Native American Times’ Jessica Kinzer reports on new documentary set to be released in January.

Sousa on the Rez: Marching to the Beat of a Different Drum,” is documentary aiming to break down stereotypes.

Kinzer explains:

“Sousa on the Rez” is a American Public Television film. (Photo courtesy of Native American Public Telecommunications)

    LINCOLN, Neb. – The phrase “Native American music” may not invoke tubas, trumpets, and Sousa marches, but marching-band music has been a part of Native culture for more than a century. Vision Maker Media is proud to announce the release of the “Sousa on the Rez: Marching to the Beat of a Different Drum,” a film by PBS-veteran filmmaker Cathleen O’Connell. Combining portraits of contemporary bands and archival material, the half-hour documentary offers an unexpected view into this little-known musical scene.

    The film profiles two contemporary Indian community marching bands—the Iroquois Indian Band of upstate New York, and the Fort Mojave Tribal Band of Needles, California. The documentary traces the origins of these groups to their respective foundings over a century ago and uncovers a secret history of the 20th century, when “all-Indian bands” toured the U.S. and abroad.

    “I was working for the Fort Mojave Tribe in the summer of 2001 collecting oral histories of its Tribal members. The first story I was asked to record was that of the Fort Mojave Band. I had never heard of Native bands playing Western-style music and I immediately knew there was a great untold story here,” recounts O’Connell.

    Music is one arena where even today, Native Americans continue to face stereotypes within American culture. One common assumption is that Native people only play limited types of music and instruments such as drums or flutes.

    The Fort Mojave Tribal Band sees it as their mission to combat these stereotypes. Recently, they celebrated their centennial and are still pursuing the same goals as their founders did—to break down prejudice and discrimination using music as a vehicle.

Across the country, the Iroquois Indian Band has a similar approach. Band director Brian Henry sums it up this way, “I think they expect more ‘Injuny’ stuff—but we play music.”

For listeners who still consider this musical mash-up odd or curious, historian Philip Deloria offers this perspective, “What’s worth noting is that for Indian people who are experiencing these things, they’re not the prisoners of that kind of white-cultural infrastructure. They play Sousa marches and are quite happy to do it. And, they can like it. The question that a white audience asks of ‘isn’t this a little weird?’ doesn’t necessarily even occur to these folks.”

In addition to taking part in community events both on and off the reservation, some all-Native marching bands are pioneering new musical forms—fusing brass band music with more Indigenous musical forms. The film features a ground-breaking performance of traditional, Native vocal song that has been rearranged for brass instruments.

Combining profiles of contemporary bands with fresh, historical research and in-depth interviews with today’s leading Native cultural scholars, Sousa on the Rez: Marching to the Beat of a Different Drum is a documentary that challenges viewers to expand their definition of Native American music and broaden their understanding of contemporary Indian life.

In the end, music is the universal language. Iroquois Indian Band member Jeremy Printup summed it up best, “Whenever we play Sousa, I get that ‘bum da bum’ feeling. I can’t sit still!”

To watch the film’s trailer, visit Sousa on the Rez: Marching to the Beat of a Different Drum, an American Public Television (APT) offering, will be available to Public Broadcasting stations Jan. 6. For broadcast information in your area, please visit APT’s station finder at or view the film’s APT webpage at

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