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A Sousa band of Indians

Formed in 1906 to ease racial tensions, the Fort Mojave tribe ensemble still pumps out patriotic music and continues to change members' lives.

December 23, 2006|Mike Anton | Times Staff Writer

Needles, Calif. — AS the desert sun slides behind the mountains and the temperature dips, members of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribal Band assemble in a parking lot to rehearse. Mothers with clarinets to their lips. Young men lugging drums. Children carrying flags and streamers. A 76-year-old trumpeter in a wheelchair.

A pair of stray dogs take seats in the street, ready for the evening's 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 here on the California-Arizona border for 100 years.

A century ago, dozens of Indian tribes nationwide had bands that played the music of John Philip Sousa and other patriotic anthems. 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 their 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 of American Indian Studies at San Francisco State University. "The Mojave made it their own music and it helped them survive.... It's an incredible story."

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's been a tool to fight bigotry. A source of pride in the face of unemployment and poverty. A way to keep young people away from drinking and drugs.

Tonight's noisy procession of two dozen musicians winds through the village, past modest homes where people watch the show from lawn chairs and the beds of pickup trucks. Past an 81-year-old woman whose late husband kept the band going for decades through force of will, like his father before him.

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

NEEDLES in the early 1900s was a cultural crossroads surrounded by mines and farms and a popular stop-off for travelers on the Santa Fe Railroad, which supported a job-rich maintenance yard and an ornate depot and hotel where guests ate on custom china.

Mojave Indians, who largely built the depot, were the target of taunts and violence from newcomers who flooded into the area after the railroad punched through in the 1880s.

In 1906, Mojave elders enlisted Albert J. Eller, a German-born music teacher at the Ft. 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. "Music is the universal language. Instead of being spat at by people coming through Needles, now they were being applauded and cheered."

The punchy marches were a sharp contrast to traditional Mojave music, which centered on epic poems that served as the tribe's oral encyclopedia.

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.

In those years, the community band traveled widely throughout the Southwest, playing at county fairs, rodeos and official ceremonies. It performed at Hoover Dam's dedication and at a reception for California Gov. Earl Warren. But its regular gig was in Needles -- performing every Saturday night for more than 25 years outside the town's busy movie theater.

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

The marching band almost disappeared too. 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," said Irene McCord. "He had a love of music and wanted to pass it on. He went door to door, begging for pennies and dimes, and students."

McCord was 8 when Barrackman got her to take up the trumpet. She remembers Barrackman as an exacting teacher unafraid to swat a lackadaisical student.

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