Canadian legend Buffy Sainte-Marie reflects on a storied career in music
November 28, 2008
By Susan Noakes, CBC News
Buffy Sainte-Marie's name has been synonymous with native activism
for more than 40 years. The singer born on the Piapot Cree Reserve in
Saskatchewan will be awarded the lifetime achievement award at the
Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards in Toronto on Nov. 28. Now that
aboriginal musicians can be found across the spectrum from classical
to hip hop, the organizers of the annual event wanted to recognize a
woman who set the stage for such rich diversity.
Sainte-Marie acknowledges her own role in getting aboriginal stories
into the mainstream. She emerged from the coffee house and campus
music scene of the 1960s and never forgot those activist roots. Her
anti-war song Universal Soldier became an anthem of the peace
movement, while Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee refers to both the
standoff between the American Indian Movement and the government at
Wounded Knee in the 1970s and the history of First Nations land
struggles in North America.
During the administrations of presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard
Nixon, Sainte-Marie's activism meant her songs would disappear from
mainstream radio stations across the U.S. But Sainte-Marie continued
to perform live, and in the late 1970s appeared regularly on the
children's television show Sesame Street. In 1983, she won an Academy
Award for writing Up Where We Belong, the theme to An Officer and a
Gentleman recorded by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes.
Sainte-Marie has always been an innovator, moving early into
electronic music and mixing powwow sounds with pop. She continues to
mix grassroots with modern technique, most recently on her 2008 album
Running for the Drum. Now 66 and living on the Hawaiian island of
Kauai, Sainte-Marie operates the Nihewan Foundation for Native
American Education, which improves aboriginal learning and forges
links between classrooms of aboriginal and non-aboriginal children.
Her next project, she says, will be a songbook combining songwriting,
drawings and personal reflection. Sainte-Marie spoke to CBCNews.ca
about her turbulent career, the past and future of aboriginal music
and why for her, songwriting is like dreaming.
Q: What is your impression of today's aboriginal music scene?
A: Aboriginal music has flourished just as I had hoped. This is a
dream come true for me, to see aboriginal people in straight country
music, just going fa-de-dah along with everybody else. Or country
music that includes a little bit of a grassroots feel like [her 1996
song] Darling Don't Cry – that was one of the first in country music
to get a lot of play in country music television, which is co-written
by me and Edmund Bull of Red Bull, the powwow group.
Now you have aboriginal people in classical music, doing straight
classical music or doing combination music, in pop, in hip hop just
every genre, which is to be expected.
Q: How does that compare to earlier in your career?
A: When I started out, there weren't any aboriginal singers
travelling around the world. There were a lot of singers that I knew,
but almost everybody stayed in one place [Narragansett Indian]
Peter La Farge in the 1960s singing in Greenwich Village, [songwriter
and later actor] Floyd Westerman was writing songs he's Sioux. But
most of the singers of those times weren't given any major exposure.
I had a lot of luck very early. I was rich and famous by the time I
was 23. As I would travel around to grassroots communities, my
perceptions were not the same as if I had come from those grassroots
communities. I had finished college, I had travelled around the
world, I had success and the confidence that goes with it. So if I
had a concert in New York and the concert was over, I'd be in
Akwasasne or Six Nations or one of the reservations that was a
reasonable distance away. Same thing if I was in Calgary I'd be out
at the reserve. Even in the international community, if I had a
concert in Sydney, Australia, I'd be out with people there. Just
because I was interested and because it was fun.
I started to build up not just an understanding and a love for
people, but also a repertoire of what they were going through. I
began to see that indigenous people are all in the same boat, in
being milked and exploited by various European cultures, and this
didn't go down very well [with me].
When I was travelling around the traditional music was very much
intact. I would sit at the drums with my uncles and they welcomed me.
They didn't chase me away. We all sat around. They taught me songs
and we learned together. That's how you learn: just singing along.
Yet their perception of solving the dilemmas in which they found
themselves, their perception of the challenges, they didn't really
know very much about Indian issues.
When they heard songs that I wrote in the '60s, like Now that the
Buffalo's Gone, that song didn't only make sense in the state of New
York, where Kinzua Dam was being built it made sense in communities
all over the world where the gobbledygreeds were forcing people off
their traditional lands in order that someone could make a fortune
building a bridge.
Q: At what point, do you think, did such a range of aboriginal music
become widely accepted?
A: I first noticed that people were ripping off grassroots Indian
music in the 1990s. I was invited to participate with a guy in Europe
who was, I think, inappropriately exploiting public domain
traditional songs – by Navajo, Cree, Hopis, and he'd put in a drum
machine behind it. In other words, the guy did not have a career in
anything else, but as soon as he grabbed those Smithsonian recordings
treasures all of a sudden he had a career.
The first time I heard about other people incorporating aboriginal
music into pop was the 1990s, and I had been doing it since the
1960s. I was a bit different. I wasn't grabbing other people's
recordings, I was using my own. Starwalker was one of the first that
made an impact in the music business. Starwalker I first recorded in
1975 and I recorded it again in the 1990s [on the album Coincidence
and Likely Stories] and it was included in a greatest hits album. So
nobody up until then had ever heard aboriginal sounds in pop records.
It took a while, because people at the grassroots level, they loved
it. But people in radio stations didn't get it. As a matter of fact,
when I first recorded in the early '90s, the record company didn't
want to record Starwalker or Wounded Knee they just didn't get it.
They didn't know why anyone would want to sing about red Indians.
Q: You played a role in creating the Juno award for Music of
Aboriginal Canada. What is the story behind that?
A: I played a minor role. Elaine Bomberry and Curtis Johnnie, also
known as Shingoose, they did the lion's share of the work. We all
campaigned and we let CARAS [Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and
Sciences, which manages the Junos] know. We had to show them that
there was enough recording going on – enough artists, enough studios,
enough producers, enough writers, you know, that we had a track
record. There were certain rules and so we all went together to CARAS
and CARAS had done their homework. They all agreed, they were very
I just think that we need two categories: one for [aboriginal] pop
and one for traditional [aboriginal] music. Pop and traditional
shouldn't be together. Traditional is a huge category and so is pop,
but they're not the same. Grassroots powwow groups should not be
having to compete with people who are out doing pop shows and being
on television. People on the pop side of it have an unfair advantage
when it comes to exposure. And the grassroots powwow groups are, I
think, a national treasure.
Q: Do you think anyone has picked up the mantle of activism that you
carried for so long?
A: I don't know. I think just about everybody is a little bit
sensitive to what needs to be remedied and improved. I'm not out
there listening all the time. I keep looking for somebody who's
writing songs of enlightened protest. I mean, a song like Bury My
Heart at Wounded Knee is very tough song about very real incidents,
but because it's in a hot rock 'n' roll track, people get caught up
in it before they realize they're in a protest song. That's kind of a
tough song to write, anyway. I don't hear anyone writing Universal
Soldier or Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee anywhere – white people,
black people, brown people. I just don't hear it.
Hip hop has the attitude. That's kind of where it is.
Q: Are you still writing songs?
A: All the time. It's like dreaming for me. I don't try to write, but
some nights you dream, some nights you don't. I spend time writing
curriculum and it's all informed by what's going on in my head. I
write curriculum the same way I write songs. To be able to say
something in three and a half minutes that would take somebody else
400 pages is a certain skill.
I write in two ways. It's either impassioned like a love song, it's
in my head, it's in my heart, it's like a dream – it's no work at
all. To write a song like Universal Soldier or Bury My Heart is
different because you have the original passion, you have the real
incidents that nobody wants to hear about – I mean who wants to hear
about that? So that's when I say, this is exactly the same as when
you had to write a thesis for a professor who wanted to flunk you and
you were determined to get an A-plus. You have to think it through.
To me it's about being effective. It's not about fame, it's not about
looking good, it's not about being louder or more angry than someone
else. It's not about that. It's about being effective.
The Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards take place Nov. 28 in Toronto.
Susan Noakes is a staff writer for CBCNews.ca.