This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

The Band of Metlakatla, Alaska

13 March 2015

In the 1900s the humble postcard served as that era's Social Media. For a few pennies a traveler could buy a few postcards from a newsagent, scrawl a quick message, drop it in a village postbox, and magically connect to friends and family thousands of miles away. If you were confined to days aboard a ship, you might purchase several postcards expecting to send them all at the next port of call, but as often happens on holiday trips, some cards are mislaid and never make it into the post. I think this postcard is one of those. A brass band poses on a dock. The caption reads:

A Portion of Metlakahtla Indian Band,
on wharf at Metlakahtla with
Rev. Wm. Duncan

This postcard was never mailed so there is no addressee or postmark, but the undivided back dates it to before 1907. On the front an anonymous traveler wrote a brief all purpose message. The kind one would repeat on multiple cards.

  I have been here Nothings but Indians live here Nice little place 

The 11 musicians all have brass instruments except for two clarinetists on the right. They do not wear uniforms but are dressed in proper town suits of the period. Each bandsman holds sheet music and there appear to be more part books scattered on the deck next to an open case. Behind them stands a man with a white beard.

William Duncan (1832 – 1918)
Source: Wikipedia
His name is William Duncan (1832 – 1918), an Anglican missionary from Yorkshire. As a young man he joined the Church Missionary Society, an English evangelical group esttablished to support Protestant missions around the world. In 1856, the CMS sent Duncan to the Pacific coast of British Columbia where he worked in the Tsimshian communities near Prince Rupert, B.C. With his first converts he founded a Christian community in Metlakatla, B.C.

Reverend Duncan was a product of the changes taking place between the so-called high church and low church theologies in the Anglican church. As a missionary living with aboriginal people, Duncan developed an independent style that increasingly put him at odds with CMS and Anglican doctrine leading to his expulsion from the society in 1881. Still committed to his followers in the Tsimshian tribe, he then remade his mission into a nondenominational "Independent Native Church."

In 1887 Duncan moved his small church community to Annette Island, Alaska, about 300 miles south of Juneau, AK on the territory of the Tongass tribe of Tlingit, bringing approximately 800 Tsimshians in a canoe voyage from "Old" Metlakatla, B.C. to "New" Metlakatla, Alaska.

* * *

From his first encounters with the Tsimshian people, Rev. Duncan recognized a musical ability in his congregants that he felt would respond to Western music. In 1871 he acquired enough instruments to create the first brass band of native people in British Columbia. He arranged for a former Prussian bandmaster to spend a couple of months teaching the native men and boys how to play music. This photograph of 8 Metlakatla musicians was taken in 1885, though eventually there would be 21 players in the band. This image and the ones that follow are all borrowed from Wikimedia and preserved in the U.S. National Archive.

{Click on images to enlarge them to full screen.}

Metlakahtla Brass Band, c1885
Source: Wikimedia

This excerpt, which I found on the website History of Brass Bands in British Columbia by Brian Stride, comes from The Devil and Mr. Duncan, A History of the Two Metlakatlas by Peter Murray and gives an account of how Rev. Duncan's brought music to Metlakatla, B.C.

"In Ireland Duncan bought a weaving machine which he learned to take apart and reassemble. Then he boarded a steamer for New York. He had to wait almost a week in San Francisco for a ship to Victoria, but made good use of his time by learning a new technique for dressing deer-skins, and visiting another spinning mill. He also took music lessons on a brass band set donated in England for the mission. A quick learner in both mechanics and music, he grasped enough about each instrument to teach the natives the basics."

"When they first saw the instruments the Indians thought they were magic. Their only music apart from drumming consisted of a "croaking noise," as Duncan described it, made by blowing into an animal bladder, as well as the sound made by blowing on blades of grass. Otherwise, the men chanted and the women clapped hands. "I took a cornet and played a tune they knew, God Save the Queen," Duncan recalled. "They were all amazed and looked at one another in surprise. I took the instruments down off the wall and gave one to each and told them to go out in the bushes and blow. It was bedlam." But the Indians had a flair for music and it was not long before they were playing enthusiastically and well. A music teacher was imported from Victoria for two months to give advanced training. A brass band was formed, the first on the coast. It became a trademark of Metlakatla. Duncan later acquired some old U.S. army uniforms from Alaska for the bandsmen to wear. They polished the brass buttons as brightly as their instruments."

* * *

The village of Metlakatla, Alaska is about 120 miles north of Prince Rupert, B.C. by the sea route, as there are no roads that connect this coastline of hundreds of islands.  In 1900 the population was only 465 residents, but the community resembled prosperous Pacific coastal towns of larger size. This may have been the result of the great 1896 Klondike Gold Rush.

Metlakatla, Alaska 1889
Source: Wikipedia

This next image shows 21 bandsmen posed on a street in the village. Their fancy uniforms may be the surplus military uniforms that Duncan got from Alaska, though like most manufactured things in the Pacific Northwest, they most likely were imported from San Francisco. Notice that on the left this brass band has a clarinet and piccolo, the woodwind exceptions typical to this era, that played the high treble parts of the brass band's music.

Metlakahtla Brass Band, c1885
Source: Wikimedia

The traditional band formation for outdoor performances was to have the musicians stand in a circle, facing inward toward the bandmaster. This undated photo shows the village during some kind of patriotic celebration, perhaps the Fourth of July to judge by the several American flags, with the band playing in a circle and townspeople looking on. In the background left is the church that Rev. Duncan built for his congregation.

Celebration in Metlakatla, Alaska c1899
Source: Wikimedia

Here the Tsimshian band is lined up in front of that same church. No date is given, but probably around 1900. The large windows, decorative exterior trim, and gas lamp suggest it was a cultivated community by this time.

Band in front of Church at Metlakatla, Alaska
Source: Wikimedia

This photo shows the band and congregation marching from the church with an Alaskan mountain range in the background. 

Band marching in front of Church at Metlakatla, Alaska
Source: Wikimedia

* * *

In the postcard, one musician on the far right looks directly into the camera. He cradles a small E-flat clarinet in his arm and the music part books are at his feet. When I was doing the research on Metlakatla, British Columbia, the Wikipedia entry had a list of its prominent people. One name was Benjamin A. Haldane, photographer with his own Wikipedia page which included his photograph.

Benjamin Haldane (18724 – 1941)
Source: Wikipedia
I feel certain it is the same man who looks at us from the band postcard. His full name was Benjamin Alfred Haldane (1874-1941). Born in Metlakatla, B.C., at age 13 he and his family went with Rev. Duncan on that long canoe trip to Alaska to establish Duncan's new Tsimshian community on Annette Island.

Despite a limited formal education, which Duncan restricted for the Tsimshian people under some notion of controlling them, B. A. Haldane found ways to learn new skills and became a successful merchant and grocer in Metlakatla. In the 1890s he became interested in cameras, and in 1899 opened his own photography studio which he operated until around 1910. His camera recorded the Tsimshian people and their life in Metlakatla during a time when their age-old Indian ways were evolving into modern 20th century customs. His photos might have been lost forever had they not been rescued from the trash dump in the 1990s. They are now considered a treasure of his Tsimshian people, and indeed of all the people of North America..    

Benjamin Haldane was also a talented musician who not only played in the Metlakatla band but became its leader too. In addition to the band, he performed as organist and choir master at the Metlakatla church.

Rev. William Duncan was a man with a vision who succeeded, arguably for better or worst, in changing a community in a very dramatic way. Today there are still troubling conflicts as Native people like the Tsimshian struggle between preserving their ancestral traditions and living with the complications of the 21st century. What I find interesting is how a simple postcard can contain not only the history of a place, a time, and a people too; but also tell the stories about two individuals who used music to change lives.

Calling Metlakatla a Nice little place, now seems a gross understatement.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everyone loves puppies.


Wendy said...

Reverend Duncan's story really shines in this piece. His story is the stuff Hollywood loves -- why hasn't there been a movie?

Bob Scotney said...

Yorkshire is famous for its brass bands. How appropriate that the Rev Duncan did so much.

Little Nell said...

A story of something growing from small beginnings.Well done Rev Duncan

Helen Bauch McHargue said...

Nice sleuth work connecting the photo from the band to the photographer. Another great story.

La Nightingail said...

In the photo of the band playing outside in a circle, some of the women in the second circle appear to be holding instruments? One in particular has a drum. I wonder if Rev. Duncan eventually created a women's musical group? That would have been nice. Singing in a circle is also a great idea as you can hear all the harmony.

Anonymous said...

He certainly helped create a prosperous community. Quite a feat for such an outpost. A fascinating story.

Barbara Rogers said...

You have certainly done great background gathering here, and I have to wonder where it all started? With the post card, or the book about the Rev. Duncan? Or the photographer? No matter, it is a well woven story.

Karen S. said...

Surely someday Wendy's thoughts may become reality. He'd be worthy of it. I'm always fascinated with photos and stories from Alaska too.

Ray Baines said...

B.A. Haldane was my Great Grandfather,I live here in Metlakatla,Alaska.


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