Search “reconnect to your roots” and you invite an avalanche of results. From wilderness tours to DNA tests and guided meditations, the world over has conceived no shortage of ways to forge personal connection with ancestral history. Such supply of solutions suggests disconnection is a ubiquitous problem.
Jeneda Benally thinks so.
“There is a deep kind of void that people feel when there’s a connection that has been lost to nature, a connection that has been lost to self and to having a tribe, a community,” she says.
Alongside her brother Clayson and father Jones, Jeneda represents a pillar of the Benally family. As Diné people in Arizona, the Benally family is painfully familiar with the challenge of maintaining a connection to their roots. Like all Native people, they have endured countless assaults on their heritage.
“My great grandfather lived at the place that is now called NAU,” Jeneda tells. “He was chased out of his home by settlers that had guns and told he could never come back, or they would kill him.”
Physical relocation isn’t the only trial in their history. As a child in the early 1930s, Jones grew up in the “boarding school era,” a time characterized by the forced attendance of Native people to church or state-run boarding schools taxed with nullifying Native culture.
In Jeneda’s perspective, people of this era were “taught to be ashamed, and they transmitted that to their children by not wanting to teach their language because of fear of prejudice and their kids being brutalized for carrying on our cultural ways.”
Against violent odds, the Benally family managed to hold fast to tradition. For Jones, the nexus of this preservation came in training as a Háátáłí, which translates to “singer.” Not merely an entertainer, the role of Háátáłí encompasses singing, dancing and healing ceremony as one.
Jones’ initiation as Háátáłí began at a very early age.
“I danced all my life, since I was a kid,” he says. “In the ceremony I learned traditional way because of my father, my grandfather, my mother.”
Jones became a dedicated healer and practiced medicine for over 19 years in a hospital in Winslow.
Háátáłí medical practice is “similar to how western medicine is,” explains Clayson. “You go to a hospital, you get a diagnosis. Not any ceremony is just started, there’s a whole process of trying to figure out what is the root cause, the problem, and how to resolve that.”
Further clarifying Háátáłí practices, Jeneda adds, “A lot of people see them as being a folklore, a folk medicine, or our history as a mythology, but these are actual traditional sciences that we’ve had for thousands of years.”
Clayson and Jeneda share their father’s familiarity with Háátáłí ways because Jones passed the tradition onto them.
“I started dancing when I was in diapers,” Clayson confesses.
Transmission of traditional ceremonial knowledge is somewhat rare among Diné people.
“[The number of] very traditional people is getting smaller because the young people don’t learn,” Jones explains.
Clayson adds, “Learning the ceremonial aspects, it takes a lot of dedication. If a youth really wants to learn and has that time, they might spend 10 years apprenticing…It’s almost like going to university and getting your master’s degree.”
This requisite dedication often puts traditional training at odds with other routes of education, Clayson says.
“It’s challenging. [When] you’re going into the educational system, some people feel it’s a choice between a traditional lifestyle and the modern lifestyle.”
Jeneda holds hope.
“I’ve noticed that there is a resurgence in young people who are really interested in learning our cultural ways, our traditional sciences,” she observes.
Still, cultural interest can be a double-edged sword when it manifests as appropriation.
“There’s a danger today. People borrow from culture without truly understanding… it’s disrespectful,” Clayson notes. In Jeneda’s opinion, appropriation is driven by the same feeling the Benally family has toiled to ward off; disconnection from roots.
“It’s a kind of unknown hunger that people have to be a tribe again, to have community, to have ritual, to have ceremony… I think that a lot of people look to indigenous cultures and they see that we still have that,” Jeneda explains. ”A lot of people want to take different elements of who we are in order to have that connection again.”
Don’t steal, reveal, Jeneda says.
“I think that if people looked deep enough in their own roots that they could find where their own indigenous roots are and really build on that, not take from someone else’s but appreciate someone else’s,” she points out. She believes no heritage is beyond contact.
This belief is bolstered in part by the extensive contact the Benally family has made with traditional people across the globe. Deriving a performance from ceremony, the Benally family showcases dances modified for the public. Demand for the Jones Benally Family Dance Troupe has supported multiple world tours.
“We’ve had the opportunity to travel, to tour and meet many [traditional] communities and spend time with their elders, their spiritual leaders and share songs and learn about their cultural practices,” Clayson says. “Our father’s been all around the world, almost every continent.”
“He’s even danced for the Queen of England twice in his lifetime,” Jeneda adds.
The Benally family is no stranger to such honor. They’ve formed multiple award-winning musical acts, including political-punk group Blackfire and rock duo Sihasin. In 2015, Jeneda’s testimony shepherded the Museum of Northern Arizona to a National Medal for Museum and Library Service, which Jeneda accepted from Michelle Obama in D.C.
Utterly prolific, the Benally family does it all in the name of “opening people’s minds and building bridges of respect,” Jeneda says. “There are deep wounds…it’s important to work together towards healing. One party can’t heal on their own. We need everybody’s help.”
In dance, the Benally family shares their roots, proving that “after 150 years of resilience we still have our culture.”