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May 1, 2021Stephen Laifer -
It’s a safe assumption that Don Harry is the world’s only professional tubist (the correct term for a tuba player) who is also a member of the Delaware Nation. That’s a singular distinction, and a proud achievement for an American Indian (another correct—or at least preferred—term, vs. Native American) kid originally from Anadarko, Oklahoma. “My dad was full-blooded, born in 1892,” says Harry, a long-time member of Local 92 (Buffalo, NY). “My Indian half is Caddo and Delaware, two allied tribes. And that’s a complicated story.”
Harry’s stories are often complicated, but they’re always engrossing. And that’s to be expected given his culture’s rich tradition of storytelling. He explains how the two tribes got together following the Indian Removal Act of 1830, signed into law by President Andrew Jackson: “The law removed tribes to Federal territory west of the Mississippi River in exchange for white settlement of their ancestral lands. Indians and Blacks were also not allowed to take part in the Oklahoma land grab.”
Harry says the end result was that the entire state of Oklahoma basically became a resettlement camp for American Indians of various tribes. Harsh reality, but American history is often like that. “My father fought in WWI and wasn’t even an American citizen until 1924,” Harry says. “It was likely illegal for my parents to get married,” he says, adding that his mother is white.
Growing up in this environment was an education in itself. “Half the students in Anadarko were also American Indians from various tribes,” he says. “But music in schools was strong.” In fourth grade, Harry discovered a sousaphone hanging on the wall in the band room and decided to swap it for his clarinet. That was in 1952. He has never put down the tuba since, winning a scholarship to the University of Houston and following that with his first orchestral job in 1972 with the Oklahoma City Symphony. He joined the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra as principal tuba in 1973, remaining in that chair until his recent retirement.
Throughout his professional years, Harry endeavored to maintain tribal traditions and cultural pride. He is a past president (for 10 years) of Neto Hatinakwe Onkwehowe, Cayuga for Here Lives the People. “Neto is an American Indian arts advocacy group in Buffalo representing the Six Nations group, the remains of the Iroquois Federation and the Tuscarora from North Carolina,” he says.
Harry has presided over past Neto exhibits about wampum belts, woven ceremonial artifacts made of beads from whelk and quahog shells. These belts were used to call meetings, record laws and treaties, and—of course—to tell stories. Another exhibit, Tribalism and Tradition, featured Harry’s large collection of rare tubas and other instruments. “I have way too many antique tubas,” he interjects. “I’m always fighting off the temptation to buy one more. But along the way, I discovered that old American tubas sound better than any of the new ones.” He says many of these same instruments were played in early federal Indian schools. Among these is a sousaphone played by John Kuhn, a member of the Assiniboine Tribe of Montana, who played with the John Phillips Sousa band.
One important Neto exhibit featured the Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, where Harry taught for two summers and of which he has, unsurprisingly, many vivid stories. “The first thing we were told was that the school’s goal was to produce some ‘decent American citizens.’ Boys were groomed to be farmers, girls to be maids for rich people.” He also taught non-English-speaking Indians from all over the country, some older than him, and he had to teach them more than just music. “I once spent weeks with two Navajo students going literally word for word through US history books.” Thankfully, he says, things have come a long way. “Back then, it felt like a reform school. Nowadays, Riverside students proudly speak their own languages.”
Music education has remained a constant thread through Harry’s professional life. He spent a decade as tuba instructor at The Juilliard School, and since 1996, has been the tuba professor at the Eastman School of Music. “My main teacher was in the Sousa band,” he recalls. “He started playing professionally when he was 15. He came from a style of teaching that tended toward harshness, often even destruction. You had to do exactly what he said, even if it wasn’t helpful.” Thankfully, Harry says, that world is gone. He prefers a kinder, gentler style. “I learned a lot about how to teach, through how not to teach.”
Over the decades, Harry says union membership has helped smooth the way. “I spent time on orchestra committees, which was always interesting. It hasn’t always been a smooth road, with orchestras folding. But the times when happened, it was good to have negotiators like Lenny Leibowitz at the table.”
Harry says the best thing about the AFM is the idea that musicians have real protections against crazy things orchestras might try to do. “In one orchestra, a conductor told our first trumpet that he wanted to hear the third trumpet play principal. The first trumpet declined, and the dispute went right to the union. Without the AFM, that would have come to nothing.”
For more on Neto Hatinakwe Onkwehowe, visit netobuffalo.org.