Originally created 07/13/97

Spirits move Joanne Shenandoah to sing of Iroquois world



ONEIDA, N.Y. - 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, Ms. Shenandoah has become the most critically acclaimed Native American singer 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 Mr. Silverhand, a one-time spiritual adviser to Elvis Presley who has followed Ms. Shenandoah's career since her childhood.

Ms. Shenandoah opened the 25th anniversary of the Woodstock festival in 1994, performed at President Clinton's inaugurals in 1993 and 1997, and has played at a private tea party for Hillary Clinton and Tipper Gore. Her music fuses ancient melodies and chants with contemporary styles. And one composition, Ganondagan, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in music in 1994.

Even if mainstream America has not yet discovered Ms. Shenandoah, her peers in the music industry have long recognized her talent: She has performed on stage with Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Neil Young, John Denver, Jackson Browne, Rita Coolidge and many 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."

Ms. Shenandoah recently recorded several songs with Mr. Robertson for an album scheduled for release this fall. She is working on a duet with Neil Young, too.

"It's been a lot of fun," said Ms. Shenandoah, who lives in a 160-year-old house that was built coincidentally on the birthplace of a great forefather who helped George Washington's starving Revolutionary army by supplying corn for food.

"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 Ms. Shenandoah, whose latest release is All Spirits Sing, a children's album.

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 Mrs. Shennandoah, a tribal clan mother. "It was just born in her." Today, Ms. 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 professional career 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 Ms. 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 other stars.

"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 at a benefit show in Rapid City, S.D., with Mr. Young, Mr. Browne, Mr. Kristofferson, Mr. Nelson and Floyd Wasserman. 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," Mr. 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, from big dates as a warm-up act to smaller venues as a headliner.

"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 for a benefit show to raise money for cleaning up the Hudson River. She also performed in Washington, D.C., for Earth Day, and has made soundtracks for the CD-ROM version of the movie "Indian in the Cupboard," the CBS-TV series "Northern Exposure," Discovery Channel's "How the West Was Lost," and the PBS shows "Honorable Nations," "This Land Is Our Land," "Everything Has a Spirit" and "Fly With Eagles."

Her albums have included her debut "Joanne Shenandoah" (1989), "Loving Ways" (1991), "Once in a Red Moon" (1994), "Life Blood" (1995) and "Matriarch" (1996).

Full of energy, Shenandoah has already written more than 100 songs she has yet to record - even some pop tunes. Among her many 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 eventually have recording studio for Native American musicians.

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