Bringing Music And A Message Of Hope To Native American Youth

May 31, 2015
Originally published on May 31, 2015 5:20 pm

Native American youth living on reservations can often face an overwhelming array of challenges, including poverty, addiction and abuse. Partly because of hurdles, high school dropout rates and suicides are far higher on reservations than the national average.

At a time when native teens are desperate for guidance, siblings from one Navajo family are mentoring them, helping them find their own way in traditional culture, contemporary music and — eventually — careers on and off the reservation.

Clayson, Jeneda and Klee Benally grew up on Black Mesa in northern Arizona, a place at the center of a land dispute between a coal mining company and the Navajo and Hopi tribes. The children of a traditional healer, they grew up protesting the coal mine and couldn't ignore what they saw as oppression and abuse of power. So they formed a punk rock group in the early '90s called Blackfire.

"There was a lot of anger," Clayson recalls. Starting the band and performing was a way of "channeling that anger and frustration and putting it into something positive, as well."

Now, about two decades later, Klee Benally has become an activist, and Jeneda and Clayson have formed a new band called Sihasin, which means "hope" in the Navajo language.

"With Sihasin, everything is kind of reversed, the energy," says Clayson. Unlike Blackfire's aim, he says, the goal with Sihasin is to "make people dance. Let's make people move and feel good, you know — 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 says. "I see the world as a different place. And I recognize that we have every possibility to make positive change."

She and Clayson are bringing that hopeful message to schools all over Indian Country, where they teach Native American youth how to write their own songs. Jeneda says that she's helped teens in times of desperation find the right words in a song.

"Music is powerful," she says. "Music can absolutely save lives."

At Leupp High School, on the western edge of the Navajo reservation and about 45 miles northeast of Flagstaff, Ariz., only 9 of 19 seniors are graduating this year. The class asked the Benallys to speak and perform at graduation.

"You carry our hope, you carry our future within you," Jeneda told them during the speech. "I don't want you to feel burdened by that. I want you to feel empowered by that."

Crystal Puhuyesva, 19, heard the message. "I wish I had gotten this speech a long time ago," she says. She'd 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 have inspired her to graduate and achieve her goals.

"With all their encouragement, their words, it just — it woke me up," says Puhuyesva. "I do want to pursue my dream of becoming a nurse."

The message that motivated her is essentially this: 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, Jones Benally, singing a traditional Navajo song — with an electric bass and modern drumbeat. Clayson says native people must take from what surrounds them in this contemporary world and join it with the past.

"For us to find a positive solution and to understand our own identity," he says, "it's this synthesis that has to occur."

Copyright 2015 KJZZ-FM. To see more, visit http://kjzz.org/.

Transcript

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, HOST:

Native American high school dropout rates and youth suicide statistics are twice the national average. Native teens are desperate for an outlet. Laurel Morales of member station KJZZ brings us the story of one family who helped Native youth to find their own voice in traditional culture and in contemporary music.

LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OVERWHELMING")

BLACK FIRE: (Singing) She said it's over - overwhelming. We're past the breaking point - the breaking point again.

CLAYSON BENALLY: There is a lot of anger, you know - channeling that anger and frustration and putting it into something positive, as well.

MORALES: 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.

C. BENALLY: And with Sihasin, everything is kind of reversed - the energy, you know. Let's make people dance. Let's make people move and feel good. You know, not just...

JENEDA BENALLY: Rip some stuff up.

C. BENALLY: Yeah, smash stuff.

(LAUGHTER)

MORALES: Parenthood made Jeneda stop and think about the message she wanted to send her kids.

J. BENALLY: I want my children to have hope. I see the world as a different place, and I recognize that we have every possibility to make positive change.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOPE")

SIHASIN: (Singing) But they can't take away my hope - can't take away my hope - my hope.

MORALES: Now Clayson and Jeneda go into schools all over Indian country to teach Native youth how to write their own songs. Jeneda says on more than one occasion, she's helped a teen in a time of desperation find the right words in a song.

J. BENALLY: Music is powerful. Music can absolutely save lives.

MORALES: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRADUATION SPEECH)

J. BENALLY: You carry our hope. You carry our future within you. And that - I don't want you to feel burdened by that. I want you to feel empowered by that.

CRYSTAL PUHUYESVA: I wish I had gotten this speech a long time ago.

MORALES: Crystal Puhuyesva 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.

PUHUYESVA: With all their encouragement, their words, it just - it woke me up. I do want to pursue my dream in becoming a nurse.

MORALES: The message that changed her is essentially this. As Navajo and Hopi, you have a strong need of foundation and culture. Embrace it, and 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 drum beat.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE A STAND")

SIHASIN: (Singing in Navajo).

C. BENALLY: For us to find a positive solution and to understand our own identity, it's the synthesis that has to occur.

MORALES: Clayson says Native people have to take from what is surrounding them in this contemporary world, but join it with the past.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE A STAND")

SIHASIN: (Singing in Navajo).

MORALES: For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE A STAND")

SIHASIN: (Singing in Navajo). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.