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Know the West

Diné activist protests wastewater-to-snow scheme

Fighting for the environment is just part of this Navajo's cultural identity.


In 2011, Klee Benally chained himself to a backhoe on the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, Ariz. One knee in the dirt, the lanky Diné (Navajo) activist thundered at U.S. Forest Service officials, "Right here we draw the line! Right here we say no more!" He had gone to the mountain -- Dook'o'oosííd in Navajo -- to pray, but ended up protesting the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort's plan to turn wastewater into snow for skiing. After two hours, he was arrested and charged with trespassing and disorderly conduct.

"The Forest Service is disorderly, not me," Benally says now, from the Taala Hooghan Infoshop, an activist collective he founded off Route 66. The wastewater desecrates a mountain sacred to 13 tribes, but their interests seem to pale next to the powerful extractive and recreation industries that dominate public-land use. "Indigenous people are only valued when we're in a book, behind glass, doing a dance. When we assert our values, advocate for our rights, it pushes against people's comfort zones."

Hero or outlaw, the activist is a well-known figure in Flagstaff, greeted cordially even by Forest Service law enforcement. On this early June day, Benally roams about the backlot of the Infoshop in the beating sun, a Free Leonard Peltier hoodie tugged low over his forehead, pulling weeds barehanded. When asked if tools might speed the work, he hands me a hoe, his narrow dark eyes lit with good humor.

Tossing dandelions into a rusty wheelbarrow, he recalls performing Navajo dances as a boy in a troupe run by his father, a traditional medicine man and hoop dancer who toured with a 1970s revival of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Benally was born on Black Mesa on the Navajo Nation a year after the federal 1974 Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act. Ostensibly, the law sought to resolve a dispute over land jointly held by the tribes by dividing it with a fence, although later, many suggested its real purpose was to clear it for coal mining. That fence ran "right down the middle of our sheep corral," says Benally. His father speaks mostly Navajo, so his mother, a white "hippie folk singer," translated the legal land settlement documents. "Sort of by default, she became an activist," says Benally. "She has a picture of me holding a sign saying: 'BIA, don't kill me, I'm 3,' " he recalls. Eventually, the Bureau of Indian Affairs relocated roughly 12,000 Navajos. Benally's family moved from the farm where they had lived for generations into a trailer in Flagstaff.

He picked up his first instrument -- his father's violin -- as a toddler. "I smashed it, like (Jimi) Hendrix," he says. As a teen, he and his siblings formed the punk rock band Blackfire, named for the coal power plant that eventually was built near his former home, and he began his first forays into activism.

Around 2007, Benally left the band to devote himself to activism, including the Snowbowl struggle -- which has now taken up half his life. "We knew the corporate media would never tell our stories," he explains. Six years earlier, he had founded Indigenous Action Media to advance Native causes. In addition to Snowbowl, the group has battled a uranium mine proposed for New Mexico's Mount Taylor, another sacred site, and the 700-mile U.S.-Mexico border fence, which bisects the Tohono O'odham Reservation. Another of Benally's projects, Outta Your Backpack Media, trains young Native filmmakers in video production. In 2008, participant Camille Manybeads Tso, then 13, produced In the Footsteps of Yellow Woman, an award-winning film about her great-great-great-grandmother, who survived the infamous Long Walk. From 1864 to 1868, the U.S. Army relocated the Navajo from traditional lands in the Southwest to Fort Sumner in New Mexico Territory, 450 miles away; hundreds died on the journey. "When you look at all the issues we deal with -- border, sacred sites, the environment -- the nexus is cultural survival. If we can't practice our religion, preserve our traditions, we'll lose our identity."

Benally has drawn national attention to several regional issues, including the Snowbowl controversy, and "changed the tone of the debate," says longtime Sierra Club staffer Andy Bessler. "The town had to act." When the Snowbowl project moved forward in December after 10 years of litigation, Flagstaff appointed an advisory panel to study contaminants in the wastewater. "Long after everyone else gave up, Klee is still there, fist in the air."

Does he ever feel like giving up? "No," says Benally. In the dusty backlot of the Infoshop, he plants corn, as his father taught him to do before their land was lost. Three Navajo teens rake at the ground, looking bored. "You guys act like you're serving hard time," says Benally. "Come on." He looks up. "We still have our traditions," he says. "People need to know that, after everything, we are still here."