She’s one of those people that makes an office seem like a family. You may be lucky enough to know the type — if she hears that a co-worker has made reservations for an emergency flight to see a loved one, she sees to it that a ride to the airport is taken care of.
Kathleen “Katie” Benally, a finance and budget analyst for the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV, believes you should treat your neighbor as you would like to be treated.
How this woman got to this time and place – and attitude – shows yet again how goodness begets goodness, even as a shorthand recounting of her life, and that of her extended family, gives you a glimpse into an America that few of us have learned much about.
“Growing up Navajo in Arizona meant that my parents – dad was Navajo and mom Irish American – brought me home to a dirt floor log cabin with no electricity or running water,” Benally said. “But childhood was a joy for a little girl. Our place was off the reservation, outside Flagstaff. We played outside in the dirt with sticks and stones. We watched the sun go down nearly every night. We went for bike rides as a family. My dad had horses and grew a vegetable garden. We were a Navajo-Irish 'Little House on the Prairie.' Some of my earliest memories include my Uncle Tom and Aunt Pauline and their four kids living with us for a couple of years.
“I remember my dad…driving us, singing Navajo songs all the way. I remember my Grandma Zonnie picking up glowing coals in the fire with her bare hands. I thought it was magic but after doing it quickly for a while you develop calluses. I remember Grandma Zonnie sitting by the fireplace carding raw wool, spinning it into yarn, getting it ready to dye and eventually weave it into a beautiful rug.”
The early childhood that Benally had, though decidedly modest in modern America, was far different than that of her father, Freddie Benally, who was born in Big Mountain, Arizona, on the Navajo Reservation, the largest Indian reservation in the U.S., with some 300,000 people spread across 16 million acres in Arizona, New Mexico, and Southern Utah. He and some other children on the reservation were forced to leave their parents and attend the Phoenix Indian School, a boarding school where the children couldn’t speak their native language, wear their traditional clothing, practice their religion, or eat their foods. Their long hair, a source of pride, was cut short, generally into bobs or buzz cuts. The use of an Indian language by a child was met with physical punishment. Scholars researching the more than 300 Indian schools in the U.S. learned from survivors that a culture of pervasive physical and sexual abuse was present at the schools. Food and medical attention were often scarce; many students died.
U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has ordered an investigation into the effects of the boarding schools, including allegations of possible unmarked graves of children outside the schools that would be similar to the 1,000 such graves recently found near an Indian school in Canada.
“My father’s relatives said at the Indian school everything was done to erase the Navajo culture, to make you ashamed of it,” Benally said. “It’s not something you read in your American history books when you’re growing up. My dad’s relatives say it really affected his outlook on life, mixed him up, made him ashamed of who he was. He didn’t like to talk about it, or his time in the Army during the Vietnam War.” Benally’s dad was proud, however, of the 29 Navajo “code talkers” who eventually made it into American history books – men who were part of the Marines during World War II. Using the Navajo language, they created an unbreakable code allowing the Marines in the Pacific theater to coordinate massive operations, such as the assault on Iwo Jima, without revealing any information to the enemy. Freddie Benally died in 2006 at the age of 62.
Because her father – he worked as a communications worker with Mountain Bell and used part of his earnings to help other unemployed Navajos – said learning Navajo would hold his daughters back in the white man’s world, Benally said her dad never taught them the language. “Now I can’t communicate with certain relatives,” she said. “That really hurt during COVID-19 when I had relatives on the reservation sick and dying and I couldn't talk on the phone in the Navajo language when the reservation was closed due to the virus. My father was able to get jobs in the white man’s world but he lost part of his culture.”
Benally’s mother, Mary, was born in New York, earning a degree in economics from Manhattanville College in 1966. After she saw a picture of the Sonoran Desert, she decided to move to Arizona, where she met her future husband in Flagstaff. They had three daughters, ending their relationship in 1985 when Kathleen was 8. Kathleen and her sisters would follow their mother’s career in administration with the U.S. Forest Service to Virginia, Utah, and North Carolina before returning to Flagstaff. “My mother always had us volunteering through United Way, and she gave interns in the Forest Service a place to eat and sleep at our house. I was older then and first really learned a lot about the need to help people through her.'' After graduating from high school in Flagstaff and working in restaurants for a while, Benally moved to Las Vegas, learning from friends there was far more opportunity. While working at a Steiner’s Pub, she met her future husband, Jose Reynoso. In 2010 she graduated from UNLV with a bachelor’s degree in accounting, just before her son, Niko, was born.
Though Benally says the examples of her parents helping people had already made her recognize the importance of service to others, it was how people reacted after the birth of her son – he was born with profound hearing loss – that she says has made her even more sensitive to the needs of individuals and families.
“We honestly could not be where we are without them,” she said. ”We didn’t know what to do.”
Soon after Niko was born, people reached out to Benally’s family from organizations that included Nevada Early Intervention, which provides services to young children born with a disability; Nevada Hands and Voices, a parent-driven nonprofit that exists to support, encourage, and educate families of deaf and hard-of-hearing children; and the Alexander Graham Bell Association (AG Bell), which helps families acquire hearing technology, “They helped us realize Niko and our family could have a good life,” Benally said. “They were people who really cared.”
Shortly after Niko’s first birthday, he underwent surgery for cochlear implants, which are small, complex electronic devices that can help to provide a sense of sound to a person who is deaf or severely hard-of-hearing.
With the help of speech therapists, audiologists, and physicians – Dr. Matthew Ng of the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine department of otolaryngology has reimplanted one of Niko’s processing devices – the 11-year-old now is keeping up with his junior high class. “The special education teachers have gone the extra mile,” Benally said.
Benally, who joined the medical school in 2020 in large part because she wanted to be part of an organization committed to the best in health care, said the journey to ensure that Niko’s life can be as productive as possible is not an easy one. Yet she says it has been one that she, Jose, and her son can handle because people reached out, and continue to reach out, to help.
“There are times in life when it’s so hard to do it alone,” she said. “It’s important that we help each other get through difficult times.”