The road is long
And there are mountains in our way
But we climb a step everyday.
(from Buffy Sainte-Marie, “Up Where we Belong”)
Canadian-born, Indigenous activist and artist Buffy Sainte-Marie has championed democracy for over half a century. In 1963, her anti-war anthem “Universal Soldier” condemned the Vietnam War. In 2013, she stood before the Manitoba legislature to endorse Idle No More.
Sainte-Marie’s remarkable life began in very difficult circumstances on the Piapot Cree reserve in Saskatchewan. Like many other poor children, especially those from Canada’s Indigenous communities after World War Two (Strong-Boag), she was adopted out, in her case to a family with a mother with Micmac ancestry in Massachusetts, U.S.A. In the 1960s she would reconnect very powerfully with her birth community and acquire more kin but her new mother, who worked for a newspaper, proved inspirational. Despite abuse and racism, the renamed Buffy graduated with distinction from the University of Massachusetts Amherst with a degree in teaching and oriental philosophy (Stonechild).
In the early 1960s Sainte-Marie also emerged as a distinctive artist in the North American and global music scene that included her contemporary Joni Mitchell, another singer from Saskatchewan, whom she mentored. Right from the beginning, Sainte-Marie was closely associated with the anti-war protests of the 1960s but she stood out from the crowd in focusing a public spotlight on the unjust treatment of Native North Americans. Songs such as “Now that the Buffalo’s Gone”, “My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying” and, later, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” directed an over-due wake-up call to the popular conscience.
Her trenchant and poignant criticism of colonialism had obvious ancestry in the spoken word challenges of the earlier writer and performer E. Pauline Johnson (for example the poems, “A Cry from An Indian Wife” and “Wolverine”). In effect, her music signaled the entry onto the public stage of modern Indigenous rights campaigns, often associated with the American Indian Movement, which began formally in 1968 in Minnesota, USA but soon spread to Canada (Palmer) and with which Sainte-Marie was closely associated (Stonechild).
Sainte-Marie’s determined activism quickly brought retribution from the American government, which conspired to have her boycotted from the public airwaves. What opponents could not make disappear was the take-up and covering of her songs by some of the era’s most prominent performers, including Elvis Presley, Glen Campbell, Cher, and Petula Clark. Five years (1976-1981) of appearances on ‘Sesame Street’, the iconic liberal public television show, where she breast-fed her son and introduced young children to the life of Native North Americans, further guaranteed her a place in the popular imagination. She also moved into multimedia, from electronic music to digital art. Examples of the latter appeared world-wide in galleries and museums, including Calgary’s Glenbow. Such versatility helped to keep her a constant on the North American artistic and political scene.
More remarkable still was her steady commitment to expanding educational opportunities for Indigenous children, beginning in 1969 with the Nihewan Foundation for American Indian Education and including the Cradleboard Teaching Project in 1996. In the same spirit, she supported the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College (later the First Nations University of Canada) where she became an Adjunct Professor of Fine Arts. She also took her opposition to oppression global, performing for UNICEF, Save the Children, and UN High Commission for Refugees.
In her 70s, now the recipient of a steady stream of awards, including the Order of Canada and numerous honorary degrees as well as an Oscar, Buffy Sainte-Marie connects the protests of the 1960s to those that mark the second decade of the 21st century. Indigenous people in Canada, the United States, and around the world lie at the heart of her commitment to equality but so do the environment, peace, and children in general. Buffy Sainte-Marie is historically significant in a number of ways, notably in her employment of art to raise public consciousness of injustice and in her linkage of leading causes of her age across borders and through time.
Resources and Further Reading
“About the Founder of the Nihewan Foundation. Buffy Sainte-Marie,” http://www.nihewan.org/founder.html
“Buffy Sainte-Marie” Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buffy_Sainte-Marie
Kives, Bartley, “Folk Legend Raises Voice at Legislature,” Winnipeg Free Press, Jan. 29, 2013.
Palmer, Bryan. Canada’s 1960s: The Ironies of Identity in a Rebellious Era (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009). Chapter 10.
Prowse, Joan. Director. Buffy Sainte-Marie: A Multimedia Life (CBC: 2007)
Stonechild, Blair, Buffy Sainte-Marie: It’s My Way (Markham, ON: Fifth House Publishers, 2012).
Strong-Boag, Veronica. Finding Families, Finding Ourselves: English Canada Confronts Adoption from the 19th Century to the 1990s (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2006)