Joanne Shenandoah is a very distinguished Native American musician, writer and activist. She has performed her music all over the world in major venues such as St. Peters Basilica, Carnegie Hall and The White House - for dignitaries such as the likes of Nelson Mandela the Dali Lama and many others. Joanne proudly shares her Iroquois heritage through music, books, workshops and documentaries. The talented singer has worked with Neil Young, Pete Seeger, Robbie Robertson and the list goes on and on. She opened the Woodstock '94 show in Saugerties and also appeared on a song with Jim Morrison. When Joanne is not performing, she spends a lot of time giving back by spreading and preserving her Native American heritage. The United States Attorney General appointed her co-chair of a task force to look into children exposed to violence. Only a National Treasure like Joanne Shenandoah would do this without any compensation. I recently caught up with Joanne.
J.S. - This is Joanne
R.V.B. - Hello Joanne, my name is Rob von Bernewitz from Long Island, how are you doing today?
J.S. - (Sigh) It's never a dull moment. I can tell you that.
R.V.B. - Are you in upstate New York right now?
J.S. - I am
R.V.B. - Is it hot up there?
J.S. - No, it's been pouring raining all morning but now it's nice and the sun is shining.
R.V.B. - It's hot and hazy down here. We didn't get any rain down here.
J.S. - We got thunder and all kinds of torrential rain.
R.V.B. - I see, well thank you for taking my call and congratulations on your great career up to this point.
J.S. - Ha - thank you. It's been quite a journey I'll tell you. I started writing a book.
R.V.B. - Oh yeah? Like a memoir book?
J.S. - Pretty much - yeah. I've got so many pictures and so many... I've got 30,000 pictures on my laptop. I've traveled the world.
R.V.B. - I hope you have a back up. You don't want to lose those
J.S. - Yeah, two backups, actually
R.V.B. - I've made that mistake before.
J.S. - I've been too afraid to make that mistake. (hahaha)
R.V.B. - (haha) Well to get started I would like to get a brief synopsis of your family name and the history of what it means?
J.S. - Sure. From my understanding, I'm seven generations from Chief John Skenando, which is now pronounced Shenandoah. That song that you heard (sings) "Oh Shenanhoah, I love your daughter", you know that one? It was originally written about of his daughters. He was friends with George Washington. He actually helped save George Washington's army during the Revolutionary War. When he died, he was 110 years old. He had arranged with a group of Oneidas to bring 300 bushels of corn from all the way from upstate New York to Valley Forge in the dead of winter - they say - and from that one saving act, they named the whole Shenandoah Valley after him. It turns out that, that story hasn't really been told but people are going to be hearing about it. The other part of that is Skenando means "Like the Deer". You know the antlers on deer?
R.V.B. - Right
J.S. - They are also the same antlers that are put on a chief, a headdress. It's kind of like a rounded headdress and deer antlers are put on. That's when they are installed as a chief. The eagle feathers are all on the top. You've probably seen them before.
R.V.B. - Well, on TV or in books.
J.S. - In books, yeah... well they still wear those today in ceremonies. The deer antlers themselves act as a antenna. They sense movement and danger. I live on the very property where Skenando lived and died there. It used to be called "The head on a pole" back during Revolutionary War. So since these seven generations have passed, the Iroquois believe that we are supposed to be doing our work here on this earth that will affect seven generations and the next generation, their work will affect the next seven generations. It's kind of like a long term process for us as far as what we believe we're put on this earth to do.
R.V.B. - How big is the Iroquois community up where you live? Is it extensive?
J.S. - It's not very big , no. It's not very big at all. I think we have 1,100 members maybe?
R.V.B. - You all share a parcel of land in the Oneida territory?
J.S. - Yes, that is the land of the Iroquois.
R.V.B. - Is your husband also a Native American?
J.S. - My husband is Mohawk. He's from the Akwesasne territory. He used to run what was called Akwesasne Notes. It was one of the largest indigenous newspapers, for twenty years. Then he is still a journalist as well as a lecturer and historical consultant. He has written several books. One is called "The Iroquois on Fire" -another Iroquois culture and commentary. We both put together a book called "Skywoman". He also helped to form the National Museum of American Indians. He's the Vice President for the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge.
R.V.B. - Right, your involved with that also, right?
J.S. - Yes.
R.V.B. - When you were a little girl what kind of life did you have with customs and how did music work its way in?
J.S. - My Mom and Dad were both musicians. They were both amazing musicians and self - taught as well. My Dad was a jazz guitarist. He played with Duke Ellington.
R.V.B. - Oh nice.
J.S. - Yeah... he died at a young age actually in a car accident. My mom played piano and the guitar. My dad could play anything he could put his hands on. He could pick it up and play it. It was amazing.
R.V.B. - Guitar was his primary instrument?
J.S. - Yes, but he could play mandolin, banjo, you name it. He could play any stringed instrument. My mom bought me a piano and I was singing ever since I was a little girl. They had us on stage... in fact, we used to do presentations for school - where we could ingratiate the Iroquois culture upon New York State school systems. (hahaha) You know, give people a better and clearer understanding on who the Iroquois people were. So she always had us on stage singing and dancing our traditional culture as well. My dad was a chief and my mom was a clan mother so they were considered leaders.
R.V.B. - So your mother bought you a piano - when did you take music to the next step? You're a guitar player right?
J.S. - I play guitar... I used to play the cello. I played the clarinet, I played the flute. Pretty much I was like my dad in a way. No matter what I tried, I just loved it and I just had fun with it. Even though I may have not had any formal instructions. After my dad passed I went off to school and that's where I got involved in a choir, a touring choir, the flute, band. I actually worked half a day and went to school half a day. I worked in the music department, so when I had some free time after setting up bands for example, all the music and where all the instruments would sit so I learned a lot on my own that way. Then I had a real deep love for like everything, so I probably just tried to play like every instrument. (hahaha) I could ever get my hands on. Then I learned about embouchure which is whether you either play the clarinet or the flute or you play the trumpet but not both.
R.V.B. - So which one did you go for?
J.S. - I played flute and clarinet but I had done a Civil War P.B.S. special where I did actually find a bugle and play some bugle on that.
R.V.B. - Now I know there's a lot of flute culture with Native Americans.
J.S. - Yes, and I do play the native flute as well as the solo flute. I was first chair in solo flute.
R.V.B. - Is that similar to a recorder?
J.S. - Well not really - because a recorder is an exact note whereas the traditional flutes are usually made of cedar or some kind of exotic wood and they all have different... say for example you have a room full of twenty people - everyone would have their own song.
R.V.B. - Oh ok - so they don't play together necessarily?
J.S. - Not necessarily - unless you have someone who knows what they're doing. There are several makers out there who can actually make them in several keys but it's a whole different way of playing than the solo flute.
R.V.B. - So you have toyed with them?
J.S. - Oh I have recorded many, many songs with them.
R.V.B. - Do you play on the reservation often?
J.S. - No, not at all. (hahaha) I pretty much tour the world. I've been so many places oh my gosh.
R.V.B. - How did you start playing the world - did you start playing regionally and catch a break?
J.S. - Not even... the first concert I did was in front of 15,000 people with Neil Young, Bruce Cockburn, John Denver, Jackson Browne. That was the first real concert, you know what I mean.
R.V.B. - How did you pull that off?
J.S. - Well, I have an old friend Floyd Westerman and Buddy Redbow who are icons in the native music world and there was a big benefit concert for the Lakota school. So all these musicians came out for it and they said "We have to have you, come on" and they just heard about me because I had done my first recording. So I went out and I sang with Floyd on that one. That's how I got to become friends with all these people and I co-wrote with Neil Young and I had Bruce Cockburn and Neil Young both on one of my albums. Neil asked me to help him finish one of his songs, which was cool. Anyway, it was like right off the bat, there I was out there and kept going from there. In 1990 I made the decision to quit my corporate job in the computer industry and then come north. That's where my ancestors hailed and I wanted to spend more time with my mother before she got too old which was a glorious thing because I actually had Willie Nelson sing her "Happy Birthday" once.
R.V.B. - Oh beautiful. I see that you also play with your daughter.
J.S. - Yes my daughter and my sister. My daughter has her own album out as a matter of fact. It's kinda Jazz-Electronica. She sounds like a cross between Bjork and Billie Holliday.
R.V.B. - That sounds like something that my daughter would listen to. (hahaha)
J.S. - Oh definitely... it's very, very popular. As a matter of fact I'm just getting ready in a few minutes to submit it to the Grammys. I wanted to get that done today... I'm not sure I will.
R.V.B. - I see. I find it very unusual that you and your daughter played on a Jim Morrison track.
J.S. - Yes
R.V.B. - That's quite an honor
J.S. - Isn't it? I know when they asked me... you see I got involved with a company called "Project Peace on Earth" a non- profit? We actually went to sing John Lennon's song in Manger Square, two Christmas's ago in Bethlehem. A friend of mine Steve Robertson... He runs the company... introduced me to a guy named Jonathan Elias. Jonathan Elias was doing kind of a nuclear awareness album and they had sing "Bono, Sinead O'Conner. Robert Downey Junior" and he goes "Well what song do you want to sing on?". I was like "Are you kidding me? Jim Morrison's". (hahahah)
R.V.B. - (hahaha)
J.S. - Yeah, that's a no-brainer there, right?
R.V.B. - I would say so
J.S. - So we did the thing and I also sent Jonathan, which is something that you might be interested in... a native perspective of what the translation would be of Jim Morrison's visit to native territories because he was very fascinated with native life and culture. It's from my perspective and what I thought he was thinking, you know?
R.V.B. - So you took his spoken work and wrote the music that you thought went to it over it?
J.S. - My daughter and I decided to do native chants behind it.
R.V.B. - Well, obviously we could go on and on over the cool things you have done.
J.S. - Well, lots of fun. I've been very blessed, to be very honest. Really, I'm not kidding.
R.V.B. - So you went overseas to Rome right?
J.S. - Yeah, to play at the Vatican.
R.V.B. - Was it a big event with multiple artists?
J.S. - No. Well it was a huge event for the canonization of Saints at the Vatican. So there were probably 3,000 native people that came in because it was the first Native American saint that was ever canonized, named Kateri Tekakwitha, Lilly of the Mohawks. We got to sing at St. Peters in the Basilica, for when they had a special tribute to her. Thousands and thousands of people. It was very, very beautiful acoustically, but also kind of profound in a way because I think you know everyone needs something to believe in and certainly the message of peace is for all people of the world. I'm kind of one of these studiers of Huston Smith, an old friend of ours... He's 95, born the same month as Pete Seeger who was a dear friend of mine.
R.V.B. - Yeah, I just went to the Clearwater Festival two weeks ago.
J.S. - Oh, I wanted to go so bad, but I thought it was the weekend before and they actually asked me to come because I've been there two years in a row.
R.V.B. - How do you find the experience of a folk festival?
J.S. - Well I totally love it. Pete Seeger was one of my major mentors. As a matter of fact, last year before I got on stage, they said "Miss Shenandoah, we want you to know that Mr. Seeger has elected to see just you this weekend". So he sat right next to the stage on the right and watched the whole show... smiled and clapped along and sang along.
R,V.B. - What stage did you play on?
J.S. - The Rainbow stage.
R.V.B. - Oh that's the main stage. It's a really nice setting there. I really enjoyed myself.
J.S. - It is really nice. It's so pretty there.
R.V.B. - Yeah, I got to meet Holly Near this year.
J.S. - Yeah, yeah, that's what you were saying. That's really cool.
R.V.B. - Yeah, she actually played with Pete and Arlo Guthrie.
J.S. - Oh yeah, I played with Arlo Guthrie also. She's really talented.
R.V.B. - So, would you rate the Rome performance as one of the top places that you played?
J.S. - Ummmm, you know that's a really difficult one because there's too many great events. I played for the Dalai Lama.
R.V.B. - That's pretty significant
J.S. - That was pretty great and then....
J.S. - The Dalai Lama was at the Syracuse Dome. There's a whole bunch that rank up there. I got to open up Woodstock 94.
R.V.B. - That's nice, I saw that. So you were the first artist?
J.S. - Yes, I got to perform a song for the Joni Mitchell tribute at Carnegie Hall. I was the first artist there. -
R.V.B. - Now getting back to Carnegie Hall, that place has some nice acoustics, right?
J.S. - It's not bad, but I've sung in better halls. The one I love is Ordway Theater in Minneapolis - St. Paul.
R.V.B. - That's real nice?
J.S. - Oh, phenomenal acoustics. Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous
R.V.B. - Oh yeah, because my wife and I went to see the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie hall and right when the violinist was tuning up very quietly, you could hear it loud and clear.
J.S. - It was a beautiful hall. There's no doubt about it... I loved the hall. I'm honored to actually have been able to sing there. Yeah - but you're right - you can tell a good hall. When it's real gentle music and you don't have to blast it. That's my kind of thing that I love. I don't really like smoke and mirrors. Sometimes we had trouble with equipment and I said, "Let's just play acoustic". I guess I'm old school that way, you know?
R.V.B. - Well you know, I prefer playing acoustic myself. I went through my electric years and I'm getting on in age.
J.S. - You play the guitar?
R.V.B. - I do play the guitar, yes.
J.S. - Oh nice
R.V.B. - Just semi-professionally. I play every other week in the local places. The Nassau Coliseum was the biggest place I've ever played... and only once. I'm more like a local guy. I love music and it's a privilege to be able to play.
J.S. - Well it is... it's fun and as a matter of fact, I think about trying to do more local things, but for me , I can't make a living to do it without having to travel. Another awesome thing - I got to perform for Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama in South Africa. It was in Cape Town, South Africa for the Parliament of the Worlds Religion. At the time, there were 10,000 world religious leaders.
R.V.B. - Wow! That sounds like a very nice experience for you.
J.S. - It was a great experience. It was amazing. There were people from all over the world.
R.V.B. - Now, I gather that you play solo?
J.S. - There I sang a cappella, correct. I sang at the opening of the Parliament for the World's Religion.
R.V.B. - Did you do a traditional Native American song?
J.S. - Yes, it was the Prophecy Song.
J.S. - You know, I keep bringing these things up and it's hard to believe that I'm actually saying these things. I don't think about it on a daily basis. I just think about, "Man I gotta get back and do more writing". I have people sending me scripts and things like that. Just last night, I was happy writing a new song.
R.V.B. - Oh nice. Did you ever make your way over to the Far East?
J.S. - Korea. Yes, .I sang at the Hwa Eom Temple. I could have stayed there... it was so beautiful. It's a Buddhist monastery and there were some different musicians from different areas of the world... A Tibetan singer - just really phenomenal ... What a great experience.
R.V.B. - So, can you tell me a little bit about the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge?
J.S. - Yes, that’s something my husband and I have been working on for about 13 years. We have just been gifted twenty with twenty eight acres of sacred land over in Cohoes falls near Albany. We're intending to have Traditional Knowledge available online with online courses as well as a facility at some point. This is kind brand new, so if you go to hiawatha.syr.edu... it kinda needs to be updated, but we'll get there.
R.V.B. - So you say it's in Albany? Where about?... because my brother in-law lives up there.
J.S. - Cohoes Falls is not far from Troy. The Brookfield Energy Corporation has a beautiful little park there. They say this is the land where the Peacemaker went over the falls. He said, “if I come back then you know my word is true”. He went over a huge, huge cliff and into the falls. The next morning, he was seen sitting next to a fire on the other side of the falls. It's one of our sacred sites in New York and there's several. There's a big concert coming up in Victor, New York. Do you know where that is?
R.V.B. - Sounds familiar.
J.S. - It's near Geneva. It's where the wineries are. There's somebody buried there... the first clan mother and her name was Jigonsasea. She was known as "The Mother of Nations" and I actually did a tribute to her on an album called "Skywoman". It was a symphonic production that took twelve years to put together.
R.V.B. - That sounds like a big project.
J.S. - Oh ah, It's over a thousand sheets of paper on stage with sixty eight musicians. It's so riveting to be able to perform with a host of symphonic instruments. Wow.
R.V.B. - It's really unbelievable when you hear all those instruments together live.
J.S. - Yeah, it's very riveting right to your entire being. The vibration of the music itself.
R.V.B. - Yeah, I'm big on seeing live music in person. When I used to go see my daughter's band at her school, it was just fascinating to hear fifteen to twenty clarinet's at the same time.
J.S. - I can send you the links of our performance with the New Mexico Symphony which was on PBS.
R.V.B. - Sure that would be fantastic. Now, you have seemed to have amassed quite a few awards in your day... congratulations.
J.S. - Thank you. I think awards are really a "thank you". For me, I quit award shows all together for like five years. I had three Grammy nominations and after I didn't win the first one, I was kind of disappointed on how everybody else acted about it. I was just like "Hey, it's just an honor to be nominated"
R.V.B. - That's true.
J.S. - I just kinda got tired of award shows but now I'm gonna try to be more supportive to like, "The Native American Music Awards" and help out where I can. The first one... I helped to form the organization and I have friends who at the time ran the Mashantucket Foxwoods Casino. The old tribal chairman there, his wife and I have been friends for like thirty years. I told him "Why don't we have the Native American music awards here?" and he funded the whole thing. I had asked Robbie Robertson to come, Rita Coolidge, Bruce Cockburn, Richie Havens came... Wayne Newton came. It was soooo awesome - oh my God - it was a great thing. Redbone was there... It was just a night to remember.
R.V.B. - You mentioned Robbie Robertson, I just want to touch back on the Woodstock performance. After you opened the show did you stick around and catch some of the other performances? Did you go into the village?
J.S. - We had an Indian village there, so yeah, we were there the whole time.
R.V.B. - Obviously you've been to Woodstock village, did you ever meet Levon Helm?
J.S. - I never met Levon, but I did spend a good deal of time with Robbie Robertson over the years in a studio in L.A. and also just hanging out.
R.V.B. - So you've played with him on some of his music?
J.S. - Yep, on the "Contact from the underworld of Redboy". Yeah , we spent a whole week in the studio together. It was grand... he's such an amazing talent. Wow, wow, I was kind of foolish in a sense when I was young. I was in a private school, like a Christian school, so I didn't really know music per say back then? I did get a letter from Buffy Saint Marie. She sent me a check for $100. Somehow somewhere she heard that I was a musician. So anyway, I didn't realize I'd be doing music for a living or doing what I love.
R.V.B. - Yeah, there's nothing better than doing what you love. So what's on tap these days? What's on the agenda?
J.S. - We are working on a new project with Leonardo DiCaprio's people. He's got a new project coming out which I'm gonna be working on some music on the environment and our relationship to the earth. Because I believe that if we are disconnected to the Earth, we are disconnected to everything... including our children. Right now, I am the co-chair on the task force for the Attorney General Eric Holder on children exposed to violence. I fly to Denver on the 13th... This coming Sunday. We're writing a report... we've been listening to testimony since November. In North Dakota, Florida, Arizona, Portland, Oregon, Alaska... I was just there a week and a half ago. It's been an undertaking and it's a gratis position.
R.V.B. - So you're doing this report for Eric Holder?
J.S. - Yeah, he wrote me a letter... I guess the Department of Justice was in my workshop that I hold on human vibrations of music and lifting grief and using creator given talents to make a better world. Anyway, I have this big workshop that I do for this victims of violence conference held out in California every other year and I received a letter from Eric Holder asking me to co-chair with Senator Dorgan.
R.V.B. - That's fantastic. It sounds like it's a good cause. It sounds like you're doing a good thing for the planet, humanity, culture and I really commend you for that.
J.S. - Well thanks so much... I really had no idea of the state of affairs in America. We have 60% child abuse and in Native America we have 69%, but also a problem is our foster care system is just not holding up. So I'm really honored to be a part of it. It's a huge ordeal. Oh, I had some idea but not to this extent.
R.V.B. - How many people are involved in that project?
J.S. - I think they initially chose twenty four people.
R.V.B. - Does everybody have a territory -so to speak?
J.S. - Pretty much different territories, doctors, lawyers, judges, MSW workers... you know, I have this music for children.... I have workshops for children. I do this kind of work anyway, but I didn't realize how I would go about being involved. It turns out I have to run the whole hearing sometimes. I learned a lot.
R.V.B. - Well again, congratulations on all your accomplishments. You're doing a lot of good work. The music community appreciates it and thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me.
J.S. - Well thank you Rob, it was very kind of you to seek me out.
R.V.B. - Well, I enjoy talking to people and I enjoy talking to people who do good things. Music is in me and I'm constantly learning myself and this has been a learning experience. I'm going look into it further.
J.S. - Ok, great Rob
R.V.B. - Ok Joanne, it was nice talking with you.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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