I'm Native American. We're automatically country...joined to the land and the real stories of everyday people. A long time ago, we traditionally used music as our daily prayer and as our way of giving thanks. To Native Americans, music is our everything. It's our storytelling, our history, and our dance. We use it to remember and to forget. It's how we celebrate life and mourn death.
I wrote my first song at 9, not knowing that songwriting would become my way of coping with the hopelessness I saw around me on the reservation. Growing up, I watched too many people lose hope and leave this earth...including cousins and many friends of mine. I watched as my brothers lost almost every childhood friend before they were 16. But music was my hope. It saved me, and it became a doorway for me to find freedom from the hopelessness that we all felt on the reservation. Loretta Lynn was my childhood hero...and she continues to be that for me today. I grew up watching her be a friend to my mom through her music. Mom would sing along with those records like finally someone understood her. I want to be that for someone. I was born a country music singer. I was driven to sing, and I drove my parents nuts about it.
I'm a citizen of both the U.S. and Canada, though I was born in Ontario and grew up on a reservation called Wikwemikong on Canada's Manitoulin Island. My daddy drove a truck from Michigan straight through Nashville on his North-South run, so I had a ride whenever they would let me go. I started my trips to Nashville at the age of 11. We stood on the sidewalk in front of Nashville's famed Tootsie's Orchid Lounge and watched through the window. I was scared I would be told I wasn't good enough. By 12, I had written enough songs to do my own little demo album which I sold back home to pay for more trips to Nashville. Country music had become my full time way of relating to my world. If I couldn't write and sing, I couldn't talk and feel.
I went twice more by 13, and this time I walked into Tootsie's. I even asked the singer if I could come up on stage. I sang "Two More Bottles of Wine," and I noticed the drummer say something to the singer after I finished. I later found out that the drummer told him to let me sing another song. And guess who the drummer was? Nickname: "Sticks." He had been Loretta Lynn's drummer for years. I have always said, "You have to wait for the good to come." For me, the good came that day. My second song was "Stand by Me," and when I finished it and looked up, the crowd at Tootsie's was standing and applauding...for me. Sticks told me later, "I never heard a girl sing that song like that."
Next trip, Sticks saw me walk in the door and I was on stage within minutes. I couldn't believe he remembered me after all that time. When I got on that stage, it felt like coming home. After I sang, the owner of Tootsie's offered me a gig. I could barely breathe. But I had to tell him no. I still had too much to learn. But that was my moment...once again...when the good came. I could then say out loud what I had known all my life...that I am a country singer. And I knew then, for the first time, that going back to the reservation was only temporary. I could feel it inside.
When I was 14, my dad and mom both came with me on three trips to Nashville. We sometimes slept in the truck because we didn't have the money for a real motel. I started getting requests for "Two More Bottles of Wine" and "Me & Bobby McGee." But this time when I got back to the "res," I saw what was happening to the young people...people my age. They were losing hope. No work, no money, no hope. They were giving up on their dreams. They were escaping into alcohol or losing themselves so totally to hopelessness that they sometimes took their own lives. So many of my friends are dead now...and I'm only 25. Someone once told me I sing like I was born with a broken heart. My music is what saved me. It is my lifeline. And I want to share it with anyone who is without hope and dreams. Desperation is desperation, no matter whether you live on the reservation or in the ghetto or in the suburbs.
There are several overriding themes in my life that keep me sane.
One: My mother never taught me I'm different...so I don't believe people are different. We're so much more the same than different.
Two: Wait for the good to come. Never lose hope.
Three: Music is my lifeline to my family, my world, and my soul. It is my prayer.
Four: I'm learning to be strong enough to share myself, to talk about what hurts.
I stomp my feet when I sing. I only started doing that when I stopped holding back my feelings. Now I release everything into the song. One time I stomped so much at Tootsie's that my boot heel got stuck in the floor and I couldn't get it out. Finally, I pulled so hard that the bottom piece of my stiletto heel came off in the floor. The floors at Tootsie's are that old!
Shawanda means "Dawn of a New Day." Sometimes on the res, a new day is what we needed. Music gave me that. I sing music to free myself. My name and my dream are the same.
So many little things I take for granted now. I have the means to eat healthy foods. On the res, we think young is old. There's no money for healthy foods. My grandma died at 62. We lost her so young, but 62 on the reservation is old age...to live that long. As a sign of respect, my mother and I would do her hair with great respect and care, and I would sing "Where the Sweet Grass Blows." Sweet grass, to us, is the hair of Mother Earth.
When we talk about extended family, we mean the whole village. When any small group of us gather, we always exchange stories. That's how we love each other. My husband was officially welcomed to the family when he got his own story. We depend on each other. Each soul is a character, a vital piece to our whole. When one is gone, it is hard not to crumble.
My talk is different than my singing. I'm strong when I have to be and soft when I need to be. I throw everything I have into my song; I close my eyes, and when I open them, I realize I'm stomping and jumping to the beat. It just comes out of me.
I remember when I almost lost my dream. I had gradually lost my confidence. I woke up one day and realized that I used to lose myself in my music while I sang. I had stopped allowing the music to heal me. I had stopped being in it. I was losing what had saved me. I was smothering my dream. So, I started singing my songs over and over again and figuring out what was me. What did I feel strongly enough to lose myself in? That was my pathway to myself. It was a scary thing to live through. But I recovered the dream, and found the road back to who I was.
Dawn of a New Day
"My Roots Are Showing" from Dawn of a New Day
"Try" from Dawn of a New Day
"What Do I Have To Do" from Dawn of a New Day
"You Can Let Go" from Dawn of a New Day