About 85 members and supporters of the Navajo Nation Band were bubbling with excitement as they prepared to travel to Washington, D.C. for President Barack Obama’s second inaugural parade, on January 21. “I am very proud of the Navajo Nation Band on their selection to the inaugural parade,” said Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly, in a press release. “Our Navajo people hold many talents and to play their musical instruments, before the President of the United States, is a honor and privilege.” The band, once known as the Navajo Tribal Band, marched in the inaugural parades for President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and President Richard M. Nixon in 1973.
Darwyn D. Jackson, the band director, said he was “very, very excited” after learning about the band’s selection. “I’m still astounded, still amazed, still surprised.” Surprised, in part, because he didn’t have to chase down this gig—it came to him. “Any other bowl parade or big event, you have to go through a lengthy process of sending in recordings, videotapes and pictures,” he said. Not this time: “I was contacted from D.C. We were hand-selected.”
Prospective members of the Navajo Nation Band have to be at least one-quarter Navajo, and they have to audition. The membership is diverse. Most participants hail from the vicinity of Window Rock, Arizona, where the Navajo Nation government is based, but some live as far as Albuquerque, New Mexico and Phoenix. Kids participate starting in middle school and can become members as early as 16. “The rest of us are all retirees or people who just love to play,” said Valerie Harrison, the band’s administrative coordinator and assistant to the band director. In February, she will have been a band member for 37 consecutive years.
The band gets some funding from the Navajo Nation, but each member provides his or her own instruments and uniforms. “The dedication of the Navajo Nation Band members is outstanding,” Shelly noted. “They have a lot discipline to practice on their own, provide their own instruments and travel. Their presence in parades is always noticed and enjoyed.”
And it’s enjoyed widely. Most recently, the band has traveled to the Red Earth Festival in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; the America’s Freedom Festival in Provo, Utah; and the Sun Bowl Parade in El Paso, Texas on Thanksgiving Day.
As far as instruments go, the band right now is officially composed of 13 clarinets, 12 percussion instruments, eight trumpets, six alto saxes, two baritones, a handful of flutes and a couple of tubas, Harrison said. Three baton twirlers lead the formation, but an expanded crew will be traveling to D.C. “Some former members have come back just to play for this event,” Harrison explained. Jackson added that the entourage of about 85 people will also include banner-carriers, Navajo veterans carrying honor guard flags, Miss Navajo Nation Leandra Thomas, and tribal leaders, including Shelly.
Jackson explained that band members alternate between two uniforms: The first features white pants, black shoes, and a black top with a stair-step design on the left side. They call that the parade uniform; it proudly displays the four sacred colors of white, turquoise, yellow and black. The second is a concert uniform including a traditional blue velour top, white pants, Navajo moccasins and traditional jewelry. That’s the one that everyone will pack for the trip to D.C., he said. “We just want to present more of a cultural uniform to the entire world. Of course, it’s going to be really cold up there. The blue velour uniform is a little thicker.”
Jackson said the band is prepared with a play list of popular music and traditional march songs.
He adds that performing in the parade may be the easy part—pretravel arrangements got a little daunting; Jackson and Harrison spent the New Year busily submitting photos and information for each of the band members requested by the Secret Service.
Jackson is entering his 15th year with the band. He marched during his junior and senior years of high school and continued through his college years, even though he was also in the marching, pep and concert bands at Arizona State University. He first served as band director in 2005 and 2006, stepped down to be a regular member for a few years, and was reappointed as director in 2012.
Although Jackson’s passion clearly rests with the band, it’s not a full-time job, he said. He works as a computer tech with the Gallup-McKinley County school district in New Mexico.
He is also an MC for nightly Indian summer dances, in Gallup, New Mexico.
When Jeannie Cecil, of Window Rock, travels on the bus to D.C., she won’t bring a musical instrument. Instead, she’ll pack her special emergency kit and extra copies of the music for the members who tend to forget theirs. Both of her children are in the band. Cecil plays the piano, but not a band instrument. “I like to take care of the others, make sure everything is okay. I’ll keep Tylenol, candy, gum, hair-ties. I’ve gotten to know who needs what,” she said.
Her daughter, Bekki, is one of the marching band’s three baton twirlers. “I’ve played the tuba in a local high school band,” Bekki said, “but I kind of stick with twirling because that’s what I’m good at.”
Bekki said that when she heard about the invitation to perform in D.C. her immediate reaction was: “ ‘No way; we’re not going there!’ I went to the Internet and watched YouTube [of past parades] and I was like ‘Whoa!’ I can’t believe we’re going. I’m still in shock.”
High school classes hadn’t resumed when she learned the news, so she had to take to Facebook to tell her friends. “Some of my friends who know I’m in the band are like ‘Yay! Sneak me in your suitcase, and we’ll go over there,” Bekki said.
“I think some of them are jealous, maybe because I get to miss school. But I’ll have lots of homework to make up.”
Of the upcoming performance, Bekki said, “It’s very exciting. It’s nerve-racking too. I’m like, ‘I can’t drop the baton! I can’t drop the baton!’ I can’t drop it for the president.”