Skip to main content

When tuba player Dahkota Brown runs into a rally or before performing at any event, his drum major shouts, “RTFO!” The phrase for the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band is “Rock the F out.”

“When it comes to discipline, the Stanford band is zero discipline,” said the Miwok citizen with a laugh and an emphasis on zero.

The university’s marching band is “pretty nontraditional.”

“Technically, we’re a scatter band,” Brown said.

So they don’t actually march. They run from one formation to the other.

What else makes the band nontraditional? No experience is required. It’s zero commitment meaning they welcome beginners to advanced musicians. This can also be current students, alumni or community members.

Members hardly wear bucket hats and military-style uniforms. If they do, they can customize it with buttons and pins.

Other university bands, like the University of Southern California, hate them. People yell at them and get upset because they're not traditional.

“One of our favorite games to do after [sports] games is to sit together and read mean tweets,” Brown said. “I think part of that nontraditional band component is excitement of irritating people.”

They search “Stanford band” on Twitter, grab a mic, and read them all.

The band had some help to get to this place of being “controversial or edgy.”

Stanford’s band was founded in 1893, at the height of John Philip Sousa’s music career. Sousa was a bandmaster and composer of American military bands. The “March King” built his reputation as the bandmaster through strict practices, discipline and overall quality.

The country caught on to his work as did Stanford. For 60 years, the university’s band would play with “in-step line formations, its dignity and its reverence.”

In 1963, the music department replaced Director Jules Schucat with Arthur P. Barnes. The band members refused to play two football games. Barnes told the students that he would allow the band to be student-run if they played at football games again. They did.

The decade’s counterculture and love for rock-and-roll music seeped into the university. The bandsmen wouldn’t march, the military uniforms weren’t worn, and the scatter band style was adopted.

The band’s history has a unique parallel with how Native people started out in marching bands.

In fact, the same year the band was formed, the Carlisle Indian School March Band performed at the Chicago World Fair.

John Troutman, curator of American Music at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, said the federal government introduced the marching band tradition in the late 19th century as a new assimilation tool in boarding schools.

This happened after the Dawes Act, or General Allotment Act was passed in 1887. The head of Native households would receive approximately 160 acres of land and individual Native people would get 80 acres. Their land would be held in trust for 25 years and after that they can receive United States citizenship.

Native people would receive citizenship whether they wanted to or not, Troutman said during a presentation at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Indian in Washington in mid-July.

Over time and until the 1920s, fewer Native people were granted citizenship because “the U.S. government had begun to determine that they were not competent to manage their own affairs during that period,” Troutman said.

U.S. citizenship started out as a right for Native people from the government’s perspective and shifted to it being a duty and responsibility, thus conforming to be American. To be American, or a U.S. citizen, meant dissolving Indigenous knowledge, traditions and practices.

It also mean musical practices.

Troutman looked into at the National Archives on the National Mall and found that “the federal government became obsessed with music and federal administrators at the office of Indian Affairs became absolutely obsessed with the musical practices of peoples in communities throughout the United States.”

He found “thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of pages of documents that are essentially surveillance reports of families and societies and other groups within these reservation communities that were dancing.”

“And so music was taken very seriously by the federal government of this time as seriously as every one else on these reservations was taking it as well because music became, in fact, quite a powerful source of resistance to these policies,” he said.

The popularity of marching bands grew at the same time Native people were being arrested for dancing on their reservations, practicing, playing their own traditional instruments.

“There was all kinds of really remarkable reports that are feeding into D.C. from reservations all over the country about this very practice,” Troutman said.

What did Native communities do? They became strategic with musical restrictions.

They flooded the desks of superintendents on reservations with requests to hold dances on Independence Day, George Washington’s birthday, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, before or after Lent, or New Year’s Day.

“Community members began finding all sorts of ways to strategize to really mandate that reservation officials enable them, give them the right to dance as they would see fit,” Troutman said.

Around the time of World War I, Native communities would tell reservation officials that they are entitled to dance to honor the returning soldiers and veterans. Native people volunteered for the war and were the highest serving ethnic group in the country at the time, too.

The federal government’s anxiety increased about these dances. They were right. The musical practice just expanded.

Troutman said Indian Affairs felt they would have had “better success perhaps to control musical practice” in the boarding schools and religious schools.

Part of assimilating Indigenous children in boarding schools into American society was handing them European music instruments to play European music. The government thought it would assist with wiping away their traditional musical practices.

Marching bands came into play.

The children at the Carlisle Indian Boarding School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, played 29 times per day while marching, Troutman said.

“Children marched through the grounds. They woke, they ate, they worked, they attended classes, they studied, they went to sleep through kind of the cadence,” he said.

Musical performances took place on campus as well as bugle calls.

On stage at the museum, Troutman recited a quote from assistant band master James Garvey, Santee, Santee Sioux.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

“One hour before breakfast, we’d go out and drill. I would stand over there and blow reveling in the morning. You’d wake him up and blow taps at night for the lights to go out,” Garvey said. “Strictly military. Oh God. You might as well be at West Point.”

The government hoped marching bands would discipline Native children.

They never thought it would backfire.

The children started to love the music. As the instruments became more accessible and produced more, students started to use them to express themselves.

Students played in marching bands, string bands, and jazz bands. They started to use the instruments as a form of expression rather than pleasing the school administrators.

When many Native people left boarding schools, they organized their own bands and started to play professionally. They traveled all over the world to play.

George Willard from Sitka, Alaska, was one musician who played in Germany and Austria in 1910.

“They began incorporating all of these instruments into their own vital musical expressions,” Troutman said.

Carlisle Indian School Band in 1908.

Carlisle Indian School Band in 1908.

Erin Fehr, Yup’ik and archivist at the Sequoyah National Research Center at the University of Arkansas, studied the individual Native musicians of that time who turned their musical experience at boarding schools into a career.

“Many of the American Indians excelled in music because they had this background of music being part of their culture,” she said. “And so after they left the boarding schools, they continue performing, teaching and even establishing their own musical ensembles and bands.”

One group marketed themselves as an all Indian jazz band and performed in Paris. Another group of Native people formed their own brass band in Metlakatla, Alaska, and another group was from the Meskwaki Nation in Iowa.

Native musicians played brass instruments, string instruments, or like Te Ata, who is Chickasaw, performed and acted.

Fehr said all of these musicians were “natural marketers.” They would often “play up the expectations of the crowd” by wearing bead work, buckskin, and feathers.

Dennison Wheelock, Oneida, would wear a full headdress because that’s what the audience wanted, Fehr said.

Despite the performance attire, concert goers always left with the “feeling that they had really listened to a great band play.”

Dennison and James Riley Wheelock, Onedia, made sure of that. The brothers lead the Carlisle Indian Band in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The band became internationally well-known. They even played at Carnegie Hall in New York and several presidential inauguration celebrations.

Their reputation had James Riley Wheelock proving wrong Pratt's famous phrase, “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”

In 1917, James Riley Wheelock said, “Anyone who has ever hear the Wheelock’s United States Indian Band play will testify that I have brought before the public a strong contradiction to that old saying, ‘That the only good Indian is a dead one’ and proved that an Indian with proper training is capable of mastering the highest art – music.” 

Bands upon bands formed and played. The Tulalip Indian Band, the Seneca Band, the Nez Perce Jazz Band, the Kamiah Indian Band in Idaho and more.

Today only four bands remain: the Navajo Nation Band, the Iroquois Indian Band, the Fort Mohave Tribal Band, and the Zuni Pueblo Band. The documentary “Sousa on the Rez” highlights these bands. 

Perhaps those Native children in boarding schools were wanting a piece of their identity in a place that tried to strip it away from them. Playing in the band also gave them a sense of community and provided an escape.

Brown, the senior student at Stanford, said band has been his getaway in school and he doesn’t have to worry about anything.

“Honestly, for me when I get to the band shack, it’s kind of like a moment to leave everything else behind. When you walk through those doors you could shed away your daily worries, regular stressors in life and be there to have fun and play music and see your friends and not worry about the piece that’s due, the paper you have to write,” Brown said. “You can go in there, have fun, play music, rock out and be yourself and have a good time.”

The band’s manager Dakota Willis, Sault Ste. Marie of Chippewa of Indians, has held the two-year title since January.

One thing she loves about the band is each person can be themselves. That’s important at a place like Stanford “where you feel like you need to be perfect.”

Willis joined the band at the same time Brown did. They both started out playing tuba with no experience and learned along the way.

The year they joined the Native American student organization and community wanted to do an awareness campaign around homecoming.

They decided on doing a campaign called “Defend Our Honor.” It focused on the mascot issue, which used to be the university’s mascot, and raising awareness of Native issues, primarily missing and murdered Indigenous women.

This is where their bandmate Emery Nez-Whitfield’s photo went viral. He banging his drum that was taped with words stating, “Justice for Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women.” 

As a manager, Willis is proud of being part of the band for a few reasons.

“This particular band, since it’s different from traditional marching bands, really gave me a space to be unapologetically myself,” Willis said who grew up playing the piano and guitar with formal lessons. “It’s not the traditional setting which makes it that more amazing.”

Another reason is Willis gravitates to “the idea of throwing responsible politics out of the door.” It allows the manager to “be radical and pushing boundaries.”

“It’s definitely changed my life,” Willis said who found her identity as a pansexual while playing.

Within the band community, communities formed. There’s a group for the LGTBQ people and ethnic groups.

Indigenous students in the band created “IndigeLine.” It started out as a community group in the tuba section and spread to the entire band, Willis said.

This group of Indigenous band students allows them to “be seen and heard and felt.”

“The platform that we’re given to express our identity is something not other marching bands really have,” Willis said. “I don’t feel like it exists in many places. It’s a pure love of music and a pure love of each other.”

ICT smartphone logo

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is the Washington editor for Indian Country Today based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @jourdanbb. Email: