You have to search the archives of the world to uncover any artist whose life and career has been as unlikely, fecund and magical as Buffy Sainte-Marie’s.
If her parents had not died and left her an abandoned infant on their Cree reservation in Saskatchewan, Canada and, if she had not been adopted by a suburban Massachusetts, USA couple with Native Indian roots, then it is highly likely she would have been forgotten like the rest of the Indian kids on the reservations, neglected by their governments and doomed by devastating unemployment, unacceptable housing, underserved schools, wretched health care and terrible nutrition.
Instead, she blossomed into one of the most remarkable artists and consciences of modern times, creating and participating in a jaw-dropping resume of innovative music albums, movies (acting, directing and soundtracks), art, photography, philanthropy, educational projects and at least one truly unlikely tv gig.
The word precocious hardly measures up to the tiny genius Buffy was. At 3, she was experimenting with the piano, already doing it her way. Of that time she said, “I could play fake Beethoven and do things with strange chords that other people didn’t use but that I liked.” At 4, she was combining her poetry with that music.
Through her adolescence, the hyper-aware little girl observed silence in school, head down and outnumbered while being force-fed The Big Lie about Christopher Columbus and the supposed savagery and inferiority of her people. Her day would come.
Even though she couldn’t read music, Buffy taught herself, as a teenager, a staggering 32 different ways to tune her guitar. During this epoch, her trips back to the reservation reconnecting with her tribe would trigger a drama/karma/dharma transformation in her consciousness which informed her actions and art for all of her career and very social public life.
Who knows, though, what direction her art and heart would have taken had she not had those ancestral encounters where she inhaled the poverty, deprivations and gross injustices strangling the spirit of a once-proud and self-sufficient people. Fortunately, though, the beauty and potential she divined in the kids there - all they needed was some of the opportunities she had - enlisted her life-long dedication to donating the money, means and technical expertise to provide a number of them with a chance to be educated, independent and help others.
In the leafy liberal bastion of Amherst, at the University of Massachusetts, she majored in teaching and Oriental philosophy, graduating in the Top Ten of her class. Yet, academia was not to be her calling. In a post-beatnik pre-hippy gap (the early 60’s), she immersed herself in the fertile Greenwich Village folk scene where serendipity popped its cork again. Bob Dylan directed her to The Gaslight, the famed folkie hangout where future legends were strumming and crooning the nights away.
From there was hatched The Legend of Buffy Sainte-Marie.
Decades later she would reveal, “The only reason I became a folk singer is because I had something to say”. And did she ever.
From the beginning of her fast ascent into the public eye in 1964, the authorities suppressed her from performing her first minor hit, Universal Soldier, (from her first album, It’s My Way) on radio or television. Fortunately, they couldn’t prevent “Sunshine Superman” Donovan from singing it to the whole world, resulting in this poignant number becoming one of the most well-known and beloved anti-war songs ever.
On her second album, Many A Mile, she recorded a track entitled *Until It’s Time For You To Go. The government’s antipathy to popularize her helped keep this song from being heard. However, in the ensuing 50 years, at least 120 artists have recorded this extraordinary love song, including Barbra Streisand, Willie Nelson, Peggy Lee, Neil Diamond, Roberta Flack, Jim Croce, Shirley Bassey, Johnny Mathis, Cher and Elvis Presley, who most people associate the song with and who always included it in his live performances.
However, it was her third album, Little Wheel Spin and Spin, her first to employ electric guitar and strings, that really attracted the FBI’s scrutiny. The blistering My Country ‘Tis Of Thy People You’re Dying is a searing seven-minute diatribe of the never-ending injustices, starting from the beginning, of the North American Indian Catastrophe. Ironically, it was her only album (she recorded over 20) to chart on the Billboard 200, reaching #97.
Some thunderbolts from the heart-wrenching song:
Hear how the bargain was made for West
With her shivering children in zero degrees
Blankets for your land, so the treaties attest
Oh well, blankets for land, that's a bargain indeed
And the blankets were those Uncle Sam had collected
From smallpox diseased dying soldiers that day
And the tribes were wiped out
And the history books censored
A hundred years of your statesmen say, "It's better this way".
Meanwhile, as she continued to record and tour and garner accolades, she was instrumental in having Joni Mitchell discovered by playing Joni’s tape for every influential person in the music business whose path she crossed. Miss Buffy was no competitive diva. Joni’s eventual manager, Elliot Roberts, swallowed the bait and guided her to the studio and immortality.
Flush from steady sales of her albums and successful concert tours, Buffy was now making the big bucks, a whopping $100,000 a year, and befriending and tossing around ideas with some of the stalwart activists of the era, such as Stokely Carmichael, Muhammad Ali, Harry Belafonte and Dick Gregory. But she embraced philanthropy, putting her money where her heart was. “I was a young singer with too much money. I knew I’d be able to have two meals a day for the rest of my life so I took my leftover money and started a scholarship called the Nihewan Foundation for American Indian Education.
Buffy was passionate, outspoken and fearless about the plight of her people and war, America’s number one export. When approached to appear on an episode of The Virginian, a popular tv western, she agreed - on two conditions: that native Indians play all the Indian roles and that her role and lines be meaningful. “I’m not interested in playing Pocahontas,” she schooled them.
She also had an uncanny penchant for being where the action was - she was the action, really - as splendid opportunities blossomed for her. Two of music’s most promising and enigmatic young composers, Ry Cooder and Jack Nitzsche (whom she later married), collaborated with her on the song Hashishin, for the controversial art house film Performance with Mick Jagger. Her cover of Joni Mitchell’s The Circle Game, accompanied the opening credits of the 1970 counterculture student protest film, The Strawberry Statement. Then she composed the title song for Soldier Blue, about the slaughter of a Cheyenne village by the Colorado State Militia, which was yanked and banned from the theaters within a couple of days, that being The Era of The Ghouls: Henry “Dr. Death” Kissinger and President “Tricky Dicky” Nixon.
All important edgy groundbreaking work and more reasons for her to be shunned by mainstream media, which had no time slot or space for an articulate innovative dark-skinned female Native American experimental artist and activist. American culture was the poorer for her omission and virtual blacklist. Nevertheless, she eventually sailed her way into America’s bosom through a most unlikely port.
In 1976 she became a semi-regular guest for five years on, of all programs, Sesame Street. Her mission was pure Buffy, to educate and entertain: “I wanted little kids and their caretakers to know one thing above all: that Indians exist. We are not all dead and stuffed in museums like the dinosaurs. With the help of Big Bird and Oscar and friends, we put out this simple message of reality three times a day to the children of 73 countries of the world, providing them with positive realities, before racism and stereotyping ever had a chance to set in.” Besides interacting with the show’s characters, she presented songs and stories of Indigenous people. Just as important, in a 1977 Sesame Street episode she was the first woman to breastfeed (her son Cody) on tv.
Everywhere she went and everything she did was undiluted Buffy - sincere, optimistic, ahead of the pack - with one success after another. As early as 1981, she began using Apple II and Macintosh computers to record her music, present visual art and facilitate friendships across oceans.
Buffy on technology: “In 1984, I got my first Macintosh computer. I'd already been using computers for recording music and scoring movies for several years, so I had a bit of a head start. By the early-90’s I was using my computers for online interaction and making new friends. I thought it would be interesting to connect a First Nations (Indian) school in Canada with Adrya Siebring's Island School in Hawaii. The kids exchanged letters and boxes of local goodies and information about their communities, their schools, and, most of all, themselves. They also had their first experience with email and Live Chat on a computer, which was very new at the time.”
The first Native American to accomplish the feat, she won an Oscar in 1982 for co-writing Up Where We Belong, the theme song of the film An Officer and a Gentleman, sung by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes. In 1985 she and the magnanimous actor, Martin Sheen, narrated Broken Rainbow, a documentary about the U.S. government “relocation” of 10,000 Navajo Indians in Arizona.
During the late-60’s and 70’s, the federal government, represented by the usual paranoiacs, Presidents Johnson and Nixon and the closeted hypocrite J. Edgar Hoover, had suffocated Buffy’s career, as well as those of most other Indian artists, effectively yanking the roots out of a thriving Red Power revival. Buffy explained, “I found out… that President Lyndon B. Johnson had been writing letters on White House stationery praising radio stations for suppressing my music.”
In defense of her honor, Buffy shot straight: “There was nothing there. Buffy Sainte-Marie has never broken the law. I did not smoke pot on the White House lawn, I don’t get traffic tickets” and (as Nixon would protest years later about himself) “I’m not a criminal. It was ridiculous - they had letters from people in the file asking the FBI if they had a file on me. Also: everything was blacked out. It was very petty, very high school and very nasty.”
Imagine the FBI hijacking her albums before they got to the music stores, mobilizing this immoral unethical campaign on a burgeoning American original whose list of eventual accomplishments was superb. Buffy was the first American Indian to win an Oscar and Golden Globe. The British Academy of Film and TV Arts honored her with a BAFTA. She earned a Dove from the gospel industry, was a member of Hillary Clinton’s Committee To Save America’s Treasures and a Commissioner on former astronaut and ex-Senator John Glenn’s Commission on Service Learning. Nearly 20 colleges and universities in Canada and the U.S. have awarded her with honorary degrees. She was a digital art pioneer with a Ph.D. in Fine Arts. Definitely not last and definitely not least, Queen Elizabeth II bestowed two medals on Buffy.
Buffy rolled with Ali the King, Elizabeth the Queen, Senator Glenn the Astronaut, Dylan and Joni and Cohen the Bards and, yet, how royal in spirit is Buffy herself when she tells the world, “My biggest honor was to find out that two of my scholarship recipients had gone on to found tribal colleges. Can you imagine that kind of thrill?”
In a just world, a person of Buffy’s stature, integrity and ingenuity could have been our Native Ambassador To The World. With a modest budget (say, the price of one jet bomber) to share All Things Indian - the music, dance, chants, attire, art, history, stories, culture, crafts, spirituality - she could have purchased immeasurable respect and admiration for America from her allies and enemies. And, more importantly, set a precedent for other governments to implement similar programs for their aboriginal people. She could have been appointed the inaugural Head of The Department of Peace (which, of course, doesn’t exist), instead of being a perceived and surveilled enemy of the government.
Ah, but to fantasize.
Launching more innovation, after a 16-year musical hiatus, Buffy recorded Coincidence and Likely Stories in 1992 in Hawaii on her computer and transmitted the first-ever album through the Internet via modem to producer Chris Barrett in London.
And the hits just kept on coming, one from the most winsome and whimsical of sources. In 1995, she provided “the voice of the spirit in the magic mirror” for HBO’s Happily Ever After Fairy Tales For Every Child, which featured a Native American retelling of Snow White. Now it was Buffy the Real-Life Fairy Spirit personifying an imaginary fairy spirit in a bit of art imitating life.
Around the turn of the century, Buffy continued, like a diamond, to flash facets of her brilliance by producing Science Through Native American Eyes, an interactive CD-ROM for middle school, as part of her Cradleboard Teaching Project. In fact, an ardent amateur astronomer, she loves sitting on her back porch in Hawaii, cat in lap, tracking the stars. Speaking of stars, there is one on Toronto’s Walk of Fame which exalts Buffy for her sterling accomplishments.
Never one to coast on past triumphs, in 2015 74-year-old Buffy introduced the album Power In The Blood and, in 2017, Medicine Songs, the latter of which she described as “a collection of front-line love songs of unity and resistance”. She presented new and rearranged and cover material, as gripping, protean and spine-tingling as anything she had ever done. Remember: she was in her 70’s with Picasso-like staying power.
Responding to the robust attention accorded to those albums, she insisted, “Aboriginal music has been good for a long time, but nobody has been listening to it.” That said, she was also an enthusiastic advocate of universal music.
“I'm really always pushing people to polish up their chops, polish up their musicianship, listen to more music than what you hear on the radio, explore the entire heart and soul of world music because it's all wonderful and it's exciting. And when you get excited as a musician, you're likely to come up with something… not that copies what you've been listening to, but you're likely to come up with something that's totally out of the box and new. My songs, the ones that I keep, don't sound like songs that I've heard before. They don't sound like second-rate Joni Mitchell or second-rate Leonard Cohen. They're not. I was singing Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen before they could get record deals because they were unique."
Recording over 20 albums and selling more than 25 million copies of them, Buffy has always been Buffy for over a half-century, striving forward with purpose, championing her ravaged nation with fierce pride and an inextinguishable flame. Her distinguished, often spine-tingling trill is a wonder, the timeless cry of the very heart, spirit and soul of the Indian saga.
And, finally, from her 1974 Native North American Child:
Who's got the rhythm of the universe inside him?
Who taught the pilgrims how to make it in the wild?
Who's got a credit card with old Mother Nature?
Yeah! Native North American Child.