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Old 10-08-2004, 10:08 PM   #1
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Native American Turns Anger to Music

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Native American Turns Anger Into Music

By Don Wilcock , The Record 10/06/2004

"Hell, I've been asked to sing the national anthem for the Green Bay Packers
game October 24, and I've said, 'Well, OK. I'll sing that. I've never sung it
before, but I'll sing it on behalf of the people who died in the war.' Bring
some light into that!"

Joanne Shenandoah who shares a double bill with Robert Mirabal Friday at The
Troy Savings Bank Music Hall has been called, "The most critically acclaimed
Native American singer of her time" by the Associated Press.

Her statement about singing the National Anthem drips with irony. But you
have to look deep into her Website to get the full impact of that irony.

The Treaty of Paris in 1783 reduced Oneida Indian land holdings from several
hundred thousand acres to about 60,000. This was a good 100 years after
European disease first decimated the Native American population.

By 1930, that plot was reduced to 32 acres. Now, in these "enlightened times"
of the Indian-owned Turning Stone Casino and tax-free cigarettes, the Oneidas
have regained some land, and each enrolled Oneida member gets a quarterly
check of $1,100 from the estimated $167 million in annual revenue, according to
Joanne Shenandoah's Website.
Joanne sees none of that money because she's a dissident who "embarrassed"
the Oneida leader Ray Halbritter, "nation representative" who made the Turning
Stone casino deal with New York state.
"I'm just doing the best that I can do to bring a sense of unity and a sense
of hope for the future," she says, dismissing her being banished from this

"That's my mission, and that's what I try to keep focused on. And trust me, I
get sucked into it all the time, what's going on. I went on a march for
democracy in 1995 and got cut off from my nation. They give me no benefits

You might imagine that such a cultural background would make Shenandoah's
music the Native American equivalent to the anger of gangsta rap or at the least
raw energy of delta blues.

But listening to her music on "Eagle Cries," a 2001 CD, brings to mind the
clear tones of a Joan Baez or Judy Collins. The instrumentation takes you on the
winds of rock-strewn brooks and whispering forest trees.

Her music is trance-like and far more reflective of the Indian idea that the
earth is a living. breathing entity.

"It's not an idea," she insists. "It's actually a fact. For example, there
are seeds within us as women. There are seeds in our fruits and vegetables, the
things that keep us alive. If it's not watered, we die.
"If we don't get water, we die, which means virtually these plants keep us
alive when you start thinking about it in more of a factual way.
"One of my favorite ceremonies is the seed ceremony, and it takes up to five
hours to thank the creator for seeds alone. Then, you're doing your grocery
shopping and you see seedless watermelons, seedless grapes, seedless cucumbers.
What are we doing to ourselves on this earth?

It took us 40 years to get rid of seeds in watermelons, for example.
Shocking! And the implications of all this? "The implications are death."

The other dramatic cultural difference between Oneida Indians and that
imposed by settlers is that hers is a matriarchal culture. In the Oneida Indian
nation, women make the major decisions including when to go to war.

I'll let you figure out how she feels about President Bush's pre-emptive
strike policy, because she really doesn't want to talk politics in a music

You can understand why. Here's a woman whose guests on "Eagle Cries" include
Jeff Beck and Bruce Cockburn. She also recently collaborated with Neil Young.
"It's not for public knowledge yet," she teases, "but I think I'm on his next

She was nominated for a Grammy with "Peacemaker's Journey" in 2001, and she's
put together an entire "Sky Women's Orchestra" for her next recording piece
by piece, although it's not all women.

"I wish it was," she says and then laughs. "Did I say that?" It was Wilma
Mankiller, chairwoman of the Cherokee Nation, who gave Shenandoah her perspective
on music that transcends any anger she may have culturally.

"She asked me this poignant question. She said, 'When your daughter has
children, and their daughters have daughters, and their daughters have children,
and you've long passed on, what do you want them to have said about you?" So
that's virtually how I think I live my life."

The word stoic takes on intense new meaning when you talk to this woman. "The
story is told of Haiwatha, who is one of our prophets. He had seven daughters
murdered by an evil chief, and he stayed by this lake for days and grieved so
that he didn't know what to do.

When these ducks lifted from the lake, and the water sprinkled, it made him
think that he needs to figure a way to forgive. He began to create what we call
the wampum, which is a condolence ceremony using the wampum that's used in
our treaty belt.

"That was our first time that someone was willing to actually forgive so
there would be peace. He literally took the snakes from Ta-da-tahoe's hair,
because he used to grow black snakes in his hair, and forgave him through a song
that came singing to him.

"The remarkable thing of this whole story is that if it weren't for that
particular forgiveness, we would not be the Confederacy. Of course, our
confederacy is in dire straits at the moment. We're hanging on by thumbs, but we're
still here."

Sometimes in our interview, a twinge of bitterness would break through.
"Here's some wetlands. Let's build a casino." How can you blame her? But then
she backpedals.

"You can scratch what I just said about that, because it's not really that
important. What's important to me is the fact that I'm out there, and no one is
stopping me doing what I'm supposed to do. I think virtually everyone on this
earth has a gift or talent, and if they're not using this gift, they're
miserable, and you meet them every day.
"We believe when children are young, we're supposed to nourish that talent.
It's so amazing how some of these intrinsic values in cultural beliefs of the
Iroquois are so powerful and very, very good and logical.

"As far as the casino and all the money and how that goes, I know my mission
on this earth is to do music; bring people together that wouldn't normally
even be in the same room, every color, and that's my focus. That's kind of where
I go with that."

Robert Mirabal and Joanne Shenandoah perform Friday at 8 p.m. at the Troy
Savings Bank Music Hall in Troy. Tickets are $25 and $28 and may be purchased by
calling the box office at 273-0038 or online at

©The Record 2004
Don't worry that it's not good enough for anyone else to hear... just sing, sing a song.
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