Buffy Sainte-Marie needs no introduction. The world-famous singer-songwriter has spoken out for decades for those who are voiceless.
In the early 1960s few were focusing on Native issues. For this Saskatchewan-born Cree folk-singer, those issues were never out of sight. She told people around the world about the tragic plight of the North American Indian in her songs, in her actions, in her life. And she does the same today.
At 67, Sainte-Marie, singer, actor, visual artist, teacher and activist, continues to explore, educate and entertain.
Contacted by phone at her home in the mountains of Kauai, a Hawaiian island she has lived on since the early 1970s, Sainte-Marie is warm and welcoming. “I live in the mountains away from everybody. I’ve been here for over 40 years. I live with 26 goats. They are terrific. They are just as friendly and fun as cats and dogs. I highly recommend them if you have the room,” she says with a laugh.
While Sainte-Marie sounds light-hearted, she still has her serious side, especially when it comes to Native issues. So it was with great joy that she shared her thoughts on the Canadian government’s apology to Native people regarding residential schools.
“I was travelling at the time of the apology, so I watched it all on TV the following morning. Wasn’t it amazing! It’s been a long, long time coming. I wonder if (non-Native) people really understand how much this means to Native people.
“I hope when people see Aboriginal folks out on the street not looking so good, they will not be so quick to judge. You have to understand that most of us were raised without parents and without parenting skills. There have been three generations raised who never knew love and who never knew how to help babies and children or how to make a family work. When you take that away from thousands and thousands of people, generation after generation, it has a major impact.
“The fact that government made the apology underscores the fact that this issue really did happen. With government owning up to it, I think, makes it easier for everyone to forgive and actually do something about it to make things better.”
Born in 1941 on the Piapat Reserve in Saskatchewan’s Qu’Appelle Valley, Sainte-Marie was orphaned as an infant and adopted by a “white” family in Maine. “My mother who raised me was part Mi’kmaq so I had a small connection to my Native roots. But it was kind of a cocktail-party Indian situation, where you say you are part Indian and that’s the end of it. In other words, ‘My grandmother was one quarter something or other,’” Sainte-Marie says affecting a deep masculine voice. “It was very much a point of pride, but it was not a point of communication, information or connection to Aboriginal people.
“In the town I was raised – which I sometimes call Javex, USA – there was only one other Aboriginal person and he was the mailman. He and his wife were so nice to me. Most people didn’t know that I was Aboriginal, because they believed there weren’t any more Indians. You find many in New England who are not aware that there are Aboriginal people. ‘Oh, maybe there are few in Arizona, but not around here.’
“I didn’t learn a lot about Indians growing up. But my mom always told me that what I read in the history books and saw in the movies was mostly fiction.”
Sainte-Marie was in her late teens when she reconnected with her Cree relatives in Saskatchewan, who adopted her according to traditional customs. “I was welcomed back with open arms and we’ve been very close ever since. I’m a very lucky person – I have two families, two cultural backgrounds and I smile a lot.”
When it comes to speaking Cree, Sainte-Marie admits her command is limited. “Most people of my generation were raised without their language – let alone someone like me coming from the outside. Many of my nieces and nephews have gone to college where they were able to take Cree classes. And others never left the reserve and so they speak Cree right from the family. It’s two different approaches, but both are wonderful.”
Sainte-Marie is quick to point out that the loss of identity is a predicament shared globally by all Aboriginal people, who are trying to strengthen their connection to their culture and language. “It’s going on all over the indigenous world, not only in North America. Aboriginal people are trying to revitalize our languages. Though it might not seem like a big thing – you don’t hear about it in the press – the revitalization of our cultures is very important to us. We want to put it back together and pass it on.”
When it comes to dealing with Native issues, Sainte-Marie definitely sees a difference in approach between the Canadian and U.S. governments. “The further south you go in the Western Hemisphere, the worse it gets. In Uruguay, there are no Indians – they were all eradicated. It was total genocide. Chile is not a lot of fun either.
“But Canada is the best. There is a long way to go, but we’re going. In the States, there’s no such thing as APTN. And what happened last month in Ottawa with the apology is unthinkable in the States.
“There’s a difference in our histories too. In the States, the gobbley greeds went west faster. In Canada, things developed a little slower. Therefore there was more time for people – both Native and non-Native – to prepare and learn.
“In Canada, we have lawyers, teachers and a wealth of people with advanced degrees. We also have politicians. Now what we need to develop is good leadership.”
For Sainte-Marie, poverty is the most pressing issue confronting Aboriginal people today. “Besides drugs, alcohol and poor health, the biggest issue is poverty. It’s poverty and the lack of self-esteem, the lack of being connected to the bigger society. There is still a lot of good work to be done.”
Sainte-Marie realizes that for many communities one way of combating poverty is opening casinos. It’s an approach she is not completely comfortable with, but she has seen the benefits. “Casinos are the first economic upgrade communities have ever had. Naturally they face the same problems that everybody else does when dealing with new money and new experiences.
“But on the other hand, you see paved roads, you see schools, you see hospitals and you see adequate housing. Forty years ago when I first started travelling around, you didn’t see that. Back then it was real bad poverty. Though I’m kind of hot-and-cold on casinos, I must say many communities have done very well making the investments work for their people.”
Besides being an entertainer, Sainte-Marie is a teacher and has always placed great value on education. In 1969, she founded the Nihewan Foundation for Native American Education and nine years later, she set up the Cradleboard Teaching Project.
“When I was in my 20s, I was a young singer with too much money and a lot of airplane tickets. So I would use my plane tickets to inform myself about indigenous peoples. I would have a concert in Paris and then a couple days later I would be up in the Arctic with the Sami people. If I did a concert in New York City, I would go to Akwesasne after that. In Sidney (Australia), I would visit Aborigine people in the outback.
“That’s what my life has been like. It’s like having two families. I’ve always remained connected to both and been an educational bridge between the two. In my 20s I founded the Nihewan Foundation and we’ve been handing out scholarships ever since.
“Then in 1978, when my son was in Grade 5, I started the Cradleboard project. It’s involved with language and curriculum issues and we try to make everything free. If people are interested in knowing more, we have curriculum units available free online (www.cradleboard.org). I know a lot of people go into business to get rich and create a large infrastructure, but we’re just the opposite.”
Besides having degrees in Eastern philosophy and teaching and a PhD in fine arts – all from the University of Massachusetts – Sainte-Marie has been bestowed with several honourary degrees. The most recent one she received was a honourary Doctor of Laws degree from Carleton University in Ottawa on June 13.
“In my speech, I mentioned my hero, Tim Berners-Lee. He’s the guy who invented the Internet with his team at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). It was his decision to keep the Internet free so that we can all use it. If he had made a different decision none of us would be able to use it and it would be in the hands of politicians and millionaires.
“Sometimes you can make a little decision that impacts people hugely. And my scholarship foundation went on to impact people hugely. Based on his model, I always wanted to keep it free. Now elementary students around the world can study the Mohawks or the Navajos.”
Like a teacher, Sainte-Marie uses songwriting as a way of communicating ideas and opinions on political and Native issues. “It is my favourite style of creative writing or journalism. A song has to be as focused, as concise and as engaging as a piece of journalism in order to be successful. Think of Universal Solider or Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee or My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying. If you can do it in a three-minute song instead of a 400-page book, you’ve really accomplished something.”
Best known for Universal Solider, the anti-war song is still as relevant today as it was 44 years ago when she wrote it in 1964 to address the Vietnam War. “I wish there was no longer any need for that song, but there is. I went about writing it not as a hippie songwriter wanting to entertain people, but as a determined college girl trying to create a thesis about a serious issue. It’s not the same as writing a song like Until It’s Time for You to Go. It’s a different process and very deliberate. So I’m not surprised about its relevance today, I crafted it that way.” One old song Sainte-Marie rarely performs is Now That The Buffalo’s Gone. “It’s a hard-hitting song that I wrote more than 40 years ago. It’s Indian 101 for people who really don’t know anything about how it got to be this way. People just think we were a little bit backwards. They don’t realize what was deliberately done by all the wrong white people.”
The ever-positive Sainte-Marie will continue her role as an entertainer and educator. “There is still so much work to be done. We need to inspire young people to perceive and concentrate and enjoy the great things in life. Then we will be doing them a good service.”
Singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie was in Montreal recently and performed twice at the Jazz Festival. First, she participated in the free outdoor tribute to acclaimed singer-poet Leonard Cohen on June 26 and sang The Partisan, taken from his second album, Songs From A Room.
The following night, Sainte-Marie had her own show and played a mix of old and new material. The setlist included her “hits” – Universal Solider, Until It’s Time for You to Go and Up Where We Belong (from the film An Officer and A Gentleman) – and four songs from her new album, Running for the Drum, which will be released in September.
Looking and sounding in great shape, the short-statured Sainte-Marie commanded a big presence. Backed by three musicians and two back-up singers, she revealed herself as an accomplished musician as she moved effortlessly from guitar to keyboards to mouth bow. Throwing traditional chants into many of her songs, the good-humoured Sainte-Marie introduced an array of love and protest songs. On one song she’s laughing about teepee-creeping on the Powwow trail (Darling Don’t You Cry), the next she’s addressing the tragic plight of the Native American (Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee).
In recognition of the Canadian government’s apology on residential schools, Sainte-Marie sang Relocation Blues written by Floyd Red Crow Westerman. She also saluted several martyrs in the struggle for Aboriginal rights, including imprisoned activist Leonard Peltier and Dudley George, who was shot by an Ontario Provincial Police officer at Ipperwash in 1995 – both victims of greed and corruption.
Buffy Sainte-Marie’s set-list at the Jazz Festival, June 27
Piney Wood Hills Fallen Angels Cripple Creek
He’s An Indian Cowboy At The Rodeo Cho Cho Fire (new)
Up Where We Belong Relocation Blues
Working For The Government (new) Still This Love Goes On (new) Universal Soldier No No Keshagesh (new)
Darling Don’t Cry
Until It’s Time For You To Go
Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee
The Partisan (encore) Goodnight (encore)