Part of Life’s Celebration

Avrel Bird will be among the performers at the Powwow.
Avrel Bird will be among the performers at the Powwow.

By Amanda Wyatt


Many moons ago, a young Iroquois woman from upstate New York performed as a dancer at the annual Shinnecock Indian Nation Powwow. Now a Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter, she will make her return to Shinnecock next weekend—not as one of many powwow dancers, but as the headliner.

Her name is Joanne Shenandoah, and she is a veritable superstar of the Native American music scene.  She is set to perform her blend of traditional Native music, folk and other genres at the 66th annual powwow, which will be held August 31 through September 31.

Leah Shenandoah, who is set to release her first album, will join her mother on the stage. Arvel Bird, a violinist of mixed Paiute-Scottish ancestry, the Tlalcopan Aztec Dancers and a host of drummers, dancers and other performers are also on the bill.

In addition, dance competitions, sunset fire lighting, Native foods, arts and crafts demonstrations and vendor booths are all expected to round out the festivities.

However, all eyes will be on Shenandoah, who has traveled across the globe to spread her message of peace and harmony through music.

“Native music is an integral part of our culture, so that’s something we’ve been able to hold on to,” she explained in an interview last week.

“Music is part of our identity, and it also has allowed us to continue to survive — and not only survive, but to pay respect to humankind and the natural world,” said Shenandoah.

Shenandoah, whose Native name is Tekaliwah-kwa (“She Sings”), is the daughter of Maisie Shenandoah, Wolf Clanmother of the Oneida Nation, and Clifford Shenandoah, an Onondaga Nation chief. Since releasing her self-titled debut album in 1989, she has performed for Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and presidents of the United States. She has sung with everyone from Willie Nelson and Neil Young to Rita Coolidge, and has been featured on albums with the likes of Bono and Sting.

In October, Shenandoah was even invited to perform in Rome to celebrate the canonization of the first Mohawk saint, Kateri Tekakwitha. She was also honored in Korea by Buddhist monks who gifted a piece of the Bo Tree or Bodhi Tree, the tree under which Siddhartha Gautama, later known as Gautama Buddha, is said to have achieved his enlightenment.

Calling music “a sacred experience,” Shenandoah said that her music comes from “the Divine.”

“I ask for my songs to flow and they come,” she said. “Music is a part of life’s celebration. We have 13 lunar cycles, so we celebrate that every month, and with that is a celebration of life.”

“I think music is a healing force,” added Shenandoah. “Music is something which affects us all, and the vibration of music is extremely vital to anything — from the very first heart beating, even in the womb, all the way until when we’re passing on.”

In fact, Shenandoah mentioned she once received an email from a Green Beret who had been playing her recordings to soothe soldiers in Afghanistan.

“If it weren’t for your music over here, none of us could sleep at night,” the email read.

This is part of Shenandoah’s larger mission to help create a better world.

“It’s an old Iroquois belief that when we go out camping, for example, when we leave, we leave it better than what it was,” she explained.  “Not just that we used the earth’s resources and we took from the earth, but that we gave back.”

With decades of recording and performing under her belt, Shenandoah noted that the interest in Native music has grown tremendously over the years, especially around the world.

“If you were to go to Europe, for example, people are very anxious to know Native music and for good reason,” she said. “I think America is only just starting to wake up to the fact that we have such incredibly talented artists, and I’m excited about that.”

Much of this talent will be on display this weekend at the Shinnecock Powwow, which was recently mentioned as one of the ten great powwows in the country by USA Today.

“The powwow is a wonderful event for the [Shinnecock] Nation, a time when we can celebrate our long history and reach out to our neighbors to help them to better understand our people,” said Shinnecock Chairman Randy King.

“We have always prided ourselves on being good neighbors, and want to continue that tradition by helping those with questions better understand our point of view. Educating others through an event like our annual powwow is a great and fun opportunity for our Nation,” King added.

In an interview, Reverend Michael Smith of the Shinnecock Presbyterian Church said, “originally, the powwow was a fundraiser for the church. Over the years, that’s gradually changed, so that’s split 50/50 between the church and the tribe.”

Reverend Smith added that the powwow has grown tremendously since 1946. Vendors, dancers, participants and visitors alike come not only from all over the country, but from as far away as Mexico and even Peru.

“It’s something this community looks forward to, and there are participants who have been coming year after year after year,” Reverend Smith said.

“Some of the folks have been here since they were kids, and now their grandkids are participating in the events,” he added.  “So it’s a rather significant event in the life of Shinnecock and our Indian brothers and sisters throughout the country.”