Joanne Shenandoah, a singer and songwriter who received worldwide acclaim for her music that drew on her heritage as a member of the Oneida Nation and made her one of the country’s most honored and popular Indigenous performers, died Nov. 22 at a hospital in Scottsdale, Arizona. She was 64.

The cause was internal bleeding as a result of liver failure, said her husband, Doug George-Kanentiio. She had been hospitalized with a liver infection in 2016 and recovered after several months. When she became ill this year, her husband said doctors at the Mayo Clinic could not determine the cause of her liver disease, but it was not related to alcohol abuse or hepatitis.

Shenandoah, whose father was a chief in the Onandaga Nation and whose mother was from the Wolf clan of the Oneida Nation, grew up in Oneida territory in central New York. Surrounded by music as a child, she was given the name Tekaliwhakwah, which means “she sings.”

Obit Joanne Shenandoah

Joanne Shenandoah at the ancient Oneida Indian village site known as Nichols Pond near Canastota, New York, in 1996. She performed before world leaders and on high-profile stages and was described as “Native America’s musical matriarch.” Associated Press/Michael Okoniewski, file

Before launching her career in music, Shenandoah spent about a dozen years in the Washington area, where she had a computer consulting business and found occasional jobs singing for commercials and as a backup vocalist.

“I was working very hard and was doing all the things I thought were important in life,” she told the Associated Press in 1997. “One day I was looking out my office window. This huge tree was being cut down, and something clicked: What am I doing with my life here?”

In 1989, she released the first of more than a dozen albums, and the next year she moved back to Oneida territory. She sought out elders to learn more about the history and languages of the Oneida people and other groups in the Iroquois Confederacy, which also includes the Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora nations.

Shenandoah did not perform traditional Indigenous music but borrowed certain melodic and rhythmic motifs from it as she wrote original songs, sometimes in English and often in Mohawk or other Iroquois languages.

“In the Iroquois way,” she said in 2013, “music is a healing force, and the vibration of music lifts the spirit.”

Shenandoah, who played guitar, piano, flute, cello and other instruments, gave as many as 200 concerts a year, often with her sister and daughter as backup vocalists. International sales of her recordings were in the millions. She generally used modern instrumentation in her music and sometimes had an electronic, techno sound pulsing beneath her ethereal, soaring voice. Her songs reflected her interests in nature, women’s lives and Iroquois culture.

“In all of her music, her voice is always very much an expression of what the Iroquois refer to as ‘the good mind,’ ” Christopher Vecsey, a scholar of Native American studies at New York’s Colgate University, told NPR in 2000.

“Her voice never stretches,” he added. “It never goes to edges. It’s always right in the center, beautifully calm, and I think that voice really expresses the message as much as the words express the message.”

Shenandoah quickly gained a following that spread far beyond the world of Native American music. Her songs were featured in the 1990s television series “Northern Exposure,” she performed several times at the White House and at inaugural events for presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

In 1994, Shenandoah sang before a crowd of several hundred thousand at the 25th anniversary of the Woodstock music festival in New York. During the 1990s, she wrote a song with Neil Young and Brian Kirkpatrick, “Treaty,” which addresses the treatment of Native groups by federal authorities: “You can drain all the oceans / and fill them with tears / You will never remove me / I’ll always be here.”

Shenandoah sang for the Dalai Lama and South African leader Nelson Mandela, and in 2012 she appeared at the Vatican to honor the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American saint. She shared the stage with such varied performers as Waylon Jennings, Pete Seeger, Richie Havens, John Denver, Willie Nelson, Rita Coolidge and Robbie Robertson – the latter two of whom have Indigenous ancestry.

Shenandoah was nominated for several Grammy Awards and sang two of her songs on the 2005 album “Sacred Ground: A Tribute to Mother Earth,” which won a Grammy for best Native American Music album. (The category no longer exists.) She also received 14 Native American Music Awards, more than any other artist.

“Joanne is to contemporary Native American music what Aretha Franklin, Etta James, or Billie Holiday are to their respective genres,” Mohawk musician Ed Koban told Native News Online.

Joanne Lynn Shenandoah was born June 23, 1957, in Syracuse, N.Y., and grew up nearby in Oneida territory. One of her ancestors was an Oneida chief known as Shenandoah (there are several spellings of his name), who was a close associate of George Washington and helped to feed his troops during the Revolutionary War.

Her father was an ironworker who played jazz guitar. Her mother had a Native crafts business and enjoyed singing. As a girl, Shenandoah often made music with her family at home.

“What amazed me when she was young, she could just pick up any instrument and start playing it,” her mother said in 1997. “It was just born in her.”

She attended Andrews University in Michigan and Montgomery Community College in Maryland.

In the 1990s, Shenandoah and George-Kanentiio, her husband, wrote “Skywoman: Legends of the Iroquois,” a book for young people about Iroquois history and culture. She later composed a work of the same name for symphony orchestra and voice.

In addition to her music, Shenandoah had an acting role in the 2006 horror film “The Last Winter,” set in the Arctic. She was an activist for Native rights and was often at odds with leaders of the Oneida Nation. During the Obama administration, she was the co-chair, with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, of the Task Force on American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence. Her most recent album, “Shenandoah Country” (2020), included songs about violence toward women.

Shenandoah’s marriage to Edward Smith ended in divorce. Survivors include her husband of 30 years, George-Kanentiio, a journalist and commentator on Native affairs of Oneida Castle, New York; a daughter from her first marriage, Leah Shenandoah of Oneida Castle; four sisters; and a grandson.

Shenandoah and her husband established a foundation that is the repository of the world’s largest collection of recorded Iroquois music.

“I really believe that a lot of the music I write and sing is completely ancestrally inspired,” Shenandoah said in 1997. “If I didn’t live here on our ancestral homeland, I truly believe it wouldn’t have come out the same.”

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