Saving the Iroquois Heritage

Hometown Heroes, People
on January 13, 2002

Joanne Shenandoah’s American Indian music is known across the world. Neil Young and Robbie Robertson seek her out for collaborative songwriting, and she’s won numerous awards, including Native Record of the Year by the Association for Independent Music for her CD, Peacemaker’s Journey. But more important than winning awards is the work Shenandoah does to preserve Iroquois traditions.

A member of the Iroquois Confederacy’s Oneida Nation, Shenandoah’s native name, Deguiya whah-wa, means “she sings.” Music was part of her life growing up on tribal lands in Oneida, N.Y. (pop. 10,987). Today she and her husband, journalist Doug George-Kanentiio, work tirelessly to save Iroquois culture.

“Joanne is at the forefront of the preservation movement,” says Cornell University faculty member Dr. Robert Venables. “Because Iroquois culture is so rooted in music and art, there are no better leaders than Joanne and Doug.”

For years Shenandoah has helped keep Iroquois language and music alive through her recording projects. She and George-Kanentiio now have gone a step further by founding Round Dance Productions Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of all forms of Iroquois culture.

One of her first challenges was meeting with a New York professor who had recorded hundreds of songs and speeches from Iroquois elders in the 1930s. He was reluctant to release control of these materials until, “I picked up a rattle and sang him an Iroquois song about not leaving this earth without returning what belongs to our people,” Shenandoah says. The materials were released two days later and now are part of the archives at Round Dance Productions.

“Securing these items was an extraordinary accomplishment,” Venables says. Another achievement: Round Dance Productions helped negotiate the two largest returns of native cultural items in American history—the National Museum of the American Indian, a part of the Smithsonian Institution, returned wampum belts and medicine masks to the Iroquois Confederacy in 1996 and 1998.

Round Dance Productions now protects the world’s largest collection of Iroquois cultural materials, including music, artifacts, and literature. It also plans to establish a learning center that will teach traditional skills such as beadwork, basket weaving, and quillwork.

Shenandoah, George-Kanentiio, and other Iroquois leaders are gravely concerned about the loss of native speakers within the confederacy. “Because of our fast-paced lives,” says George-Kanentiio, “our language is rapidly disappearing through immersion. Fewer young people learn their native language, and our elders, who speak fluently, are gradually dying out.” In addition to promoting the Oneida and Mohawk languages through her singing, Joanne and her sister, Vicky, are developing a program that will teach Oneida to children in the community.

The total population of the Iroquois Confederacy (Oneida, Mohawk, Seneca, Onondaga, Tuscarora, and Cayuga Nations) is about 100,000. “Less than a third of all Mohawks speak their language and the number is much lower among the other nations,” George-Kanentiio says.

Preserving Iroquois culture, including its language and ideals, is the goal of the proposed Haudenosaunee (“People of the Long House”) University. Shenandoah and George-Kanentiio are part of a committee working to make this institution a reality.

Although 33 tribal colleges exist in the United States, none are east of Michigan. “The university would preserve our culture in a way that’s never been done before, for both native and non-native students and researchers,” Shenandoah says. The collections of Round Dance Productions will be donated to the university’s library and archives.

The Iroquois believe each person is born with a gift or talent that must be used wisely or it is lost. “By using their art, Joanne and Doug are bringing the preservation of Iroquois culture to the attention of the non-native population in a holistic way that is sensitive, appealing, and educational,” Venables says.

“It brings people together, which is why they will continue to gain support in their mission to save their culture.”