Sousa on the Rez.

Anyone who has been part of a colonising culture will have experienced certain emotions in the late 20th century, if they are in anyway at all a sentient being. Dependent upon whether you are a descendant of the colonised or the colonisers, those feelings about the history of this process in your country may range from rage to guilt, from despair to rationalisation – or even to dismissal, a simple “who cares?”. The past is the past, right, we can’t change it.

Wrong: ask any historian. We’re always changing the past by the way we tell it (if not the vanished events, then the accounts thereof). One reason I was so interested to go and see Cathleen O’Connor’s film about Native American marching bands here last night was because of the reactions mentioned above. How would she tell it (a US Anglo filmmaker); how would her subjects tell it (the members of the four surviving bands that play the very white and very patriotic music of Souza)?

You could almost feel the post-colonial theorists salivating in the wings: why would indigenous peoples be playing the music of their oppressors in this day and age? Were they a subaltern class who needed liberation? After all, the tradition had come from those terrible government boarding schools where a stolen generation of Indian children had been forcibly assimilated into Anglo culture, in order to uproot their savage ways forever.

“Kill the Indian, and save the man” was the way one school administrator saw it – and as part of that, to wean them off their savage music, he gave them band instruments instead. Images of the children and young people all arrayed in military-style uniforms with trumpets, tubas and drums are a staple of victim-theory. Their sad faces elicit liberal guilt by the bucket load.

Yes, there were unspeakable psychic wounds involved in these actions of white society – my own mother was placed in a cold and unfriendly Liverpool orphanage from nine years of age to sixteen, so I have heard her cries – but these kids had something else. They had courage, they were creative and they adapted.

No, it should never have happened, but it did and there they were, so they made of life what children do – they took what was there in the moment and they played Souza. Some of even them lined up to join and play an instrument: the bands traveled, they got to leave the schools and move around the country, playing to appreciative Anglo audiences, comforted that the children of the savage Red Man could be so civilised. It was a new kind of adventure, to escape the confines of the institution.

Problem was, for the likes of the officials who wanted to eradicate tribal cultures, that when these young people went home, they reverted; that is, they took what they had been given by the Anglos and they re-entered tribal society – changed yes, but still enough of who they were when they left. You never fully forget your beginnings – especially when forcibly sundered from them.

Essentially, these young people retained the roots of their inheritance to create a new identity: neither what they might have been had they remained with their parents and their people, but not what the US authorities intended for them to become. White redskins.

Before long, according to those current members of the surviving bands and historians of Native American culture that O’Connell interviewed, hundreds of tribal brass bands had sprung up and they went everywhere, marketing themselves as authentic Indians playing the music the colonisers appreciated.

Except, they appreciated it too. They were never just an oppressed group playing for their masters, singing for their supper. They were what all of us are: manipulators of myriad cultural strands, agents of their own destiny, of what life had served up to them.

If there is one thing wrong with victimology, it is patronage, a condescension worse in some ways than the confident verities of those nineteenth century masters of Progress, who either killed off indigenous peoples or civilised them. I’ve learned from working with Māori in New Zealand that they sometimes prefer an ignorant redneck to a patronising liberal.

So the bands marched on. Yes, Leonard Peltier remains in jail after his controversial sentence for murder in 1977, a national disgrace; there will never be full redress and reparation for the thefts and the massacres of old – how can there be? But whatever a possible future of reconciliation and healing might bring, films like this which show us real people now, are a powerful testimony to human dignity, resilience and courage.

As a leader in the Iroquois Nation band said to the camera (responding to a comment by a New Yorker who said she thought Indians didn’t play “our kind of music”) – “She needs to get out of New York some more”.

So he just got on his instrument and played some more hot Souza.

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About paparoa

Writer and researcher.
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