Posted 20 July 2011, by Jeff Spevak, Democrat and Chronicle (Gannett), democratandchronicle.com
It was a Friday afternoon in 1994 in a vast field in Saugerties, not far from the artsy town of Woodstock. Joanne Shenandoah had been escorted to the stage, and before her was an amazing sight. “Aside from people taking off their clothes?” she says with a laugh. “I saw a sea of 400,000 people.”
The posters had been calling it “2 More Days of Peace and Music,” the 25th anniversary celebration of the original Woodstock, and Shenandoah was there to sing the first notes of what had actually evolved in three more days of selling T-shirts. And then, rain and mud. Just like the good old days. But first, Shenandoah serenaded them with a song of hers, “America.”
“All people, all colors …”
These kids were crowding toward the stage to see Aerosmith, Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day and Nine Inch Nails. And here was Shenandoah, a member of the Wolf Clan of the Oneida Nation, of the Haudenosaunee Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy, reminding them that we all have to work together on this planet. Who knew if these kids were even paying attention?
“I had a medicine man tell me, ‘If people ask you to perform, even if it doesn’t feel like the right place, or the right time, there are people that would hear you that would never otherwise be in the same room together with you,’” Shenandoah says. “‘Never doubt yourself.’ And I’ve never doubted myself since then.”
With the exception of its yoga classes, 21st-century America tends to roar past the spiritually enhanced souls among us as though they don’t exist. Shenandoah is a Grammy winner with nearly a dozen albums to her name, plus appearances on a handful of other recordings. She counts Neil Young and Pete Seeger among her friends. She’s composed and recorded music for documentary and TV soundtracks, including Northern Exposure, and has even been in a movie, the 2007 apocalyptic thriller The Last Winter, starring Ron Perlman. “I played a cook and a nurse who runs out of morphine,” Shenandoah says.
She performs this weekend at the 20th anniversary of Ganondagan’s Native American Dance & Music Festival. Ganondagan is the site of an ancient Seneca town, and traditions such as the story of The Great Peacemaker and Jikonsase, the Mother of Nations, who helped bring together the region’s separate Indian nations. “In a world of uncertainty, it’s time to hold onto those stories,” Shenandoah says, calling Ganondagan a spiritual center worthy of any pilgrim’s time. “If you were to name it Machu Picchu, they’d all be there, right?”
Well, Ganondagan’s certainly easier to get to, just south of Victor. Call the tribal dancing and costumes charming, if you wish. But the global awareness that it aspires to is modern. The latest project that Shenandoah has been involved with is Path to Zero. The CD, released this past spring, is a benefit for Global Zero, an organization that works for the worldwide elimination of nuclear weapons. Sting, an authority on the world going to hell in a hand basket, is also on the CD. Shenandoah sings behind a recently discovered recording by The Doors’ Jim Morrison reading Path to Zero, a poem he wrote about the shameful treatment of Native Americans in New Mexico.
But we have so much to worry about on this little planet of ours.
“Have you heard about the island of garbage the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California?” Shenandoah asks. “Some people say, ‘What can I do, I’m only one person?’”
The answer is: one person didn’t build that trash island. “Pete Seeger and I performed together on the Hudson River a couple of weeks ago; I’ve known him for 20 years,” Shenandoah says. “And he was saying to me, ‘You know, Joanne, there is no out. You can’t throw something out.’ “
There is no out. It’s a sensitivity that has been a part of Shenandoah, “Probably most of my life. It’s just a part of my upbringing. I was always taught I should live my life as if we are preparing for seven generations into the future.”
Meanwhile, the rest of us are living as if there’s no tomorrow, looking at the world through a different prism: “‘Here’s how much money you’re supposed to make,’” as Shenandoah puts it. “It’s all very outward, as opposed to inward.”
She was 10 or 12 years old, Shenandoah says, when these messages were first delivered to her by “a visionary,” as she calls him.
In the Native American tradition, they’re also called seers, or tellers. And if you’re out there rolling your eyes, maybe you’re also one of the 15 million people who bought a copy of I’m OK, You’re OK. Or a Suze Orman DVD. Visionaries are in the eye of the beholder. Shenandoah’s is Ted Silverhand, and while you may not be certain he can see the future, he’s at least up to date. He has a website: tedsilverhand.com.
“Do you ever have intuition?” Shenandoah asks. “Some people have the ability to tell the future. My personal belief is you can … well, not necessarily practice, but you can focus on what it is you would like to enhance. This particular native guy is very intuitive. He’s been around my life, I guess I want to say 30, 40 years. Anyway, a long time. He’s always been keenly intertwined in what I want to do.”
Modern culture is well-rehearsed in chasing money, but it isn’t terribly adept at developing big, spiritual ideas.
“We either suppress or explore,” Shenandoah says. “Our views have not been nurtured to the degree that they could have.
“There are many people who can sing, but simply think they can’t sing, or haven’t tried it. … If they show a deep and true interest in something when they are young, then they blossom, and out of it comes something much more than anticipated.
“Each and every one of us is given a special gift, a serious mission.”
Her serious mission? “I’ve been told that it is to bring music that is to raise consciousness, peace, hope and love, and the survival of our planet.”