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Stateside With Rosalea: I Long To Hear You

Stateside with Rosalea Barker

I Long To Hear You

Google searches take you to strange places. I was looking for stories about 'American Candidate' - the FX cable TV program to choose a presidential candidate for 2004 - and the search tickled me with an american candidate for sainthood. Her name is Kateri Tekakwitha, who was a victim of a smallpox epidemic in the 17th century: http://www.meyna.com/mohawk.html

Friday September 27, I went to a 30th anniversary benefit concert for Oakland's Native American Health Center at the Paramount Theatre. Damn, but that's a mighty fine room, so full of space and cool air and soft light that it's healing in itself just to sit there with your eyes closed. The concert had an interesting mix of Native American artists and was fronted by the centre's development director and Naomi Lang, an ice skater who competed in the 2002 Winter Olympics at Salt Lake City.

Top billing in the show went to Walela - Rita Coolidge, her sister and niece - whom you might have seen already, as they performed at the opening ceremony for those same games. Walela is a Cherokee word for hummingbird, traditionally a symbol of healing for tribes all across the Americas. One of the widespread beliefs is that hummingbirds, in some way, are messengers between worlds. As such they help shamans keep nature and spirit in balance.

The three women were so slender and stood so erect that they reminded me of the three reeds in the Egyptian hieroglyph for "E", though in some songs Laura Satterfield was more like a powder blue snake with fringes, she was so sinuous. I limped out of the auditorium as they sang their last song - "Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee"- and realised a) that my knee had gone out in sympathy and b) that traditional Native American music is so - well - boring, because its rhythm is the rhythm of someone walking. But it's that very banality and repetitiveness, especially in circle dances, that washes your spirit clean.

Immediately before Walela, was a young band from the Great Plains of South Dakota - Indigenous - who played hard-ass rock 'n' roll and blues worthy of an early seventies Waikato Uni concert at the Cowshed, mescalin lighting and all. They were a total contrast to earlier performers - a jazz ensemble led by John-Carlos Perea, and an unaccompanied vocal duo called Primeaux and Mike, who specialise in songs of the Native American Church. Any one of those acts could have been the headliner because each in its own genre was powerfully good.

But my favourite was Joanne Shenandoah - so much so that I went to see her perform at another concert the following night. She won Artist of the Year at the 2002 Native American Music Awards and has been recording for many years. At the 1999 meeting of the Parliament of World Religions in Capetown, South Africa, she opened the first plenary session with one of her compositions, the words of which translate as "Awaken, stand up, be counted, we are being recognized in the spirit world." She is a Wolf Clan member of the Iroquois Confederacy-Oneida Nation.

Shenandoah's sister and daughter sang with her, harmonising and playing percussion. Joanne herself plays guitar and piano, composing in many different styles but all are rooted in the language and culture she's grown up with. Her sister - a graduate of Cornell University and an award-winning sculptress - had chained herself to a house earlier in the week in a land protest back in New York state where the family is from. Joanne lives in the house that Chief Shenandoah lived and died in at the age of 100 - but didn't know it was his house when she moved there. Which Chief Shenandoah, I'm not sure!

The Oneida people took 400 bags of corn hundreds of miles through the dead of winter to George Washington's starving army at Valley Forge in 1777, and were promised territorial lands in the 1784 Treaty of Stanwix made with the Continental Congress. The State of New York - asserting states' rights - simply ignored the treaty and worked actively to remove all Indians from within its borders. Most Oneida moved to Wisconsin Territory or migrated north to Ontario, where the Mohawks and other Iriquois groups had located after the war.

Joanne Shenandoah's latest album - recorded with the help of nine different studios around the world, and its title song covered by such artists as Bruce Cockburn and Neil Young - is called 'Eagle Cries'. The title relates to the vision of a 15th century Iriquois holy man, Dekanawidah, in which there is a great white pine under which the weapons of war are buried, and which all the peoples of the world can encircle, holding hands, whenever peace is threatened. No matter how large that crowd grows, the tree can grow larger to continue sheltering them with peace. The time to gather there is when the eagle living at the top of the tree calls out.

In the words of the title song: "When the eagle calls/When the eagle cries/Don't turn away/Don't run and hide/When the eagle calls/When the eagle cries/Join hands as one/Hold your head up high!"

Joanne Shenandoah's website is at http://www.joanneshenandoah.com/

You could also look at http://www.kateritekakwitha.org/kateri/kateri3.htm for an explanation about the tree of peace and Dedanawidah's achievements. The Iriquois confederacy he created was the model of government on which the United States constitution is based.

Lea Barker
California
Tuesday, 01 October 2002

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