Agency’s Ryan Only caught up with Indigenous anarchist Klee Benally to discuss his work with Kinlani Mutual Aid and other projects. Klee has an extensive background in radical media work including producing films and founding the media action groups Outta Your Backpack Media and Indigenous Action. Deciding what to interview Klee about was no small feat considering the amazing range of creative and powerful projects he has been involved with over the years. We encourage you to check out the extensive links included below to learn more.
Please introduce yourself: tell us where you live, and a little about your background?
Yá’át’ééh, shí eí Klee Benally yinishe’. Shí ma eí Biʼééʼ Łichííʼí, Todích’íí’nii bashishchiin, Biʼééʼ Łichííʼí dashicheii, Nakai Diné dashinalí.
I originally come from Black Mesa on the Diné or Navajo Nation and currently live in so-called Flagstaff, Arizona. I’ve been an agitator for nearly half my life, organizing with a range of groups like Indigenous Action for the past 20 years, mobilizing sacred lands defense, I helped found Táala Hooghan Infoshop, and most recently I’ve been heavily involved with Kinłani Mutual Aid. I play music, write, make movies, and do artsy shit now and then too.
Ryan Only: What has the past year been like for you? What have been the key points of struggle and focus where you live?
Klee Benally: The past year feels like many lifetimes in one. In March 2020 as the pandemic was just beginning to threaten our communities, we sprung into quick action and organized Kinłani Mutual Aid to provide direct support for those most vulnerable in our region. As it was widely reported, the Navajo Nation faced a severe outbreak of COVID-19, and at one point we were the area with the highest rate of infection in the so-called U.S. I’ve written quite a bit about this, but the key points of struggle have been to keep our communities safe in the face of an unknown threat, compounded by the social and environmental factors we have faced due to ongoing colonial violence.
Fifty percent of Diné on the Navajo Reservation don’t have access to running water or electricity, we have thirteen grocery stores in an area the size of so-called West Virginia with a population of about 250,000 people. These statistics were pronounced loudly as contributing factors to the high rate of infection, but what was being obscured (and still is) in the larger narratives from mainstream media sources was that those issues highlight how where we live is still a space of extreme contention. The ongoing devastation wrought by capitalism and resource colonialism is at the source of the extreme disharmony we continue to face.
Part of the focus for my efforts has been to make sure that, as we survive through this pandemic, we don’t return to the idea of “normalcy” projected out by the dominant social order, and that we can embrace our autonomy and mutuality as Indigenous Peoples. I’ve been keenly focused on disrupting the narratives and material conditions that we survive with through anti-colonial struggle towards liberation.
I’ve also been focused on organizing with the Indigenous unsheltered community for many years and that has really intensified as the pandemic escalated.
Ryan: What have you been working on?
Klee: This is hard to list out but with Kinłani Mutual Aid we’ve been working on providing direct material support especially during the resource scarcity/hoarding we faced last year. To put this in perspective, a lot of Indigenous folx on reservations in this region have long relied on gathering supplies from settler towns bordering reservations. So, when there were empty shelves during shutdowns and quarantines, we stepped up to make sure our communities just had access to healthy food, cleaning supplies, and PPE. We bottled something like 20,000 bottles of hand sanitizer to distribute when we couldn’t get it anywhere. We collectively distributed something close to 100,000 masks. We coordinated mass supply runs including food and water to remote communities on Diné, Hopi, White Mountain Apache, and Hualapai reservations.
We had also extended our ongoing organizing with unsheltered relatives to advocate for immediate housing. We got folx into squats, we advocated for hotel rooms and paid for them when local politicians refused to do anything. We also did little things like build hand washing stations and rent a porta potty to make sure our relatives on the streets could maintain their hygiene. At Táala Hooghan Infoshop we’ve consistently distributed basic hygiene kits, warm clothes, and supplies for relatives to survive, especially during the brutal winters we face here.
We have a community garden that we planted to provide food for ongoing distributions as well. And that’s just part of the list… In April last year I helped to form a network of radical Indigenous Mutual Aid groups to provide emergency funds and help collectivize some of our efforts (through group bulk purchases, sharing contacts for mass supply donations, personal support, etc).
Ryan: How do you define Mutual Aid? What is Indigenous Mutual Aid?
Klee: Mutual aid is collective care and support. It is organizing to ensure the well-being of all our relations in non-hierarchical voluntary association through direct action. I always define mutual aid with action.
I think Dean Spade’s book on Mutual Aid really provides a great introduction into the idea and perhaps most importantly what mutual aid looks like (and doesn’t look like) in practice. The conversation about mutual aid in the context of settler-colonial occupation is one that needs to be had more. I also have found it really important to discuss mutual defense in tandem with aid because if we’re really building autonomous solidarity based alternative and liberatory infrastructure, then we have to support and defend each other and ourselves.
It’s not enough to provide the same relief as any charity organization could, we have to focus on building infrastructure and what maintaining that infrastructure means in a hostile environment where we face fascist attacks and severe State repression. And if this is going to mean anything in the context of settler colonialism, we have to be critical about all our organizing and actions on stolen land.
In our work with Indigenousmutualaid.org we’ve asserted that, “Though the term is credited to anarchist Peter Kropotkin—who established the analysis for his book ‘Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution’ in part by observing Indigenous communities—Indigenous Peoples have long established practices of caring for each other for our survival, particularly in times of crisis. Mutual Aid is nothing new to Indigenous communities. Indigenous Mutual Aid organizing challenges ‘charity’ models of organizing and relief support that historically have treated our communities as “victims” and only furthered dependency and stripped our autonomy from us. We organize counter to non-profit capitalists who maintain neo-colonial institutions and we reject the NGO-ization and non-profit commodification of mutual aid.
We do not ask tribal governments or any other forms of settler governments for permission to advocate for and support our own communities—we do the work because it must be done. This is the very definition of Direct Action. We urge towards an organizing that is based on our cultural knowledge systems, that is anti-colonial, anti-capitalist, anti-heteropatriarchal, that abolishes white supremacy and that extends our ways of mutuality towards a future that honors our ancestors and coming generations. This is what ‘solidarity and ceremony not charity’ means.”
Through our work we have found that it is important to assert the distinction of Indigenous mutuality in the context of colonial occupation. The settler-colonial assumption of our victimhood (and resultant white saviorism) is one barrier amidst the reality that Indigenous communities continue to face the compounded crises of colonialism, capitalism, and white supremacy. The primary distinction between the broader definitions of mutual aid and Indigenous mutual aid is that our cultures are our frameworks for action. Indigenous Mutual Aid is not just about redistributing resources, it’s about radical redistribution of power to restore Indigenous lifeways, heal our communities, and the land.
Ryan: Mutual aid is having a bit of a moment right now and is in mainstream discourse perhaps more than ever. What is most often not said or misunderstood about the concept of mutual aid?
Klee: While I covered a bit of that with my previous responses, I would add that mutual aid isn’t about quantifying the amount of material resources you’ve distributed, it’s about the depths of the relationships that you build. This distinction is important because it ensures that we go beyond the false solidarity of commodified relations and that we configure our organizing with not for. There’s a disturbing trend of the term mutual aid being applied to any and all organizing that provides relief during this pandemic. We see politicians claiming to practice mutual aid and the State more than willing to offload relief efforts. We see non-profits branding and cashing in on mutual aid for their endless fundraisers. While I maintain that the idea can only be co-opted so much, if mutual aid isn’t grounded with other anarchist principles of direct action and voluntary association then it obviously can easily be in service of capitalism and the State.
There is also this dynamic of specialization and people relying on established groups to do the hard work, which serves to undermine the possibilities of autonomy. I’ve advocated for a multitude of mutual aid hubs in our small community yet a lot of folx think, “Oh yeah, there’s already a group working on that…” That’s the disconnect. Mutual aid is what everyone should be doing all the time.
Ryan: How did your Indigenous Mutual Aid work come about?
Klee: As I mentioned above, we’ve always practiced mutual aid as Indigenous Peoples. The anarchist principle of mutual aid has long been an influencing factor in my work and as an Indigenous Anarchist, it’s part of what drew me to an affinity with anarchism. I’ve sought ways to express mutuality through everything I do in my life. I think the principle of mutual aid as being articulated by Indigenous Peoples has brought the broader discussion full circle from Kropotkin’s initial analysis. Though I reject the attempts to justify our mutuality and existence in contrast to social Darwinism or within the genealogy of Euro-sourced politics.
Ryan: Is Indigenous Mutual Aid a network? Who is involved and what’s the scope?
Klee: IndigenousMutualAid.org is a network with about eight active projects spread throughout what we call Turtle Island. There are other Indigenous Mutual Aid projects listed in the directory on our website that are very active in their communities but only check-in once in a while with the network. We have regular online meetings and communicate about best practices, challenges we’re facing, creative solutions, and so forth. It’s an amazing network of people who are on the frontlines in their communities doing some really powerful work. Some projects are small operations located in rural reservation communities; others are local syndicates operating in larger regions. We have noticed that since supply chains stabilized, and vaccines are widely distributed some groups are transitioning into other work or stopping their operations.
As far as the scope, it’s hard to say but we have distributed over $100,000 in emergency funds to more than fifty projects throughout the so-called U.S. We also did a massive supply purchase and distribution for unsheltered relatives throughout the Southwest, I believe this amounted to close to 6,000 hygiene kits and warm packs for the winter.
Ryan:How does Indigenous Mutual Aid relate to other mutual aid projects across the country?
Klee: As a network, Indigenous Mutual Aid hasn’t formally engaged with other projects outside of specific calls we’ve put out that have received overwhelming support. We’ve issued a couple of collective statements too. Though we do communicate and coordinate with the bad-asses involved with Mutual Aid Disaster Relief. Each project within the network has their own relationships with other mutual aid projects too, so I can’t speak to those except for Kinłani Mutual Aid. We’ve had some great support for supply drives and runs and work parties from other Mutual Aid efforts including DC Mutual Aid, OVAS Collective from so-called LA, PHX Black Lives Matter Metro, and many others including autonomous crews and individuals.
Ryan: Can you share a story or anecdote from the mutual aid work that’s been done in and around (so-called) Flagstaff? What’s been some of the challenges? What’s been the biggest achievements/inspirations?
Klee: From what I have experienced, the biggest inspirations have been the powerful autonomous responses in dealing with the challenges presented by the compounded crises of this pandemic with capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy. In the face of outright fascism and extreme state violence, that so many folx had risen up and fought back last summer was remarkable and a necessary breaking point. What we witnessed being built with Black Lives Matter on the ground (not with the “official” organization) and anti-fascist organizing has been extraordinarily inspiring. The push back from the State with extreme measures of repression was also met with the formation of anti-repression crews and creative organizing. We were doing mutual aid by day and anti-fascist community defense by night. They’re not compartmentalized revolutionary tactics or something that needs to be prefigured for a revolutionary strategy, we’re already doing it.
Another challenge is the overall urge towards “normalcy” that many folx appear desperate to recover. Capitalism and this social order is recuperating itself but the cracks in the façade were there long before this pandemic, this crisis has only magnified the existing crises that were already there. So many more folx are desperate and see the ways this system is failing them. That’s crushing because the survival and suffering is real, but also inspiring in many ways because we’re not being crushed into defeat and total despair. This is the bitter sweet of the inspiration of mutual aid; it takes some hard fucking lessons for people to be reminded that there’s another way to live.
Ryan: I know the Taala Hooghan infoshop/space has played a role as a hub for some of that work, can you say a little about the history of that space and how its been transformed in the COVID context?
Klee: Táala Hooghan Infoshop was established in 2007 with Indigenous youth as an anti-colonial and anti-capitalist space. The space and various collectives and projects that have been involved with it have always focused on direct action and collective liberation. In 2011 or so we made an effort to purchase the building. Around the same time we started departing from the idea of an infoshop and started exploring what it means to build conflict infrastructure. We’ve also provided specific mutual aid efforts for unsheltered relatives for years so the extension of being a mutual aid hub was very natural. If you see the infoshop right now, every single room is dedicated to mutual aid hub storage, processing, and distribution. We host Kinłani Mutual Aid, Diné Healers Relief, Food Not Bombs, unsheltered distro, and more.
Ryan: You are making music (at least more publicly) again, can you tell us about the Appropriation project? How has it been inspired and informed by the events of the last year?
Klee: Appropriation is a performance art intervention against cultural genocide primarily focusing on the dehumanizing forces attacking Indigenous existence. This project is an exploration of creative and direct ways to stimulate aggression against the spectacle of settler colonial order.
One part of the overall project is an album that features songs written in the past 7 years, with most of them coming from the feature film I wrote and directed in 2016 called Power Lines. So while there are songs that have themes that are relevant to events of the past year, they’re more or less about autonomy. One song is called “Nothing For Ourselves”. The chorus is taken from the Zapatista assertion of mutual aid (“everything for everyone, nothing for ourselves”). It wasn’t written to address mutual aid as it’s expressed right now, but more so as an introspection and call towards reconnecting to our mutuality. My previous acoustic album, “The Unsustainable Sessions,” speaks more to the current situation. In many ways it was a bit of a prelude to the apocalyptic moments we are facing right now.
Ryan: How do you balance your creative output with your organizing? How do they intersect for you?
Klee: In my Diné teachings there’s no dichotomy between art and existence, so the balance is a bit natural the way I see and approach it. Punk music specifically has always been a cathartic transformative medium for me, especially dealing with all the shit we have to continually face in this world.
Ryan: What other projects do you have on the horizon?
Klee: I’m currently working with anarchist publisher Little Black Cart on a book addressing Indigenous Anarchy. I’ve been focused a lot on writing these days so I may also focus on putting together a compilation of zines and essays I’ve written over the years, but I’m also working on a board game. I figured I’d leave it to my patreon supporters to decide which one I should focus on this year. We’re also working to locate a space (possibly purchase another building so contact me if you got access to funds!) for an emergency shelter and residential culturally based treatment center for Indigenous unsheltered relatives. That’s an ambitious project though so it’s taking some time. At the infoshop we’re gearing up to remodel the kitchen and continue building out our capacity to support anti-colonial and autonomous organizing in this region. I’m also working on the Indigenous Action podcast. So, I have a lot on my plate right now.
Ryan: Where do you see the most hope and potential in contemporary anarchist organizing?
Klee: Hope is a complicated relative; I prefer to focus on what’s right in front of me while keeping objectives as clear as possible. As far as current anarchist organizing goes, I think there’s a lot to be disorganized right now. This is something I’ve addressed a bit with Accomplices Not Allies and I will dig into more directly with my contributions to the upcoming book on Indigenous Anarchy. For now, I’ll say that what’s encouraging are the possibilities that have presented themselves during this pandemic, especially as we’ve experienced how vulnerable this system is. The questions I constantly ask myself are, “How can we continue to seize on those vulnerabilities and wage effective attacks? How can we realize our autonomy and be ungovernable?”
Anarchist principles and ideas such as Direct Action, Mutual Aid, and anti-authoritarianism have been powerful mechanisms in the ongoing global counteroffensive to neo-liberalism/capitalism, outright fascism, and colonialism. We need to keep building on that in meaningful ways regardless of how the State and corporate media frames and vilifies us. We’ve seen some powerful organizing along those lines in what is called the Pacific Northwest, but we’ve also seen some of that crumble internally. So how can we locate even those smallest possibilities and make them grow to the point where we are the crisis that brings down the settler colonial capitalist order?
Ryan: Is there anything else you want to share?
Klee: As the genocidal legacy of residential/boarding schools continues to be uncovered, colonial statues are falling and churches are burning in so-called Canada. The “U.S.” and these other settler colonial nation states stand as monuments to the ongoing legacy of colonial violence of an entire civilizational order. Our work is to dismantle this order and shatter these monuments of colonial violence and replace the principle of political authority with the principle of autonomous Indigenous mutuality.
Ryan: Thank you Klee for your time and all your important work!
Related links & Resources:
Kinlani Mutual Aid
Covid 19, Resource Colonialism, and Indigenous Resistance
Indigenous Mutual Aid
Táala Hooghan Infoshop
Klee Benally on Patreon
Accomplices Not Allies
Klee Benally is a Diné musician, traditional dancer, artist, filmmaker, & Indigenous anarchist. Klee is originally from Black Mesa and has worked nearly all of his life at the front lines in struggles to protect Indigenous sacred lands. Klee provides strategic planning and direct action training with Indigenous Action. Klee has helped establish a range of organizations including Táala Hooghan Infoshop, Protect the Peaks, and is currently organizing COVID-19 response with Kinłani Mutual Aid and IndigenousMutualAid.org.
Ryan Only is a member of the Agency collective and has been an activist and organizer for the better part of the last 25 years.