Cathleen O'Connell


Cathleen O'Connell

When you think of Native American music, do marching bands, trumpets, clarinets and flutes come to mind? If not, Cathleen O’Connell has a story for you.

In her latest documentary, Sousa on the Rez: Marching to the Beat of a Different Drum, O’Connell uncovers a musical tradition that has largely been forgotten in America--the Native American marching band.

“I was fascinated that these bands existed, and have existed for so long,” she said. “It doesn’t fit neatly in this narrative that we all think we know about Native American life in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.”

O’Connell first came across the subject of Native American marching bands in 2001 while working on a video for the Fort Mojave Tribe’s cultural center in Needles, Calif. A Tribal elder approached O’Connell about video recording some of the Tribe’s oral history retained by elders.  When she recorded Tribal elder Llewellyn Barrackman, he told the story of the original Fort Mojave marching band that formed in 1906.

“My jaw dropped to the floor,” O’Connell said. “That’s when I knew there was an amazing story that combined both historical and contemporary elements.”

The first Native American marching band came out of the first Native American boarding school, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pa. The off-reservation boarding school was started in 1879 by Lieutenant Richard Henry Pratt of the U.S. military. Pratt believed it was the U.S. government’s duty to “kill the Indian and save the man,” and that boarding schools could facilitate that for young Native Americans.

Native American youth were coerced to attend the Carlisle School and other schools like it that began springing up around the country. The boarding schools became known for their harsh and humiliating treatment of Native students. They were often beaten for trying to escape, speaking their traditional language in place of English or violating the school’s harsh system of rules.

One of the tactics used by the boarding schools to turn Native American students into “good Americans” was to teach them Western-style music. In the early 1880s, Pratt started the marching band at the Carlisle School as a way to instill discipline into Native Americans.

Despite the school’s subversive attempts to wring the Native culture out of Native American youth through musical indoctrination, students wanted to be in the band. Students in the band, O’Connell said, could get out of other boarding school responsibilities and classes that they didn’t want to be a part of. Plus, band members travelled to perform, offering an escape from the confines of the boarding school. The Carlisle marching bands played for all the presidential inaugurations between the 1880s and the 1910s.

“The band was seen as a prestigious group to be a part of,” she said.

During her research, O’Connell came across records of Native American students deliberately applying to the boarding schools just to be in a band.

After graduating from the boarding schools, band members fanned out across America and found employment as musicians. Many started their own bands. The original Fort Mojave marching band came out of the boarding schools.

“They loved the music and played it because they enjoyed playing it,” O’Connell said.

Other bands sprang up in Native communities independent of the boarding schools. The bands, regardless of their origin, provided a form of community entertainment in the days before radio and television. Over time, the popularity of the bands began steadily decreasing as radio, recorded music and television were invented and became increasingly popular.

Today only four Native American community marching bands remain, O’Connell said. Sousa on the Rez profiles two of these bands--The Fort Mojave Tribal Band and the Iroquois Indian Band.  They are community bands, O’Connell said, featuring musicians of all ages from “eight or nine up to eighty or ninety.”

The Fort Mojave Tribal Band, in addition to performing classic marching band songs, also perform their traditional Bird Song music that has been transcribed for brass instruments. The cross-cultural transcribing process was the idea of Tribal elder Barrackman. Much to O’Connell’s surprise, the Fort Mojave Tribal Band was the only case she discovered of a Native American marching band, past or present, performing traditional music on brass instruments.

“It’s the ultimate hybrid,” O’Connell said. “As far as I know they are the first to ever do anything like that.”

When it comes to O’Connell’s work as an independent documentary filmmaker, she is most interested in stories that most people don’t notice--stories that are “right in front of your nose.”  This mentality led her to make Time Capsule: Message in a Bottle, a film about the history of time capsules.

“If something knocks me out of my complacency, makes me go, ‘wow,’ that to me is a sign that there is a story there,” she said.

O’Connell has a deep interest in music and has worked on numerous musical-themed documentary projects for PBS including Welcome to the Club--The Women of Rockabilly, Rock & Roll, and The Mississippi: A River of Song, a four-part series featuring musicians from Minnesota at the headwaters of the Mississippi river down to New Orleans. But, despite O’Connell’s musical interest she does not play any instruments.

“I am not a musician,” O’Connell said. “The only thing I play is the radio.”  

O’Connell has also worked on other productions about Native Americans, including a production role in the American Experience: We Shall Remain, a multipart PBS series about Native American history in the context of American history.

In Sousa on the Rez, O’Connell fuses together her interests of music and Native culture into a documentary she hopes will attract viewers who may not be interested in Native American culture but might be interested in a film about music. 

“For me, music is a universal language,” she said. “Everyone can relate to music.”

Written by Ben Kreimer.

Interviews conducted and edited by Ben Kreimer.

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