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Stories from the Indigenous Internship Program: Developing an Understanding of First Nations Brass Band Culture

The Indigenous Internship Program at MOA was developed by six Indigenous partners: the Musqueam Indian Band, the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, the Haida Gwaii Museum, the U’mista Cultural Society, the Nlaka’pamux Nation, the Coqualeetza Cultural Society, and the Museum of Anthropology at UBC. The program provides training opportunities for Indigenous people working in museums or Indigenous people who would like to do this kind of work. Funding for the Indigenous Internship Program is provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Our latest series of MOA Stories feature the fascinating research conducted by members of the Fall 2021 cohort during their internship.

Developing an Understanding of First Nations Brass Band Culture

By Marc Williams (Squamish/Wet’suwet’en)

According to Marc’s father, Marc’s great-great-grandfather might be in this photo. Squamish Nation brass band in 1889. Photo by J.S. Matthews, Courtesy of City of Vancouver Archives, AM54-S4-: In P139.2.

It was an exciting find! As I was going through a photographic archive online, I came across some black-and-white images from the late 1800s to early 1900s of men from my nation. The men are wearing uniforms and white hats and are holding brass instruments. In one photo they are posed and looking at the camera, the back row standing and the front row kneeling. In the other photo, the men are paying no mind to the photographer while they are in a field practicing their instruments.

I had not been aware of the history of brass bands within my community or any other Indigenous communities. Now I became interested in finding out more, as I am Squamish and Wet’suwet’en. During my time in the Indigenous Internship Program here at MOA, I came across these compelling photos while doing research for Curator Karen Duffek, who is working on an upcoming exhibition with guest curator Dr. Marcia Crosby (Tsimshian/Haida)—tentatively titled Mobilized: New Cultural Practices, scheduled to open in Winter 2023—on the topic of First Nations public self-representation in BC from around 1900 to 1969.

In my research about the brass bands, I found two articles that helped me to learn more. In her essay “Here comes the band!” historian Susan Neylan writes:

We should reflect not only on who was playing and who was listening but also on why this was the case. A common refrain heard over the course of conducting our interviews was that we can better appreciate these musical groups when we view them as institutions that connect family, community, and culture—a relational identity in the most literal sense: that of one’s lineage. Thus, one level of band performances was not intended for the colonial audience at all (Neylan 40).

Neylan’s article focuses on how each community’s culture is brought forward into the brass band, even if an outsider perspective might not see it as such. In the other article, “On the March: Indian Brass Bands 1866–1915,” written by archivist David Mattison, I learned about the existence of many different bands and about their accomplishments, but also how these bands formed from missionary and Salvation Army influences. He writes:

A third major force in the creation of Indian brass bands was the chain of schools for Indian education. The majority of these schools were run by Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries on behalf of the Department of Indian Affairs. All the larger residential schools had brass bands by 1903 (Mattison 7).

Members of the Squamish Nation brass band rehearse in a field in 1900. Photo by J.S. Matthews, Courtesy of City of Vancouver Archives, AM54-S4-: In P45.

Reading these two articles written by Neylan and Mattison gave me a deeper and more well-rounded idea of what brass bands are and the reasons why they are important. This got reinforced for me by talking with my dad, Bill Williams. I described the photos that I saw in the online archives and he said he knew about the brass bands. He told me that being part of a brass band was a vehicle to circumvent the laws that were in place at the time. From 1927 to 1951 an amendment to the 1867 Indian Act forbade “status Indians” from hiring lawyers or seeking legal advice, fundraising for land claims or meeting in groups. So, the members in the band would meet and practice their instruments, but that was just a cover for the discussions that they would be having about land and politics.

I am really looking forward to continuing my research further.

Mattison, David. “On the March: Indian Brass Bands, 1866 – 1915,” B.C. Historical News, Volume 15, 1981: 6 – 14
Neylan, Susan, with Melissa Meyer. “’Here comes the band!’: Cultural Collaboration, Connective Traditions, and Aboriginal Brass Bands on British Columbia’s North Coast, 1875 – 1964.” BC Studies 152 (Winter 2006 – 07): 33-66.