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Musician Joanne Shenandoah, a powerful voice for Native culture, dies at 64

Joanne Shenandoah in 2020 at Hart's Falls Preserve, near the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Studies, an organization run by Shenandoah and her husband, Doug George-Kanentiio, in Hermon, N.Y.
Jane Feldman
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Joanne Shenandoah in 2020 at Hart's Falls Preserve, near the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Studies, an organization run by Shenandoah and her husband, Doug George-Kanentiio, in Hermon, N.Y.

Legendary Native American musician Joanne Shenandoah, a trailblazer popular with both mainstream and Native audiences, has died. A multi-instrumentalist, singer and composer who collaborated with such musical icons as Robbie Robertson and Neil Young (as well as with this writer), Shenandoah won a Grammy award and was among the most lauded musicians in the history of the Native American Music Awards. According to her sister Vicky Schenandoah, who confirmed with NPR by phone, she died late Monday night at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz. following a long illness. She was 64.

Joanne Shenandoah was a citizen of the Oneida Nation, Wolf Clan, of the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations Iroquois) Confederacy in upstate New York. Her sister says the Schenandoahs are direct descendents of Chief Skenandoa (there are various spellings of the name — some family members now spell it with a "c" and some have chosen to drop it), an ally to George Washington during the American Revolution.

Her story is an introduction into the richness of Native cultures. Shenandoah's music covered an array of traditional, folk, Americana, pop, country and even New Age, performed in both English and her native language. Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) history and culture was present throughout her music. Her 2004 album Peacemaker's Journey is about the legend of Skennanrahowi and how he brought peace to the warring tribes that became their confederacy sometime between the 15th and 16th centuries. It won five awards from the Native American Music Awards (NAMMYs) and other Native music groups.

When she began her musical career, her songs and stories were efforts to help transform the hundreds of years of marginalization of First Nations peoples. Every breath she took, every song she sang was her way of saying, "HERE WE ARE."

Shenandoah embodied the full meaning of the traditional name she received as a child, "Tekaliwhakwah," which translates to "she sings, and lifts the spirit." Her voice was often described as angelic and enchanting. After recording a track for Robbie Robertson's Contact From the Underworld of Redboy, he said, "She weaves you into a trance with her beautiful Iroquois chants and wraps her voice around you like a warm blanket on a cool winter's night." She was often accompanied on vocals by her daughter Leah Shenadoah and sister Diane Schenandoah.

Joanne Shenandoah (right) with her daughter Leah Shenandoah (left) and her sister Diane Schenandoah (center) near the Hudson River during the Clearwater Festival in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. in 2019.
Jane Feldman / Courtesy of the artist
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Joanne Shenandoah (right) with her daughter Leah Shenandoah (left) and her sister Diane Schenandoah (center) near the Hudson River during the Clearwater Festival in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. in 2019.

Her 15 albums, numerous singles, collaborations and film scores earned her more than 40 music awards, including 14 NAMMYs and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native American Music Association in 2007. In 2006 she won a Grammy for Best Native American Music Album for her participation on the album Sacred Ground: A Tribute To Mother Earth on the solo track "Seeking Light" and "Mother Earth," a collaboration with fellow Native musician Rita Coolidge's trio Walela. She was previously nominated in 2002 for her album Peacemaker's Journey and in 2004 for Covenant. That Grammy category no longer exists. She also received an Emmy nomination in 2019.

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I met Jo when we were both young and spirited artists. She was a dear friend and sister to me. In fact, her sister Vicky and I had married brothers, and our kids are cousins. Jo and I bonded over music and creative pursuits. I watched her star rise while we gigged at events, Earth Day concerts and the 1997 Native presidential inaugural ball. We pitched projects and I interviewed her for others. We had photo sessions and even spent a cold day in the snow taking action shots for a major film audition. We wrote and recorded a song together for a health campaign aimed at Native women. Everything we did was an adventure, often spontaneous. Jo was a fun-loving soul. People were drawn to her and adored her. She also lived by Haudenosaunee principles of thanksgiving: honoring all of creation every day.

Through the pandemic we FaceTimed often as she hiked and enjoyed caring for her grandson. She dug out old country songs she had written and recorded them for what would become her last album, Shenandoah Country. As always with Joanne, there were other projects in the works and more being conceptualized.

She was an intuitive artist. She preferred to go into a studio and let the creativity flow serendipitously rather than plan every musical detail, and often performed shows without following a setlist. Her music fulfills a tribal prophecy that she would carry the Haudenosaunee message of peace to the four directions. She criss-crossed the country by car and plane, often playing charities even as demand for her performances grew internationally.

One of her proudest accomplishments was her symphonic odyssey Skywoman, a pop-orchestral work about the Haudenosaunee Iroquois creation story. The idea came after publishing a book of the story that she co-authored with her husband Doug George-Kanentiio, an Akwesasne Mohawk journalist and historian, called Skywoman: Legends of the Iroquois, in 1996. The work was recorded in 2004, and in 2018 was performed in the heart of the Iroquois Confederacy with the Symphoria, a musician-led non profit orchestra in Syracuse.

She was known as much for blazing a global path of "peace through music" as she was an advocate for what she called Earth Rights and human rights, most recently bringing attention to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) epidemic. Always guided by the Haudenosaunee principle of considering how decisions affect the next seven generations, she dove into many important humanitarian projects with tenacity and skill, wielding a natural ambassadorship and an endearing brand of charisma. She also served as Co-Chair for the Attorney General's National Task Force of Indigenous Children Exposed to Violence for the U.S. Department of Justice during the Obama era.

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Joanne Shenandoah presented her musical message of peace and First Nations identity around the world in concerts performed for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, First Lady Hillary Clinton, President Nelson Mandela, Dr. Huston Smith and USSR Chairman Mikhail Gorbachev other world leaders at the White House, Carnegie Hall, St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican (for the canonization of the first Native American Saint, Kateri Tekakwitha), Madison Square Garden, Bethlehem Fine Arts Center in Palestine, Toronto Skydome, the Parliament of the World's Religions (South Africa, Spain, Australia, Canada) and Woodstock '94. She also played the role of Dawn Russell in the film The Last Winter starring Ron Perlman.

The family's musical and cultural roots ran deep. Her father, Pine Tree Chief Clifford Schenadoah of the Onondaga Nation, Beaver Clan, was a jazz guitarist and an iron worker. Her mother Maisie (Yakolihuny^ni - "She Teaches") was an Oneida Wolf Clan Mother who also sang, played guitar, sold traditional arts and was a cultural presenter. Joanne often joked, "As a child my mother would drag me onstage and now she can't get me off!" Recalling their early years on Oneida territory, her sister Vicky said that though they lacked running water and had to melt snow to bathe in a tin tub, "going to ceremonies and the longhouse was a way of life... we were lucky to be brought up hearing traditional songs to honor every living thing from planting seeds to babies being born." Preserving their rich culture led to one of Shenandoah's most important legacy projects: helping to create the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge, a non-profit, higher learning educational facility to provide all nations and peoples the access to the ancient teachings and principles of peace of the Haudenosaunee.

In 2017, The American Indian Society of Washington, D.C. presented her a Lifetime Achievement award for her "life's work that has led to the improvement and empowerment of Native Americans through social, political, legal, environmental or educational initiatives."

Shenandoah confidently brought respect and visibility to indigenous wisdom and culture. She was revered among First Nations as a matriarch with valor and grace, for her positivity and humor, her dedication to improving the lives of indigenous people and as a symbol of hope. On news of her passing, the Native American Music Awards (NAMA) posted:

"Joanne's beautiful embellishing voice, strong Iroquois traditions, unequivocal elegance and courteous grace made her a prominent role model and highly respected musical Matriarch among Native American communities as well as the mainstream music community at large. She sang with deep roots from her ancestors and flawlessly incorporated her oral traditions into contemporary Folk, Country and Americana formats. She captured the hearts of audiences all over the world and always took time to encourage and inspire younger musicians in her travels. She made an incredible impact on this earth and has paved paths for so many. The Native American Music Awards will continue to best ensure and preserve her legacy. She will be greatly missed."

Following Joanne's death, Vicky Schenandoah shared the following quote from her sister posted on Facebook in 2014 by Project 562:

"Every word we speak; every song we sing; the songs which we subject ourselves to, whether in the womb, or as an elder, these songs affect us in very powerful and meaning ways. They can actually help to destroy us or they can help to heal us. In iroqouis way, music is an integral part of who we are. So there are songs that celebrate all elements of the earth.  There are songs that will quicken your death. There are songs to sing to the plants and the medicines so that they will fulfill their responsibility. So walking upon this earth is pretty amazing. If you believe that you have a special gift, (which you do), if you use that in a good way, with a good mind, that gift actually helps to transform our entire being and it actually has a great effect on the earth."

Joanne Shenandoah — Tekaliwhakwah — lifted my spirit and my life. Quoting a song we wrote together: "Native woman, you're the light of your family / So shine for all the world to see / Your spirit is the one who was chosen to be / The one to live in harmony." This is how I'll remember her.

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