“You give everything you got. It’s hard, It’s super challenging. You give all your life force to your art. so when you see the tiny moment when people are smiling, laughing, or being proud…”-Natalie Benally
Natalie Benally, Navajo, wears many hats. Or maybe the better metaphor is…dance shoes. Natalie is a member of the Native American contemporary dance company Dancing Earth. She also served as the voice of Dory for the remake of Finding Nemo, or Nemo Hádéést’į́į́. Oh, and she also has a full time job as the teacher of the arts back on Navajo Nation.
Natalie and I connected while Dancing Earth was visiting Crystal Bridges as part of a special exhibit on dance. We had a wide ranging conversation.
Natalie went to a Bureau of Indian Education school at an old fort on the reservation. It was only a matter of time, not only as a Native person but as a student, where she started to understand the context in which she lived as a Navajo person, at the fort where her people’s long walk ended. She became interested in this broader history. It reminded me of the documentary The Flat, where younger people several generations removed from traumatic events begin asking questions about their family’s history, evoking strong emotions.
We chatted about going away, and how that experience can either crystallize your awareness of who you are as a Native person, or people find it difficult to adapt and it becomes overwhelming. One of the amazing things about the experiences of people from all different tribes is how so many people can share similar experiences. This is one of those dynamics that many experience, whether they moved away for a job, education, they were taken away from their families, etc.
We discussed Natalie’s role as an educator in the arts. She shared how powerful it can be to help students gain self-confidence and find themselves.
And, of course we discussed Natalie’s experience playing Dory in Finding Nemo. There is an amazing effort underway to translate Pixar movies into the Navajo language. The first movie was Star Wars, but people soon realized they needed to do a cartoon movie to reach younger audiences. In a way, the movie ends up a perfect combination of her role as an educator, teaching people language and life lessons in her people’s language, but also as a performer.
I reached out to Dancing Earth when they were coming to town. And amazingly, we ended up not being able to discuss the company itself. Natalie had too many experiences to share. It’s an upbeat conversation, despite discussing some heavy issues. It’s the kind of balance we need in Indian Country.