An Iroquois Celebration of Womanhood


Loretta Kemsley

Beneath the tree of Peace, in our hearts, in our minds,

Everyone's inside the circle, where no one's left behind

Joanne Shenandoah, from America 

Women's Dance

Soft , melodic strains flowing across the morning celebrate the dawn with Iroquois chants, evoking images of shared experiences through the ages. Sunrise on the mountain is the perfect place to enjoy Matriarch, Joanne Shenandoah's newest album, her sweet vocals rising as softly as the mist. Spirit, time, and earth are woven together into a tapestry which fills the soul with the gentle pride of being female, of surviving life's travails, of our blessings of age, wisdom, and strength.

As the mist rises, revealing the mountain in its search for the sky, so her songs speak to and lift the soul without the need of translations from the Iroquois language, inviting the listener to focus on the beauty of our world and the spiritual connection to our self and our community. Hidden musical aspirations awaken and are remembered. The desire for a flute, a drum, hair blowing in the wind, or the feel of moccasins on the damp grass while dancing in the glow of a campfire suddenly seem as natural as the glistening dew.

Recorded on the historic land of her people, the singing of birds, rustling of leaves, and chatter of brooks can be heard in the background. The album garnered the 1997 Indie Award in the North American Native Music division. The Syracuse New Times review said, "The recordings on Matriarch were made at ancient village sites of 'Indian Spring' on the Oneida Iroquois Territory. Shenandoah's vocals and flute are wide, front and clear. The accompaniment by Tom Wasinger and Mark McCoin on guitars, autoharp, resonating stones and percussion instruments remains gentle and unobtrusive, as are the calls of birds heard in the background of some of the selections. Each song is paired in the liner notes with a photograph and a brief description of a woman who is important in Shenandoah's life and community."

Robbie Robertson, formerly of The Band, also praised Shenandoah's latest recording. "I have been enjoying Joanne Shenandoah's music for several years, but her new recording, Matriarch, is in my opinion her finest work yet. 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."

Shenandoah dedicated each song to the women in her clan: "I am from the Wolf Clan which flows through the bloodlines of the mother. There are three clans: wolf, turtle and bear. Each clan should have three clanmothers who work together. Each clanmother has a faithkeeper who is responsible for ceremonial preparations, weddings, funerals, and other rituals. The clanmothers are usually the elder women, who are wise and have experienced many years. Clanmothers control the nation. They are considered the lifegivers.

"The Haudenosaunee were careful observers of the world around them. They realized the polarity of life, a duality which was life taking and life giving, male and female. Accordingly, the Haudenosaunee designed their culture, spiritual beliefs and political systems in compliance with this most basic of natural laws.

"Women, as lifegivers, were acknowledged as custodians of Mother Earth. They assumed the responsibilities of monitoring all resources derived from the Earth; they controlled the land. Women nominated and deposed all Haudenosaunee leadership; they oversaw adoption and any activity (including warfare) which placed human life at risk.

"Women served as spiritual advisors, political counselors and healers. They selected among them the heads of their respective families, or clans...The clanmother title is usually handed down from generation to generation to the eldest daughter but not always...These clanmothers then represented the interest of their kin in all social activities of the Haudenosaunee. It is believed this method was the key to resolving human conflict since it placed the lifegivers in a position to temper the aggressive nature of males.

"Nowhere is the Haudenosaunee appreciation for women better reflected than in their music and dance. Over two hundred chants have been written to honor women. In every ceremony, the women's songs and dances are performed as a central part of the ritual. They don't have specific words; they are chants in honor of women.

"When women dance, their feet never leave the Earth because we are considered lifegivers like our mother, the Earth. They form a circle around the drum; they move with the Earth, counter-clockwise, their feet caressing the Mother as they shuffle to one of the hundreds of verses sung in their honor.

"We are also the planters, again lifegivers. Songs are also sung during planting. The regalia is not so important as the ritual: the burning of tobacco, the prayers, and the food. The elders and children are always fed first. Of course, I am not allowed to talk about our ceremonies in detail. It is a rule.

"The Haudenosaunee believe the Earth is a living organism with its own form of consciousness. They feel by holding women in high esteem, they are also paying homage to Mother Earth. She gives to us with but one condition: We respect her. At its heart, the reality of the Haudenosaunee is an endless thanksgiving for the bounties of Mother Earth, the true Matriarch and sustainer of all."

"Family lines flowed through the female; they had final say over marriages and divorces. Marriages were meant to be for life. Divorce was normal if the couple could not bear children together. The clothes are simply left outside the longhouse door. This was the sign that the relationship was over. The man always moved into the family of the woman's longhouse. This is to assure the man treats the women well."

Shenandoah left the security of the corporate world, where she was chasing the "American Dream" by designing architectural networks for the UNIX computer system, to pursue a music career full-time. "I guess I finally figured out what I'm supposed to be doing with my life. Change is never easy, but it's necessary. There's a false sense of security in business anyway--you're always dependent on the decisions and actions of others. But not in art. It finally gets to the point where if you aren't using the talent that's been given you by the Creator, and using it in a good, meaningful way, then all your efforts on this earth become very short-lived anyway. I finally came to believe that my real inner strength came from the name given me by my elders, 'She Sings.'

"I was working very hard and was doing all the things I thought were important in life. One day I looked out the window of my office and I saw these huge 200-year-old trees being cut down, and it just hit me like a ton of bricks. It was like, I have to be doing something more than what I'm doing here. I have to give back, and that's when I moved back (in 1990 ) to my original ancestors' stomping grounds.

"I knew I was missing something in my life. The spirituality and heredity of the Iroquoian people has always had a gravitational pull for me. So I said: that's it, I'm out of here."

Shenandoah now lives in a 160-year-old house, coincidentally built on the birthplace of a great forefather. "I found out that I'd bought the original land where Chief Shenandoah lived. He was very instrumental in the Revolutionary War. He was friends with George Washington. During the dead of winter, he bought 300 bushels of corn all the way from upstate New York to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and saved George Washington's starving army. Word has it, if it weren't for this one saving act, we'd probably be under British rule today."

"Blanket Fevers" (Once in a Red Moon album) recalls the days of Chief Shenandoah. "It really was a sad, sad thing, because after the war, George ordered General Sullivan to come and burn all the villages when the Oneidas were promised that they'd be able to keep their houses and fields. It's a grim part of my history that I'd like to know more about. Obviously, it's not in a history book."

The Haudenosaunee originated unique political ideals such as those of civil cooperation which influenced the creation of the federal government of the United States. In seeking a model for their new confederation, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson sought the counsel of Haudenosaunee elders and based their version of democratic ideals upon this knowledge.

This made Shenandoah's performance at the Native American Ball during Bill Clinton's inauguration particularly poignant. Clinton, the first president of the 21st Century, is structuring his second term as president around the theme of a new era inspired by the approach of a new millennium.

Despite the awards and celebrity photos hanging on her walls, she never forgets she is a member of the Oneida Nation, Wolf Clan, Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy. Named Tekaiawahway (pronounced De-gal-la-wha-wha) in her tribal language, her music is a reflection of her reverence for Iroquois customs. " My Elders told me my music would be heard all over the world, and that it will promote love, peace, and hope. Our talents are given to us so we may use them to live in harmony with Creation.

"I get a lot of gratification from singing and letting a mainstream audience know something about Iroquois culture. And in this way, I'm also able to help keep our ancient traditions and language alive. I don't feel any arrogance in this, but I feel that this is what I am meant to do.

"My father, Clifford Shenandoah, was a chief of the Onondaga Nation, and he was also an excellent jazz guitarist. He and my mother (Maisie, a clanmother of the Wolf Clan of the Oneidas) encouraged me to sing on stage while I was still in grammar school, and later I studied flute, cello, piano, and clarinet.

"My husband, Doug George-Kanentiio, and I have a nonprofit organization (Round Dance Productions) for the preservation of Iroquois culture. We now have the largest collection of Iroquois music that was recorded from the 1930s." This music was stored in archives and still controlled by copyright laws, which made it difficult but not impossible to obtain.

As her tribal elders predicted, Shenandoah's music is gaining prominence despite an industry which tends to ignore native music. CNN national talk show host Larry King played her song, "Your Spirit Lingers On," a protest against the desecration of Indian burial grounds, five times in a row. People called from all over the United States. "What that tells me is that people are starting to want to hear spiritual messages. It doesn't mean that Indian religion is right or that the Catholics are right. It's a matter of believing in a creator and knowing that he put us here to be caretakers of the earth, not to own it and not to control it."

With her sister, Diane, Shenandoah opened Woodstock II, 1994 , celebrating the 25th anniversary of the original music fest. "We took the stage Friday morning in front of thousands of people as part of an Iroquois delegation, and I performed a song I'd written, America, that describes the land in terms of the spirit. It's part of an overall spiritual message I want to bring to people through my music."

The movement away from tradition has brought problems to the Iroquois. "In this day and age, it is difficult to maintain our rich heritage. The influence of capitalism has inflicted many of our people and we are rapidly finding ourselves divided. In part, the reason for Matriarch was to illustrate the beautiful way of life the Iroquois believe in. In Oneida Territory, many of these customs are not being followed. The ambitious men have taken advantage of the United States government and New York state officials to create a mock government unlike a traditional one. They call themselves Representatives and Men's Council. Oneida have seen first hand the destruction which comes with the opening of a casino and the influence greed and power have on our people.

"(As Native people) we have the highest rate of suicide; we have things that are affecting us like grave desecration, so a lot of those songs (Once In A Red Moon album) are very heavy. People are afraid to talk about those things. I think the really good thing about music is we can communicate what we really would like to say but can't.

Shenandoah is careful when selecting songs for her recordings. Speaking of her previous release, Life Blood, she said, "I was reluctant to do this album with Peter Kater because the songs are very spiritual in nature, and I don't want to be labeled as someone who is selling my culture. We're not allowed to record or perform our ceremonial songs at all. I couldn't even imagine doing that because those songs are so incredibly intense and sacred. We are not allowed to sing them in public, so initially I was concerned and talked to a number of elders. And it was their belief, as well as mine, that these social dance songs were songs that were meant for enjoyment while the community got together and they're normally songs danced in many, many places. I haven't heard a lot of bad press about it yet, and I'm not expecting to because I'm one of the first Iroquois people to go out and perform or record Iroquois songs professionally. It's getting airplay in 140 cities and getting great reviews."

Some of the songs on this album are also women's songs. "Path of Beauty" is one. "The true beauty of a woman is naturally revealed as she grows older. Through their example, we can glimpse our own futures with confidence and peace."

Shenandoah was nominated for her composition "Ganondagan", performed with the Eastman Philharmonic. Ganondagan was a revered Iroquois clanmother. Her life work was spreading the message of peace through the Iroquois nations, resulting in the formation of the six-nation Iroquois Confederacy. "Ganondagan carried a powerful message of peace, and harmony to her people. So it's very fulfilling for me to be helping to deliver that message again, through my songs and my music. It's my primary reason for being on this earth, and I so love the special human interplay that happens in music, when you get a lot of people into one place for a musical event. Whether it's recording with an orchestra or performing for 2,000 high school kids, we are all lifted up. Our spirits are lifted; our lives are lifted. Everything is just lifted."

Shenandoah encourages other creative people to follow their dreams. "I used to work for other corporations or people where I ended up thinking, 'I can work as hard for myself or as hard as I want.' I figure if you're not enjoying your life, and you can't express yourself, then what the heck. I have that philosophy, and I try to encourage people that if you ever want to do music, why don't you just do it, instead of saying, 'Oh, I always wanted to play piano or guitar or take voice lessons.' It's crazy. We have a lot of dreams that we may never experience, and we never will if we just don't do it, you know. A lot of people are afraid of change. Not me. I figure you should at least give it your best shot. If you make the wrong move, you should just back up a little, and start walking forward again.

"If you believe you can do something, and your heart and your mind are in the right place, and you're not doing it for gain or greed or recognition, all these things come into play. They really come into play.

"Examine your own heritage. Write from your heart, and believe in yourself above all else. The successful part will come when our audience responds to our own enthusiasm. Even the best songwriters question their ability. We, as Iroquois, believe someone who is egotistical or conceited with their talent may lose it. Use your talent to live in harmony with Creation.

"As musicians, we have the responsibility to enlighten as well as entertain. As Iroquois, we are all taught by our elders of our duties as custodians of the earth, to walk lightly upon her. We are also to consider the effects our personal and communal decisions will have on the seventh generation into the future. We are now the seventh generation, and it is our task to continue the customs which help to keep our culture intact. Music is an integral part of that. It heals the body, lifts the spirits, and brings minds together."

Atop the mountain, high above the sea, Matriarch does exactly that, bringing a calm stillness to the soul, a centering filled with inner peace. As her music flows across the meadow below and echoes back up the canyon, the eyes drift upward, automatically raising the head, and the soul's energy flows as one with the universe. With the ocean' s tides lapping at the shore, one can imagine herself rising fresh from the sea, still wet with the promise of future triumphs.

Shenandoah has six albums:

Canyon Records: Joanne Shenandoah, Loving Ways, and Once in a Red Moon

Silverwave Records: Life Blood and Matriarch

Music For Little People: All Spirits Sing

available at stores everywhere,

or at: 1-800-Sil-wave

All are available through Four Winds Trading Company:
Attn: Peter Kandell

Information on tax-deductible donations to Round Dance Productions, Inc., for the preservation of Iroquois culture can be obtained from:

Round Dance Productions, Inc.
Oneida Nation Territory
P.O. Box 450
Oneida, NY 13421-0450

Round Dance is currently collecting funds to build a studio to re-record and archive the music they have collected. Because all work is performed by volunteers, this project could be completed with $27,000 for materials. Fan club information can be obtained at the same address.

Among Shenandoah's many awards are:

the NAIRD-INDIE Award, 1997;
Syracuse Newspapers' Outstanding Achievement Award, 1997;
Bread and Roses Foundation's Native American Women of Hope, 1997;
Iroquois' Native American Woman Recognition Award, 1996;
7th Generation Talent, Inc.'s Female Vocalist Award, 1995;
Who's Who Among Native Americans, 1994;
First Nations in the Arts' Outstanding Musical Achievement, 1993-4;
The United States Public Health Service, National Cancer  Institute's Special Recognition Award, 1992-3;
Billboard's Annual Songwriting Contest, Top 10%-Pop Category, 1992;
The United States Indian Health Service Special Award, for dedicated   service to the Oneida Nation, 1992;
and Who's Who in the East, 1991-2.

Loretta Kemsley is the president of Sandcastle Publications, an award-winning journalist, a freelance writer/editor, and a coach in the art of writing. Her past credits include editor-in-chief of The Free Spirit and Minority Employment News. She is currently organizing the new online Center for Creative Growth, sponsored by Women Artists and Writers International. As planned, the center will feature a variety of courses in a wide range of disciplines.

Back to Moondance Cover

[Cover| Art| About Moondance| Awards and Amies| Columns| Cosmic Connections| Fiction| Non-Fiction| Opinions| Poetry| Song and Story]

Hubble Design by Sarah Sammis