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Flagstaff, AZ activist who championed Indigenous causes dies at 48

Klee Benally with close friend and activist, Morningstar Gali. Benally passed away on December 30, 2023, at age 48.
Morning Star Gali
Klee Benally with close friend and activist, Morningstar Gali. Benally passed away on December 30, 2023, at age 48.

On Saturday, January 6, 1,000 people crowded into the Orpheum Theater in Flagstaff, Arizona, to remember Indigenous activist Klee Benally.

Leona Morgan is a Navajo activist and longtime friend of Klee Benally. She spoke at the celebration of life.

“I worked with Klee very closely on fighting the Grand Canyon uranium mine. I have so many banners that Klee painted, that I take around the world fighting nuclear colonialism. His last request to everyone was to put their bodies on the line in front of the trucks in front of the machinery,” said Morgan.

In his 48 years, Benally channeled his creative energy into films, music, and writing. When Benally died on December 30, 2023, Benally was still working on many creative projects. He posted videos on social media, engaged in civil disobedience, and appeared at public demonstrations.

Klee Benally marched in California in 2006 against the ski resort Arizona Snowbowl damaging the natural environment of mountains considered sacred to tribes. Benally campaigned for this issue for years.
Morning Star Gali
Klee Benally marched in California in 2006 against the ski resort Arizona Snowbowl damaging the natural environment of mountains considered sacred to tribes. Benally campaigned for this issue for years.

He often expressed his beliefs with guitar in hand.

In a video for “Song of the Sun” from 2013, Benally stomped in the dirt and played his guitar in front of Red Butte, Arizona, the site of a proposed uranium mine.

“Song of the Sun”

Our mother aches
Iron claws dig until she breaks
And she bleeds for this
How much is enough?

I remember listening to songs of the sun
For all those, whose breath was stolen
Whose future was taken away
Who learned too late

And so we sing again
To the house of dawn
There are no words,
No words that can right these wrongs.

Klee Benally grew up in the Navajo Nation on Black Mesa. He championed many causes in the Flagstaff area. He fought against a ski resort’s use of wastewater to make snow on sacred mountains near Flagstaff. He organized efforts to help unhoused people in the city. He wrote songs and books on the importance of tribal sovereignty and the value of Indigenous culture.

Morningstar Gali is an activist in Flagstaff who helped organize the celebration of life on Saturday.

“Within his 48 years, he was able to live many lifetimes,” said Gali. “He was doing the work of four to five people at once. He was doing performance art, and making jewelry, and making music, and writing his book, and working on his video projects… countless projects that he was so dedicated to."

The Orpheum Theater in Flagstaff, AZ, saw over 1,000 people for the celebration of Klee Benally's life on Saturday, January 6.
Morning Star Gali
The Orpheum Theater in Flagstaff, AZ, saw over 1,000 people for the celebration of Klee Benally's life on Saturday, January 6.

In recent years, Benally dealt with health issues. Even though he was in and out of the hospital towards the end of 2023, he released a new book titled “No Spiritual Surrender: Indigenous Anarchy in Defense of the Sacred,” and he designed and produced a board game called “Burn the Fort.”

In the game, white colonial settlers are the villains. Players assume the role of historic indigenous warriors battling to stop the invaders.

“Colonizers have built a military fortress and are waging a brutal invasion of your lands,” Benally says in the trailer for the video game. “Can you prevent their wagons from bringing supplies to the fort and burn it to the ground before the train reaches the golden spike?”

Benally released the first edition of the game just a few weeks before he died.

Leona Morgan says Benally used every minute of the time he had in this life.

“In his health condition, Klee was working pretty much around the clock. When we would have meetings, he just had this urgency. I think he was aware of his own time because the amount of work that he put out this year is just incredible,” said Morgan.

The celebration of life in Flagstaff this past weekend was a chance for family and friends to honor Benally. Actor and filmmaker Norman Patrick Brown highlighted the importance of the grassroots causes which Benally had devoted his life to.

“We lose a warrior; what do we do? We take his place. Stand, and rise, and fight. We lose a warrior; what do we do? We pick up his spear. Stand and fight. Someone had told me, ‘There’s never gonna be another Klee Benally.’ I said, ‘No. There’s going to be hundreds of Klee Benallys,’” Brown said.

Artwork honoring Klee Benally was on display at the celebration of his life.
Morning Star Gali
Artwork honoring Klee Benally was on display at the celebration of his life.

Benally’s work lives on through hundreds of videos and songs.

In 2019, Benally recorded a series of videos showcasing his songwriting. One of those songs was “She Was a Mountain,” which honors Navajo matriarchs who resisted relocation from Black Mesa in the 1970s. The song is as good as any example of the life that Klee Benally lived and what he stood for.

“She Was a Mountain” 

It was the words she didn’t say 
She sang the sun down every day 
Into the silence, shouting 
And when they came to move her, 
She was a mountain

It was compromise she wouldn’t make 
Sowing resistance, every day 
With every seed planted, 
They couldn't move her 
Because she was a mountain 

Oh, Katherine get your gun 
Oh, Roberta sing your song 
Oh, Pauline cut the wire 
Oh, Mae start the fire

Clark Adomaitis is a Durango transplant from New York City. He is a recent graduate of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, where he focused on reporting and producing for radio and podcasts. He reported sound-rich stories on the state of recycling and compost in NYC.