Montezuma Creek • The Martin sisters stood in a thatched shade hut beside an abandoned corn field on the northern Navajo Nation awaiting a command from a film director. It was early March, and the sisters, a junior and senior in high school, were giddy to be at their first music video shoot. The topic of conversation: Hot Cheetos.
More specifically, it was Hot Cheeto Babe, a character in their song “Piccadilly Billy,” which was released in February and, much to their surprise, was featured on a top five list of new world music on iTunes. A dozen residents of the area had come out dressed in traditional clothing to dance with the duo in front of the camera.
Like many of the songs written by the sisters Tewakeedah and Dachuneeh Martin, who are members of the Diné (Navajo) and Dakota Sioux nations, “Piccadilly Billy” is simple and lighthearted. It’s told from the perspective of a teenage girl admonishing Hot Cheeto Babe over a mutual crush, Billy.
“He’s so cool, you’re just a flame,” the lyrics read. “You don’t even know his name. You like Kickstart, Monster, Gatorade. Don’t you know he likes Kool-Aid.”
“It’s like a love triangle type of thing,” Dachuneeh explained.
“And it’s pretty much about all the snacks a teen should not be eating,” laughed Tewakeedah.
Another track on the album “Epiphany,” which the Martin sisters recorded with Diné elder Alger Greyeyes and the Todi Neesh Zhee singers, is a love letter written to a “K-Pop dream boy overseas,” referring to the popular genre of South Korean music. (“Come to my Rez, marry me,” Dachuneeh sings in the song.)
A third is about Spongebob Squarepants. And all of their songs are in the style of traditional song and dance numbers: harmonized chanting in Diné bizaad, the Navajo language, and English singing to the beat of a single water drum.
As much as the sisters enjoy humorous lyrics, they take their role as musicians seriously. Their hope in crossing modern themes and traditional music is to get other Diné youth interested in the style of songs that have been sung on Navajo Nation lands for hundreds of years.
Pete Sands — a Diné photographer, filmmaker, musician and mentor to the sisters — agreed to make the music video in March to bring their songs to a wider audience. The extras in the film performed a skip dance in the shade of a cottonwood tree, still leafless in the spring, as Sands directed with help from film producer Sahar Khadjenoury, also of Montezuma Creek. Others watched from lawn chairs, cheering on the dancers.
Cases of the coronavirus had been confirmed in the United States, and a few people bumped elbows instead of shaking hands. Still, the impending pandemic felt far off for many residents of the rural Navajo Nation, where no cases had been discovered.
Three months later, the world feels entirely different. “So much has changed,” Tewakeedah, the older sister, said recently. “When we did the video, nobody expected any of this to happen with [COVID-19]. ... It hit everyone in the face.”
Tewakeedah graduated from high school in a virtual ceremony in May, and will be attending Northern Arizona University in the fall to study health sciences and public health. “I felt accomplished, and I was proud of myself, even though I didn’t get the graduation I wanted,” she said.
Other plans have been disrupted as well. Sands made a 50-second cut of the music video in March, but has yet to complete the final version. As an employee of the Utah Navajo Health System clinic in Montezuma Creek, the last several months have been nonstop work for him.
San Juan County, where Montezuma Creek is located, has the highest per-capita rate of the coronavirus in Utah, with the majority of cases on the Navajo Nation. The county has had the highest testing rate in the state, thanks to repeated collaborations between the Utah Navajo Health System and the Utah Department of Health, a key piece of the strategy public health officials are using to slow the disease’s spread.
The Utah Navajo Health System has acknowledged the importance of aid efforts as well, and Sands transitioned from a communications role to overseeing a new food distribution program on the northern Navajo Nation in March.
Some of the earliest volunteers for Sands’ relief efforts were the Martin sisters, who helped make door-to-door deliveries to community members.
“Going around with Pete was really inspiring,” Dachuneeh said. “One of the hardest things is to see people that need it. You just sit there in awe, and you have this sense of relief, knowing that they’re being helped.”
The coronavirus pandemic appears to have peaked on the Navajo Nation in late April, but the relief work is still needed. One of the delivery program’s goals is to make it easier for high-risk populations to stay safely at home.
Delivering aid to older residents of the area was a blessing for the sisters, who have written several songs — “Superman Grandpa,” “Morning Song” — honoring elders, who are most susceptible to the virus.
“In the Navajo culture, elders have always been very sacred because they hold all the teachings and the culture,” Tewakeedah said. “With everything that went down in the past, a lot of our culture has been stripped away in boarding schools,” which makes the transmission of knowledge between generations even more important.
Last year, the duo performed as far away as New York and Washington, D.C., but live performances haven’t been possible since the pandemic began. The sisters said music has helped them get through the last few months, however, and they believe it can help the world heal from the pandemic.
“I feel that music really does bring people together,” Dachuneeh said, “and I think that’s what we need right now.”
Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.