Remembering Klee Benally, Navajo Advocate for Indigenous People and Environmental Causes

Dec. 30, 2023

Klee Jones Benally, Navajo advocate for Indigenous people and environmental causes, was born on Oct. 6, 1975, in Dziłyíjiin, Arizona, on the Navajo reservation near Flagstaff. He was from the Tódích’íi’nii and Wandering People clans. Klee passed away on Saturday, December 30, 2023, at the age of 48.

Music and activism ran in the family. Klee’s father, Jones Benally, is a well-known traditional Diné medicine man; his mother, Berta Benally, is an activist and folk musician of Russian-Polish Jewish heritage who grew up in the folk scene of Greenwich Village. The couple met in Los Angeles, where she was working with Hopi elders.

Klee and his siblings were brought up with their father’s Diné traditions, and they grew up performing traditional dances. The area where they lived was part of a land dispute that forced the relocation of thousands of Navajo people, and attending protests became a family affair.

Klee Benally was an artist, a musician, a community organizer who championed Native American and environmental causes and a youth counselor; he taught media literacy and film to Indigenous teenagers; and he marched against the celebration of Thanksgiving. Late last year he published a book, “No Spiritual Surrender,” about his efforts practicing what he called Indigenous anarchy, and he created a board game, “Burn the Fort,” in which Native American warriors fight off colonizers (and learn some history while doing so).

Throughout the years, Klee Benally collaborated with Dr. Karletta Chief, UA SRC Community Engagement Core Principal Investigator. In 2018, Benally served in an Uranium Pannel at the Conference “Restoring K’e: Lessons Learned to Heal our People, our Land and our Water from Uranium Contamination” at the University of Arizona.

Dr. Chief said, “It is shocking to learn that Klee is gone. I had the honor of collaborating with him to elevate Indigenous environmental issues at the University of Arizona. I appreciate all that he has done to protect Black Mesa through the many years and his fight to make environmental injustice known to the mainstream. Klee has left an amazing legacy to inspire us all to continue to protect Mother Earth and to elevate the voices of Indigenous Peoples. My deepest condolences to his relatives on Black Mesa and all those who have worked with him closely. My prayers and thoughts are with you.”

A great loss for the Community and the fight for Environmental Justice. Rest in peace Klee Jones Benally.

To learn more, please read a comprehensive article in the New York Times:

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