Death of Joanne Shenandoah, Native American singer, shocks fans

Bruno Cooke November 23, 2021
Photo by John Atashian/Getty Images

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Native American artist, educator and singer Joanne Shenandoah has died, according to various Twitter reports. The multiple award-winning performer has “started her journey home”, writes one.

Tributes follow death of Joanne Shenandoah

One of the first to share the news of Shenandoah’s passing was Russ Diabo. He described her as “an amazing artist” and “wonderful person”. 

In the last couple of hours, numerous others have shared their experiences of knowing, work with and/or listening to the music of Joanne Shenandoah.

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Joseph Driscoll, for example, describes her as a “true musical healer” who brought “joy, healing, and laughter everywhere she went”.

John Frusco, apparently a friend of Shenandoah’s for 35 years, writes that she has “crossed the stars” and is now “home with her ancestors”.

Joanne Shenandoah’s cause of death has not yet been confirmed. However, Syracuse reported in 2016 that she was on the waiting list for a liver transplant. “Jo is doing well and looking forward to the transplant”, her family wrote on her GoFundMe page at the time.

She had apparently suffered a Clostridioides difficile (C. diff) infection. A C. diff infection can cause symptoms ranging from diarrhoea to life-threatening damage to the colon.

Who was Joanne Shenandoah?

Numerous sites quote The Associated Press as saying that Shenandoah had become “the most critically acclaimed Native American singer of her time”.

Whether or not it’s true, she was certainly a prolific songwriter, recording artist, narrator and composer

She released more than 15 albums, for which she won numerous awards. In 2002, Shenandoah received an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Syracuse University. She later received a Grammy Award for her part in the album Sacred Ground: A Tribute To Mother Earth.

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Photo by Joe Raedle/Newsmakers

She was a citizen of the Oneida Indian Nation, Wolf clan, based in New York. In 1989, she recorded her first solo CD.

Per the Performances page on her website, she has played at five presidential inaugurations, once in Madison Square Garden, once at the Vatican, and at numerous other festivals and high-profile events.

What did music mean to her?

She told Cultural Survival Quarterly, in 2000, that she loved singing “ever since I was a little girl”.

“My family always taught me to be proud that I was an Iroquois woman and the importance of what our culture had to offer us.” 

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“I’ve always sung – my native name is Tekaliwa khwa, which means ‘she sings’. I was given that [name] as a little girl – the elders know what they are doing.” 

“In the Iroquois way, singing – listening and performing to music – is a healing force, an integral part of our society. It is a real blessing to me to have been given the gift of music.”

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Bruno is a postgraduate student studying global journalism, with research interests in the intersection of the media, storytelling, culture and politics. His articles have appeared in Groundviews, Packs Light and Forge Press, and most are readable on Medium or onurbicycle.com. He is a Student Ambassador for Tortoise Media, a big fan of Freddie Mercury and a novelist – his debut novel, Reveries, is available on Amazon.