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Native American marching band distracts a new generation from blight

NEEDLES, Calif. -- As the desert sun slides behind the mountains, and the temperature dips below 90, members of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe Band assemble in a parking lot to rehearse. Mothers put clarinets to their lips. Young men lug drums. Children carry flags and streamers. A 76-year-old trumpeter arrives in a wheelchair.

Two stray dogs take seats in the street, to take in the parade.

"Quickly, we're losing daylight!" someone shouts. Soon, they are parading through the bleak reservation village outside Needles to the cadence of American marching music -- an improbable scene that has been a tradition on the California-Arizona border for 100 years.

A century ago, dozens of Indian tribes nationwide had bands that played John Philip Sousa music and other patriotic anthems, as part of a government effort to assimilate the Native Americans.

The bands were an outgrowth of government-run boarding schools that sought, brutally at times, to erase Indian cultures, religions, and languages in the name of assimilation.

Only a few bands survive. The Fort Mojave tribe's is thought to be the oldest.

Through the decades, the band has weathered forces that killed others -- poverty, an exodus of young people, and opposition from Indians who saw marches as symbols of oppression, music to which ancestors were slaughtered.

"A lot of tribes dropped their bands because they were symbols of the boarding-school experience," said Melissa Nelson, an assistant professor at San Francisco State University.

"The Mojave made it their own music, and it helped them survive. . . . It's an incredible story," said Nelson, who teaches Native American history.

The band has played many roles for the tribe, most of whose 1,200 members live along the Colorado River in California, Arizona, and Nevada.

It has been a tool to fight bigotry, a source of pride in the face of unemployment and poverty, and a way to keep young people from drinking and drugs.

As the procession of two dozen musicians winds through the village past modest homes, people watch from lawn chairs and the beds of pickup trucks, past an 81-year-old woman whose late husband kept the band going.

"He lived for the band," Betty Barrackman said of her husband, Llewellyn. "He didn't ever want to let it die."

In 1906, Mojave elders enlisted Albert J. Eller, a German-born music teacher at the Fort Mojave Indian boarding school in Arizona, to help form a band to play patriotic marches. Their goal: to defuse racism by embracing the dominant culture's popular music.

"They believed one of the best ways they could combat this violence was with a tuba and a saxophone," Nelson said.

The marches were a sharp contrast to Mojave music, which centered on epic poems.

Roger Barrackman, Llewellyn's father, learned these songs from his Mojave elders.

But he also learned the clarinet from professor Eller at the boarding school. Later, Barrackman played in the band under Mojave musicians who succeeded Eller and directed the group during its pre-World War II heyday.

By the late 1950s, Needles had undergone an upheaval. The Santa Fe Railroad's rail yard -- and its jobs -- were gone. Young Indians left the deep poverty of the reservation in search of work. As the older generation died, so did widespread knowledge of the Mojave language and songs.

When Roger Barrackman, who had worked for the government off the reservation, returned and became band director in 1958, there was little left -- a handful of old men who performed sporadically on thrift-store instruments. Barrackman concluded the band's survival depended on recruiting a new generation of musicians.

"The band was dying," Irene McCord said. "He had a love of music and wanted to pass it on."

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