Cushman School Band

— by Kim Davenport

At first glance, the photograph above looks like many others of its era. A group of about twenty young men and boys pose in uniform with their band instruments, primarily brass and drums, the largest of which is positioned front and center and features the name of the group. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, any city around the nation would have been home to several such groups, often representing schools or civic organizations, and Tacoma was no exception.

Small military/patriotic bands have a history on this continent dating back to the colonial era. The British and the French both had strong traditions of military bands, and along with other cultural traditions, similar musical ensembles were recreated in the ‘new world’. Colonial militias and revolutionary forces used military bands to assist with training drills and in organizing troops on the battlefield. During times of peace, such bands often performed during parades or other special civic occasions.

Making our way to the west coast, and to the young Tacoma of the early 1900s, we again ponder the picture above (ca. 1918, courtesy of Washington State Historical Society), and how it in fact tells quite a different story than other photographs of musical ensembles from this era. The name on the drum gives us our first clue; the members of the ensemble give us the next.

This particular band was made up of Native American boys who were students at the Cushman School, one of many boarding schools operated by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs for the purpose of assimilating native children. Many of the students were Puyallup, although children were also brought to Cushman from other tribes from around the region. Removed from their families and tribal traditions, students were indoctrinated in the white man’s culture, in an environment of substandard teaching practices, abuse, and forced labor.


Native children in military band formation next to unidentified building on Puyallup Reservation, ca. 1895. Courtesy Washington State Historical Society


Music, of course, is integral to any culture – and varies with each culture as a reflection of that people’s understanding of their world and needs for personal and community expression. It is, therefore, just as powerful a tool for cultural assimilation as many others we may associate with the Indian Schools: cutting native students’ hair, changing their clothing, forbidding their use of their native tongue. Unlike most other stories shared here, which celebrate the creation or sharing of musical expression by choice, these photographs tell a story of music being used as a tool to break the connection between children and their culture.


As with any story from our nation’s complex history, there are unique exceptions to the rule. In this case, William “Chief” Arquette (1884-1943) provides such an example. Arquette, pictured at right courtesy of HistoryLink, was introduced to music at Cushman, where he was recognized by teachers as having an extraordinary talent. As apparently happened with other such students from around the nation, he was moved to other Indian Schools with more developed music programs, before eventually embarking on a career which would take him around the nation, playing as a member of John Philip Sousa’s band as well as in pit orchestras for Broadway shows in New York. One of his final gigs was as a trombonist in the Seattle Symphony during the 1941-42 season.

An awareness on the part of Europeans that Northwest Native American music was quite different from their own dates back to the earliest contact between the two populations. As early as 1579, and on many occasions in the 1700s, European explorers documented encounters with Native populations which included bearing witness to music – most notably, welcoming music.

At the same time that our government was actively pursuing policies intended to weaken or destroy native culture, individual scholars – especially after the availability of portable recording devices – embarked on efforts to record native language and music before they were lost. Thankfully, some of these efforts, coupled with the work of tribal members themselves, have facilitated the current resurgence in efforts by local tribes to reclaim their language and music. A few examples to close this post come to us courtesy of the Puyallup Tribe:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Built with

Up ↑