Navajo Nation Band to march in inaugural parade

By Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Times

TOHATCHI, N.M., January 10, 2013

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(Special to the Times – Donovan Quintero)

TOP: Section leader with the Navajo Nation Band Roqui Jones talks about her flute Saturday morning during a practice session in Tohatchi.

SECOND FROM TOP: Flute player Roqui Jones and others of the Navajo Nation Band practice Saturday morning in Tohatchi. The Navajo Nation Band will be participating in the Presidential Inaugural Parade in Washington D.C. on Jan. 20.

THIRD FROM TOP: Hand-written notes to "Old Comrades" are fastened to a Navajo Nation Band member's clarinet Saturday morning during a practice session in Tohatchi. The Navajo Nation Band will be participating in the Presidential Inaugural Parade in Washington D.C. on Jan. 20.

T he sound of the march "Old Comrades" echoed through the hallway of the Tohatchi Middle School as the Navajo Nation Band practiced inside the gymnasium.

The band was practicing for a good reason: They will be performing in the 57th Inaugural Parade for President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on Jan. 21 in Washington, D.C.

After being selected by the Presidential Inaugural Committee, the band sprung into action to arrange travel plans and find sponsors to pay the estimated $100,000 in travel expenses.

Band director Darwyn Jackson said the inaugural committee saw the band perform last year at the Red Earth Festival in Oklahoma, the America's Freedom Festival in Utah, and the Sun Bowl Parade in Texas.

At the start of rehearsal Jan. 5, Jackson told band members about receiving the invitation through a telephone call from one of the inaugural committee members.

After double-checking with the tribe's Division of Human Resources, which oversees the program, Jackson accepted the invitation but did not tell band members until after the inaugural committee issued a press release.

"I wanted them to be surprised like how I was surprised," he said.

The last time the Navajo Nation Band marched in an inaugural parade was in 1973 for President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew.

For this parade, band members will be dressed in dark blue velour shirts, white pants and, depending on the weather, moccasins or black shoes. They will also accent their attire with turquoise and silver jewelry.

Laura Begay of Shiprock is the drum major and has been a baton twirler for more than 30 years with the band.

She was also a baton twirler in the Shiprock High marching band in the 1970s and joined the Navajo Nation Band because of a love for marching music.

"I'm excited," Begay said. "I've always waited for this invitation. I knew it was going to happen one day."

After news outlets reported the band's participation, she received text messages from family and friends but waited for confirmation from Jackson before celebrating.

"I think this is an honor to march in this parade," Begay said.

Her daughter, Brydon Benally, is also a baton twirler in the band.

Like her mom, the nine-year-old is excited about traveling to the nation's capital.

"I think it's going to be really exciting to see everybody and Obama," Benally said then paused to add the First Family's dog, Bo, to the list.

Siblings Virgil Davis, 54, of Window Rock, and Brenda Anderson, 55, of St. Michaels, Ariz., have been members for more than 25 years and joined after playing in the Window Rock High band.

For Davis, playing in the inaugural parade is another outlet for the public to learn about the band and to teach young people music appreciation.

He said he joined the band to carry on its proud tradition of representing the Navajo Nation and it is also a family affair. Also in the band is his younger sister Jennifer Davis, niece Jessica Davis, and granddaughter Erin Cleveland.

As for participating in the parade, Anderson views it as an "honor" and a way to represent Native America.

Drummer Wachata Gruber shared that sentiment and added that some people are surprised to see a Native American marching band when they perform outside the Four Corners area.

With a heart for playing percussion, Gruber, 28, of St. Michaels, joined the band in 2001 after watching family members participate.

"It's amazing, more exposure and more confidence in the band and the Navajo Nation," he said about the opportunity then added that it also provides him the opportunity to represent his Hawaiian and Diné roots.

During lunch break, Gruber practiced with drummer Tyler Johnson in the middle of the gymnasium floor.

Johnson, 16, of Gallup, joined the band as a way to improve the percussion skills that he is learning from the Gallup High band and his interest developed after seeing the Navajo Nation Band playing in a number of local parades.

Like Gruber, Johnson is amazed by the inaugural parade invitation.

"I never thought this would actually happen," he said.

The inauguration activities will start Jan. 19 with the National Day of Service followed by the ceremonial swearing-in, the parade and the official inaugural balls Jan. 21, according to the inaugural committee website.

The list for parade participants continues to be announced. So far it includes the Native American Women Warriors from Pueblo West, Colo., the Utuqqagmiut Dancers from Wainwright, Alaska, and the Tribes of North Dakota.

As of Monday, 77 band members will be participating in the parade. They are scheduled to leave Jan. 18 from Window Rock and return Jan. 24.

In addition to "Old Comrades," they are planning to play the marches "This Is My Country," "Sharpshooters," and "National Emblem."

The band is still seeking sponsors. Interested parties may contact Lorraine Tabaha at the Division of Human Resources, 928-871-6599.

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