“For us, music is a strategic tool to communicate social injustices that we face,” Klee Benally, the vocalist and guitar player for the punk-rock band Blackfire, said.
Blackfire, whose members are Klee, his brother Clayson and his sister Jeneda, played their first show in 1989. Since then, they've released two CDs and toured Europe, America and Canada – all while staying intensely politically involved in issues close to their hearts.
Klee says their band approaches songwriting by envisioning how they'd like to see the world.
“It's about unmasking the silences about key issues,” he said.
This tying together of their music and activism is what makes Blackfire stand out, particularly with their fans in Europe. Though Blackfire doesn't elicit much recognition within their own country, they are very well known abroad. The band's European tours are especially successful. Perhaps it's the musically driven activism that appeals to European audiences, or the strong cultural ties that the Benally siblings and their family maintain.
Coming from a Navajo family, growing up on the reservation, the Benally's were more politically aware than most as they experienced repression firsthand.
“It was obvious, even as children, that there were injustices not being confronted, and we felt a responsibility to bring a voice to these social issues,” said Jeneda.
One of the chief injustices that the Benally's battle today is the expansion, including projected artificial snowmaking, of the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort on the San Francisco Peaks in Flagstaff, Arizona. The Benally siblings – along with members of 13 other indigenous tribes – hold the mountain sacred.
In 1979, Arizona Snowbowl proposed the addition of artificial snow created from reclaimed refuse water. The plan created an uproar among Native American communities, as well as with many other local citizens. Three decades later, the plan is being executed despite lawsuits filed by both the Hopi and Navajo tribes. The tribes argue that under freedom of religion, the mountain is a holy place and shouldn't be contaminated with reclaimed water.
“People used to think DDT and asbestos and lead weren't harmful either,” Jeneda, the bass player, said in response to Forest Service claims that the reclaimed water isn't harmful. “There are studies that show that the water could alter the makeup of the plant life.”
“The mountain is sacred to us,” drummer Clayson said. “It's used by the Navajo tribe for herbs and medicinal plants. It's also used ceremonially. We do utilize it in almost daily practice.”
Despite the 13 Native tribes' argument that freedom of religion should protect this sacred mountain, both lawsuits that were filed failed to achieve the outcome that the tribes had wished for. The Supreme Court denied the final appeal in 2009. Unhappy with this verdict, Blackfire's members have not given up hope. Jeneda and Clayson, in conjunction with seven others, have filed another lawsuit, this time based on the damage the wastewater could have on the ecosystem of the San Francisco Peaks.
Dr. Catherine Propper, a professor of biological sciences at Northern Arizona University, has done studies on Flagstaff's wastewater and determined that trace amounts of contaminants are present. Propper has tested the water on fish and has discovered that their endocrine systems were adversely affected.
“I want to know why the scientific community is being ignored,” said Clayson.
Klee laments that, in addition to ignoring Propper's findings, the Forest Service doesn't listen to the voice of the people.
“They only held one public meeting at the very beginning of when this whole issue started,” he said, “and at that point, their plan was already complete. They weren't going to listen to anything we had to say.”
The Benally family is well versed on the Peaks situation. They have taken the time to get familiar with the opposing side's arguments and are able to rebut them. One of the most common arguments in favor of expanding Snowbowl to include artificial snow is that it will increase the ski season and bring more tourist revenue to Flagstaff.
“Because Snowbowl is outside city limits, the money they make off tourism doesn't come directly to the community of Flagstaff,” said Clayson. “Also, snowmaking will be expensive for the ski resort, which will drive up the cost of admittance, ultimately affecting tourism even more.”
Klee added: “The Forest Service also needs to take into account the energy it's going to take to pump 150 million gallons up the hill. Those carbon emissions are going to be staggeringly large.”
“Extending the season is just going to cater to the season-pass holders who already paid their money when the mountain first opened,” said Clayson. “It really isn't a better business option.”
On Thursday, June 16, there was a rally in Flagstaff for the protection of the San Francisco Peaks. The Benally's were not able to attend, as their lawyer was filing briefs for their lawsuit against the reclaimed water expansion with the Ninth Circuit Court on the same day.
In addition to their battle against the further development of the reclaimed water pipeline on the Peaks, the Benally siblings make sure to stay involved in their community. They take part in the operation of Outta Your Backpack Media and the Taala Hooghan infoshop, which are dedicated to providing indigenous youth with workshops and creative outlets.
“We focus on being substance free, and instead of finding a means to escape the problems they face, we help them find skills to confront what's happening in their lives,” said Jeneda. “Our youth need to be empowered.”
“We try to help them understand their cultural values and how to make better choices in life,” Klee said.
These cultural values remain very important to the Benally's. Their father still lives on the Navajo nation as a medicine man and has helped influenced their music by teaching them traditional Navajo warrior songs.
“But not warrior in terms of invading and killing people, but warrior meaning defender of land, people and culture,” Klee said. “We use those songs as backgrounds to the contemporary songs we write as a way to maintain our cultural identity.”
Klee has also recently been addressing uranium mining in the Grand Canyon.
“The southwest has been plagued with mining. On the Navajo nation, there are 22 wells completely contaminated due to the mining process. Now we have mines being opened right next to sites that are sacred in the Canyon,” Klee said with a disappointed shake of his head. “The struggle just to be alive is a very real struggle that indigenous people face every day. Where there is an environmental crisis, there is a cultural crisis for us.”
Clayson thinks that the cultural struggles that the Native American people experience are closely linked with racism and intolerance in this country.
“It's infuriating that people don't think racism still exists,” he said, “while America is busy building a wall and illegalizing a large percentage of humans.”
Clayson has personally felt this racism in Flagstaff, when he was refused service at a popular downtown restaurant.
“One of my ultimate goals is to educate people that diversity is something beautiful and should be celebrated,” Clayson said passionately.
Blackfire has a lot on its plate between their Save the Peaks campaign against the ski resort's snowmaking plan, dealing with the Grand Canyon uranium mining and staying active with the indigenous youth of Flagstaff. But not only are the three Benally siblings staying politically active, they are planning a late July tour of the East Coast and Canada, as well as trying to put together an album with acoustic renditions of their songs.
“We're even building our touring schedule around the court dates for the Save the Peaks litigation. It's hard to focus on just one thing – there's so much going on,” Klee said.
His sister agreed, saying, “It's important that we not be complacent when we see an injustice happening, and I also encourage the community to speak out and be a voice for change.”
Blackfire's most recent music video for their song, “Overwhelming,” from their album “[Silence] is a Weapon.”
For more information on Blackfire and the Benally family, visit Blackfire.net.