April 14, 2005
by BOB DORAN
THE LATE JOEY RAMONE called their music "Native American fireball punk." The sound of Blackfire [photo at left], a hard-driving family band from Navaho country, isn't two-chord rock with shouted vocals, but it shares punk rock's passion and intensity.
"Blackfire is my two brothers and myself," said Janeda Benally, the band's bass player, explaining that her family grew up on and off the Diné reservation, an embattled place where her people have struggled for years to avoid forced relocation put forward by the BIA, the Hopi and the Peabody Coal Company.
"We grew up protesting, understanding the threat of our homeland being taken away, the threat of our cultural identity being taken away because of a land dispute," said Janeda. "Basically the dispute goes back into history, but it isn't really about dividing the land between Navaho and Hopi [people]. It's a way to get at the coal resource that's under our land there."
Janeda and her brothers, Klee and Clayson, came together as a band 15 years ago. "We only knew two songs, but they were our own songs," said Janeda. "The music really found us, growing up where we did."
The first songs were about politics. "One was called `Urban Revolution,' the other was `Artillery Fire,' a song about war. Our style came straight from our hearts. It's passionate. It has a lot of anger, but not anger with hatred; it's anger with hope. A lot of people say it's social-political, but we see politics as a way of life. You can't separate it from who you are, especially being an indigenous person, because so much of your life is governed by the government. We can't be complacent. We have to understand exactly what our rights are. We have to remember that we can fight for our rights. Our ancestors didn't have voting rights or the legal rights to take things to court, but today we do."
Klee, the band's primary songwriter, has been working on a CD/DVD project pulling together live tracks and footage from Blackfire tours including a visit to Africa for The Festival in the Desert and their stint on last year's Warped Tour, an experience that reinforced the band's punk cred.
"We have a range of responses," said Klee. "The Warped Tour was fun; some of the bands were coming up to us saying, `Hey, y'all are like one of the only punk bands on this tour.' There was so much commercial music, more pop than punk, so it was a cool compliment.
"People apply the term `punk' to our music when they hear it because it's raw and passionate," he continued. "We communicate in a way that isn't palatable to everybody, but it's our reality. It's the type of energy that needs to be acknowledged.
"I think a lot of people discard anger these days. They try to suppress it, to squash it. They try to prevent people from exploring anger in a positive manner. I see anger as necessary for the healing process. You need to have some release; you need to have some place for expression through positive means, somewhere you can apply your creativity that has a positive outcome. There's a whole range of expressive opportunities where you can channel frustration and anger so we don't hold it in and become unhealthy."
What makes them angry? "The federal government has constantly betrayed indigenous people and waged a war of genocide against indigenous people when we are trying to survive in a respectful manner in harmony with our environment, our community and our family," said Klee.
Janeda points to the struggle of her people against the Peabody Coal Company. "There are so many environmental and social injustices happening today. We need to be angry. Look at what we're doing to the planet; look at the lack of respect people have for our Mother Earth; and the lack of respect they have for their communities and for themselves.
"We have every right to be angry because we see what's going on, but at the same time, we who feel that anger also must feel hope in order to make things better, to make things more positive for our communities, more positive for our environment and for the global population."
The group's latest battle is to stop the expansion of a ski resort on San Francisco Peak in Northern Arizona. "It's a mountain considered sacred by 13 tribes," Janeda explained. "Basically the ski resort wants to spray reclaimed waste water on the mountain to make snow, guaranteeing a profitable season at the expense of the traditional people who revere the mountain."
"The current dominant culture is guided by values that see the Earth and its people as a resource that can be exploited, usually for the benefit of a few," added Klee. "The values of indigenous people see success as something other than material accumulation. For our people success is health -- a mind, body and spirit in balance -- and that extends to your family, your community, your land. It's a value that people do not put an emphasis on today."
What role does music play? "We utilize our music to carry a message, a message reflected in everything we do," said Klee. "We are calling for people to stand with us, to try to make positive change in their communities, to think about what's going on, to take action when you see injustice happening, to work toward making this a better place."
Blackfire performs Thursday, April 21, as part of the Indigenous Culture Music Celebration in HSU's Kate Buchanan Room along with L.A.-based indigenous hip-hop/funk band Aztlan Underground, locals 7th Generation Rise and spoken word by Marlon Sherman and Julian Lang. Showtime at 7 p.m. admission $12-$45 sliding scale. Proceeds benefit Sustainable Nations Development Project, www.sustainablenations.org. For more on Blackfire, go to www.blackfire.net. For details on the San Francisco Peak battle, go to www.savethepeaks.org.
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