Sihasin bring hope to Native American youth through music
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Sihasin means 'hope' in the Dine'/Navajo language and the sister and brother duo Jeneda and Clayson Benally do their name proud. Currently in Europe with their Sacred Horse tour, we caught up with them in Paris to talk about their blend of Dine' culture and punk rock. And why young people protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock is a sign of real hope for Native Americans.
Clayson and Jeneda last played in Paris in 1999 with their punk rock group Blackfire. Children of traditional healer Jones Benally - who sometimes joins them on stage - they grew up on Black Mesa in northern Arizona at the heart of land dispute opposing a mining company and their native Navajo nation. The forced relocation of thousands of their elders left a lasting impression on them.
"There was massive relocation at the hands of the US government, over 14,000 of our relatives, we saw our elders crying and actually dying because of this programme of relocation," says Clayson.
The representation of Native Americans in mass media further fueled their sense of injustice.
"We have a lot of challenges: colonisation of over 350 years, first from the Spanish in our region. That sense of loss where your culture is taken and then misappropriated in mass media in Hollywood. Of course you’re gonna lash out against the system."
It gave them an understanding of the problems some young Native Americans face, resulting in much higher than average rates of suicide and alcoholism.
"When you have 9-year old children committing suicide you know that you have to do everything you can to empower this youth, to reach out and give them strength."
So out of the angry ashes of Blackfire, Sihasin was born a decade ago. The band does outreach work in schools both on reservations and all over Indian country. Songs like Never Surrender from their eponymous album have a strong message about the importance of their own culture.
"The work we do is to empower and try to enrich their lives and bring our culture and traditions to ensure that these kids have some hope. That’s what our name Sihasin means - to have hope and assurance. So with Never Surrender it’s about not giving in."
The song State of Emergency meanwhile highlights the ongoing threats to their sense of identity.
"We are facing many issues as Native Americans," says Jenada. "From sacred sites to protecting our beautiful mother earth, our language, our culture, it feels like we’re under constant threat because of not having access to manage our own sacred places that exist off the reservation. We have to have hope because if we don’t have hope we have nothing. We have no grounding to even fight. And our hope is within future generations, it’s when we see elders teaching our youth how to carry on our cultures."
And that's happening not just in the US, but here in France. With their father Jones Benally, a traditional healer, Sihasin has been running workshops in Rambouillet, Ardeche and the Camargue, sharing their traditional equine healing methods.
"This is not an issue just for our people," says Clayson. "Looking at the culture here and seeing people hurt and going through depression, a lot of people feel disconnected here in France and understand these horses can be healers too. People within our own community have techniques, equine therapy and healing and that’s what we’re sharing in our rich and deep tradition of how to reconnect and heal."
"As indigenous peoples we have great understanding," adds Jenada. "We have sciences that show us how to live sustainably on our mother earth and I think our traditional sciences have answers."
Clayson cites data showing his father has a far higher success rate in healing people using traditional medecine, herbs, ceremonies and knowledge than conventional medecine provides.
"We know that our culture has value and can be successful," he concludes confidently.