Sunday, December 16, 2007

White woman spends two decades with Indians

Telegram Staff Writer

Not everybody in the 1960s wanted to go to California and wear flowers in their hair. Some people wanted to go live on an Indian reservation.
Sylvia Marrs did, and she got paid to do it.
Just out of college in 1963, her first job was a first-grade teaching post for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Arizona. She lived in dormitory housing on the Nazlini Indian Reservation.
A job fair at the University of North Texas in Denton had informed her of the employment opportunities there.
'I needed a job,' Mrs. Marrs said. 'I wanted to spend at least one year on my own before I got married.'
She was very much in love at that time, she said, but her desire to taste independence remained steadfast. When her suitor, Bill Marrs, proposed marriage, she declined.
'I wanted to wait one year,' Mrs. Marrs said.
When the 12th month came and went, Mr. Marrs mailed his intended a second letter of proposal.
'I said yes,' Mrs. Marrs said. 'On the condition that he come live on the reservation.'

He readily relocated, and the two started their married life among the Indians.
All three of their children were born on Indian reservations, their first in Nazlini, the second in Piñon on the border of the Hopi reservation and the third in Chinle, well within the land of the Navajos.
As the family grew, it became rooted in Chinle. Both parents worked for the school district, Mr. Marrs as a guidance counselor and Mrs. Marrs as a teacher.
'Our culture remained our own,' Mrs. Marrs said. 'We didn't try to become something we weren't. We lived among the tribes.' 

A rainbow is born
A chance to teach may have brought Mrs. Marrs to the land of the Indians, but it wasn't what compelled her to stay.
It was the music that anchored her in Chinle.
'Tribal music speaks to everyone,' Mrs. Marrs said. 'It's from the earliest of times. It's basic but powerful. It's beautiful.'
She said its chants and melodies will forever sound in her mind.
While she was at Nazlini, Mrs. Marrs was able to study the subject with Dr. Louis Ballard (1931-2007), the first tribal Indian to receive a master's degree in music. A composer of Cherokee and Quapaw descent, Ballard founded of the Institute of American Indian Arts.
'I jumped at the opportunity,' Mrs. Marrs said, explaining that music was her major at UNT before changing it to education.
Her lessons with him proved handy when Mrs. Marrs became choir director at Chinle Junior High School.
'Before I got there, the school had no choir,' Mrs. Marrs said. 'They offered me the job after I subbed for a couple of music classes. I was grateful for the opportunity. It got me back to my very first love.'
Her first classes were challenging.
'I soon discovered the kids didn't want to learn music the way I had been taught to teach it,' Mrs. Marrs said. 'How was I going to get them interested?'
Ballard's words gave her the answer.
'I remembered his discussion of Navajo music, and the wise old medicine men who had been singing it for ages,' Mrs. Marrs said. 'That was it. These kids were Navajos, so I looked at the music. I looked at it and looked at it and started to write it down phonetically.'
Learning to sing the language by its sounds, she decided, would be easier than learning it by proper spelling. She figured the technique would also cater to the students who weren't Navajo.
'There were Indians of all tribes,' Mrs. Marrs said. 'There were white kids, Hispanics and a few black children. Everyone had to learn the Navajo music.'
The learn-by-phonetics method worked.
By 1976, Mrs. Marrs' Navajo choir had acquired local fame.
'The group was doing so well we were invited to sing for the (Arizona State University) School of Music,' she said. 'It was a great opportunity for those kids. They got to travel and sing. For a lot of them, it was their first chance off the reservation.'
The singing group didn't have a uniform or a name. The Navajo singers were known simply as the Chinle Junior High School Choir.
'The kids wore their own tribe's ceremonial dress,' Mrs. Marrs said. 'If they weren't Indian, they wore their own clothes.'
The next two years were filled with performance after performance, most of them in answer to an invitation.
Then in 1978, the group got its name.
'A custodian - he was Navajo - had heard the children singing,' Mrs. Marrs said. 'He said it sounded beautiful, like all the colors in the rainbow.'
Mrs. Marrs' students became known as the Beautiful Rainbow Singers in English - and Naats' Iilid Nizhoni Singers in Navajo.

In the spotlight
The fame of the Beautiful Rainbow Singers soared to national heights 1979-1982.
In those years, they sang for a Coca-Cola Co. function, the Navajo Nation, the Apache Nation and several contests they ended up winning. They appeared on television twice, once on a PBS special called 'Seasons of a Navajo' and again on an NBC after-school special, 'Navajo Moon.'
It was a U.S. Senator's birthday that took the choir to Washington D.C.
'It was a special ceremony for Barry Goldwater,' Mrs. Marrs said.
In honor of Goldwater, Mrs. Marrs said the group performed the 'Bow and Arrow Song,' a formal, ceremonial song that asks the arrow for its protection.
'By the time we were half-way through it, the highway patrol men had their guns ready to protect the crowd,' Mrs. Marrs said.
The Rainbow Singers also went to Los Angeles. Mrs. Marrs said the late W. Clement Stone, a business man and philanthropist, had invited them.
'He dearly loved American Indians,' she said.
At Stone's party, Mrs. Marrs met Will Sampson from the 1975 movie 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' starring Jack Nicholson. A Creek Indian Actor, Sampson played the sweeping Chief Broom.
'(Sampson) saw us perform the Creek Duck Dance Song,' Mrs. Marrs said. 'The song is usually done at a funeral. It's very formal.'
To perform it, a man stands in the center of a human circle. As the center man calls out, the others answer with the appropriate reply.
'The little boy who was going to be in the center - his voice had changed, so he could handle the solo - but he came down with strep throat. He had a fever of 105,' Mrs. Mars said. 'So I had to take his place.'
After the performance, Mrs. Marrs said Sampson gave her one of the best compliments of her life.
'He said, 'I can't wait to go to my tribal powwow and tell everyone that I heard not just a woman but a white woman sing this as good as I every heard it,'' Mrs. Marrs said.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, Stone presented the Rainbow singers $40,000
'He helped us pay for our trip to Europe,' Mrs. Marrs said.
They went to Belgium to compete in a music contest.
'An Indian chief came to bless the kids at the airport, so that none of them would be injured,' Mrs. Marrs said. 'And, thankfully, none of them were.'
But the chief failed to bless the teacher. She broke her leg trying to get off the plane after it landed.
'I had to spend the whole rest of the trip on crutches,' she said.
Brent Toadlena remembers these adventures well. In the Navajo's youth, he was a Beautiful Rainbow Singer.
'She gave us those opportunities to shine,' Toadlena said. 'Things we never would have dreamed. We were so isolated. Through the choir, we were able to live and travel. She made that possible.' 

The end
Mrs. Marrs' Navajo choir disbanded in 1983 - the year the Rainbow Singers declined the invitation to perform at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics.
'My husband lost his job as school counselor. He got a new position at Fort Hood,' Mrs. Marrs said. 'The separation was ripping the family apart, so I had to move. It was time to go on.'
For 18 years before retiring, Mrs. Marrs taught choir for the Copperas Cove school district.
'It was regular music,' said Mrs. Marrs. 'There just weren't enough Indians in Copperas Cove to make a tribal choir.'
She sang in the choir at First United Methodist Church of Temple until her voice was destroyed.
'After so many years, my vocal cords got stretched,' Mrs. Marrs said. 'I had therapy to relearn how to talk. It was rough.'
Her performing days aren't quite over, though. For as long as her voice will hold, she sings for the Daughters and Sons of the American Revolution and for the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.
'The only thing I ask is that they forgive me if my voice starts going out,' she said. 

A new start?
The Beautiful Rainbow Singers and their leader met at Chinle Junior High School Nov. 14-17 for a reunion.
'It was so exciting,' Mrs. Marrs said. 'It had been 23 years since I last saw the group. These kids became something, almost all of them have master's degrees.'
They sang, they laughed and they danced.
Joe Shirley, the president of Navajo Nation, was there, alongside Preston Draper, a choir member who makes his living as a main event boxer. Draper, coincidentally, is the grandson of Teddy Draper, an Indian who served as a code taker in World War II.
Draper's mother attended the reunion as well. She hugged Mrs. Marrs, calling her his son's second mother.
Then Toadlena, who now works at Chinle Junior High School as a counselor, gave Mrs. Marrs some good news.
'He wants to restart the choir,' Mrs. Marrs said. 'He knows enough about it. He can do it.'
As sponsor of a Native American Club called the Bobcats, Toadlena helps students have powwows and dances.
'Through that group, I'm going to try to redevelop the choir,' Toadlena said. 'I would like to install the type of things we did in the original choir.'
Daniel Barlow, the junior high's English teacher, said the school is excited to see the Beautiful Rainbow Singers come alive again.
'It's going to take some work,' Barlow said. 'But (Toadlena) seems dedicated. I wouldn't be surprised if happens.'
Barlow is a longtime teacher at Chinle Junior High School. He remembers Mrs. Marrs as a colleague.
'She took a desperate bunch of kids and put together a Native American choir. It was phenomenal,' Barlow said. 'She formed attachments to the kids, and they to her. So many of her old students showed up to the reunion, very excited to see her. She's a kindly remembered lady.'

1 comment:

  1. I remember Mrs. Marrs slipped on wet grass down hill at a soccer field. Also I thought we were the guest of honor in Brussels at the World's Music Festival. So thankful for the wonderful experience while in her choir. Thank you Mrs. Marrs!!! I will treasure the memories forever.