As Elders Foretold, Joanne Shenandoah Gives Voice to Iroquois Culture


The Oneida elders' dreams foretold that Joanne Shenandoah would carry the Iroquois culture to the four winds.

Even before she could talk, they named her Tekaiawahway (pronounced De-gal-la-wha-wha): "She sings."

True to that vision, Shenandoah has become one of the most critically acclaimed Native American singers of her time.

"A spirit told me she would be a very famous woman one day . . . and she was going to make us all proud of her," said Ted Silverhand, a seer and spiritual elder from the Tuscarora tribe, one of the six Indian nations that make up the Iroquois Confederacy.

"What is Native music? Joanne Shenandoah is Native music," said Silverhand, a one-time spiritual advisor to Elvis Presley who has followed Shenandoah's career since her childhood.

Shenandoah opened the 25th anniversary of the Woodstock festival in 1994, performed at President Clinton's inaugurals in 1993 and 1997, and entertained First Lady Hillary Rodham Gore and Tipper Gore, wife of the vice president, at a private tea party.

Her music fuses ancient melodies and chants with contemporary styles. One composition, "Ganondagan," was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in music in 1994.

Mainstream America may not have discovered Shenandoah yet, but her peers in the music industry long have recognized her talent. She has performed on stage with Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Neil Young, John Denver, Jackson Browne and Rita Coolidge, among other stars.

"I've been enjoying Joanne's music for several years," said Robbie Robertson, formerly of The Band. "She weaves you into a trance with her beautiful Iroquois chants."

Shenandoah recently recorded several songs with Robertson for an album scheduled for release in the fall. She also is working on a duet with Neil Young.

"It's been a lot of fun," said Shenandoah, who lives in a 160-year-old house built on the birthplace of a forefather who had supplied corn to feed George Washington's starving troops during the Revolutionary War.

"But then I think about the deeper meaning of life and what my purpose is here on Earth, and that is to give songs of love, hope and peace," said Shenandoah, whose latest release is a children's album, "All Spirits Sing."

Her father, Clifford, was an accomplished jazz guitarist. Her mother, Maisie, sang, and so did the other five Shenandoah children. The elders weren't overstretching their powers of divination by prophesying young Joanne would be a musician. But their vision of her was for greater achievement.

"What amazed me when she was young, she could just pick up any instrument and start playing it," said Maisie, a tribal clan mother. "It was just born in her."

Today, Shenandoah plays a medley of instruments, including guitar, piano, flute, cello and clarinet.

Growing up, she performed for fun, participating in the school choir and band, singing at weddings and parties, playing at periodic benefits.

The thought of a career in music was far from her mind when she first went to work as a computer specialist in Washington, D.C.

"I was working very hard and was doing all the things I thought were important in life," said Shenandoah, who leads an unassuming life despite a wall of fame in her basement that includes photos of her with Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, Jay Leno and others.

"One day I was looking out my office window. This huge tree was being cut down, and something clicked: 'What am I doing with my life here?' "

She released her first album in 1989. Four months later, she found herself on stage with Young, Browne, Kristofferson, Nelson and Floyd Wasserman at a benefit show in Rapid City, S.D. Her star has been rising ever since. And on her own terms.

"She has always stayed with the tradition. She always stayed with the music of our people," Silverhand said. "When she sings, she sings from the heart. You can feel it in your heart. She talks about our stories. She talks about the woman's way. She talks about the issues."

Shenandoah, along with her husband, Douglas George-Kanentiio, a newspaper columnist, manages her own career. Midweek finds her at home, writing, playing instruments, sewing, cooking and spending time with her family.

She performs on weekends almost year-round.

"I've found no one who believes in me as much as I believe in myself," she said. "Sometimes I have to perform for free for specific benefits because I'm one of these cause-oriented individuals."

Last summer, she performed with Pete Seeger and Richie Havens at a benefit for Hudson River cleanup. For Earth Day, she performed in Washington, D.C.

Among other projects, she is working on a companion children's book to "All Spirits Sing" and another written work about the legends of the Iroquois.

In 1992, Shenandoah established Round Dance Productions, a nonprofit educational foundation dedicated to the preservation of Iroquois culture. Already, the organization claims the largest archival collection of Iroquois music. Shenandoah's goal is to have a recording studio for Native American musicians.

"There are a lot of good things you can do on Earth," she said. "Music is a real beautiful way of communicating. It is a healing thing. People are moved by music. It changes people's lives."

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