“These are rez dogs,” Clayson Benally is surrounded by puppies, who are bouncing excitedly at his feet. The Arizonian landscape behind him shows an azure horizon that stretches for miles. Before long, his sister and lifelong bandmate, Jeneda Benally, arrives on schedule. Jeneda & Clayson Benally have quite the resume. Together with their brother Klee, they formed the punk rock trio, Blackfire, protested (and sued) the federal government, and balanced their Ramones albums with the traditional Diné songs told to them by their father. In fact, their star power runs in the family. Their mother/momager Berta Benally was a folk singer-songwriter and their father, Jones Benally, is both a respected Navajo elder and internationally renowned Hoop Dancer. During their Blackfire years, the Benally siblings worked with C.J. and Joey Ramone, Nora Guthrie, and Robert “Tree” Cody. When Blackfire took a hiatus, Jeneda and Clayson formed Sihasin (Diné for “hope”).
After some more animal introductions and a few laughs, we finally settle into place to discuss their departure from anger and their passage into tranquility—while still asking the tough questions about the past, present, and future. Where Blackfire was fueled by rage and injustice, Sihasin marks a different chapter in the Benally story.
“We were definitely a punk band,” Jeneda (bass/vocals) says, about Blackfire. “We were angry, and we had every right to be.” She’s referring to the injustices she witnessed in her community with her brothers, Clayson and Klee. “Sihasin is still about all those injustices, but what’s different is that there’s hope.”
You won’t just find this message in their music either; Sihasin has a plethora of workshops with goals that range from initiating positive change through creative self-expression (while finding your voice), to educating people on Diné culture, and protecting sacred sites and basic human rights.
There was a critical moment for Jeneda when her anger hit a wall. This came when their organization—the Save the Peaks Coalition—lost its case to the federal government. The lawsuit was hoping to protect children from hazardous endocrine disruptors and reclaimed wastewater while also working to save the San Francisco Peaks—a sacred site in Arizona—from desecration. The effects of such actions would negatively impact the local indigenous population for generations. But without hearing any merits, the judge took swift action against them.
“I was so sure we would win,” Jeneda says, her voice breaking emotionally as she recalls the event. “Perhaps that was naïve of me, but it crushed me. Around the same time, a suicide pact occurred in the community with the youngest participant being only nine years old. I thought, ‘what is so wrong with society that a nine-year-old can’t find hope?’”
Photo by Rima Krisst, courtesy of Berta Benally.
It was at the culmination of these events that Jeneda realized she couldn’t be angry anymore. Having been angry for most of her life at these injustices, she wondered, what happens after anger? Where do we go after we’ve been angry for so long? Do we explode more? What’s the opposite of that? That’s when Clayson and Jeneda formed Sihasin, with hope being one of their core philosophies.
For Clayson (drums/vocals) there was a shift in energy which he attributes to becoming a father. What came with this shift was the desire to create something that would have a lasting, positive impact on his children.
“The elements we brought as Blackfire were such a beautiful chapter in our growth process. But there was a flip in energy, going from Blackfire to Sihasin. I used to sit in the back with my drum kit, then I stood up and it was such a shift. [It felt] like going from masculine to feminine energy.”
Part of the judge’s swift ruling was due to a number of direct actions in the community. Churches were vandalized as a direct response to the desecration that was about to occur on the San Fransico Peaks. Those responsible claimed to be with the Save the Peaks Coalition, but they were not.
“There was no need for any direct action at that moment,” Clayson adds, “It worked against our case and created this divide in the community. It was just atrocious how the ruling was made so quickly, without hearing the merits.”
These events were documented in Sihasin’s album, Never Surrender (2012), particularly in the song “Hope.” In fact, “Hope” would be a good place to start if you’re wondering what Sihasin is all about. The song is as moving as it is melancholy, yet empowering. If ever there was a song to remind you to have faith, it would be “Hope.”
“There’s a line in the song [“Hope”] about how the trees are cut down, but the seeds are safe beneath the ground; that was a direct response to that moment,” Clayson says. “The Diné people see themselves as the children of the earth. We’re directly connected to it; her voice is our voice. You’re an ambassador of your community and your family. Your actions have direct implications for the reservation. That’s always how we’ve carried ourselves and our music.”
These days when Jeneda and Clayson gather to write music, they do so holistically. Many of their tracks come to them in dreams, a different songwriting process than they had with Blackfire. Especially in Sihasin’s early days, Clayson often woke from dreams, trying to recall the details like rushing to trap lightning in a bottle.
“I’d wake up and try to hold onto the dream to put it down on paper,” he laughs. “Then I’d call Jeneda, saying ‘I’ve just got an idea for a song!,’ and she’d add to it based on a dream she would have had! It was just amazing how this information was coming to us.”
Clayson attributed this as a sign that it was time for him and Jeneda to use their collective voice or at least a new voice that needed to be used in a different way than Blackfire. Sihasin’s voice, Clayson says, is one of compassion, humility, and vulnerability. “It’s about tapping into our hearts, our emotions, instead of our heads.”
“That’s true,” Jeneda adds. “That’s one of the differences between Blackfire and Sihasin. Blackfire is very heady music, not as emotionally charged [as Sihasin].”
For instance, the album Fight Like a Woman (2018) was the first time that Jeneda didn’t feel like a cheerleader for change. With Sihasin, she felt like she could be vulnerable and release all her emotions into the music. In this way, Jeneda feels that the audience can connect to her in a very intimate way. Which she admits was terrifying.
Their punk roots are as apparent in spirit as they are in sound, creating a gorgeous mash-up of ancestral melody that is unmistakable in “Surrounded,” “Move Along,” and “Child of Fire.” It’s a sort of empowerment that hits you in the face, but only to clear the cobwebs that have gathered in your eardrums and remove the blindfold you (probably) put there yourself. There, can you see now?
Clayson explains that the drum is a heartbeat—a vital part of the Navajo way of life that initiates healing. “Music blesses us,” Clayson says, “it’s acknowledging and appreciating music. A way of healing. With so many divisions happening; in war and politics…” he trails off, considering something that is left unsaid. “Music is just something that has always been unifying.”
Sihasin has been labeled a lot of things—folk, pop, punk, world, and even just “Native American music.” But they are much more than any of those limiting titles gives them credit for. While the punk element is a strong foundation in their sound, Sihasin presents the political aspects with a gentleness that’s rare in the traditional punk ethos. Politically pensive, ethereally wise, and uplifting, Sihasin is fucking beautiful.
“People will ask me if I’m still punk,” Jeneda looks off as if someone has just asked her that (no, it was not me…come on now). “And I’m like, wait a minute, punk is an attitude, a way of life! It’s what you’re feeling, it’s who you are. I feel that I’m still punk, I’ll always be a punk.”
After performing for 30 years, Jeneda and Clayson have had their share of experiences and—like any venture—red tape. When C.J. and Joey Ramone took Blackfire under their wing, they got so close that the Ramones became an extension of the Benally family and punk really was a community, a family, for them. The Ramones handed down everything from equipment to musical blueprints; passing the torch to an eager trio of aspiring punk rockers. This musical formula, first used in Blackfire, continues to be utilized in Sihasin.
Clayson noticed a correlation between the Ramones’ drumbeats and the traditional powwow drums of the Navajo.
“When I think of “Blitzkrieg Bop,” where the drums are kind of heavy, primal…I thought, ‘this is like the powwow drums that we [the Diné people] have.’ So, some of those cultural elements are so powerful, and I want people to move to the energy and strength.”
Another unique aspect of Sihasin that is seriously lacking in music, is that no one takes a backseat and no one is on unequal ground. Clayson is as much upfront as his sister, which is so rare for drummers that it’s even a joke in the rock world. Perhaps that has to do with Clayson’s decision to stand instead of sit behind a drum kit; maybe it’s just part of Sihasin’s energy—or being a Benally. Whatever it is, it’s certainly authentic, and that’s always an interesting conversation among indigenous communities.
“It’s always this question of what is authentic, what is real? We grew up in Northern Arizona where there’s this tourist industry and a lot of people exploit indigenous culture. It’s appropriated into these different designs. Sihasin is [about] trying to preserve our culture and ensure it’s there for future generations,” Clayson says.
The cultural challenges are balanced by respecting tradition in the present—and the future. Clayson adds, “There’s this threshold of trying to find that balance of maintaining our integrity, our dignity, but still evolving. One of the biggest challenges we face in indigenous communities is that so many people consider our history to be mythology. People perceive that we’ve been exterminated, that we don’t exist here in America. Most people have no idea that there are over 574 recognized indigenous communities in North America. It’s different in Europe, people have more recognition and knowledge about contemporary people.”
When the Benally siblings first started making music in 1989, non-indigenous people would be furious at them for not performing “Native American music,” shouting at them in angry letters for not playing flute at the behest of white tourists. Jeneda says these letters were glaringly blatant.
“People would be like, ‘Oh, we’re going to see a Native American band,’ and then we’d get letters saying ‘we came to hear Native American music, and we expected to hear flute, see feathers, and buckskin—and we saw none of that! Aren’t you proud of your heritage?!’ And this was all from European-Americans who have these stereotypes.” Jeneda recalls this passionately. “These stereotypes harbor prejudices and it disables Native people—ALL people—from authentically being themselves.” [sic]
These stereotypes didn’t stop with angry white tourists either. When Joey Ramone was shopping Blackfire around to record labels and music executives, it was repeatedly suggested that the band don their “regalia and powwow costumes.”
Clayson shakes his head, “I’m not gonna put on my fancy dance outfit or wear Northern traditional to play punk rock music. It just felt so inauthentic to me, it was a struggle to just be who I am and present myself to the world.”
That isn’t to say that you won’t find cultural elements in Sihasin, like in the music video for “Shine,” where the duo represents traditional hoop dancers with their father, Jones Benally. This harkens back to the delicate balance between tradition and growth, and the meticulous choosing of what’s appropriate and what isn’t.
“It’s about how to be authentic in the appropriate context to share our culture,” Clayson says. “We’re an independent band and we’ve chosen that path for a reason. We don’t want other people telling us how to dress in order to be seen.”—what’s more punk rock than that?
Like most things that don’t quite fit into the boxes of the status quo, Sihasin is unclassifiably brilliant. For them, it’s not about fitting into a genre or even getting a place in the Top Ten, but about writing music that inspires change.
“We’re always so quick to classify things so that we can understand them,” Jeneda says. “We want to make music that speaks to people on a deep level. And if that’s unclassifiable, then so be it.”
For Sihasin, music is a process for them to understand and build relationships. “It’s more like…edutainment,” Clayson explains, “Sihasin is meant to be listened to but also meant to be engaging, to feel something.”
More recently, Sihasin has taken part in a variety of collaborations. Their track, “Hope” was rerecorded with the musical quartet, ETHEL—as if that song couldn’t move you to tears already. They’ve also collaborated with Uchpa as part of the American Music Abroad cultural diplomacy program sponsored by the US Department of State. For this program, Sihasin released their most recent single, “We the People,” (2021). As Sihasin anticipates touring and releasing fresh tracks, the duo hopes to continue reaching people through their music. Not just for the positive change they want to see in their community, but the change they want to see within themselves.
As they look back to their roots, Sihasin reminds us that the answers we seek are not only present in the music, but in ourselves. Within their melodies, the heart of their drums, their spirit, much of what can be heard is a personal journey of healing and balance in a distracting, often chaotic society.
Since the interview with Sihasin, I’ve been circling back to Jeneda’s rhetorical question: “What comes after anger?” The answer, if you’ve been paying attention, is hope and healing.
As a dislocated, Mexican-Creek whose been tearing themselves apart thanks to generational curses of racial passing and imposter syndrome; I have been sitting with this question. When I came across Sihasin via “Child of Fire,” I was angry at my ancestors for burying me under lies—lies that severed their children, and their children’s children, from their roots. What happens is this floating phantom syndrome of personal loss and spiritual homelessness that creates a life-long struggle to fit into place somewhere—anywhere; and it never truly works. That is until we can come home again. It was no accident and I’m certain that Sihasin found me, I did not find them—and it is my sincerest hope that they find you too.
Sihasin is exactly what they say they are—that’s really what I mean when describing their authenticity. There are no frills here, there is no excess, and no performance that is not real or truly felt. For indigenous people, Sihasin is the very spirit of resilience, a reminder that you are still here despite everyone’s efforts to stamp you out. Sihasin is remembering who you are, where you come from, and where you’re going. You must go back to go forward. That’s how it’s always been and how it will always be. Who is Sihasin? Sihasin is the future of music. So… Are you listening?
To keep up with Sihasin, go to Sihasin.com for more. In addition to their musical endeavors, you can Sihasin also provides workshops and presentations in an effort to promote human rights and sacred sites protections through cultural and youth empowerment.
*Cover photos by Brent Stirton, courtesy of Berta Benally.