Manataka American Indian Council

Proudly Presents







Joanne Shenandoah: Oneida Iroquois, Advocate for Peace

By Abbey Jenkins      




Joanne Shenandoah

Joanne Shenandoah, PhD, is one of America’s most celebrated and critically acclaimed musicians. She is a Grammy Award winner, with over 40 music awards, including a record 13 Native American Music awards and 17 recordings.  She has captured the hearts of audiences all over the world, from North and South America, South Africa, Europe, Australia and Korea, with praise for her work to promote Universal Peace. She is a board member of the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge (


Joanne and her daughter Leah recorded on the title track “Path to Zero” with Jim Morrison which also included artists, Sting, Bono, Sinead O’Conner, Robert Downey Jr., and others.  They will release 2 new recordings before the end of the year, Leah’s “Spectra” and Joanne’s “Nature Dance”,   her upcoming world music collection which she calls “Evolutionary Native Dance .“ She created and recorded the album with friends from North America, Persia, Spain and Germany.  The music has been composed over the past two decades and is dedicated to fans of Native music across the planet.







Pete Seeger and Joanne

In her upcoming album she states profoundly in the liner notes: “As I make this journey in life, I’ve found that most people around the world are compassionate about our Mother Earth and concerned about the environmental changes affecting all living things.  We are told to remain eternally grateful for the blessings of life, to use only what we need and to respect the rights of those unborn unto the seventh generation. We believe balance and harmony are realized when the natural world has a voice in the affairs of human beings and each one of us is free to live in accordance with our Creator given talents.”


Shenandoah has performed at the White House, Carnegie Hall, and 5 Presidential Inaugurations, and Woodstock ‘94. Joanne was also part of the Native American delegation gathering for the Parliament of the Worlds’ Religions in 1999 in Cape town, to witness the emergence of a free nation under the leadership of the late Mr. Nelson Mandela.  (


Joanne shares with the Utica Phoenix, “I am an Oneida – Iroquois, Wolf Clan member.  My father was a Chief of the Onondaga Nation and my mother a Clan Mother of the Oneida Nation.” She says that since she was a little girl her mother and father taught her the importance of their culture and she has always been proud to be an Oneida Iroquois woman.


“As a child I didn’t realize the importance of my peoples’ contributions to the formation of the United States, and as advocates for Democracy and Women’s Rights.


“My family was always supportive of my musical interests.  My dad, Cliff Shenandoah, played Jazz guitar with Duke Ellington and my mom played guitar and piano.”


Clearly a prodigy, as a high school student, her love of music led her to play guitar, cello, piano, flute, clarinet, organ and percussion. She was also in singing groups and select choirs as a teen.




Kacey Schenandoah and Lyana Halsey

Joanne’s initial career was in Washington, DC as a Systems Integration Engineer so performing music as a full time activity was a return to her roots and a realization of her natural gift. Her Wolf Clan name is Tekali Whah Khaw, pronounced, day-ghal-lee-whah-gwah.  It means, fittingly, “She Sings”.


Shenandoah admits she has had an amazing life and has worked with some of the finest musicians in the world, but in order to embrace that life she left a job in DC that paid well into the six figure category and turned her back on an offer to set her up in a 6 million dollar Minority Woman-Owned Business.


“I was working extremely hard in Washington, DC.  I was invited by a dear friend named Floyd Red Crow Westerman (Chief Ten Bears in Dances With Wolves) to take part in a benefit concert in South Dakota.


“Turns out it was a star studded show with Neil Young, Kris Kristopherson, John Denver, John Trudell, Timbuk III, David Lindley, Buddy Redbow, Willie Nelson, and I was hooked!!

“It was shortly thereafter I saw a huge tree being uprooted and taken down in front of my office building. I then decided I would leave my career of 14 years and move back to my ancestral homeland to pursue music.”

The rest, as they say, is history.




Joanne and Doug on their wedding

 day in Hawaii, 1991

“As Fate would have it, I would meet Doug George Kanentiio, a Mohawk. He was introduced to me by the late Mohawk Chief Jake Swamp and my mother, Maisie Shenandoah. We married in Hawaii in 1991. We were blessed to move into this historical property which actually ended up being the homestead of Chief Shenandoah, my ancestor, who was friends with George Washington.”

To this day, many people are unaware of the great contributions to America made by Chief Shenandoah, an Oneida man.


It was during the Revolutionary War when Shenandoah brought 300 bushels of corn to Valley Forge and helped save the fledging American Army.  It was General Washington who named the Shenandoah Valley after him and the song “Shenandoah” is also in remembrance of him.


It was Chief Shenandoah and Samuel Kirkland who formed the Oneida Academy in 1793.  By 1812 it was known as Hamilton College.  Joanne and her family are the 7th generation after Shenandoah. The great Chief Shenandoah died at the age of 110 on the property where she lives today on Route 5 in Oneida Castle.  His body is buried at Hamilton College next to his dear friend, the Reverend Samuel Kirkland.


“It was Shenandoah’s dream to form an alliance with the Americans and to have our brightest students study together at an institution of higher learning.  I am blessed to be on the board of the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge, which carries on the dream of Shenandoah (


“It is our dream to share knowledge about the Great Law of Peace of the Iroquois with the world and to provide a place where our ancestral teachings, from music to science, may be shared.”


When asked how she feels about the current state of the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, she answers, “According to the Great Law of Peace, each nation, in order to be legitimate, must have a Council Fire Wampum.  This means the Nation Council must establish Chiefs, Clan Mothers, Assistant Chiefs and Faithkeepers who are the spiritual counselors.


“At one time the Oneidas of this region had a total of 36 leaders for 3 clans, the Wolf, Turtle and Bear.   It was the desire of my mother Maisie Shenandoah and my grandmother Mary Cornelius Winder, to create a homeland where all Oneidas could live and have their affairs governed by a traditional council.


“I feel this dream will be fulfilled one day.  My family has been, and always will be, dedicated toward the realization of this vision.  My mother was widely respected because she believed in peace and living in harmony with our neighbors. She was highly respected throughout the region and across the country.  She was the last true Clan Mother for the Oneidas.


“As an Iroquois woman I come from a Matriarchal society. I have traveled the world and realize that most humans underestimate the natural power of women.   As a young child, my parents taught me women are considered “life givers” and without the nurturing love and power of the mother, grandmother, aunties and society as a whole, life is altered and off balance.


“The Iroquois are unique in that women hold such great authority and themselves are held in the highest esteem.  I am not aware of any other culture where women have enjoyed such great freedom as among our people.”


In Iroquois culture it has been the women’s responsibility to choose and depose leaders, to veto laws.  Also, they have held the power to make peace and end wars.  Women were considered the custodians of the Earth and all real property. (See “Wisdom of the Clan mothers” December 2013)


“It has been one of my greatest honors to share the knowledge and wisdom of our people as passed down to me from my, Maisie Shenandoah, a true Clan Mother.”


Recently, Joanne Shenandoah was appointed by Attorney General of the United States, Eric Holder, to co-chair the Department of Justice Department’s American Indian/Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence Task Force Advisory Committee.


The committee is chartered to provide the Attorney General with policy recommendations to address the epidemic levels of violence faced by tribal children and youth.  The recommendations will be based on testimony at four public hearings, comprehensive research, and extensive input from experts, advocates, and impacted families and tribal communities nationwide.

Shenandoah most recently traveled to North Dakota for the first Task Force panel of review.


Of that she states, “It is an honor to serve as Co-Chair of the Task Force. I am one of many who care deeply about child abuse, which affects families across America.

  Now is time for change!!  We are in a time where we must awaken, stand up and take responsibility for ending familial violence.  We have a duty to protect the rights of those unborn unto the seventh generation.”


Ms. Shenandoah was honored last year to sing at St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in for the celebration at the canonization of the first Native American Saint, Kateri Tekakwitha. When asked to recount her proudest moment in an outstanding career she responded, “There are too many wonderful moments to name just one.


“Having my album “Peacemaker’s Journey” nominated for the first Native Grammy was exciting, as was helping to establish the Native American Music Awards with Ellen Bello. The first NAMMY celebration was a career highlight as we brought together incredible Native artists such as Floyd Westerman, Robbie Robertson, Wayne Newton and Rita Coolidge. Since then literally thousands of Native musicians have had their talents showcased at the annual NAMMY gatherings.


“I have been honored to be able to perform with other musicians from India, Tibet, Korea, Australia and Africa.  One of the oldest and most famous singers in South Korea was Madam Cho.  She is 80 years old. “Many Koreans do not allow you to touch them by shaking hands. They usually bow.  After I performed and had the honor of hearing Madam Cho she had one of her assistants come after me to say that she wanted to embrace me.


“The next day, I was asked to have tea with the head monk of the Hwa Eom Temple in the south of Korea.  He said that my presence there moved the mountains and that our ancestors were listening to the sacred music together.

  He placed around my neck sacred beads, which he said, came from the Bow tree and that only 30 people in the world would have them.  The beads came from the sacred Bodhi tree.  I have beautiful pictures from that event.


“I was also honored to perform in Capetown, South Africa for the Parliament of the Worlds’ Religions.  Ten thousand world religious leaders were present along with His Holiness the Dali Lama and Nelson Mandela. 

I have also been blessed to sing for Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife at Colgate University.  I heard later that he said meeting my mother and aunt, along with our presentation, was the highlight of his trip to America.”


When asked of her proudest personal accomplishment, she thinks perhaps she has yet to accomplish it! “I feel that having our Native music carried on to the next generation is most important.  Inspiring children to find expression through music is something which gives me great pleasure.” And what inspires her?


“My ancestors, and my commitment to secure a good future for those who are yet unborn is my inspiration. The late Cherokee chief Wilma Mankiller reminded all of us to leave a legacy of cultural and environmental stability to those who follow. She inspired me to write the following song after asking me: “Joanne, long after you have passed on, what would you like people to say about you?”


I wrote her a song with these lyrics: Your Legacy© J. Shenandoah

(Inspired by Wilma P. Mankiller)
After all is said and done…what will be your legacy..
Will the rivers and streams, and all waters flow clean
Will your footprint in the sand..   be the only mark you leave..
 After all is said and done.. what will be our legacy..
What will they say about us.. what will they believe..
In our lifetime on this earth….. what did we achieve….
What do you want them to say..
What would you want them to do..
How would you want them to feel
When they think about you???
What do you want them to know…
How did you prepare the way..
 You gave your best for those unborn
And helped …..  clear  the way…
After all is said and done.. what will be your legacy Seeds of life that you sowed…crops, flowers and trees..
Your child’s great grandchild …will see the mark you leave..
After all is said and done.. what will be your legacy
May the rivers and streams, all waters flow clean..
Don’t let the footprint in the sand….be the only mark you leave..

When asked what is there in life that she fears she responds, “I’ve come to learn there is no reason to live in fear, or to be afraid of death.  Life is a blessing and a circle.  We are given the sweet breath of life and as we grow in our spiritual self and our physical self, as we age, one can realize true gratitude for those who have influenced us past, present and future.  I am concerned our grandchildren will have to carry the burden of our excesses and may not have a stable world in which to grow.”


Ms. Shenandoah plans to continue to bring music of peace, hope and love to the world.  She explains that when she was a young girl, Ted Silverhand, a Tuscarora Indian from North Carolina, and a member of the Bear Clan from the Sagarrissa family, who have been known as seers and visionaries for generations, told her that her mission on Earth was music and that she must fulfill her Creator given gifts.

“He also said that people around the world would hear it.  That prophecy has been fulfilled. This fulfills me,” she said. The Iroquois believe that each and every person born on the Earth has been given special gifts or talents and if shared with the world, with a good mind and heart, that our planet will be a better place.


“I believe there are many people who live in fear of life and death.  There are many pills which only mask the reality of our being.  True medicine comes from being the person we were born to be, making the world a better place and fulfilling the dream of securing a better place for those yet unborn.”

Viewing the documentary “Dancing On Mother Earth”, Shenandoah reveals that she is a fan of “The Simpsons” and “Saturday Night Live” like many of us. But when asked what are her other pleasures in life or how she likes to spend her spare time, she answers, “I don’t really have “down time.” Perhaps, when I sleep.. and even then, I’m dreaming about how to make a better world through music. I do like to spend time on our island in the St. Lawrence River at Akwesasne and I play a mean game of Scrabble!”


Joanne Shenandoah relies upon her music and the Creator as a means of staying spiritually connected while being so busy professionally. “Someone recently asked me if I am happy.  I responded immediately that I am grateful.  Creator has blessed me with the gift of music which helps to lift the spirit and soul of others, which reminds me that I have been given the gift of spirituality, as the vibration of music has a profound influence on us. We Iroquois are taught that we have everything we need to enjoy life as long as we return thanks to the natural world.  This is what I do and ask others to consider doing the same.”


The Utica Phoenix looks forward to hearing more music locally from our outstanding friend and neighbor, the beautiful, quietly powerful and talented Joanne Shenandoah.