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Lefferts, P. 2022. NATIVE AMERICAN BOARDING SCHOOL BANDS AND THEIR BANDMASTERS: Project File 1: GENERAL TOPICS. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Digital Commons.


Copyright © 2023 Peter Lefferts

This is the first of five on-line text files in which I assemble my research notes about boys’ bands and their bandmasters at the US government’s Native American off-reservation inter-tribal boarding schools. It is material that covers a span of about fifty years from the 1880s to the 1930s. I principally have put into some kind of order a mass of data that draws upon online digital newspapers and genealogy databases. What follows here is not a finished, polished document. Everything on offer is still work in progress, inconsistent in formatting and with missing data and the occasional typographical error. I invite queries, amplifications, and corrections, which may be directed to The present document is a first draft of December 2022.


To establish a context for the Native American boarding school bands, we start with an important generalization. In the great Victorian era of bands, most were amateur, adult, white, male, community- or workplace-based recreational ensembles. With few exceptions, bands in the 19th century were not ensembles of children or women or family members, and they did not have a home in public primary or secondary schools. With roots in the military band tradition, civilian bands were mostly social organizations for adult males---grown men---"discoursing sweet music" as a kind of fraternal club with voluntary civic functions. Adult amateur men’s bands peppered the landscape of post-Civil War America. And a number of Native American communities (e.g., the Santee Sioux of Nebraska, the Oneida of Wisconsin, the Onondaga and Tuscarora of New York) of that era enthusiastically supported their own local men’s community bands.

The band boys were not all musical novices when they first arrived at school. The best of the school bands drew from roots in Native American community bands. The school bands, in turn, sent experienced musicians back to their peoples, helping to sustain or in some cases to inaugurate, local reservation and agency bands. Boys from First National communities with strong band traditions were often the most numerous and best players in boarding school bands. And, turning the directional arrow, bandsmen returning to their home communities initiated or strengthened local bands. The New York Tribune, January 23, 1910, p. 4, in an article on the accomplishments of school-educated Indians, reports on an example cited by Mr. Friedman (the Carlisle superintendent): "One who learned printing in the school shop began as a practical printer in Seattle, and later became a reporter and was writing special stories of Indian life for newspapers and magazines. He put to use his knowledge of music gained through his connection with the Indian band at Carlisle and organized a brass band among his fellow tribesmen, which was one of the finest in the section of the Northwest where he lived." And on the formation of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribal Band in 1906 as an outgrowth of government-run boarding school bands, see Los Angeles Times, December 23, 2006, "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. Etc."

Some US colleges and universities had bands by the late 19th century, emerging there as a kind of fraternal club or social organization and associated with football or with the ROTC. However, the trend toward training younger players, the movement of bands into US public high schools and lower grades, and the shift to co-educational band membership---so familiar a scene today---are all essentially 20th-century phenomena, especially dating from the years after WWI. Thus, Native American boarding schoolboys’ bands appeared thirty to fifty years before their public-school counterparts were established in large numbers. Particularly noteworthy is how large a percentage of the off-reservation boarding schools had bands. Further, reservation day schools and boarding schools often had bands as well.

One systematic 19th-century exception to bands outside the military as recreational ensembles for adult men---an exception that bears directly on the establishment of Native American boarding school bands---is the tradition of boys’ bands at reformatories (industrial schools) and military academies, both of these being institutions that operated under military discipline.

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