A long overdue work prioritizes Indigenous artist Buffy Sainte-Marie’s voice foremost, allowing her to set the record straight.
Music was the initial art form Cree artist Buffy Sainte-Marie chose to reach the most people on issues of Indigenous rights, war, gender and more. But only time has revealed the challenges she faced in delivering those messages—while acclaim was awarded more generously to her peers including Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan.
She was blacklisted by two U.S. presidents and her songs became better-known via covers from big names like Elvis Presley. As the suppression of her work mounted, she moved into other mediums to get her message across: She was the first woman to breastfeed on national television and she’s the only Indigenous artist ever to win an Academy Award.
In her only authorized biography, which debuted in paperback February 20 (her 80th birthday), Sainte-Marie herself discloses how she increased her agency over the course of her career, amidst turmoil and controversy.
For this occasion, Ms. spoke with author Andrea Warner. “I was really shocked to see how little coverage Buffy had received over the years,” Warner said. “It was almost total erasure.”
Warner explains in the book’s afterward how “Buffy has combed every inch of this book; every page bears her fingerprints.” This long overdue work prioritizes Sainte-Marie’s voice foremost, allowing her to set the record straight.
“She could do more for Indigenous people by operating outside the system.”
Buffy-Sainte Marie was studying to be a teacher in college when she decided to work in music, rather than wade through the restrictions imposed by governmental education. She realized “she could do more for Indigenous people by operating outside the system,” explains Warner in the book.
She loved the expanse of issues tackled within folk music: “So many pop songs are only about ‘I’m gonna die if you don’t love me’; they’re very narrow-minded,” Sainte-Marie said in When We Played Newport. “But folk songs were about everything.”
At age 23, she released her debut album, It’s My Way! (1964), addressing war (“Universal Soldier”), stolen indigenous land (“Now That The Buffalo’s Gone”), drug addiction (“Cod’ine”) and more.
Folk music’s failed promises led her into television and film—and she helped others along the way.
Despite her wish to utilize the range of subject matter promised by folk music, her songs were nonetheless absorbed in ways she didn’t appreciate. Her record label gave her little control over how her work was adapted: “Universal Soldier” became better-known via Donovan’s interpretation, and her romantic ballad “Until It’s Time For You To Go” was covered by several major names (Elvis Presley and Barbra Streisand, among others).
While struggling to navigate her own career within the industry, she still tried to help others: notably Joni Mitchell. (Decades later, Mitchell writes the biography’s forward in gratitude: “Buffy really helped me at the beginning: Before I was well-known, she performed songs I wrote, bringing them to a wider audience, and she played my tape for anyone who would listen.”)
She also started moving into other mediums such as film—writing for film soundtracks and winning an Academy Award for her song “Up Where We Belong”—and TV, including a famous Sesame Street appearance where she explained and demonstrated breastfeeding.
In both film and television she participated in, she often had specific stipulations about how her image or work would be used. This was often inspired by negative portrayals she witnessed in pop culture—but as with other formats she worked in, she saw the potential in working to rectify this: “Buffy really loves movies and television and books, and she believes that authenticity helps make for a richer, more rewarding experience for viewers,” said Warner, “like when she insisted that only Indigenous actors be cast to play Indigenous people when she was on The Virginian in 1968.”
Sainte-Marie’s early embrace of technology anticipated remote learning and digital connection.
Her early embrace of technology had started with 1969’s electronic album Illuminations and extended to her creation of a 1990s online curriculum, The Cradleboard Teaching Project, to educate children about Indigenous history. The damaging misinformation in many public schools and pop culture overall motivated Sainte-Marie to utilize the internet as a corrective: “Our goal was to model a way to help children and teachers—both Indigenous and non-Indigenous—to learn core subjects like science, government and geography, through Native American cultural perspectives.”
As Warner notes in the book: “For the curriculum itself, Sainte-Marie secured input from a variety of educators, including scholars from 33 tribal colleges. According to Cradleboard’s website, within its first two years, Sainte-Marie modeled the project in Mohawk, Cree, Ojibwe, Menominee, Coeur d’Alene, Navajo, Quinnault, Hawai‘ian and Apache communities in eleven states. By 1998, Cradleboard was being used in 33 classrooms across the United States.”
In a number of occurrences with Sainte-Marie’s work, there’s an emphasis on learning to be creative, and open to trying different methods of learning and sharing, including remotely. These choices have an interesting relevancy now during the COVID crisis, with educators rethinking how to teach in with limited, remote settings, or people releasing and promoting art from home. “She’s uniquely suited to adapting to working from home and creating from home and cultivating connection and art in digital spaces,” said Warner.
“Know when to be invisible, when to share, and when to hand over the microphone.”
Sainte-Marie’s arrival at a certain level of success encouraged her to identify where she still saw a lack of resources, to utilize her spotlight to express different aspects of the issue and reach more people. Primary to her political approach: Learn when to center yourself and when to boost others.
“If I think there’s somebody who can do it better, I take a pass, redirect the message. You have to know when to do that. It’s part of educating and supporting each other,” Sainte-Marie said. “Know when to be invisible, when to share, and when to hand over the microphone.”
“Artists can help a lot and sometimes do—but I don’t understand why they stop.”
In recent years, people marvel at Sainte-Marie’s continued success, but she has a disinterest in resting on laurels when there’s more to do and more to learn. In that way, it’s clear Buffy respects her contemporaries, yet isn’t afraid to vocalize her disappointment with some of their choices. The same people she’s supported, singled out and praised, like Dylan, she also criticizes in the book.
“Artists can help a lot and sometimes do—but I don’t understand why they stop. What happened to Bob Dylan’s sense of outrage? ‘Masters of War,’ or ‘With God on Our Side’—what happens? How does it go away? For me, it hasn’t gone away. And I don’t understand how somebody can be that smart, talented, rich, famous and in the perfect position without continuing to want to make change.”
“I think Buffy’s criticism is rooted in accountability. It’s not about shaming folks; she’s genuinely curious about these artists’ values and ethics,” Warner told Ms. “Buffy’s mission, her purpose, she’s never wavered. She does the work and her songs help do that work—be it spreading the truth, or advocating for Indigenous rights and the planet, or calling out hypocrisy and greed and corruption.”
Although Buffy garnered much attention for these aspects in her lyrics and activism, even now she often feels that her messages are not being properly respected in all of their dimensions. Her songs were often read as negative, angry or sad. Several interviews “wanted to play up racist or sexist stereotypes, or just didn’t seem to actually listen to Buffy’s words or appreciate her genius,” said Warner. They didn’t allow her the emotional range she often displayed:
“People don’t quite understand how funny she is, but many of her songs have this great wit. There’s also a lot of joy and hope in her songs, and she invites the listeners to consider their complicity and personal accountability without shame.”