Buffy Sainte-Marie on fighting LBJ and being inspired by Sesame Street
November 20th, 2009
With Lyndon Johnson, it was the F.B.I., with Richard Nixon, it was
the C.I.A., but it's always really been about the ego of presidents.
I was an embarrassment to them. I was outspoken about Wounded Knee,
about Nixon's transferring the lands of the Pine Ridge reservation to
the U.S., the part that contained coal and uranium. I was explaining
this to people on television and so I wasn't surprised I had upset
some people in the administration. I don't see myself as dangerous,
but I'm not naive: My case isn't the first time an elected leader had
done something illegal.
I never linked being outspoken with the way I was raised, but I think
I can find a connection. My upbringing was very difficult. Not
because I was Aboriginal in a white town that has its challenges
but because I was in a family with predators. Growing up as an abused
child, connecting that to presidential abuses of power? Maybe it
connects. I figured that's why I like to travel: to find better
things. I knew I needed to get out of that town.
I've made up songs since I was about three. As soon as I realized the
sounds the piano made, my ear figured out octaves instead of sports
and Barbies, I've written tunes. I used to think I'd become a
veterinarian, but when I got to university, I was amazed by all of my
choices. I'd read the catalogue and dream. I ended up with a double
major in education and Oriental philosophy. I thought I'd go on a
reservation and teach. Instead, I got lucky in the music business.
I started in the very early '60s, before the hippies but after the
beatniks. My music was coming out of the student movement, there was
a message and we wanted to be heard. Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, people
were doing things rich in content, but the Mamas & the Papas were not
they were professionally packaged, but what interested me was the
truth. Screaming, We're not going to go to Mr. Johnson's war!' We
were going to put an end to it! I was a little around the corner back
then. Several corners at the same time, I guess.
Nobody was doing Aboriginal music, I was the first. Rolling Stone
didn't want to know about that stuff, they wanted the Mamas & the
Papas approach. Fine, I travelled all the time.
The aha moment' for me was in the middle of February, 19… I don't
know, but someone gave me a bus ticket to Florida and I continued
travelling around by myself. I was 21 and had almost no overhead and,
since I didn't drink, I would play the student venues and the coffee
shops and then go to the nearest indigenous area and learn and meet
people and have fun. I knew I'd be a bridge between cultures. I just
didn't know Sesame Street would become such an important approach.
Originally, they asked me to come on and sing the Alphabet Song. I
didn't want to do that, but I asked if they'd done any native
programming. I thought I was finished, but I was on for five and a
half years. That show plays in 73 countries. You can change minds
with art and implant positive messages before narrow-mindedness sets
in. When I was pregnant with my son, I asked if they would do
something on breast-feeding. I became the first and only person to
breast-feed on TV. I've always been inspired by their hipness.
When my son was in grade five, his teacher came to me and said she
was required by law to teach an Indian studies unit and that she knew
the material she had was baloney. It was dead text about dead
Indians. They had the same 30 pictures that get recycled year after
year. I'd known how to write curriculum from college and I wanted to
give my son's grade five class and all the classes thereafter the
living, breathing experience I'd had on reservations. I started the
Cradleboard Teaching Project to connect my son's class with my
cousin's class on a reservation in Saskatchewan and put Natives in
charge of delivering their own self-identity.
Cradleboard isn't about looking in the past and complaining about how
things happened. It isn't about feathers and beads. This is
contemporary science and social studies, through Native perspectives.
We're a continuous flow from ancient times to right now, not bogged
down in why the white man screwed the Indians- we're the first Native
teaching project with an interactive science CD.
It was always my dream to have Cradleboard free and online and two
years ago, when that finally came true and my scholarship foundation
no longer needed me, I called my co-producer in France and flew him
to my farm in Hawaii. It was time to record an album again.
Buffy Sainte-Marie will be performing at the Canadian Aboriginal
Music Awards on Nov. 27 at The Hamilton Theatre. Her most recent
album, Running For the Drum, is nominated for record of the year. For
more information on The Cradleboard Teaching Project, visit cradleboard.org.