Month: September 2002

An interview with BLACKFIRE, punks from the rez

Klee Benally

I’m very wary of award shows because most of them promote, obviously, competition. That sort of goes against what we’re about as a band, because we try to promote unity, and how to move forward together. The other part of it is that award ceremonies just seem to celebrate celebrities and not the art or the artists. We went last year (to the Native American Music Awards) to try to get a feel for it and check it out.

Jeneda Benally

What’s really great here at the NAMMYs is that people are really supportive of each other. We need to network with each other and help each other out as Native Artists.


Which one of you guys said, “We want to thank the U.S. Government for pissing us off so that we write these songs!”?


The moment is so surreal when you’re up there and all you want to do is thank everybody because it’s really an incredible honor for people to recognize what you do. So, it was like, “We could probably stand up here for days thanking people and keep repeating ourselves.”


Tell us about your recent decision to sign with Canyon Records.


It is really exciting because it’s a new avenue of music for them, and it’s great for us to have some help on the distribution end. It makes life a lot easier.

It’s interesting because I believe it’s the first time Canyon has ever signed a licensing deal with an artist. We’ve created our own record company called Tacoho Records because a lot of our friends in the music industry were being exploited by mainstream corporate record companies. So, we decided to start this because we have a message. It’s from our heart. We didn’t want any manipulation or exploitation of that and it’s been hard, because it’s a constant process. We have to constantly maintain and keep active with our “Momager”, (our Mom, Berta Benally, is our manager) and our father.


It’s like owning your own business.

Clayson Benally

Yes it is.


Canyon Records is the second-oldest independent record company in the US. We somewhat grew up with them, as our father, Jones Benally, was a Canyon recording artist.


So where do you guys go from here?


We just finished a two-month long tour and we are going to back on the road soon. We hit Europe this winter


We’ll be hitting South Africa, too. We’ve travelled throughout the US, North and South, East and West and throughout Europe for the past four years. We’ve done extensive tours.


What about Indian Country?


We’re planning a followup tour to the Canyon release to hit Indian Country.


When we travel it’s almost like guerrilla warfare – it’s guerrilla touring because we’re all independent and we do everything by word of mouth.


It was really a surprise to see that Joey Ramone (of The Ramones) worked with you on this new album “One Nation Under.”


Here we are, young kids. We just liked listening to the Ramones and growing up with their music and singing along with their songs. Then we were sitting in the studio watching the Godfather of Punk, Joey Ramone, sing on our songs. It was a great experience.


It was really an honor because we had listened to the Ramones for so long. When Joey Ramone offered to sing on our album, we couldn’t turn him down – we were so thrilled that he would want to be a part of our music.


How did you get to meet him?


I met him through CJ Ramone – the bass player for the Ramones.


This record was the last project that Joey Ramone recorded before he passed away last year. In the studio with him, he’d have his good days and bad days and we’d often have to reschedule. He was just an incredibly caring and giving individual. It was a real pleasure and special opportunity for us. It was great because he supported so much independent music – he’d always go out in New York and listen to independent bands and also lend his energy and support to other musicians


So he kinda sought you guys out in a way, too.


Yeah, he was just very supportive. I think it was a relationship that was meant to be.


About the current trend in the music scene: What do you think about the current popularity of “being Native” … of people out there doing “Native Music”?


I just remember when I was a kid, always having long hair … there was a time when it wasn’t cool to be Native and there was a lot of racism … there still is a lot of racism.

In Native culture there is no separation of art and life, it’s the same. Creative expression is a part of existence, it’s a beautiful way. It’s natural. You can’t just wake up and decide, “Okay, I’m gonna do `Native Artwork’ or I’m gonna do `Native Music’.” We try to break down stereotypes. We’re somewhat labeled as a Native punk rock band, so people come expecting feathers and Indian chants – which is a part of our culture but it’s only a small part; most people, that’s all they’ve really seen of Native culture. So, how can we be progressive yet traditional in our beliefs and carry that forward into the coming generations? That’s what we try to express with our music. Traditionally, our medicine people are called Haatachlii singers. Traditionally, our stories, our history, are carried out through the old songs. The prayers are incorporated into the songs. What we do with our music is to tell stories and speak of injustices, of political issues for people who don’t have a voice. We bring light to these issues so that there can be a healing for them. That’s how we incorporate the tools that we’ve been handed.

We were pretty well stripped of our traditional language. English has been forced upon us so that’s what language we sing in. We utilize it to the fullest potential way we can.


They’re all just tools. Music and being able to write all of this. They are tools for us to get our ideas across, to communicate with people, to create a platform that will hopefully inspire people to take action. If not globally, or nationally, then locally.


Where did your band start?


It started in our living room. (much laughter) My brothers and I just kinda picked up instruments. Luckily they were all different. (more laughter)


We are all family. Our father’s a traditional singer, a Haatachlii. He works in the Indian Health Service Clinic in Winslow, AZ. He’s a traditional healer working with doctors in a program that’s been very successful. And our mother is a folksinger and songwriter from the Greenwich Village scene in New York. So you have to understand we come from this: part of us has grown up with our father, singing all night at ceremonies, and the other part is our mother: she’s a folk singer/songwriter and music promoter … and we would fall asleep backstage. We’re very inspired through those experiences to express ourselves and our ideas. It happened naturally. Today we still do our traditional dances, we still participate in ceremonies. We travel with our father, the Jones Benally Family Dance Troupe, educating people about our culture. Sometimes even in the same show we’ll do our traditional dances, and then take a break and do our band. The message is the same. For our dances our father talks about unity and knowing who you are, knowing your culture, but also that we’re all related and that we have to respect each other. We talk about the history, the struggles that we face today and the need for healing. That’s connected to the same message we have in our [BLACKFIRE] music. We try to show people there’s no distinction between the two.


There’s no line between traditional and modern for us. It’s who we are. I feel that all my traditional values, everything that I’ve learned, everything about my culture makes up who I am. There’s no modern world, there’s no traditional world, it’s this ONE world. We are forced to live in this modern world but we can still hold on to our traditional ways and our culture because that’s what got us here, that’s what our ancestors thought about. They thought about US, they thought about insuring a future for us, so today, we need to think about this as well to insure a culture for our children’s children, and so on.


…If that answers how we started our band…

Clayson Benally

There is no beginning, there is no ending … (hahaha)


Fortune cookie wisdom…


I got this fortune today … (he takes a tiny piece of crumpled paper out of his shirt pocket)

“The hard times will begin to fade, joy will take their place.” Fortune cookies are very beautiful.


There was this cartoon I saw. This guy was at a Chinese restaurant, with his emptied plate in front of him. He broke open his cookie, he read his fortune and it said “That wasn’t chicken.” (laughs and groans all around)


I had one which said “You will have bad luck until spring.” Fortunately I got at the end of winter…

Fortune cookies are incredible. Chinese immigrants came to this country seeking a better life and found a reality in which they were pressured into assimilation – that we’ve all seen being Native American. These immigrants put their wishes onto these little pieces of paper and they give them to you in a cookie. That’s a beautiful thing. It is an example of how cultures meld and evolve.


It’s important to have an open mind and be respectful. That’s the best way to overcome boundaries and borders.


It’s so important to us to educate people. That’s why we feel so passionately about our music, it’s hopefully educating people and bringing about awareness.


An Interview with Painter/Writer/Teacher Shonto Begay

Shonto Begay: I didn’t grow up here. I grew up two hours northeast of here (Flagstaff) in Shonto, Arizona. It really just consists of a trading post, a chapter house, a hay distributing place and a few churches. I lightheartedly call it the spiritual center because it’s a hot bed of traditional Navajo religion. It’s where the medicine men are still practicing and the language is still spoken without any hesitation. People still engage in everyday business with the concept of “Ke” which means relationship and extended family. It’s aside from beauty and harmony. One who is aware and walks in Ke’ is aware of their identity, their placement in the Native community.

Lise Balk King: Your paintings really moved me.

SB: I don’t paint pretty pictures. I’ll leave that to other people.

TNV: But they’re beautiful!

SB: Well, “pretty” meaning nice palettes, mountains with valley scenes. I’ve really never done that. I have worked directly from my own visions and my own heart – they may sometimes be painful.

TNV: They tell a truth.

SB: It’s a truth from the heart, from the hearth.

TNV: Both the painful side and the beautiful side – it’s all in there together.

SB: And they do work together. It’s the yin and the yang thing. Without darkness there’d be no light. I often refer to my paints as recordings of peripheral visions – those events and characters off to the side that normally don’t make into the grander vision in artists’ work. These are the events and characters that make the grander vision possible. Those things can be much more interesting. The heart and blood, veins and the insides are all exposed. That’s where we all really do meet on the same plain. It’s been referred to as sort of a documentation.

There’s one painting I titled “North of Chinle.” It’s a beautiful landscape painting as seen from the road. It was beautiful but it wasn’t doing anything for me. Then I embellished it with a bit of truth — trash scattered here, blown there, cans and bottles, diapers. And it became a very powerful image. It only needed a little dose of truth. Not disrespecting the landscape, but revealing the truth beyond the “happy little Pleasantville” appearance. My journey is about reinforcing the truth and dispelling the myths which unfortunately pervades ‘the Indian life.’

TNV: You asked me to call you early in the morning. It’s Sunday and early for me. The kids are still sleeping.

SB: I get up before the sun, when the eastern sky is just raked with pale light. That’s the holiest time of the day. We live right here within direct vision of Sacred Mountain of the west and San Francisco peaks in Flagstaff. Every morning I get up very early and place my pollen offering. I do this for the morning, for the day, for the Earth, and all the relatives and kindred that populate.

Now more than ever, living here in a border town is like living constantly in a schizophrenic existence. I just got married again this summer. It’s been wonderful getting closer with everyone in my life. Everything’s fine, and then back on the Rez it sometimes just lurks into the darkness. A brother is now facing jail time. In a drunken stupor, which he does not remember, he killed his wife. That happened over a month ago and I can’t make sense of it. And then it comes to you that you could’ve been in the same predicament in any of those parties that got out hand plenty of times. There was always opportunity for that to happen in my own life. Just alcohol and anger and all sorts of emotions that can’t be, shouldn’t be, mixed.

I just spend all my time trying to help my nephews, younger people. A lot of them are living out there, exposed to this life. The funeral and the arraignment were on the same day. I feel vulnerable, and at the same time I have to acknowledge my own strength. I guess it would make you realize the blessings that you have. Lightning possible in the midst of darkness.

TNV: It’s so intense. It’s like the lightest and the darkest is together. It’s so hard sometimes.

SB: It seems like there is no middle ground. Sometimes I look in the Navajo Times to see the police report and I read all this stuff about stabbing and bludgeoning and DUIs, and you might feel like, “Wow, this is a scary place.”

When you’re out on the reservation you don’t feel that — you feel loved and safe and warm. So when things do happen like this, it just paralyzes the whole community. Everybody is feeling shock. My community, which has never heard of anything like this, we’re trying to deal with it, collectively and individually.

My journey over the past ten years has been about trying to get the kids to nurture their own visions, pride, and sense of accomplishment. I try to instill in them that they have to be their own heroes, especially when it comes to individual pursuits. Being an artist is very much an individual event. I don’t really have any heroes. The various painters and artists throughout history do blaze trails for us, but I think each one of us today is in charge of his or her own choices – in art as in life. A lot of us end up mimicking, without finding our own true voice and our own true visions.

TNV: That’s not even real art. Real art is when you’re telling your own truth.

SB: I try to just be as honest in my visions and my words when I’m writing. It’s part of the healing path. I spend a lot of my time on the reservation visiting with kids, trying to tell them I wasn’t given anything special when I came out of the cradleboard. I’m not different from any one of them. It’s just choices, and difficult choices sometimes, difficult situations.

Sometimes paying my dues, walking that precarious ledge, losing many brothers to alcohol and anger, suicide or depression. Somehow I survived. Of the thirteen kids I grew up close by with, only three of us are alive today.

TNV: It seems that the women suffer on the side and the men end up dead.

SB: Exactly. I have three daughters and one son, so I am very much aware of that. And, Navajos being a matriarchal society, we try to maintain that the grandmother and the aunt are very much the voice of the family. I try to help and instill pride and that sense of identity needed in this world of quick changes and fast everything. We try to maintain a sense of where we belong.

TNV: But you can choose to slow down.

SB: Exactly. Touching the earth, getting dirt under your fingernails. Being blessed by the scent of the sage. Taking the time to honor the ancestors. Not running through life. A lot of times I get caught up in this whirlwind myself.

I try to help by working with youth on the reservation and in inner city schools. I feel so much more in common with those kids because I was one of them. I had no attention span, I was a knucklehead, a troublemaker. My teachers gave up on me in high school. I was spiraling downhill.

Nowadays I look at it — somehow I stayed alive.

TNV: What changed for you?

SB: A series of things. Just knowing where I came from, remembering who I was in spite of the alcohol and everything that was coming down somehow kept me afloat. I knew where I was, who I was, what clan I belonged to, where my umbilical cord was buried.

I got out of high school and went to the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, taking up space for two years. But just being in that very creative community made me step back and realize that there was something out there. I started picking up a brush and paint, applying it to a surface, and I started manipulating my own visions, creating my own beauty. Out of it came some sense of worth.

This whole idea changed my downhill spiral, put a brake on that. I held a series of jobs and spent time as a National Park Service ranger up in the Grand Tetons. I went to the Indian art museum there — they had a lot of Plains art and artifacts. It was a blessing to be among the grandfathers’ presence. It was there, strongly. I somehow found myself in the right place when I really needed it. A lot of that I credit to helping out medicine men, helping in the ceremonies and really being grounded in that holiness, never having corn pollen too far from reach. Then it became about just trying to deliver a compassionate life. I think when we’re finished talking here I’m going to pack up my truck and head up to the rez.

TNV: It’s hard sometimes; that deep well of feelings is hard to go to because you just never know what’s going to be there when you go home.

SB: Exactly. You might encounter inebriated disorganization or you might be met with a beautiful pollen trail. It’s hard to tell because the homeland is so holy.

TNV: To everyone, for everyone, whatever the nation, wherever the homeland is, everyone has to find that place within themselves.

SB: That’s how it’s been for me. Exactly.

TahNibaa Naataanii (Navajo) finds Her Center, and Her Happiness, in Traditional Weavings: It’s a way of tradition and art, woven together to make happiness – both for herself and for the people who come to own woven pieces of her life

So many people wandering through brightly colored stalls of paintings and shapes in stone and bronze, silver and wool. The heat made the sunshine seem brighter still as we drifted through the Santa Fe Indian Market on Sunday, the last day, accepting that we would not be able to say we’d seen it all and found ourselves hoping that we’d at least been pulled in the right directions to see some of the best work that Native America had to offer.

Frank tugged on my arm to say, “Hey, look at that!” He started walking in a line toward a life-sized human form draped with a strong-looking textile, a traditional red and white and black Navajo shoulder blanket, silent and floor length and proud. Almost in slow motion, the artist in the booth turned to look at us, and at once I recognized an old friend, TahNibaa Naataanii. We laughed at the chance meeting and the years past, and the way an old friend instantly takes you back to where you once were together in that other time and place.

It was over 10 years ago in Los Angeles. I was working in entertainment media and she had just gotten out of the Navy. TahNibaa was the kind of friend who made bold statements about what she was going to do with her life, and you believed her. She’s always seemed to have the power to see the possible and make it happen, so I was not surprised to find her in the middle of Indian Market with spectacular weavings, a blue ribbon, a SWAIA Fellowship, and a story on the front page of the Santa Fe newspaper titled simply “The Weaver.”

SWAIA is the Southwest Indian Association of Indian Arts — the organization that hosts the Santa Fe Indian Market. They award only a few of the prestigious fellowships each year, and TahNibaa had never shown her weavings at Market before.

She applied for, and got, the award this year and is thus featured in Southwest Indian Arts Magazine’s “Market Special Edition”, in an article highlighting the grant winners (p. 202).

TahNibaa, at 35, is more than a weaver. She raises the sheep, shears the wool, hunts the plants for dyes, spins the wool and then weaves her art. Her life has become about her weaving and the rhythm of the work that takes her through each day, and each season. It’s a way of tradition and art, woven together to make happiness — both for herself and for the people who come to own the woven pieces of her life.

LBK: Would you consider telling us a little bit about your story? It seems to me you’ve always been very strong in your mind in who you are and what you want to do. What would you like to talk about?

TaaNibaa Naataanii: I think the most important thing that’s so alive in my life right now is my weaving. My mother (Sarah Natani) taught me how to weave when I was a child. Throughout my junior high school and high school years I would weave during the summer time. I did this because I had to pay for my school clothes. At the end of each summer I would sell my weaving to buy what I needed. So it was like a job at first. But weaving turned into a passionate job that I enjoyed as creative spirit started blossoming, developing. Then it was fun. I no longer looked at it as a chore, it became fun creating weavings and then selling them. When I graduated from high school and went into the military my weaving stopped for about 5 years.

LBK: What made you decide to go into the military?

TN: I wanted to travel. I’ve always wanted to travel to different parts of the United States. I never really thought about traveling to another country. But in the Navy, instead of traveling around the US, I traveled around the world.

LBK: How was that?

TN: I never forgot that I was a weaver. It was dormant sometimes in me, but when I was in the Philippines, in Thailand, in an indigenous neighborhood culture — you know, where the people are still like some of the people living way in the heart of the rez without running water, and are very traditional — I would see their weavings, like weavings of grass mats. I had an affinity to that, a connection. I would say “Hey, I’m a weaver too!” So, my weaving was still alive within me, I connected that way while I was away.

Then while I was in California I had my mother send me my weaving tools and supplies. I longed for it. There was a connection there. So I set up my loom. I had a tiny apartment. Just the tapping, tapping of the weft (the strings that go across horizontal) was so soothing to me, it’s like a song that just nurtured me.

I didn’t know what was going on. I think my weaving was talking to me, I was becoming a woman. When I joined the military I was still a teenager. When I got into my 20’s I was trying to figure out who I was, so I think my weaving was talking to me. That’s how weaving got back into my life.

I moved back out here in the early 90s, to the Four Corners area. I tried to do weaving again. But I just couldn’t quite grasp something about it — the message. There are lots of weavers out here, it’s hard, because you don’t get much money for your weavings when you sell it to the trading post. I knew that I needed to create something that was different, something special. I couldn’t quite clarify it.

So I decided to go to school in the Santa Fe area about 5 years ago and I got my bachelors degree in Environmental Management. It wasn’t until then I suddenly got the message to create what I wanted, with no rules to my weaving. As artists, we sometimes tend to have this thought that everything needs to be symmetrical, with matching colors. We always think we have to stay within the bounds of our circle.

When I left home, I went beyond the outside lines and created what I wanted. That’s how I came up with the collage design. Then I started thinking about the weavings that my people survived on — and those were the women’s two-piece rug-dress, and even some of the men during our ceremonial dances wear kilts and shoulder blankets. So my interests started developing towards the utilitarian pieces.

LBK: The wearing blankets?

TN: Yes, I started concentrating on that because we don’t see that nowadays.

LBK: It’s more the tourist art.

TN: Yeah. It’s more the tourist art with the famous “Two Gray Hills,” the “Yea Be Chei” design. You don’t see the blankets that are made for the common people. That is why we’re here today! The Dine people, we survived on those weavings. It’s not just a novelty romantic craft art. It’s more than that, it’s very spiritual. The whole loom, the whole weaving is very symbolic of our beliefs. The four corners of the Navajo loom represent our four sacred mountains. The warp (the strings that go up and down) represent rain. The tension cord (the zigzag) represents lightning. There are weaving songs. Each one of our tools has songs for them. Everything about the loom and the materials are significant.

I didn’t know that when I was teenager. All these years, when I used to weave in the summertime and then in California, I didn’t realize that I was getting those blessings from the weavings. That’s how come I was able to come back to it.

I’m not just a weaver. I take care of our sheep. We’re practicing the old traditional graze management. There’s a summer home and a fall home and the main winter home. In the late spring they need to be sheared. So I shear the sheep and wash the wool, card the wool and spin the wool. Sometimes I use the natural wool colors, and sometimes I dye the wool. So it’s an ongoing process.

There are some plants that are out right now. Yesterday at about this time (mid evening) we were out picking up ground lichen because I’m going to do some dying this week. It’s a way of life for me now.

My mom has given the responsibility of the sheep to me. I miss my job working for the State environmental department. I’m happy that I’m helping our weavings to continue. My weavings are unusual — they are both traditional and contemporary. I like to inspire young people to show them weaving is not just “grandmother’s art.” When they see me, that I’m the weaver they say, “Wow, you1re the weaver? In my family just my grandmother’s the weaver. `I try to show them that they are artists themselves, that they are weavers themselves. And I feel good about that.

LBK: So you’ve been supported then in doing the traditional weaving but also in expressing yourself through your weaving? Has anyone given you a hard time about that?

TN: In the beginning, but not direct criticism. Other weavers would say things like, “Umm, I don’t know that I would make something like this…” But it’s art and it’s our creative self.

LBK: That’s what art is supposed to be. In it’s true sense it’s not really a tourism trinket. If true art is about telling the truth, then it’s about expressing who you are, and who you are is your tradition — your past, your present, your future, your uniqueness — and also your collective identity all in one place.

TN: Right, it’s all bundled up. The weaving continues for me. I can get snowballs of criticism, but it doesn’t matter any more.

LBK: That’s good.

TN: I just keep going.

LBK: That confidence is very important. Not caring what people think.

TN: So now my weaving now has the focus of learning about old techniques that weavers used to use to weave. I think weaving for our ancestors was a challenge for them. I feel like I’m just in a very early introduction to weaving. It’s so fun to go out and hunt for plants and collect plant dyes and experiment with the colors.

LBK: We ran a story on how some medicine people down in the southwest were saying that the drought had affected their ability to have some ceremonies because there were some plants that were simply not growing. Did it affect you guys too with the weaving, being able to find some plants?

TN: Definitely. There is a plant that I usually get in mid-June. I got some of those plants last year, but this year, none. But it’s okay, the way I look at it. Our lifetime on this earth is just a small segment. I think we are just witnessing how the earth is renewing itself.

Even like we had a lot of fires this summer. I never in my life had experienced being scared like that. Very strong smell of smoke out here … I told my fiancee that I felt just so helpless out here and sad. I was sensitive to the smoke and was thinking that if I was having a hard time, what about the plants out there and the animals? What he told me was very interesting. He said, “This smoke that we’re smelling now is not chemical smoke, it’s everything combined — the mountain tobacco that we pick and other things. You shouldn’t get so concerned; it’s our medicines, and we1re getting smudged with it.” We don’t know what is going on, we’ve only inhabited the earth for a short time.

I love my weaving, it’s like I’m a born again weaver. It’s come back to me in a very special way, it’s purposeful. My mother is happy because she sees my love for the work. Not only the weaving, but also the caring for the animals, working with the fibers. I’m happy in that way. It’s not just a cash thing — “gotta go to Indian market to sell” — I’m in partnership with my weaving.

LBK: How do you feel about other people owning your work? How does that translate for you?

TN: I like it because the work I put into it is like a blessing. It’s part of my life. The work that I did with a lot of those weavings was in a good way. I look at it for the people who buy it like, it helps them. They look at the weaving it makes them feel good, it keeps them warm. They write back to me and tell me how much joy they have about the weavings.

There’s something different about each weaving. Like the shoulder blanket I had in Santa Fe. I think about that weaving because I think that the hummingbirds helped me finish that weaving. Throughout the whole summer that I was working on that piece the hummingbirds were there — in the morning, and throughout the day and into the evening. I would think, “Oh, you guys are here to help me.”

So, not only what I can contribute, but what comes to the weaving. The people who bought that weaving, they get the blessings of what the hummingbirds brought that day. So it makes me feel good that they enjoy the work.

Foot note: I thank TahNibaa for sharing her life and for reminding me that the easy friendship we had found years ago was is still a part of us. I feel great respect and warmth for my beautiful Dine friend.