire us to pick up instruments and start playing music and writing songs at a young age. We felt the need the communicate the idea that, “Hey, this is not right.”
JENADA: What we couldn’t understand was how could this still be happening in modern history? People read about the Indian wars in history books and think, “That’s a sad history. But as a contemporary citizen, I’m in no way contributing to the Indian wars or the annihilation and genocide of indigenous peoples.” When in fact, people are still today. When we are utilizing the electricity that we’re still using—fossil fuels, all of these things—all of these contribute to the modern genocide and annihilation of our indigenous peoples. This is still happening and there are still people who are resisting this violence. Our family never signed anything with the federal government, with the Navajo Nation or the Hopi tribe—we never signed anything. In fact now that Clayson and I are parents we’ve decided that we’re rebuilding. We’re going home and we’re making sure that our children understand their roots, that they understand their homeland and that they know what it’s like to sleep under the beautiful stars in Black Mesa and that they know how to survive off of the land.
MALKIN: Blackfire has been on the frontlines of resistance against indigenous genocide. You’ve also tried to support youth in creating a positive future. Do you think punk rock needs to be political?
CLAYSON: We use our music as a voice and a mechanism to talk about issues. I never considered myself an activist; we just found our voice through our instruments and started songwriting and singing about what was happening. One of our first songs was called “Resist.” That song was specifically about standing up against relocation that was happening to our people. We played our first concerts in 1989, going into our communities where most of our youth were dealing with everything from drug addiction to suicide. Schools started bringing us in and we were using our music as a form of education, talking directly to our communities. And from there the ability to communicate our message through music enabled us to travel to places like Sub-Saharan Africa in Mali with the Tamasheq and be on the frontlines and see that revolution.
JENADA: For me, the idea of politics is inseparable from life. If you have government or other interests that are trying to oppress you as a person or as a nation, as was our case, then there has to be some way of expressing yourself. For us music became that powerful tool that people would listen to. Because our grandmothers back on the reservation had tired voices. They were going to the UN and they were speaking and it was hard to hear them cry and share their stories. Not many people were listening. Today most people are so desensitized to the genocide here because they’ve watched TV and movies and only have an idea of what it means to be an indigenous person in America through stereotypes. This is media that doesn’t even represent us. That’s part of that transformation that we saw needed to occur and we started spreading these songs addressing those issues.
TRADITIONAL SINGING INTO PUNK ROCK
JENADA: For me, punk rock is a response to the oppression, the injustice and the inequality that we face constantly. Punk rock is organic, it’s raw and it’s emotion. I felt like the music was about taking an active role to make change. You can’t listen to punk and be a passive person. It just doesn’t work that way. Music that inspires change is the very nature of punk rock. We were at the protests with our grandmothers, having to be the voices for them because their voices were so soft. Or having to be their legs to march was so important because they needed to know that we were not going to ever give up on our culture. We are never going to give up on our homeland, on our traditional philosophies, on what makes us
Diné people. We want to make sure our culture will always continue to survive. As Blackfire we utilized every song to address a different issue that we wanted to bring a voice to. Whether it was about indigenous rights, protecting sacred places or youth suicide. It really translated so easily from our traditional songs and staying up all night singing at ceremonies with our father—it translates so easily into punk rock because it was the same thing. It was about healing. It’s about truth and telling a story. So it was very easy for us to move from traditional singing into punk rock.
FIND THE REMEDY
CLAYSON: Of course as we’re talking our father Jones Benally is joining us. He’s a traditional singer. In our language we say hatáli, which is singer. Most people would consider us as a medicine practitioner, a medicine man. We don’t use the word shaman. That’s not part of our cultural context and doesn’t appropriately describe what our medicine practitioners do. Part of our foundation was going to ceremonies and singing. If somebody is sick or has an imbalance, there’s a process you go through; stages to figure out what is the root cause of the problem. You find the source and then you find the remedy. You fix it and heal it, sometimes through songs and prayers. But helping our father through these ceremonies and singing and trying to learn about that process of healing was very key in our development as musicians as well. When we write songs—even back in the day of Blackfire—it was a way of saying, “Hey, our culture is something that is extraordinary and beautiful.” Because we started traveling abroad and going to Europe and performing and people valued it. Where here in America there is so much racism.
THEY BRANDED ME
CLAYSON: Here in America there is so much racism! Going to schools, I ended up getting branded in the locker room from racism by people that don’t respect indigenous cultures or viewpoints. They tell you to keep your views and your identity on the reservation. That’s part of the reason I identified with punk rock. I was a social outcast and misfit. I was treated as an outsider just to have long hair and my hair up in the traditional Navajo way with the hair in a bun; tsiiyéél. I was different. I wanted to find the group that respected and valued me as an individual. Naturally, that’s where punk rock came in.
JM: You just said that at school you were branded. You don’t mean physically?
CLAYSON: I was held down in the locker room and they took a lighter and held it upside down until it was nice and hot and then held it to my stomach and they branded me. I still have the scar. I carry that with me.
JM: Something I want to ask you about is oddly related to that—the violence that has sometimes permeated the punk rock scene. I did an interview recently with Belinda Carlisle, singer for The Go-Go’s who was also the first drummer for The Germs in Los Angeles. During the interview she said, “I’m looking at my body now and see the scar from my Germs burn.” Darby Crash held a lit cigarette to people in The Germs circle. Darby Crash and Iggy Pop infamously hurt themselves on stage. I’m guessing that’s something you wouldn’t want to incorporate in your music. What do you think about violence at shows and singers harming themselves?
CLAYSON: As an indigenous person coming from a history of colonization and maybe 500 years of violence against our people, I did not see the need to harm my self. It was actually the complete opposite response where we were trying to uplift and bring our youth out of that self-harm, out of the dark paths of vicious cycles of violence. It is first taught to us by colonizers and then the violence becomes a learned behavior. It was this vicious cycle that we would see happening in our own families; our uncles and relatives using violence against our own people. We are fortunate to have a strong cultural foundation and our traditional songs and healing ceremonies that helped us become a strength and pillar in our community. We started putting traditional songs into our music to try and empower and uplift so that people wouldn’t feel self-pity or hatred toward themselves.”
JENEDA:When we played as Blackfire at a lot of the punk shows we were always really watchful about what was going on in the pit. If we ever saw violence, we would stop. If we ever saw sexual harassment, we would stop. We made it very clear as a band that anybody who was in the audience, that this was a sacred place of respect. I know a lot of bands didn’t do that. But I know a lot of other bands who did and tried to nurture respect in the pit.
IT WAS A REVOLUTION
CLAYSON: We spent a lot of time with Joey Ramone. He became our mentor. “Uncle Joey.” He helped us along on our path in so many different ways, being in the studio constantly. C.J. Ramone also has been there for us. They became part of our family. The one thing Joey Ramone said that I really took to heart was, “Punk rock was on a natural path. You look at the history of rock ‘n roll with the energy and the waves that were occurring with music, it was a revolution and it had a natural course and a natural direction. Punk was the next stage of awakening for music.” He was talking about how The Sex Pistols, in his view, undermined that energy because they capitalized off of the fear and it being dangerous, so much so that radio stations began banning and preventing punk rock from being played on MTV or wherever. It became a hidden taboo, a subculture. I think it eventually got there, but it’s been popularized to the point where the meaning and the politics were stripped out of it. You can also see that in hip hop or other genres where the music and the message starts off as revolutionary, as a powerful tool to connect youth and bring people together and find solutions through music.
TO BE IN BEAUTY – MATRIARCHY
JENEDA: (Sihasin): As a traditional Diné person, I’m most guided by our traditional philosophies and our natural law, which is one of respect. It’s about respecting one’s self and respecting the community and the environment –living in harmony, in balance. We say, “To be in beauty.” It’s not a material beauty, it’s being in harmony and balance. More than anything I resonate with being a traditionalist. Traditionally we never had any governance like the federal government has forced upon us. We didn’t have a tribal chairman or president; we had our own leadership which often times came back to the matriarch of the family. It came back to the women, who were our decision-makers, who were considered to be our leaders. When a woman made the decision to end a relationship, to have a divorce, it was up to her.
NATURAL LAW and ANARCHISM
CLAYSON: “We grew up with our grandmothers who were fierce. They would step up to the law to resist and blockade, tear down fences. These elder women were fiercely independent and respected as our leadership. There was a transformation—I don’t want to say cultural appropriation but even in punk rock you think, “Where does the Mohawk come from?” That is a powerful symbol from the six nations that were faced with French colonizers and other outside entities that were trying to cutoff the actual scalp of a person because there was value in that scalp, proving that you killed an Indian. So, to say “fuck you!” the indigenous people started shaving their heads and leaving just the center Mohawk. That was part of that resistance in saying, “You’re not taking our scalp. You’re not taking our identity.” But we had to keep our hair in the center for spiritual practices. That’s where the idea of the Mohawk comes from.
As you move towards the concept of anarchy, it’s like having natural law. It’s not lawlessness. It’s working with your environment and being in tune, working together as a family. That’s something we’ve seen, within our generation, kind of stamped out. Unfortunately the word anarchist has a negative connotation now. To call someone a punk back in the 1970s and 1980s also was an insult. Like calling someone an Indian at that time. All three of those had the same connotation of an insult.
When this government is trying to impose law and jurisdiction over our people, oppressing us in a way that is systematic genocide, obviously there is no justice within that. So, the idea of democracy in the United States is completely preposterous, it’s hypocritical. It didn’t make sense for us as indigenous people who were falling through the cracks and constantly in legal processes. When you think of anarchism, or what it means to be an indigenous person with traditional values, those are almost one and the same.
CLAN MOTHERS – DEMOCRACY IS AN INDIGENOUS PHILOSOPHY
CLAYSON: The concept of true democracy is an indigenous philosophy. A lot of the founding fathers of this nation looked to the Iroquois, the six nations, the Ho-De-No-Sau-Nee, the confederacy that had brought peace for several hundred years in the Great Lakes region. Seneca, Cayuga and Mohawk. All of these different nations created a peace that was basically the formula for what we know of today as democracy with the executive, legislative and judicial branches. The only thing missing from that is the Clan Mothers. There were four parts to the system and the female leadership, mostly the elderly matriarch, was the final checks and balances within that system. That’s something missing from democracy now.
JM: “I was blown away when I first learned that an American anthropologist named Lewis Henry Morgan studied the indigenous tribes on the east coast and wrote a book called “League of The Iroquois” (1851) which described the social-political democracy they’d developed. Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx based some of their ideas on this study of Native American democracy. Interestingly U.S. democracy, Marxism, Socialism and Communism all took ideas from the same source of indigenous democracy.”
THEY HAVE CAMELS –WE HAVE HORSES
JM: One of punk rock’s first bands, The Ramones, got connected to your band, a Native American punk band. Then Blackfire went to Sub-Saharan Africa and got connected to revolutionary musicians in Mali, Africa. How did you connect with the African groups?
Clayson Benally: We connected with an African group called Tinariwen from Mali and that was amazing. We were all at a festival in former East Germany. We connected with their community although they didn’t speak English; they speak mostly Tamasheq and a little bit of French. We connected through music and it turns out they’re also a matriarchal society very much like the Navajo. They have camels, we have horses. They invited us to their festival in the desert. They were like, “We don’t have any money and we can’t pay for your flights. But if you make your way out here, we’ll take care of you.” We decided, “Okay, let’s do this festival in the desert.”
This was in 2001 and Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin) was one of the headliners and we ended up getting on this amazing bill; a once in a lifetime opportunity. We were about 70 kilometers outside of Timbuktu. So, Timbuktu usually refers to being in the middle of nowhere. So we were 70 kilometers from nowhere, in the middle of the Sahara desert in sand dunes. Some people had come 1,500 miles on camel to be at this traditional nomadic gathering. So, we were out there in the desert and getting ready to go on stage. This is a place where people carry swords and AK-47’s. People disappear. It’s pretty remote and isolated and culturally, nobody has heard this music before. We were terrified. They told us, “Well, if they don’t like your music, they’re just going to get up and they might leave. They probably won’t dance. Just expect that they won’t dance either way.”
JENEDA: People told us if they do like your music, they won’t clap, but they will stay. That’s how you’ll know they like your music. If they don’t like it, they’ll leave.
CLAYSON: So, we get on stage as Blackfire and we hit our first few notes to warm up and people all of a sudden start to stand up. In that first song people are standing up and swinging their turbans around! People were there from Mauritania, Algeria, Mali and Morocco. So many people at that festival were young musicians who we later learned we’d inspired. In Timbuktu kids were graffiting and putting “Blackfire” up on their beautiful ancient city walls and we had to sit down with the kids in Timbuktu and be like, “Alright, this is not cool! Do not destroy your city. This is something you have to protect and preserve. This is your history and your people.” It was a kind of funny flip, to have that kind of response.
MUSIC HAS NO BOUNDARIES
JENEDA: People often told us in Mali, Africa that they didn’t know how to dance to our music. They only knew that Blackfire’s music made them move. For me it meant that music has no boundaries. Music is pure emotional expression. Even though they couldn’t understand what we were singing about, they felt what we were singing about. That’s why I feel that the label of punk is so general. People always try to pigeonhole punk and make it into something that’s marketable, but really punk is just being honest. When we were in Mali, Africa at the festival in the desert people really resonated with our music and that punk energy. Tinariwen, in my viewpoint, is very punk. The Ramones are punk. There are so many incredible groups today that are categorized today as world music that I feel are truly punk musicians.
CLAYSON: They formed this relationship with the Navajo nation at a time where there was peace in their desert. Unfortunately, like in our desert, in our reservation where Uranium was exploited, they discovered large amounts of Uranium that they could now actually access because it was hard to develop in the sands that are always shifting. So there is war. A lot of the places and the people that we knew have been destroyed. It’s heartbreaking to see them going through the same struggles as us. But what I’ve seen is that the music that’s coming out of Mali is revolutionary. It’s on the frontline because with the situations they’re enduring music is survival. That’s the only home that these people have in some cases, where people are refugees, who have fled war. For ourselves, as Blackfire, we’re essentially refugees as well because of the coalmining, the forced relocation, so the music became our home.
CLAYSON: As musicians and parents today, part of the way of combatting hopelessness is through the group we have currently – Sihasin. We really want the message we’re putting out there to be empowering. We want people to feel good and strong and healthy. It’s challenging as an indigenous person in America today because we’re at this crossroads where our culture is in danger and we’re losing our elders who have this knowledge. We’re fortunate that we have our Dad who has been there guiding us. He went to boarding school when he was in his twenties, so he had our traditional system and knowledge and was able to transmit that information to the next generation. We have to be careful, because it’s music with a message. We’ve got the new album coming out on Earth Day (April 22, 2018) titled Fight Like A Woman.
FIGHT LIKE A WOMAN
JENEDA: Fight Like a Woman goes back to what any indigenous person or any minority could probably identify with; the fact that we’re always being labeled and told who we are. To fight like a woman is to break those barriers and not be told by somebody else that this is how you should be in order to be the person that we want you to be. It’s about breaking down stereotypes.” To fight like a woman is to fight with your heart. It’s thinking about future generations. When you’re making decisions you’re not making a decision for yourself, you’re making a decision for the seven generations from now. Fight Like A Woman is bringing back that sense of responsibility to one’s community and our environment. It has a lot to do with what’s happening in the world today.
THIS IS A SPIRITUAL BATTLE
CLAYSON: Think of Standing Rock or all of these different hot spots around the world that are the frontline, really. When we were young and going with our Grandmother Roberta Blackgoat to a protest the guidance we received was, “Whatever you do out in this world is a direct reflection of us. If you have to represent your people, be wise about it.” We got from her the concept of direct action or taking a stand. This is a spiritual battle. What we’re up against is for our survival. It’s cultural survival.
UPSIDE DOWN FLAG
JM: what happened when you had an American flag upside down on stage.
CLAYSON: We used to get so much flack for burning the flag and putting flags upside down. We were banned from certain areas.”
JENEDA: We were banned from entire cities. For hanging the flag upside down. We kept telling people, “An upside down flag is a sign of distress. That’s what an upside down flag means.”
CLAYSON: We even had the FBI threaten to pull the plug on us before we even started playing a show in Washington DC at Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. They told us we couldn’t hang a Leonard Peltier banner. We could hold it but we couldn’t fix it to any part of the area.
JENEDA: So, we held the banner while we sang.
CLAYSON: The director of the museum at that time came to us and said, “This has never happened that the FBI has approached us and told us that someone cannot play until a banner is removed. Or they won’t play at all.” You’d think that in Washington DC you would have freedom of speech. But they said, “No. It’s actually a zone that free speech doesn’t apply.”
JENEDA: But it gave us a platform to talk about our constitutional rights and issues like the oppression of our people. When we were Blackfire for quite some time we were followed by the FBI. All over the world. And it became really intense where my phone was tapped and we were getting constant calls from the FBI.
COINTEL IS ALIVE and WELL
CLAYSON: We went to Prague to protest at the WTO (World Trade Organization). We were invited as an NGO to the United Nations at their draft Declaration of Indigenous People’s Rights. We played where Leonard Peltier was being held prisoner and worked closely with the young Black Panther movement. We were reconnecting with all different groups and uniting them and that became quite a threat. You hear about Cointelpro, but to have the FBI question and threaten you and actually want you to play certain concerts so they can try and draw out members in communities that they were looking for. It’s all part of our story and how music and punk rock became a threat. It impacted our family and the disbandment eventually of our group Blackfire. Cointel is alive and well.
MALKIN: I didn’t know you’d encountered the FBI. It sounds like it was a long hassle.
JENADA: It was a very long hassle, being interrogated by the FBI. When you use music for a greater voice sometimes it scares people when that voice gets heard.
CLAYSON: That’s when you know you’re being effective, when you have the FBI calling you up.
John Malkin is a musician and journalist in Santa Cruz, California. His book Spirit of Punk features 150 interviews on punk, spirituality and anarchism and will be published this year. Contact him at email@example.com. Photos of horses by Brent Stirton.