This interview of Joan Henry appeared in a special printed supplement to the Oct. 6, 2008 HV Biz magazine. The supplement, entitled PROUD Women in Business: Pride of the Hudson Valley, featured the 100 most distinguished and inspiring women of a 4-county area in upstate New York. Joan Henry was one of just a handful of women of color to be so honored. While the printed supplement included only an edited version, below is the interview in its entirety:
What tribe are you from?
I’m Tsalagi (Cherokee) with a sprinkling of other nations. Most people don’t know I also have a healthy dose of Caribbean & Central American Latino, French, Scots and Eurasian. I am so proud of the power of all those ancestors who found love stronger than blood and crossed cultural lines in order for me to be alive today, singing.
How is singing and music a part of your family tradition?
I’d say the biggest tradition in our family is to follow your gift, eh? There are singers, keyboard players, artists all the way back throughout my mother’s family, right alongside ship pilots, mathematicians, legal minds, doctors, dentists and always educators. My Mum, grandma & aunties sang to everything— and listened in return… it’s not one-way. It’s what you hear that informs what you sing.
Ours was a house filled constantly with music, all kinds of music, broadening our minds, stretching our vocabularies. My dad’s family is from Louisiana— the birthplace of jazz— some all the way into Texas. (I don’t think I can even spell “New Orleans” the way he pronounces it!) Counter-rhythms, beats & blue notes ran through their blood & bones.
Though I started as a dancer, singing got me National Tours & film gigs when other dancers were out of work. I got to sing for Emperor Hirohito of Japan while doing West Side Story… so many stories… To be a Singer also has other significance in our Native ways, and carries a responsibility to be available whenever there is a need. I’ve had to sing over my mother, one of my brothers, a number of elders and just last December, my grandmother, when each one crossed over. I was asked to sing in the Cree canoers when they came through Kingston on their way to New York to protest Hydro-Quebec flooding their lands. I sang in my son as he was born, with our cousins rattling… There are songs for everything.
What do you do at the Mill St. Loft?
Generally I’d say that at Mill St. Loft I teach leadership, life skills & arts and counsel adolescent youth at-risk using an indigenous model, although as a member of the clergy I also work with women & families. While I’ve juggled a number of responsibilities & hats at the Loft over 17 years, these days I’m best known for PASWORD (Program for Adolescent Student Women Of Real Direction) in Poughkeepsie, NY, & Project AWARE (Adolescent Women Are Realizing Empowerment) in Beacon, NY, and for the new Arts for Healing initiative we’ve created in Pediatrics at VBMC. Directing a program at the Loft means de facto, that you teach within that program. AND that you remain current in your art. There’s no other way to be in a living, growing profession. I create curriculae that excite young women, make them feel heard, develop their voices & blow their ‘picture of the world’ right out of the water, in a small-group format that fosters self-awareness, creativity and trust. I also manage a core group of women artist-teachers who hold a safe basket for all to share their experiences. Amazing poetry, painting, performances, craftswork— and most of all, amazing young future women—have come out of this circle in ten years of programs. It’s all about women helping young women— nurturing, guiding the next generation.
With Arts for Healing in Pediatrics, we address the entire family experience through the experience of the child by using the arts not merely as a distraction from the pains and frustration of their illnesses and treatments, but as a means of transmuting that experience by expressing it through their artwork, sometimes using it as a voice for what they are unable to speak out. Through music— drumming & singing— we bring the families together as a community with a common experience in an alternative setting where they can move as people and not just patients.
What family and cultural traditions have you incorporated into your work at the Mill St. Loft?
So much of the way we work in the girls’ programs is straight out of how I was raised and/or draws from everyday indigenous traditional tools – one premise of these programs that is used in all my teaching is personal ancestry as a source of strength. Our background sets our frame of reference; it’s our jumping-off point, yet it’s also our support system, gol’ga? (Understand?) Talking Sticks & Circles, journeys, storytelling all have a part in our program. Our Rites of Passage & Encouragement, developed from traditional ceremonies I am authorized to perform, earmarks our program, sets it apart. Recognition is a key element in human development that’s gone by the wayside in most of western culture, and this ceremony acknowledging growth, development & stepping into young womanhood brings the families & community together as witnesses. Then the story of having done so can be told straight, and the outer circle of community is enabled to support this new person that each young woman is becoming…
What is a Hahesh’kah and why is it an honor for you to be one?
That’s an ancient Nde’ word that essentially translates as ‘she goes first’, and refers to the lead singer in a native traditional drum group. It is always an honor to be acknowledged by your elders & community, and in this case doubly so because while the tradition of women drumming is different in different parts of the country, generally there are not a lot of women head drummers in Native circles.
You said everyone has a story to tell, and if they don’t know their story, to find it. How does music help people find their story?
Wow. Let me fix that. Fellow Native musician R. Carlos Nakai quoted an old Dineh saying that everyone has a story, and if you don’t know your story, you are lost. That’s a very traditional way of telling you to find your story in order to understand yourself. In encouraging folks to find their story, they discover their heritage, their strengths and themselves— what makes each one unique and beautiful. We have that experience every day when we hear a piece of music that we like, that moves us, that resonates with us. Tracking what moves you in that music takes you back to your feelings, to memories, to who you are…
How has music helped you tell your story?
I don’t know that I am telling my story… I do know that I am living it. I feel more like a translator for the unheard songs of life around us— things too big for the vibrations of words alone. When pieces of my own life-story need to move, or seem appropriate to share, they always come out as music, as songs. It’s just how I’m tuned.
What is the greatest lesson music has taught you about life?
The power of music bridges every divide, showing you the soul of a people and the rhythms of their everyday and extraordinary lives. Really. There’s no separate word for ‘art’ in Tsalagi, in ‘Nde, or in any of the other indigenous languages I’m familiar with – beauty is integral to your life. I would say, No word for art— it’s your life.