For decades, the singer, poet, teacher, tech whiz and ac­tivist has shaped the way we think about mu­sic, In­dige­nous rights and the In­ter­net. Her great­est gift? Be­liev­ing we can all do bet­ter.

Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Contributors - BY ALI­CIA EL­LIOTT PHO­TO­GRAPH BY MATT BARNES

Home base: Brant­ford, Ont. Pre­vi­ously pub­lished in CBC

Arts and The Globe and Mail. Buffy Sainte-Marie is the whole pack­age: pas­sion, in­tel­li­gence, charisma and a killer sense of hu­mour. I hope read­ers re­mem­ber the ad­mi­ra­tion they have for Sainte-Marie when they meet other In­dige­nous women. The mu­si­cian isn’t “the ex­cep­tion.” She’s an ex­am­ple of what our women have al­ways been ca­pa­ble of.

Shortly be­fore sun­set on the last day of June, Buffy Sainte-Marie strides onto the stage at the foot of Toronto’s city hall. Even at 76, the singer-song­writer comes across as the con­sum­mate rock star: tight black pants, stud­ded jacket, a smile so bright it could power the curved tow­ers loom­ing in the back­ground. Grin­ning at the crowd and its ap­plause, Sainte-Marie is con­fi­dent and cool, ex­ud­ing an ef­fort­less­ness that can­not be learned—hers has been earned through decades of hard work and dili­gence.

This per­for­mance is one part of Toronto’s con­tri­bu­tion to Canada 150, a marathon of a party that hasn’t met with una­nim­ity. Since Jan­uary, and be­fore, In­dige­nous peo­ple have voiced op­po­si­tion to the fes­tiv­i­ties, con­tend­ing that they erase the his­tory of the land prior to 1867 and that Canada hasn’t given First Na­tions much rea­son to cel­e­brate in the years since Con­fed­er­a­tion. Sainte-Marie, an In­dige­nous icon, has ad­mit­ted she’s “of two minds” about the event in which she’s par­tic­i­pat­ing.

As she stands here, wa­ter pro­tec­tors sit in a teepee on Par­lia­ment Hill in Ot­tawa, protest­ing Canada’s treat­ment of In­dige­nous peo­ples. Michèle Moreau, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the trou­bled Na­tional In­quiry into Miss­ing and Mur­dered In­dige­nous Women and Girls, has just re­signed from her post. The York Re­gional Po­lice have taken over in­ves­ti­gat­ing the deaths of Tammy Keeash and Josiah Begg—In­dige­nous teens whose bod­ies were found in north­ern On­tario wa­ter­ways— be­cause an in­de­pen­dent probe is in­ves­ti­gat­ing the Thun­der Bay Po­lice Ser­vice for “sys­temic racism.” Nerves are, to say the least, taut.

An ex­pec­tant hum em­anates from the au­di­ence as Sainte-Marie and her band take their places. Will she chas­tise the crowd? Will she cas­ti­gate Cana­di­ans for their com­pla­cency? Will she rep­ri­mand Justin Trudeau and his gov­ern­ment for their in­ac­tion? One thing is cer­tain: she’s not go­ing to stay quiet.

As if able to read the con­cert­go­ers’ minds, Sainte-Marie flashes a cheeky smile and launches into her 1964 song “It’s My Way”:

The years I’ve known The life I’ve grown Got a way I’m go­ing And it’s my way.

SAINTE-MARIE HAS BEEN go­ing her way since break­ing into the mu­sic scene in her early 20s, con­sis­tently turn­ing away from the more con­ven­tional, less con­tro­ver­sial paths be­fore her. Her bold­ness has paid div­i­dends. Dur­ing her half cen­tury in the pub­lic eye, Sainte-Marie has been the


re­cip­i­ent of 14 hon­orary doc­tor­ates and reams of praise from con­tem­po­raries and crit­ics; and won Junos, Gram­mys, an Academy Award for Best Orig­i­nal Song (the power bal­lad “Up Where We Be­long”) and the Po­laris Mu­sic Prize for 2015’s Power in the Blood.

But suc­cess hasn’t come with­out strug­gle or sac­ri­fice. There was a time when her records were be­ing re­leased to very lit­tle fan­fare, when her in­flu­ence went un­rec­og­nized be­cause the rest of the world couldn’t keep up. In the same way her an­ces­tors were thriv­ing on this land be­fore set­tlers ar­rived, Sainte-Marie was break­ing ground in art, ed­u­ca­tion, ac­tivism and tech­nol­ogy long be­fore oth­ers came along to take the credit for “pioneering” those fields.

Through it all, Sainte-Marie has car­ried on, teach­ing those around her even as she helps map out the fu­ture of arts, ed­u­ca­tion and Canada it­self. One can’t help but won­der: where will she lead us next? BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE was born in 1941 on the Pi­apot Re­serve in Saskatchewan’s Qu’Ap­pelle River Val­ley. Or­phaned in in­fancy, she was adopted by Al­bert and Winifred Sainte-Marie and raised in Wake­field, Mass. As one of the only Na­tive peo­ple in a mostly white com­mu­nity, she of­ten felt iso­lated. Her par­ents re­sponded by giv­ing her cre­ative free­dom, through which she dis­cov­ered a love of mu­sic early on.

“I used to lie on the floor with vac­uum-cleaner head­phones, lis­ten­ing to Swan Lake,” she says, re­call­ing how she dis­as­sem­bled the house­hold vac­uum and con­nected the ap­pli­ance’s tubes to the family record player to pro­vide a more im­mer­sive sound.

At three years old, while other chil­dren were learn­ing to dress them­selves, Sainte-Marie was teach­ing her­self to play pi­ano. By 16 she had also tack­led the gui­tar and was de­vel­op­ing sev­eral dif­fer­ent ways of tun­ing the in­stru­ment, gen­er­at­ing sounds no one else was mak­ing.

An­other sig­nif­i­cant in­ter­est—her roots—was less ac­ces­si­ble. She knew she was Cree and that her adop­tive mother was part Mi’kmaq, but she was also aware that Winifred had never had the chance to learn about that side of her an­ces­try. In their city, the most prom­i­nent Na­tive face was the scowl­ing Wake­field War­rior, a lo­cal high-school mas­cot. Sainte-Marie knew there was more to her cul­ture

than the racist car­i­ca­ture glar­ing at her dur­ing sports games. If no one in Wake­field could teach her about it, she’d find some­one who could.

In her late teens, she began tak­ing trips to Saskatchewan to re­con­nect with her Cree com­mu­nity, where she was tra­di­tion­ally adopted by Emile Pi­apot and Clara Star­blan­ket Pi­apot.

“They’re not blood rel­a­tives, we don’t think, but they could be,” says Sainte-Marie. Ei­ther way, the match was fit­ting in more ways than one. Emile was a son of the re­spected Chief Pi­apot, who had fought Canada on treaty rights and many other re­pres­sive poli­cies, in­clud­ing a ban on the Thirst Dance, an im­por­tant Cree cer­e­mony.

The sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween Chief Pi­apot and his adopted de­scen­dant went be­yond birth­place. Both would be tire­less de­fend­ers of their peo­ple’s rights; both would be vi­sion­ar­ies—when one path to jus­tice was blocked, they forged an­other; and both would be con­sid­ered so dan­ger­ous, so pow­er­ful, that gov­ern­ments con­spired to si­lence them.

“What I like most about Buffy is that she has al­ways been un­apolo­get­i­cally In­dige­nous,” says prom­i­nent Mi’kmaq lawyer, ed­u­ca­tor and ac­tivist Pam Pal­mater. “She has never tried to por­tray her­self to be any­one but one of our peo­ple. That has al­ways stood out in Canada, a coun­try that has worked hard to make us adapt, change, aban­don and as­sim­i­late. She is liv­ing proof that we are still here and proud.”

When Sainte-Marie first came to visit the Pi­apot Re­serve, she had no inkling of what her fu­ture held, or of the gen­er­a­tions she would in­spire. All she knew was that she was part of a much larger his­tory of In­dige­nous re­sis­tance—and she wanted to carry that tra­di­tion for­ward.

AF­TER GRAD­U­AT­ING FROM the Univer­sity of Mas­sachusetts with de­grees in ed­u­ca­tion and ori­en­tal phi­los­o­phy, Sainte-Marie con­sid­ered two op­tions: be­come a teacher on a re­serve or travel to In­dia to fur­ther her stud­ies.

In the end, she moved to New York City, where she began per­form­ing in Green­wich Vil­lage, play­ing orig­i­nal ma­te­rial. Songs like “Cod’ine,” about de­vel­op­ing an ad­dic­tion to codeine while she re­cov­ered from a throat in­fec­tion; “Uni­ver­sal Sol­dier,” a paci­fist an­them in­spired by in­jured Amer­i­can sol­diers re­turn­ing from the Viet­nam War; and “Now That the Buf­falo’s Gone,” a cri­tique of the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion to build the Kinzua Dam, which flooded the Seneca re­serve ter­ri­tory be­tween 1961 and 1966. It was im­por­tant— es­sen­tial—to Sainte-Marie that each song carry a mes­sage.

“The job of a poet is to get in­for­ma­tion across in a way that’s ef­fec­tive in mak­ing change,” she says more than

50 years later. “My songs try to of­fer in­for­ma­tion that has been hid­den or not thor­oughly dis­cussed. I learned to write songs that were bul­let­proof. I can back them up with facts.”

She soon re­al­ized that the peo­ple she was per­form­ing for in Canada and the United States had lit­tle, if any, knowl­edge of In­dige­nous peo­ple—or of their own coun­try’s his­tory.

In­stead of wait­ing for school boards, gov­ern­ment or the me­dia to fill in the gaps, Sainte-Marie de­cided to do it her­self.

“I wasn’t try­ing to give them In­dian 101 in an en­ema,” she says with a laugh. “I was giv­ing peo­ple the in­for­ma­tion be­cause I truly be­lieved that if they knew, they would try to help.”

Her lessons weren’t easy to take. She was one of the first pub­lic fig­ures to re­fer to the treat­ment of In­dige­nous peo­ple by Canada and the U.S. as “geno­cide,” a term that ap­peared in her 1966 song “My Coun­try ’Tis of Thy Peo­ple You’re Dy­ing.”

“When I used the word ‘geno­cide,’” she says, “that was not done. ‘She must be wrong,’ they said. ‘She’s just an In­dian racist. She doesn’t know any bet­ter.’ But I’d get out the letters af­ter my name, my col­lege de­grees, and say, ‘You know what? Here are the ref­er­ences.’”

Even with Sainte-Marie’s bib­li­o­graphic foot­notes, it took five decades for Canada to catch up. It wasn’t un­til the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion re­leased its land­mark re­port in 2015 that the main­stream me­dia began us­ing the word “geno­cide” to de­scribe the coun­try’s treat­ment of

In­dige­nous peo­ples. The cur­rent wide­spread use of the term is a tes­ta­ment to the power of ed­u­ca­tion and the change it can in­spire.

Back in the ’60s and ’70s, how­ever, that change wasn’t seen as pos­i­tive. In fact, Sainte-Marie’s at­tempts to ed­ify the pub­lic were viewed as a na­tional threat in the U.S., and both Lyn­don B. John­son and Richard Nixon al­legedly or­dered ra­dio sta­tions to keep Sainte-Marie and her mu­sic off the air.

She kept record­ing al­bums, even if, in her words, “no­body heard them.”

With the adults off lim­its, Sainte-Marie turned her at­ten­tion to kids. Dur­ing her forced hia­tus from ra­dio, she be­came a mother and moved into tele­vi­sion, spend­ing five years on Sesame Street. It was there that she taught chil­dren about In­dige­nous is­sues and, in one mem­o­rable 1977 episode, breast­feed­ing, by ex­plain­ing the process to Big Bird as she nursed her son, Cody.

That was a revo­lu­tion­ary mo­ment for many peo­ple, in­clud­ing Pal­mater. “By breast­feed­ing on Sesame Street at a time when few did that in pub­lic, she showed us all that moth­er­ing is a form of strength and the foun­da­tion of our na­tions,” Pal­mater says.

Not even a black­list could con­vince Sainte-Marie to play by the rules. “It didn’t get me down at all be­cause I was mov­ing on in other di­rec­tions those folks had no idea even ex­isted.”

GO­ING OFF HER EARLY folk songs, few could have guessed which course she’d chart next. On her 1969 al­bum, Il­lu­mi­na­tions, Sainte-Marie used early syn­the­siz­ers to al­ter her vo­cals and merge sounds in ways that still feel fresh to­day and that laid the ground­work for mod­ern elec­tronic mu­sic.

From there, it was down the tech­no­log­i­cal rab­bit hole. In 1984, Sainte-Marie got her first Ap­ple Mac­in­tosh com­puter, al­low­ing for more in­no­va­tion. Not only could she take work ev­ery­where (she claims that her 1992 al­bum, Co­in­ci­dence and Likely Sto­ries, was the first to be sent out dig­i­tally over the In­ter­net), she also dis­cov­ered a way to use com­put­ers to pro­duce visual art, be­com­ing one of the first artists to dis­play large-scale dig­i­tal paint­ings in mu­se­ums (such as the In­sti­tute of Amer­i­can In­dian Arts Mu­seum in Santa Fe, N.M.).

This isn’t to say that Sainte-Marie was se­questered be­hind a screen. Some of her most im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tions have been out­side the arts.


When “Uni­ver­sal Sol­dier” be­came the theme song of stu­dent ac­tivism in the ’60s, Sainte-Marie was on the re­serves. “I was learn­ing, teach­ing, spot­light­ing is­sues and spend­ing time,” she says. “That was a base that wasn’t be­ing cov­ered. That’s the kind of per­son I am: I like to cover the base that isn’t be­ing cov­ered.”

In­dige­nous stu­dents of­ten fell through the cracks of main­stream phi­lan­thropy, says Sainte-Marie, so in 1969 she launched the Ni­he­wan Foun­da­tion, even­tu­ally de­vel­op­ing cur­ricu­lum aimed at es­tab­lish­ing healthy self-es­teem and iden­tity in Na­tive youth. This formed the base for the Cradle­board Teach­ing Project, which was cre­ated to pro­vide In­dige­nous per­spec­tives on his­tory, ge­og­ra­phy and sci­ence and has in­cluded ev­ery­thing from ma­te­rial on res­i­den­tial schools to dig­i­tal net­work­ing be­tween Na­tive and non-Na­tive stu­dents. It is nec­es­sary and timely work that has been equally vi­tal to Sainte-Marie her­self.

“The sweet­est thing that has ever hap­pened to me isn’t my Academy Award or any­thing like that. It’s that the foun­da­tion turned into some­thing much big­ger. Two of my ear­li­est schol­ar­ship re­cip­i­ents be­came the pres­i­dents of tribal col­leges. One of them founded the Tribal Col­lege Move­ment and the Amer­i­can In­dian Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Con­sor­tium,” she says. “Some­times you can do a lit­tle thing that’ll make a huge dif­fer­ence. Some­body else will max­i­mize it and turn it into some­thing you never could have imag­ined.”

Lis­ten­ing to Sainte-Marie, you can un­der­stand why John­son and Nixon were afraid of her. She’s that rare teacher who makes you want to learn, who makes you re­mem­ber how im­por­tant it is to ask ques­tions. Af­ter all, it’s her own cu­rios­ity that has pro­pelled her re­lent­lessly ahead of any time she’s found her­self in.

THESE DAYS, THOUGH, Sainte-Marie feels like so­ci­ety is catch­ing up. That’s why she’s re­leas­ing a new al­bum this fall: Medicine Songs, a col­lec­tion of old and new protest tracks. “I’m hop­ing it will en­cour­age oth­ers,” she says. “I’m bang­ing in the kitchen and I’m cook­ing some­thing that gives peo­ple an ap­petite. They choose their menu, and then, nour­ished, they go out into the world and do some­thing with that en­ergy that no one can pre­dict.”

It seems funny that some­one who has, in a sense, fore­told cul­tural trends for decades is say­ing she can’t di­vine what’s to come. Still, one doesn’t need to know Sainte-Marie well to rec­og­nize that she’s hope­ful. Her great­est gift may be that for half a cen­tury, she’s be­lieved in all of us, that although we re­peat many mis­takes, even­tu­ally we will get bet­ter. We will cre­ate. We will teach. And we will keep learn­ing.

Sainte-Marie per­forms at the March on Wash­ing­ton for Jobs and Free­dom in 1963.

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