Dance Legacy Award winner Jones Benally prepares for a performance
at the Museum of Northern Arizona's Navajo Festival of Arts
by Ryan Williams Photography)
Dance Legacy Award winner Jones Benally performs at the Museum
of Northern Arizona's Navajo Festival of Arts and Culture.
(photo by Ryan Williams Photography)
FLAGSTAFF, AZ Age is only a concept to Dine hoop dancer
Jones Benally, who was born in an octagonal home on the Navajo reservation
in the dirt floor/no water/no electricity days before birth certificates.
He is still going strong today.
Two years ago, when he became the recipient of the first-ever
"Hoop Dance Legacy Award" from Heard Museum, the press release noted
that Benally was in his 90s and had been a hoop dancer for more
than 75 years "traveling the world as a cultural ambassador sharing
culture and song."
Not much has changed. Recently he packed for a trip to the South
by Southwest (SXSW) Music Festival in Austin, where he would sing
and perform with family members as part of the group Sihasin or
"Hope" in the Navajo language.
That concept of hope is part and parcel of who he is as a practitioner
of Ho'zho, the Navajo Concept of Balance and Beauty.
"We need to work together, to take care of our planet and each
other," he said.
Benally has few performance worlds left to conquer after a lifetime
of entertaining and educating audiences around the globe, so his
participation at SXSW reflects his continuing love of performing
this time at a venue that attracts thousands as one of the
largest and most influential music events of the year through nine
days of music performed by over 2,000 acts.
Raised in traditional fashion among Navajo-speaking family members,
Benally learned his dance basics from his father and grandfather.
"They were medicine men who did ceremonies and I was trained
to help," he said. "Hoops are a part of the healing ceremonies and
when you learn to become a dancer who makes medicine to heal, that's
where I started."
Navajo dance is a sacred tradition encompassing a wide variety
of forms, all of which are intended to heal the body, mind, or spirit.
"The ones that created human people gave this dance to us to
help us get well," Benally said. Presented outside a Navajo community
audience, dances are modified for public viewing and the award-winning
hoop dancer says while it is important for youth to learn the hoop
dance for showing, "the dance is from our ceremony to release bad
spirits from the body, that's why the dance must be respected."
Traditional healing was used to make people better long before
there were doctors and hospitals, and Benally is credited for bringing
tradition and technology together.
"We created a joint program 19 years ago for the Indian Health
Service Hospital in Winslow, Arizona," said Berta, his wife of 43
years. "Traditional healing often has a higher success rate than
Western medicine, but some practitioners were charging too much,
so we created a free service for people who would otherwise not
be able to afford a medicine person."
Because of recent policy changes, working directly with patients
in government hospitals is no longer allowed.
"We're trying to change the name to Traditional Medicine Counselor
to continue our practices," she said.
"The Creator helped us with technique and special medicines
and early on, when no hospital was here, only the medicine men know
what can heal people," Benally said. "Even now in hospital, if they
don't know what's wrong, they come see me to find out what can be
done with herbs and body work. I am proud of myself to be able to
work with my own people to help."
Help is a key word in Benally's lexicon.
"We are all brothers and sisters on this Earth," Benally said.
"People are similar throughout the world and we need to work together
to solve problems. We need to carry on our culture, to take care
of each other and our planet, not poison our atmosphere and our
food. It's not only our people, but others where people get sick
and don't know how they're going to get well. We need to help one
another, teach one another for a better way. That's why I learned
my ceremoniesto help people."
In addition to his healing and hoop dancing prowess, Benally
has had an acting career that brought him in contact with John Wayne
and earned him a part as a featured singer in the film Geronimo.
"Movies were fun, not work," he said. "Just like playing
around, you know?"
Regardless of his true chronological age, Jones Benally has
seen a lot and done a lot over the years and like most elders, has
some advice for Navajo youth.
"A lot of young people, they get educated, but still don't know
who they are, they lose their culture," Benally said. "What we are
doesn't change. We need our ceremonies to restore our youth back