Bringing Music And A Message Of Hope To Native American Youth Teens living on reservations often face a daunting array of hurdles. To help them cope, Navajo sibling musicians Clayson and Jeneda Benally are working to inspire students to write songs of their own.
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Bringing Music And A Message Of Hope To Native American Youth

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Bringing Music And A Message Of Hope To Native American Youth

Bringing Music And A Message Of Hope To Native American Youth

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KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, HOST:

Native American high school dropout rates and youth suicide statistics are twice the national average. Native teens are desperate for an outlet. Laurel Morales of member station KJZZ brings us the story of one family who helped Native youth to find their own voice in traditional culture and in contemporary music.

LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: Siblings Clayson, Jeneda and Klee Benally grew up on Black Mesa, the center of a political land dispute between a coal mining company and the Navajo and Hopi tribes. They couldn't ignore what they saw as oppression and abuse of power, so they formed the punk-rock group called Black Fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OVERWHELMING")

BLACK FIRE: (Singing) She said it's over - overwhelming. We're past the breaking point - the breaking point again.

CLAYSON BENALLY: There is a lot of anger, you know - channeling that anger and frustration and putting it into something positive, as well.

MORALES: Fast-forward two decades. Klee Benally has become an activist, while Jeneda and Clayson have formed a new band called Sihasin, which means hope in Navajo.

C. BENALLY: And with Sihasin, everything is kind of reversed - the energy, you know. Let's make people dance. Let's make people move and feel good. You know, not just...

JENEDA BENALLY: Rip some stuff up.

C. BENALLY: Yeah, smash stuff.

(LAUGHTER)

MORALES: Parenthood made Jeneda stop and think about the message she wanted to send her kids.

J. BENALLY: I want my children to have hope. I see the world as a different place, and I recognize that we have every possibility to make positive change.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOPE")

SIHASIN: (Singing) But they can't take away my hope - can't take away my hope - my hope.

MORALES: Now Clayson and Jeneda go into schools all over Indian country to teach Native youth how to write their own songs. Jeneda says on more than one occasion, she's helped a teen in a time of desperation find the right words in a song.

J. BENALLY: Music is powerful. Music can absolutely save lives.

MORALES: At Leupp High School, on the western edge of the Navajo Nation, only nine of 19 seniors are graduating this year. The class asked the Benallys to speak and perform at graduation.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRADUATION SPEECH)

J. BENALLY: You carry our hope. You carry our future within you. And that - I don't want you to feel burdened by that. I want you to feel empowered by that.

CRYSTAL PUHUYESVA: I wish I had gotten this speech a long time ago.

MORALES: Crystal Puhuyesva has been held back and pulled in and out of schools on both the Navajo and Hopi reservations. But an uncle believed in her, and then she met the Benallys, who've inspired her to graduate and achieve her goals.

PUHUYESVA: With all their encouragement, their words, it just - it woke me up. I do want to pursue my dream in becoming a nurse.

MORALES: The message that changed her is essentially this. As Navajo and Hopi, you have a strong need of foundation and culture. Embrace it, and make it your own. For the Benallys, that means blending the Navajo language or the voice of their father singing a traditional Navajo song with their electric bass and modern drum beat.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE A STAND")

SIHASIN: (Singing in Navajo).

C. BENALLY: For us to find a positive solution and to understand our own identity, it's the synthesis that has to occur.

MORALES: Clayson says Native people have to take from what is surrounding them in this contemporary world, but join it with the past.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE A STAND")

SIHASIN: (Singing in Navajo).

MORALES: For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE A STAND")

SIHASIN: (Singing in Navajo).

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