Joanne Shenandoah Making Grammy History

Singer vies in new Native American award category.

When Joanne Shenandoah attends the Grammy Awards show on Wednesday, February 21, she'll be wearing buckskin.

"We were just trying on the clothes — my brother made them; he's a clothing designer ¡ and they're just gorgeous! I'm excited, what can I say?" Shenandoah said, as she prepared for the show at her home in Oneida territory in upstate New York.

The buckskin is not so unusual, since Shenandoah is a member of the Wolf Clan of the Iroquois Confederacy of the Oneida Nation. What is unusual is that Shenandoah is going to the Grammys as a nominee, celebrating the first year that the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) has recognized Native American music as a separate category. She's up for the Best Native American Music Album award for her work, Peacemaker's Journey.

Other nominees in the category are Tribute To The Elders by Black Lodge Singers, Cheyenne Nation by Joseph Fire Crow, Veterans Songs by

Lakota Thunder and Gathering Of Nations Pow Wow by Various Artists.

With a dozen songs performed in her native Iroquois language, Shenandoah traces the story of a Peacemaker of earlier times, who helped divided and warring peoples to find forgiveness and peace.

"In light of all the violence and horrible things you hear about today — children shooting in schools, war, violence — I was compelled to write songs which tell this story," she said. "I hate to say it, but here in Oneida territory we are very divided, too. There was a prophecy that it would be this way, and that one day there would be a young Oneida speaking boy who would bring back peace among his people. It makes me feel good, thinking that maybe that young boy is listening to Peacemaker's Journey."

Many other people have been listening, too. Shenandoah has met leaders and entertainers ranging from Nelson Mandela to Neil Young in the course of bringing her music and her culture to a wider world. But that wasn't the only musical choice available to her, nor the only style in which she's written songs.

"I have hundreds of songs people haven't heard yet," she said. "Some are country western, some are gutsy blues — I have lots of things, that eventually, at the right time, will come out. For me, now, it's just been very important to share some of the music of our culture with the world, and I've been doing that now since 1990, over ten albums."

On Peacemaker's Journey, Shenandoah draws on the Peacemaker story, beginning with "The Peacemaker Is Born" (RealAudio excerpt). She traces his journey, persuading people to peace, on "The Good Message" (RealAudio excerpt) and brings in the familiar figure of Hiawatha (Aiionwatha) on the moving "Aiionwatha Forgives."

"My Native name is She Sings," Shenandoah said, "and, really, I've been doing music all my life. It was part of our family, just constantly. My dad was a jazz guitarist. He actually played with Duke Ellington, so I listened to a wide variety of music growing up. There was Billie Holiday and Hank Williams, and I loved Karen Carpenter's voice, and I loved Ray Charles. Then, in high school, I worked in the music department, which meant I had access to any instrument I wanted, so I'd just get the book, get the instrument, and teach myself to play."

Native music was a part of Shenandoah's upbringing as well. "In Native culture, music is just very much a part of [what] you are," she explained. "We do thirteen ceremonies a year, and with every ceremony comes special songs. Then there are over two hundred songs, for example, that honor women. It was just a wonderful way to go through life, with dance and song."

When she decided to take up music full time, and further to focus on her Iroquois heritage, "there was a fine line between trying to decide if it was a smart move, or whether it was kosher, or whether it would even be acceptable for me to sing songs of our culture. As far as I knew, no one in Iroquois territory had professionally recorded any music. In fact, it had kind of been viewed as the thing not to do, back in earlier years. But I asked some elders their opinions on sharing celebration music, because music has always been shared with the public."

Shenandoah feels she has cause for celebration, whether or not she wins a Grammy. She's working on her next record, tentatively called Eagle Cries. ("It'll be mostly in English," she said, "and the songs are basically folk in nature.") She's also working on the soundtrack for a film called "A Circle of Women." Shenandoah herself is the subject of a biographical film currently underway. But, beyond her own successes, she sees a wider significance of the recognition the new Grammy award category offers.

"Native American music is very important for our survival — it has allowed Native people to survive. You really don't have to understand the words," Shenandoah said. "We live in such a fast paced world, you know — thirty seconds and where's that burger? But this music takes you to a non-literal place: a place of honor, a place of peace."