[Autograph Letter, Signed "Bob," Concerning Life in British Columbia and Describing the First Nations Skidegate Concert Band]
Aliford Bay, B.C. November 24, 1912. pp., in ink, plus a separate smaller one-page short note or fragment. Old folds, creasing, some soiling. Very good. Item #4024
A unique manuscript account of an encounter with the First Nations Skidegate Concert Band headed by Arthur Solomon, in a letter home from an itinerant worker in Queen Charlotte Islands, British Columbia. An extract of the letter reads: "...I hope to be able to keep my letters up to date. You will understand that shifting about during the fishing and sleeping in tents it was very difficult for me to attend to letter writing. The life of a nomad has its charms but it also has its drawbacks.... I should have liked very much to have been at home during the visit of the Ladies Band and to have met some of the musicians. We have a fine band here: all Indians. They have now for three years won all the competitions in B.C. for Indian bands and their conductor, a white man named Solomons is talking of taking them on tour through Eastern Canada and thence to the United Kingdom. He will rig them out in the old Indian dress which most of the young men may have seen but never worn. In fact they run strongly to American clothes of the latest cut. Solomons' idea is all right but I am afraid the Indian agent will not consent to their going owing to the danger of their getting whiskey in a country where there is no penalty for supplying them...."
The tradition of First Nations marching bands began in 1867 with the St. Mary’s Mission brass band. Typical of the militaristic and assimilationist style of residential school education, it became a popular feature of both Catholic and Protestant missions in the Canadian territories, as well as the Salvation Army. The bands themselves were taught European instruments and songs, though often, as exemplified in this letter, would perform in traditional Native dress. The Skidegate Concert Band was founded in around 1907 by a Haida man named W. E. Ross. By 1911 they were under the tutelage of Arthur Solomon, mentioned in this letter, a white musician from Victoria. He coached them through multiple wins of the J.S. Gray Cup competition held at Prince Rupert, and in 1913 they won permanent title to the cup in a battle of the bands judged by the visiting Duke of Connaught. The reported friction between Solomon and the Indian Agency in the letter rang true - Arthur Solomon was ordered off the Skidegate reserve by the Department of Indian Affairs for supplying alcohol to the community.
The letter writer’s observations regarding the band’s use of Native dress (“the old Indian dress which most of the young men may have seen but never worn”) speaks of the rather appalling irony in how Indigenous people had been asked to perform to white colonial audiences. Records indicate that the Skidegate Concert Band in fact had a uniform of dark green with gold trim, so the implication is that Solomon had proposed a second specifically Native costume be prepared for the posited European tour. This correlates with the requests made of Gertrude Bonnin, a contemporary Dakota writer and concert violinist, who was often asked to wear Native dress when speaking or performing for white audiences. A 1901 photograph of the nearby Nelson’s Cornet Band from Vancouver shows the Tsimshian band members wearing tabards painted with traditional designs over collared shirts and ties in some cases, with most band members posed with their brass and woodwind instruments, excluding the two ostentatiously aiming bows and arrows. The level of agency with which these bands were afforded to determine their own cultural representation when performing is unclear, but as hinted by this letter, there were clearly influenced by white ideas of race, performativity, and entertainment.