Natalie Benally’s theatre career has come full circle. When she was a teenager, her high school did not even offer drama courses. Now, she teaches in its brand-new theatre arts program. In order to complete this cycle, her career intersected with Fort Lewis College—twice.
The performance bug bit Benally (Theatre, ’10) early on. “It struck me as a kid,” she says. “I remember growing up in church, around music and singing. I developed a love for it early on.”
Performance opportunities were rare, though, in Fort Wingate, New Mexico, in the Navajo Nation. But during her elementary school years, a music teacher put on an annual Christmas play, which sparked Benally’s love for performance. “Everyone in the town would gather and watch it,” she recalls. “It was a big deal throughout the town.”
Then the annual play shut down. “I reached middle school and the teacher left,” Benally says. “That whole program just fell apart because there was nobody there to spearhead it. So after that I was just a regular teenager.”
She intended to study engineering and science in college. Then she sang the national anthem at a high school basketball game. There, Benally rekindled her passion. “Being able to stand up in front of people and share my gift made me decide to look for a theatre program,” she says. “Thankfully, FLC had one, and I decided to go there and really immerse myself in the theatre environment.”
While Benally ultimately enjoyed her experience at FLC, it was not without its early challenges. Her lack of theatre experience intimidated her at first. The environment was wholly new, and she struggled to catch up on the technical knowledge she had not learned in high school.
She also fought culture shock being away from her family and community. “That was definitely the scary part because I had never lived anywhere else,” she says. “It was either go home and be where I was comfortable, or stay and stick it out and try my best to find my niche.”
Benally stuck it out, and the FLC Theatre Department helped her make that transition. “The first year, I learned so much, and the people there really took me under their wings,” Benally says. “It really felt like a family and not just a program.”
After graduating, those nurturing experiences inspired Benally to volunteer at her old high school, where she shared the transformative power of the theatre arts.
“I started working with this group of kids that were considered to be the ‘bad’ kids,” she says. “They had discipline and academic issues. I realized there was a need. A lot of the kids wanted to dance and perform. There just wasn’t anywhere for them to do it.”
Benally’s students responded to the creative outlets she offered. “The fact that they were doing something artistically really helped them,” she says.
That experience of motivating others inspired Benally yet again. She has returned to FLC—this time to earn a teaching certificate in the Teacher Education Department's Post-Baccalaureate Licensure Program.
“That was when I decided that I would go back to school and become a teacher,” she says. “I need to be there, to be able to support the students, and to tell them that things are possible as long as you put the work and determination behind it.”
So the circle closes once more: This fall, Benally is completing her student teaching at her own high school in Fort Wingate. And now, the high school has a theatre program. For Benally, these opportunities are critical because of the all too dreary possibilities for children in her hometown.
“We’re talking about alcoholism and other issues that plague many reservation communities, like drug addiction and emotional, physical, and sexual abuse,” she says. “We’re trying to change and not allow those things to reign over us. This is why I feel I was meant to return home, to be able to spearhead that movement.”
Whereas Benally’s transformation through theatre education came after high school, “these kids are going to be able to get that a lot sooner because teachers like myself are going back to bring that exciting world to them,” she says.
“It’s my goal in life to let people know that it doesn’t matter where you’re from, or what other people think of you, or what they think you can or cannot do,” Benally adds. “If you put everything you’ve got into it, regardless of where you’re from or what you have against you, you have the ability to do it.”