Singing in her native Iroquois language, Joanne Shenandoah has become one of the most critically acclaimed Native American singers, finding crossover success with her ethereal voice and blend of traditional melodies and contemporary styles. Her appeal has been broadened by performances at events such as the Olympics, Woodstock, President Bill Clinton’s and President George W. Bush’s inaugurals, and at a private tea party for Tipper Gore and Hillary Clinton. Shenandoah has been compared to Irish chanteuse Enya and is devoted to Native American causes, taking the stage at countless gatherings across the country in support of those causes. Voted Best Female Artist of the Year at the Native American Music Awards (NAMMYS) two years in a row, Shenandoah—and all Native American musicians—were vindicated by the mainstream music industry in 2001. The Grammy Awards debuted a new category, Best Native American Album, for which Shenandoah was nominated. Singer Robbie Robertson, with whom Shenandoah has recorded, told the Observer-Dispatch, “She weaves you into a trance with her beautiful Iroquois chants.”
Shenandoah grew up on the Oneida Iroquois Territory in central New York in a large house without running water. A descendent of Revolutionary War hero Chief John Shenandoah, she was raised by her mother, Maisie, an Oneida Wolf Clan mother, and her father, Clifford Shenandoah. Music was commonplace in her upbringing; Shenandoah’s parents would sing the songs of Billie Holliday, Hank Williams, and Patsy Cline to her and her four siblings. Shenandoah’s father, a jazz guitarist, was interested in jazz and early rock ’n’ roll. In Native Peoples, Shenandoah wrote, “singing was as natural to me as breathing.” Her native name, given to her before she could talk, is Tekaiawahway (pronounced De-gal-la-wha-wha), which means “she sings.”
As the only Native American student at the private Union Springs Academy in New York, she threw herself into music. She experimented with various musical instruments, including French horn, cello, clarinet, and flute. She spent hours practicing piano and learning to read and write music while developing her talent for singing and composing original music. In the early 1970s, there were few Native American performers for Shenandoah to look up to. Her childhood idols included Rita Coolidge, Buffy Saint-Marie, Floyd Westerman, Paul Ortega, Jim Pepper, and the rock bands Redbone and XIT.
Shenandoah did consider the idea of a professional career as a performer before taking a job in the corporate world 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,” she said in an interview with the Observer-Dispatch. But that quickly changed. She released her debut album, Joanne Shenandoah, in 1989, and only months later was
Born c. 1958; member of the Wolf Clan, Iroquois Confederacy, Oneida Indian Nation; married Doug George-Kanentiio; children: Leah.
Released debut album, Joanne Shenandoah, on Canyon Records, 1989; performed at President Bill Clinton’s inaugural, 1993, 1997; opened Woodstock ’94 at Saugerties, 1994; released Matriarch, 1996; released Orenda, 1998; released Peacemaker’s Journey, 2000; released Warrior in Two Worlds, 2000; performed at President George W. Bush’s inaugural, 2001; published book, Skywoman: Legends of the Iroquois, 2001.
Awards: Native American Musician of the Year, First Americans in the Arts Awards, 1994; Native American Woman’s Recognition Award, 1996; Native American Woman of Hope for America, Bread & Roses Cultural Foundation, 1997; Outstanding Achievement Award, Post Standard Newspapers, 1997; Best Acoustic Act and Best National Recording, SAMMY Awards (Syracuse Area Music Awards), 1997; Native American Record of the Year, National Association of Independent Record Distributors (NAIRD), 1997; Best Female Artist and Best Children’s Recording, NAMMY Awards (Native American Music Awards), 1998; Popular Awards Recipient, American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), 1998; Governor’s Commission Honoring the Achievements of Women of New York, 1998; SAMMY Award for Best National Recording for Orenda, 1999; NAMMY Awards for Best Female Artist and Best Traditional Recording for Orenda, 1999; Outstanding Musical Achievement, Peacemaker’s Journey, First American in the Arts, 2001.
Addresses: Record company —Silver Wave Records, P.O. Box 7943, Boulder, CO 80306, website: http://www.silverwave.com/index.html. Business —Joanne Shenandoah, Oneida Nation Territory, P.O. Box 450, Oneida, NY 13421, (315) 363-1655. Website-Joanne Shenandoah Official Website:http://www.joanneshenandoah.com.
performing on stage at a benefit with Willie Nelson, Jackson Browne, Kris Kristofferson, and Neil Young, who became a long-time supporter. Her early work was a blend of “traditional Native American style with traditional American folk and even country,” wrote Mark Bialczak in the Syracuse Herald American.
Once committed to life as a performer, Shenandoah did not hold back. She went on to release a total of ten albums in just over ten years, in addition to countless live performances. Some critics suggested her popularity was a result of the crossover power of her music. Though she did not sing in English, but in her native Iroquois language, Shenandoah’s music seemed to transcend the language barrier with her voice and message of peace. Alan Bisbort of the Hartford Advocate noted that Shenandoah’s 1996 release, Matriarch, lacked conventional songs and song structure and called it the “Iroquois version of Gregorian chanting,” adding, “You don’t need to understand the words to feel the spirit.” He also noted Shenandoah’s “remarkably soothing voice.” Her children’s record, All Spirits Sing, won the Native American Music Award (NAMMY) for Best Children’s Album in 1998, and her album Orenda won the NAMMY for Best Traditional Album a year later. As of 1999, each of Shenandoah’s recordings had sold more than 100,000 copies worldwide.
Billboard, who had dubbed Shenandoah a “Native American version of Enya,” admitted she had “evolved beyond that” on her 2000 release, Peacemaker’s Journey, calling it her “most impressive album yet.” The review noted that the album avoided the clichés that some Native American crossover releases fall victim to. “Crossover is good,” Shenandoah said in an interview with the Post-Standard. “People are looking beyond the Native chant music, to see how much we’re talented.” Instead of traditional Native American instruments like cedar flutes and tom-tom drums, Shenandoah was accompanied by hand percussion and guitar. Paige La Grone, in an Amazon.com review, said that the record was “pure magic.”
In addition to her own releases, Shenandoah also spent time composing music for more mainstream film and television projects. Her music can be heard on television on the Larry King Show and Northern Exposure, and on television documentaries like the Discovery Channel’s How the West Was Lost, as well as a number of Public Broadcasting System (PBS) specials, including the award-winning Warrior in Two Worlds.
Shenandoah walked down the red carpet at the 2001 Grammy Awards for the debut of a new Grammy category. She was a nominee for the first-ever Best Native American Album Award. The artist was unconcerned with winning. “Winning and bringing the trophy home is not so important as hoping people will get my message,” she said in an interview with the Sunday Sentinel. “Mine is a message of peace, not only for the Iroquois community, but for everyone.”
Shenandoah lives with her husband and daughter in Oneida Castle in central New York on the land where her grandfather lived in the 1800s. The book Sky-woman: Legends of the Iroquois, which she co-wrote, was published in 2001, and Eagle Cries, a collaboration with longtime supporter Neil Young, was due later that year. She has auditioned for a number of film roles and was the subject of an in-the-works PBS documentary.
Though Native American role models in popular music were few for Shenandoah as a girl, she felt things were turning around in the twenty-first century. “Now is, without a doubt, the best time to be a Native musician,” she wrote in Native Peoples.
Joanne Shenandoah, Canyon Records, 1989.
Loving Ways, Canyon Records, 1991.
Once in a Red Moon, Canyon Records, 1994.
Life Blood, Silver Wave Records, 1995.
Matriarch, Silver Wave Records, 1996.
All Spirits Sing, Music For Little People, 1997.
Freedom Rocks: Elmer & Friends, Featherwind Productions, 1996.
Orenda, Silver Wave Records, 1998.
Peacemaker’s Journey, Silver Wave Records, 2000.
Warrior in Two Worlds, Red Feather Records, 2000.
Akwesasne Notes, Summer 1995, p. 100.
Billboard, January 28, 1995, p. 68; March 11, 2000.
Hartford Advocate (Hartford, CT), October 9, 1997.
Native Peoples, March/April 2001.
Observer-Dispatch, March 17, 1997.
Post-Standard (New York), December 28, 1999; March 2001.
Sunday Sentinel, January 28, 2001.
Syracuse Herald American, December 14, 1997, p. 3.
Syracuse New Times, February 7-14, 2001.
Joanne Shenandoah Official Website, http://www.joanneshenandoah.com (April 18, 2001).
“Peacemaker’s Journey,” Amazon.com, http://www.amazon.com (May 25, 2001).
Additional materials were provided by Joanne Shenandoah, 2001.
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