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Voices Fall-Winter 2007:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “Oral Culture and History Today: Joanne Shenandoah and Jack W. Gladstone” by Linda Rosekrans here.
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Volume 33

Oral Culture and History Today: Joanne Shenandoah and Jack W. Gladstone by Linda Rosekrans

Between Earth and Sky—You will hear me.
Between Earth and Sky—You’ll dance beside me.
I am the wind—I am the water—I am your Son—I am your daughter.
And will they listen to the stories—will they hear our ancestors call?
Will they realize what we’ve sacrificed to keep our music alive and well?

(Shenandoah 2001, “Between Earth”)

Between earth and sky lies the understanding of what is sacred.

There are several things that need to be said by way of beginnings for this paper. Joanne Shenandoah and I spoke in August 2005. Acknowledging that I am not Haudenosaunee, she reminded me that one fundamental concept in Haudenosaunee tradition is the “Good Mind—a willingness to come together, to try to understand each other, to leave what’s troubling us, personally or otherwise, behind the door” for an unclouded discussion. To establish this agreement, I want to define how the sacred will be viewed in this paper. In The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, Paula Gunn Allen (Laguna Pueblo) writes, “The word sacred, like the words power and medicine, has a very different meaning to tribal people than to members of technological societies. . . . There is a spirit that pervades everything, that is capable of powerful song and radiant movement, and that moves in and out of the mind. This spirit, this power of intelligence, has many names . . . the necessary precondition for material creation . . . the spirit that informs right balance, right harmony” (1992, 72). Originally, “sacred ways and practices were at the heart of living and survival. There was not a part of life that was not touched by these traditions. . . . Great respect is held for those who protect sacred ways and help them grow” (Beck et al. 1977, 4–5).

Beck and her coauthors continue, “In discussing the sacred, it might be said there are two sides to it: the personal, . . . and the part of the sacred that is shared and defined year after year through oral histories, ritual, and other ceremonies and customs” (1977, 6). That which is truly sacred to a culture remains within that culture and is not written or spoken for the public. Although I cannot and would not speak of those things sacred, I see worth in celebrating Native American artists as they gift their audiences with their celebration of the spiritual in life—that which is of the spirit—and that which is held in highest regard as most important to the teachings of the culture. Such sacred things include one’s home place, language, and concept of the eternal—a concept that is at the very core of a culture’s understanding of itself, through sacred teachings and stories and in traditional (sacred) language.

Today’s literary canon has expanded to encompass writing recognized as both creative and critical to an expression of culture. Native American literature pushes the conventional boundaries of the canon to include oral transmission of information and events, pictoral renderings, and stories created to teach principles: ledger art, wintercount, oratory, and song. The Native literary tradition was historically, and remains today, oral. One of the most important literary phenomena of the last decades is a conscious decision by Native artists to render— for an audience immersed in written culture—communication in traditional ways, through structure, story, and song. Song is an ancient, continued medium of orality, transmitting traditional principles, culture, and history in first languages and English, blending words and music and old and contemporary. Two such successful Native artists are Joanne Shenandoah (Oneida) and Jack W. Gladstone (Blackfeet).

According to Shenandoah, writing/creating “is a sacred process,” as well as being as necessary to her “as eating or breathing. It operates on a time frame in which everything is potentially past, present, and future.” She writes “to influence in a positive way, to change lives, to effect in profound ways, to heal. Writing also communicates; it is an expression of who we are, who’s influenced us, done or said something. We also write to tell stories. Stories are the backbone of who we are. Telling is part of the mission to preserve the earth, to make a peaceful and safe place for our children and their children” (2005b). I asked whom she writes for, thinking of the obvious “Native and non-Native” answer. Her response touched me deeply: It is “a responsibility for everyone to use the gifts the Creator has given.” It is a choice much like “the choice a physician has in an airplane when a passenger goes into cardiac arrest: does one use one’s gift, or deny it?” Given the name Tekaliwha:kwha, or She Sings, Shenandoah is “grateful for the gift” each time she “asks and the gift of a song is given” (2005b). Song, she says, in every culture, “is what moves the earth, the heartbeat of the human spirit. It is connected to every movement made. Without it there would be no dance, no life.” Music she sees as the embodiment of the spiritual self, the embodiment of one’s entire being. Song—an oral tradition never interrupted—is her vehicle for preserving and honoring those stories she has heard since childhood, of communicating important principles, and of “healing the earth and those who live with it” (2005b).

Joanne Shenandoah
Joanne Shenandoah. Photo: Harry Diorio

From Shenandoah’s earliest work, the songs she has been given have shared sacred principles of the traditional Haudenosaunee, affirming them for those within the culture and educating those of us outside it. “We Are the Iroquois” celebrates the persistence and longevity of the culture, the spiritual values that remain vibrant:
We are the Iroquois,
We’re proud, we are strong,
We’ve held onto our culture now,
    Oh, for so long.
Though times have changed,
We remain the same.
We listen to our elders now,
They know the way.
Ceremonies, social dances,
Songs that we sing,
Being proud of our tradition we all feel within . . .
There are many lessons in the legends that are told.
(Shenandoah 1991)

Haudenosaunee sacred history, which provides context for “how we got here,” is seen in the line from the song “Beneath the Great White Pine,” as well as in her album Peacemaker’s Journey (2000). Songs in this album are presented in traditional Oneida language. The liner notes translate the songs and tell the story of the Peacemaker’s journey—recreated by Shenandoah and her husband, historian Doug George-Kanentiio, in English—explaining its significance to the Haudenosaunee culture. At the end of the Peacemaker’s journey, the notes recount:
The People of the Longhouse raised a tall eastern white pine next to Onondaga Lake . . . the Great Tree of Peace, the branches of which touched the sky for all to see. Its four gleaming roots extended to each sacred direction around the earth. . . . An individual or nation seeking an end to war may follow the roots to the Great Tree where they were to receive shelter. On top of the Great Tree he placed a mighty eagle who was to cry out if danger approached the people. Beneath the Great Tree the leaders of this confederacy of nations formed a circle by holding hands, pledging to uphold the Great Law of Peace for all time. (Shenandoah 2000)
Another song that celebrates the history of the Haudenosaunee, as important to teaching sacred principles as is Biblical history to the teaching of Christian sacred values, is Shenandoah’s composition honouring Ganondagan, a sacred Seneca site just south of Rochester (2005a). Her composition relates the historic change in the Haudenosaunee as the Peacemaker united the nations, creating the confederacy and establishing an order followed today. That the Haudenosaunee and all First Nations people continue to believe in their sacred relationship with the land is evident in the song “Treaty.” Dedicated to Faithkeeper Oren Lyons, “Treaty” speaks with Haudenosaunee voices, confronting government officials with a powerful message of permanence.
So when you seat your council, who will come to speak
For the Buffalo, the Eagle, the forests, and the trees. . . .
Hear me Mr. President,
This is sacred ground.
(Shenandoah 2001)
In the liner notes to Covenant, Shenandoah writes, “When our ancestors first encountered the Europeans, they made a covenant with the colonists . . . signifying that all people were to respect each other’s cultures and traditions while not interfering in their respective affairs. . . . Silver was used to indicate that this peace agreement, a sacred pledge, would last forever” (2003).

Principles for living and explanations of one’s place in this world have traditionally been passed on through story, a critical component of oral culture. As elders and storytellers pass down the stories, Native writers and composers widen the circle through song. Shenandoah has set a number of traditional tales, in addition to the Peacemaker’s Journey album, to music. Among my favorite songs are “The Seven Dancers” and “One Silver, One Gold,” as I have also heard each told by elders in story circles. Retelling stories sacred to the culture allows the stories to “breathe again,” as Alyce Spotted Bear aptly put it (2005). Widening the circle serves to provide an additional oral medium through which members of a culture and outsiders can both learn sacred stories. Shenandoah has extended her retelling to include a book for children called Skywoman, coauthored by Doug George-Kanentiio, followed by the album Skywoman: A Symphonic Odyssey of Iroquois Legends (2005a).

Another reemergence of the sacred manifests itself in a return to one’s first language in song composition. Language holds culture; many important concepts just do not translate and, more importantly, should be expressed in their own sacred voice. According to Shenandoah in the liner notes to Orenda, “Ceremonial songs restore the balance between the physical and spiritual worlds. These songs are restricted to the longhouses and exclusively for the Haudenosaunee” (1998). Some, like the Thanksgiving Address, are learned and carried in their own language and translated into other languages for educational purposes. The opening song on Shenandoah’s Covenant (2003) features Mohawk chief Jake Swamp delivering this prayer in both Mohawk and English. The liner notes to the album explain:
Chief Swamp, like his traditional colleagues, has spent his adult life as an advocate for preserving the spiritual and moral values of the Haudenosaunee. He believes it is principles such as cooperation, eco-spirituality, humility, adherence to natural law, multigenerational planning, love of family, respect for elders, and compassion for other species which will ultimately come to be accepted by all nations.
Several of Shenandoah’s albums—Orenda, Covenant—feature songs in traditional language. Says Shenandoah, “I believe that a language must be used in order to survive” (2005b). Of the meaning of “Prophecy Song” on the Orenda album, Shenandoah writes, “This song is to remind us to be aware of our place upon the earth and to fulfill our obligations to ourselves, our families, nations, the natural world, and to the Creator. The words say we are to awaken, stand up and be counted, for you are being recognized in the spirit world” (1998).

Shenandoah’s Matriarch album collects traditional Oneida women’s songs sung in Oneida to pay tribute to the women important in her life. In a blending and layering of several sacred traditions, another recent album, Sisters, records Christian hymns sung in Oneida by Shenandoah’s mother, Clanmother Maisie Shenandoah, and her aunt, Elizabeth Roberts. During our interview, Shenandoah observed:
Christianity was a significant part of our history, too much so to be ignored. The Iroquois managed to survive [the seventeenth century] with much of their indigenous culture intact, including a tradition of spiritual tolerance. One important practice was to blend ancestral social customs with Christian. To this day, many church services are conducted in Native language. (2005b)
Shenandoah explains in the liner notes to Sisters, “We know how vital our songs of thanksgiving are to the human heart. . . . By raising our voices in song, we extend words of gratitude to every living thing. This is the very essence of what it is to be Ukwehe:we, a True Human Being“ (2003).

Jack W. Gladstone (Blackfeet) is of the same mind: “All that is, is sacred, the great mysterious” (2005). Most captivating in his work is the constant presence of the spiritual—the sacred—the awareness that we are spiritual beings among other spiritual beings. For Gladstone, great great grandson of Chief Red Crow, the sacred is “the air, the oxygen, the atmosphere in which everything is placed, the wind, what informs this motion, the energy of Creation” (2005). Sharing this through song came to Gladstone as a call. In his song “Into a Child’s Eyes” from the Blackfeet Storysmith double album (itself a collection of stories told by his father and mentor, Wallace J. Gladstone), Jack Gladstone writes, “Earth and sky are unified in story” (2004b). The stories—and awareness of their importance—were passed down through his family, centrally by his Blackfeet grandmother. She recounted the stories of her life and the mythology of their Blackfeet Indian people, something Gladstone holds sacred to this day. In his song “Legends of Glacier” from the 2004 album Tappin’ the Earth’s Backbone, he recounts:
Grandmother’s stories ignited the spark,
Now warming the heart of a man.
Fantastic odysseys, requested dreams,
Were part of our first human clans.
Elders have summoned the auras of old
Remembered and treasured through time.

His work embraces many aspects of the sacred—retelling traditional Blackfeet tales, honoring those stories sacred to Blackfeet and other nations’ cultural histories, restoring oral history through oratory (what he calls “storatory”)—everything in language that reminds us that all life is fundamentally spiritual. Says Gladstone, “We sing, we heal, we grow” (2000b).

One of Gladstone’s early songs, “Dyin’ For a Metaphor,” takes a hard look at the absence of the sacred in consumer America, responding with compassion for the plight in which this leaves Americans: “Lost we weave our way through mall-faced stores / Dyin’ for a Metaphor.”
Jack W. Gladstone
Jack W. Gladstone. Photo: Karen Vaughn

He continues, “What is the proper way to express what can’t be seen, / For our senses grasp only a glimpse of the mystery between.” But “words tumble short to say” (1992). Gladstone reminds that for the “most sacred, there are no words” (2004c), so we are “resigned to weave our way through the forest of word lore” (1992). He wishes for us, “May your love reflect the spiritual into your point of view,” and encourages us to “explore the metaphor to inspect what can’t be seen” (1992) to “align ourselves with the eternal” (2004c). The spiritual and eternal, for Gladstone, are understood in a traditional way:
In a bottomless sea of timeless space
In the center of a trillion stars
There’s a circle from which we all have come
That reflects who we are.
From this circle we hear her seasons change
In four scene harmony
And from this song we know her love
In all the Earth receives.
From the snow pack in the highlands
Her blood flows with the Spring
Forever the Sun’s lover
A songbird choir sings.
(1992, “Circle of Life”)
This spiritual platform provides the context for most other songs on his albums, including but not limited to “Last Best Place,” “The Sun Loom of Creation has Spun Our Heart a Home,” “Celebrate Relation with Creation,” and “Tappin’,” which refers not only to dancing and drumming, but also to drawing strength from the Earth and the mountains—the sacred below, as well as above. In “For Those Who Cried,” “miracles still work within the heart and in the mine of the human soul, where ancient rhythms flow” (2000a). “Faces the Blizzard” honors the bison, sacred to the Blackfeet, “the heart of the circle Nature formed / A covenant born” (1997). In the title song to the Buffalo Cafe album, we are told we will learn “about the land that taught us to talk, / With Mother’s hand we learned to walk.” This world is “Sun’s creation,” a “symphony on waving grass / Was composed by sun and cast . . . Our Creator’s voice was the thunder roll / All of creation shared one soul” (1997).

Sacred language characterizes Gladstone’s expression of sacred themes and concepts— within a traditional framework, a blend of sacred language familiar from a Christian perspective. Buffalo Cafe invites listeners to “Nature’s anointed play.” In “Faces the Blizzard,” the word “covenant” has meaning within a Biblical context. In lines addressed to the buffalo, “But for you, my black-hooved brother / whose flesh through us was reborn,” the listener hears of the buffalo’s importance as a source of food and survival, but as Gladstone reminded, “A deeper reading recognizes the Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist, where one is reborn through partaking. It is, in its deepest form, language of reverence and identification, and reaffirmation in the telling” (1997). The bison, “blackfooted, is connected to the Blackfeet, people of the buffalo,” observed Gladstone (2005). The older, soft “thee”—familiar from the King James translation of the Bible—graces both Gladstone’s early love songs and the last track on the Storysmith album, “Into a Child’s Eyes,” which speaks of one important moment of the sacred: passing from this mortal world to the next. A song honoring Western artist C. M. Russell takes its title from his painting “When the Land Belonged to God,” called by Gladstone an “epiphany of spirit” (1997). At the end of the song, at the end of mortal life, “as we choose our trail up the Great Divide to an unknown stage on the other side,” the “land belongs to God” (1997). On this mortal plane European “cashiers and surveyors” subdued and transformed Western landscapes, but in sacred time, all life is still properly aligned. “Legacy,” a song set in the Northwest, recalls an “earlier year, when cedars brushed the sky and the land was in line with God” (1998). Of the blend and sometimes juxtaposition of images Christian and traditional, Gladstone reflects that he is “realigning with sacred imagery and language learned as a Catholic, applied to something more relevant” to himself as a person (2005).

Jack Gladstone reminds us that “mythos, ‘myth,’ means original or sacred words” (2004c). Sacred stories place one in the fabric of one’s life; the storyteller weaves the fabric. Gladstone grew up hearing traditional stories from his grandmother. In each album he returns to the oral telling of these Blackfeet stories, sometimes as ballads: of Poia, “who ventures to the Lodge of the Sun to win the love of a girl” (“Noble Heart”); the Bear Who Stole the Chinook; the girl who was taken by the Sun to be his bride and the boy who loves her (“To Marry the Sun”); and Kut-oy-is, “Blood Clot Boy,” an ancient Blackfeet superhero. Stories of Napi (Old Man), Blackfeet trickster and culture hero, “contain principles” (Gladstone 2005), lessons to build character, as Napi attempts to understand another species by asking to tranform to become a wolf:
In the long ago time in this homeland of mine
Old Man roamed far and alone
His fascination led to the tale of Napi Becomes a Wolf.
“As we all grow old, it’s through choice we grow wise,
Napi listen close if you can,
Through this transformation you may realize the love that binds our wolf clan.”
And then by choice Napi fell under his medicine spell
He woke behind eyes of different sheen.
His new ears heard the world and each moment unfurled
The Sacred within every living thing
When Napi Became a Wolf.
(Gladstone 1997, “Napi Becomes”)
In a contemporary song about the history of Dineh (Navajo) codetalkers, to provide the proper cultural context for the codetalkers’ decision to contribute the gift of their language to U.S. military efforts, Gladstone sets a portion of the Dineh creation story—the Changing Woman Suite:
In the beginning First Man and First Woman lived as one
The first couple forged the Sun. . . .
On a cradleboard of sunrays and rainbows came a girl
She nursed on dew and pollen from her mom
Changing Woman.
(1995, “Codetalkers”)
This segment creates, the composer explained, an “ethereal, dreamlike oasis in the midst of the horrible turbulence of war; it opens the sky with Creation, . . . stalking the spirit to capture it, placing it into melodic and rhythmic form as a gift to the people” (2004c). A lighter but far from irreverent lesson about a traditional spiritual being is Gladstone’s “Thunderman” on the Tappin’ the Earth’s Backbone album. Prepared for the moment that “Thunderman gets his own TV series,” Gladstone brings to a popular setting knowledge of “Thunder Chief, . . . a personification of the ultimate power” and giver of the Thunder Medicine Pipe to the Blackfeet people (2004a).

Gladstone also honors the sacred by restoring sacred history told through oratory, oral again in song. In “Beneath Another Sky,” Gladstone restores voice to Heinmot Tooyalakekt, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce:
From the corner of the universe, my soul has found a pen,
For I believe this story must be told again,
Not by some historian, not by some bleeding heart,
But by the man who saw the web of justice spun apart.
In the year of eighteen sixty-three, according to their Lord.
In “Colter’s Run,” Gladstone gives voice to a new narrator. Both invoking and inverting the Christian story of Genesis, oral historian Adam, Old Man’s son (not the first man) tells a revised version of the story of mountain man John Colter, this time from the Blackfeet perspective:
My name is Adam, Old Man’s son,
I’ve seen four hundred springs.
I’m what you’d call an oral historian
By nature do I sing.
And now it’s time to set the record straight about John Colter’s run
The tale that spun forth from his lips was stitched with buffalo chips.
Awarded the Montana State University Human Rights Award for Outstanding Community Service as a bridge builder between cultures, Gladstone builds sacred bridges. His early song “Spiritual Brothers” (1990), written with cowboy musician Rob Quist, celebrates their deep friendship— brothers from different cultures, approaching Montana from different backgrounds but together in spirit:
Many years, we have lived
Across the river of fears
My father rode a brand new country
Your father rode a trail of tears . . .
For a Spiritual Brother of a different color
Isn’t always easy to find
And the time has come
For the children of the ones who survived
To leave that river behind.
At a time when we most needed compassionate spirits, Jack Gladstone penned a song with Ken Flint, “Letter to the World,” calling for us to remember that, although theologically divided, we are all “children of God.” In the days after September 11, as Gladstone says he “struggled to transcend fear and anger,” he both reminded America that this is not new—that earlier terrorist attacks were perpetuated against Native villages by the U.S. military—and called for healing through “selflessness within” and the care of a “loving mother and children” (2004a).

In an earlier song rereleased on the Storysmith album, about culture hero Kut-oy-is, Gladstone set all into perspective:
We’re awake in the twenty-first century
Inside a hungry beast
Of our own righteous design.
Be it a system or addiction
Or a serpent in a tree
It’s the heart that we must listen for
It’s the heart that we must find
Through legends and lore.
“Earth and sky are unified in story” (2004b). Through story in song, both Joanne Shenandoah and Jack Gladstone provide for First Nations and non-Native audiences the cultural bridges and the spirit of healing to celebrate the sacred in all, for all. Their work is of paramount importance among the sacred stories of Native America.


Linda Rosekrans teaches in the English department at the State University of New York-Cortland and Tompkins Cortland Community College. She worked with Cornell University’s American Indian Program from 1996 to 2007 and continues to serve local Native communities through volunteer service work.

One of the most important literary phenomena of the last decades is a conscious decision by Native artists to render— for an audience immersed in written culture—communication in traditional ways, through structure, story, and song.


Joanne Shenandoah
All recordings by Silver Wave Records. Joanne Shenandoah (1989); Matriarch (1996); Orenda (1998); Peacemaker’s Journey (2000); Eagle Cries (2001); Covenant (2003); Sisters (2003); Skywoman (2005a).

Jack W. Gladstone
All but one recorded by Glacier Pacific Productions. Buckskin Poet Society (1992); Noble Heart (1995); Buffalo Cafe (1997); Legacy (Hawkstone Productions, 1998); Buffalo Republic (2000a); Tappin’ the Earth’s Backbone (2004a); Blackfeet Storysmith (2004b).


Allen, Paula Gunn. 1992. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press.

Beck, Peggy V., et al. 1977. The Sacred. Tsaile, AZ: Navajo Community College Press.

Gladstone, Jack W. November 2000b, February 2004c, and August 2005. Interviews by Linda Rosekrans. Transcript.

LaDuke, Winona. 2005. Recovering the Sacred: The Power of Naming and Claiming. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Shenandoah, Joanne. August 2005b. Interview by Linda Rosekrans. Transcript.

Spotted Bear, Alyce. August 2005. Interview by Linda Rosekrans. Transcript.

This article appeared in Voices Vol. 33, Fall-Winter 2007. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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