Early on December 31, 2023, the Diné land defender, organizer, author, and musician Klee Benally passed away at the age of 48. In his memory, we present an interview that we conducted in 2009 with Klee and his siblings in the punk band Blackfire. At that time, they had already been making music together for twenty years.
A dedicated and demanding proponent of Indigenous liberation, Klee fought on a wide range of fronts, emphasizing the importance of both concrete and spiritual forms of resistance and critically exploring the possibility of an Indigenous anarchy.
As the eulogy published by Anarchist Agency recounts,
Klee was living in Flagstaff, Arizona at the time of his passing. He was born October 11, 1975 in Black Mesa and worked nearly all his life at the front lines of struggles to protect Indigenous sacred lands. Klee was a driven organizer with projects such as Indigenous Action Media, Kinlani Mutual Aid, and Indigenous Mutual Aid. He also helped establish Táala Hooghan Infoshop, Protect the Peaks, and Outta Your Backpack Media, and volunteered with Haul No.
Haul No is a campaign against Uranium mining in the Grand Canyon. Land defense struggles were especially important to Klee.
In addition to all this, Klee was a filmmaker and musician. You can view many of Klee’s films here. In addition to his decades in Blackfire, Klee also played in the band Appropriation and recorded various solo projects.
For a glimpse into Klee’s thinking, you could read the interview that Aragorn! conducted with him. It has only been a couple years now since Klee spoke at Aragorn!’s memorial service. It is a grievous tragedy that we have lost two Indigenous anarchists in such a short time, and both of them so young.
Please donate to Klee’s family, the Táala Hooghan infoshop, or Haul No! to honor his memory. You can do so here.
Detritus Books has published a book of Klee’s work, entitled No Spiritual Surrender: Indigenous Anarchy in Defense of the Sacred. The first printing has already sold out, but a second printing is in the works. Klee had also just designed and published the game Burn the Fort, receiving the copies in late December 2023.
We locate ourselves in the springs where our ancestor’s footprints have worn a path like an umbilical cord. We know the land and the land knows us. Where and who we are mean the same thing. This is an understanding that is cultivated through generations upon generations of mutuality. This is where our thinking comes from. It is a place where no government exists. Indigenous liberation is the realization of our autonomy and mutuality with all life and the Earth, free from domination, coercion, and exploitation. This is also an anarchist assertion, so we locate a connection.
-Klee Benally, Unknowable: Against an Indigenous Anarchist Theory
This interview originally appeared in issue number 7 of Rolling Thunder, in spring 2009.
Who is Blackfire? When and how did you start?
Jeneda: Blackfire is a family. We didn’t start playing music with the intention of starting a band. My brothers and I always played together when we were young; it didn’t matter if we were making movies or organizing the neighborhood kids into a ninja camp. We are close in age, so we always did everything together. While growing up, we all gravitated towards different instruments, luckily! Otherwise, who knows—we might have all been kazoo players.
Where are you from?
Jeneda: We are originally from Black Mesa, Arizona on the Dine’ (Navajo) Reservation. Many people have heard about the ongoing land and cultural survival struggles that our relatives are still facing. We grew up protesting a nearby coal mine called Peabody Coal that was depleting our precious aquifer. The coal slurry line also dried up the sole source of water in our high desert homeland.
Klee: Peabody Coal Company has been strip mining a large part of Black Mesa for decades. Our family has been directly impacted by “United $tates” policies of forced relocation that result from efforts to further exploit the resources beneath the land there. Many people have heard of the struggle at Big Mountain, which really is a larger area from which more than 14,000 of our people have been forcibly relocated and where some are still resisting. When we first started our band in 1989, our songs were about this issue. Our name, Blackfire, comes from the burning of the coal from Black Mesa; it also comes from one of our warrior society’s smoke signals, meaning “the enemy is near.”
You also perform as the Jones Benally Family; can you explain that as well?
Jeneda: We are the Jones Benally Family. Our father, Jones Benally, has traveled throughout the world many times to educate people about our Dine’ (Navajo) culture. My brothers and I have been educating people since we were still in diapers. Many of the dances that we perform have been carried on since the beginning of time. Some of the dances we share are parts of ceremonies that are allowed to be seen by the public. We feel that it is important to educate people about our ancient living culture. We are not going to share everything, but we do want to educate people so we can build understanding and respect among different cultures and communities.
I’ve heard you describe yourselves as an independent band. Why is this important?
Klee: We don’t answer to anyone but ourselves when it comes to the music we make. We book our own tours, design our own albums and website, produce our own videos, print our own shirts. When we can’t do it all or don’t have the time, we work with folks we know. This enables us, as artists, to express ourselves in the ways we want. This is in contrast to mainstream music production where bands become businesses that are controlled by large or small corporations. It’s no secret that the record industry is based on the exploitation of artists and listeners; that’s why we, like so many other groups out there, are trying something different. Some bands say, “We’re signing to a label to reach a wider audience with our political message.” I’ve yet to see that be effective on any tangible basis towards the social transformation that our communities really need. We’re not building community that way, we’re just building our own capabilities on the terms of an industry that’s still based on exploitation.
What are some of your motivations and goals as a band?
Clayson: Blackfire has always been a tool to address the issues that face our communities. When we started, our message was directed at our peers on the Navajo reservation. We could see the impact of assimilation—the degradation of our culture, the hopelessness that remains when all has been taken from you. By addressing the root causes of the symptoms that afflict us, we see our music as an element of the healing process. It’s not so much a goal, but a need! This is what keeps us moving forward.
Politically, how do you define yourselves as a band and as individuals?
Klee: I think each of us has our own self-identification. You could say as a band we are Dine’ traditionalists seeking balance in the contradictions of our times. We believe in the natural law and we are struggling to maintain our cultural identities in this modern world. In this way, politics define us. We actively stand against the destruction of Mother Earth, racism, sexism and sexist oppression, homophobia, ageism, and fascism. We’re into whatever is effective towards those goals; sometimes we’ll urge people to vote and support a Democratic candidate for Congress, other times we will be organizing or demonstrating and rejecting any perceived authority established by the so-called United $tates. Current political labels don’t encompass our traditionalist views—some may say we act more like anarchists.
Clayson: Dine’ translates to “the people.” This is who I am and how I relate to the world. Many people have lost their identity, and thus they have no cultural foundation from which to relate to the rest of the world and its indigenous inhabitants. Only seeing differences in a fear-based society can lead to the dangers of intolerance.
How have your family and larger community shaped your politics and worldview?
Klee: When you grow up seeing your family members face forced relocation, arrests, constant racism, health effects from uranium mining, and so on, you don’t have many options. We were practically raised at meetings and protests, but we were also raised traditionally. Our father is a traditional medicine practitioner, so we’ve grown up with that as our foundation as well. Hozho’, or the Beauty Way, is the basis of our identity as Dine’. This would take too much time to explain, but ultimately it establishes your relation to all life and Mother Earth.
Do you believe punk music and the punk subculture can be a force for change?
Klee: The reason we got into punk-style music was because of the high energy and social-political expression. From bands like Dead Kennedys to Subhumans there was a unique aggressive quality of resistance to the same dominant culture that we are in conflict with. So in certain respects punk music has changed us and many young people on our reservation. But just because bands are punk, or a person is punk, doesn’t mean they have a social-political agenda. I do think, though, that individuals find political affinity through punk music more than any other style today. It also depends on what kind of change we’re talking about here. If it’s some kid from the suburbs who gets connected to a conscious band, and that leads to her getting involved in community organizing, that’s a force of social change, but it’s limited. This is because the US punk subculture is limited to scenes and is patently white and middle class. You can see how organizing efforts reflect the ways that folks compartmentalize themselves in these scenes—but I’ve also seen strong squatter punk groups that effectively organize against fascists and build bridges to other groups in their community.
What roles have you seen punk music and subculture play in social movements in the US over the last ten years?
Clayson: Joey Ramone, the godfather of punk, once told me that the Sex Pistols cast a negative image on the ideals of punk. He felt that the energy of punk was something that everyone could relate to and that it was a liberating process in the evolution of music. I’ve seen punk in its purest form when it’s confronting oppressive systems in communities throughout the world. But here in the states punk has been devalued to nothing more than another way to sell a product.
Klee: The inevitable commercialization of punk has come and gone and come and gone again, but the anarcho-punk scene seems to have really defined itself as more actively oriented. As far as their role in social movements, I can only speak to my experience as an Indigenous organizer, and their role has yet to be seen. We see a lot of attention given to direct action and anti-globalization actions but not really to our Indigenous struggles. While we’re organizing our communities to protect the environment and our cultural survival, we don’t see much support unless there’s some “exciting” action element. I feel that the way some folks celebrate and promote the “exciting” actions undermines the constant hard work that needs to happen to sustain movements to build healthy communities. It’s the same anywhere; lots of people show up for the party, and a few are left doing all the work. Sure we need to celebrate, but we need to sustain as well.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, did you address the elections when you performed? What are your thoughts on the 2008 election in general, and specifically what do you think about the election of Barack Obama?
Klee: We organized in the Dine’ (Navajo) Nation a lot around the 2004 elections. We did two outreach tours, one for registering people to vote and one to remind people to get to the polls. We also did a short documentary on our reservation addressing voter apathy. We were trying to communicate that when we are being negatively impacted by political decisions, we have an imperative to find out how we can affect those decisions. We didn’t really do any outreach for this election, I think mainly because we were touring Europe and wanted to put more energy and resources into organizing around issues in our community.
Sure, voting is validating the system that is oppressing us, but until someone can step forward and offer another tool to give some relief from the energy policies that target our lands, I’m going to do pretty much whatever I can. The 2008 elections were an absurd political circus that displayed how ignorant the mainstream media is about racial and gender issues, and the most costly exercise of social control parading as democracy in US history. For that reason, I chose to abstain from voting in this election.
Obama is another political tool of a nation where racism is systemic. Of course it is historic to have a Black man sit in an office that was designed and reserved for rich white men. If Obama getting into office will be a means to deconstructing white privilege, than I’m all for it, but I don’t think that’s going to be the case—he may just be a tool to validate it. While I think the image of a Black man in the White House could demonstrate the transformation this country needs, it’s hard to say that it’s as meaningful as it could be in relation to matters of abolishing white privilege. The power structure that is screwing us over will now have a black face instead of a white one; it complicates matters a bit but doesn’t change the situation.
Describe the social movements you’ve observed in the course of your travels.
Klee: Everywhere we go we connect with inspiring individuals or communities that are taking action. In Mali, Africa our friends in the Tuareg band Tinariwen started their group within a rebellion. We went to their land twice and saw how the US military is attempting to move into their lands to secure access to natural resources. Today, Tuareg people are being killed in Mali and other areas due to efforts to mine uranium in their lands. In Europe, the anarchist scenes comprise a movement defined by resistance to corporate globalization. It appears similar to the dynamics in the US, where folks will rage against the G8, WTO, IMF, or World Bank in force, seeming to be more present for protest than sustaining a process of organized resistance. It was very interesting playing in Belgrade, Serbia; we actually played there twice, but the first time everyone we knew said, “Don’t go there; they’re all just neo-Nazis.” But when we went and played it was powerful. Folks were sharing stories of how they creatively organized against [Former President of Serbia Slobodan] Milošević and faced severe punishment for it. They talked about how they would throw parties on rooftops while NATO was bombing them ‘cause they were tired of living in fear. In Mexico we’ve been encouraged by the visibility of Indigenous people’s resistance and meaningful support for their struggles for self-determination. I think that non-Indigenous folks there have a better sense of how Indigenous people’s resistances are related to their own personal struggles as well. No matter where we go, though, we see the increased criminalization of dissent.
Jeneda and Clayson, both of you recently had children, and you now travel with them. How has this affected your experience of touring and playing in a band?
Jeneda: I feel like I could write a book on this topic. I love being able to share my work with my daughter. I am so blessed that she also enjoys the adventure life. Since becoming a mother my entire being is enriched with compassion, patience, and absolute love. Of course, when children grow up with a particular lifestyle, like touring, they learn to be adaptable. My daughter has rock and roll hours and enjoys sleeping in. She is not yet school age, so we will see how it all changes when she’s older.
Clayson: I also have a baby girl, and of course she travels with us when she can. It’s the best way to experience life. I grew up on the road sharing and learning. This is one of the best educations that life offers.
Talk about the work you do outside of the band: what are some of your other projects?
Klee: We all are part of the Save the Peaks Coalition which was formed to stop a small ski business from desecrating an Arizona mountain held holy by more than thirteen Indigenous Nations. I founded and am a coordinator for a non-profit media justice group called Indigenous Action Media which produces documentaries on Indigenous issues and does consultation and support for grassroots campaigns in Indigenous communities, including graphic design and website development for Indigenous organizations. We also have a project called Outta Your Backpack Media where we hold workshops and empower young people to make their own media. I also helped establish and now volunteer with Taala Hooghan, an Indigenous-established/oriented infoshop and youth media arts center in Flagstaff, Arizona.
What is “Peak’s Song” about?
Jeneda: “Peak’s Song” is about protecting the holy San Francisco Peaks. The San Francisco Peaks are located in Northern Arizona and are holy to 13 Tribes and culturally significant to 22 Tribes. This holy place is managed by the Forest Service, which presently leases a portion of the mountain to a ski resort. This ski resort wants to make snow out of reclaimed wastewater. Not only would this be an environmental catastrophe in the making, it would also be an extreme desecration to our holy place, an act of cultural genocide.
Klee: Right now the Save the Peaks Coalition is awaiting a decision by the Supreme Court on whether it will hear the case or not. Whether the Court will hear the case and do the right thing is uncertain, especially considering history. While we are forced to take our fight to the courts, we also urge everyone to join us wherever they can in the struggle for self-determination and the protection of our Mother Earth.
The song ends with a chant, “Protect Sacred Sites, Defend Human Rights,” and mentions many different land struggles through out the United States.
Jeneda: Hopefully people will recognize that a mountain or natural place can be just as holy as a Catholic or Christian church. I hope people will remember that there were and still are civilizations that hold natural places holy—that we are still practicing our ancient ways and we need these places intact to continue these ancient living practices that are essential to cultural survival.
Klee: Wherever there is an environmental crisis, there is a cultural crisis, because we are part of the earth. We don’t have guaranteed protection for our religious freedom in the US as Indigenous peoples. Hundreds of sacred sites are either being desecrated or face the threat of desecration right now and we have no legal mechanism to stop this. The struggle to protect these sacred places is the struggle for our cultural survival.
At best, what effect do you hope to have on those who hear your songs?
Jeneda: I hope that people become inspired not only to understand their connections to these struggles, but also understand their own indigenous connection, perhaps even learn about their own heritage. The basis of all indigenous teaching is about respect and our delicate balance with Mother Nature. All of our songs are about different issues that we see and experience… to open someone’s mind and heart so they might want to make positive change in their own community, that’s what I hope our music will inspire.
Is there anything else you would like to add, in closing?
Klee: Solidarity Means Action.
Jeneda: If you see injustice in your community, speak out about it. Do what you can in what time you have to create healthy and respectful communities. Remember that we all have the power to make a difference in the world and in people’s lives with the decisions that we make and the actions that we take.