Buffy Sainte-Marie has one of the music industry’s most distinctive and recognizable voices. For nearly 60 years, the internationally renowned singer-songwriter has used it as a powerful way to speak out against injustice and help foster change.
Sainte-Marie is believed to have been born on February 20, 1941, on the Piapot First Nation in southeastern Saskatchewan’s Qu’Appelle Valley. Raised by adoptive parents in New England and subjected to racism and abuse when she was young, she turned to music “just for the joy of it.”
“I’m musically dyslexic and unable to learn notation, but from the age of three I’ve made music naturally at home, by ear, without teachers … no matter who insisted that I couldn’t,” she says. “I was also told I couldn’t be an Indigenous person because they were all vanished. Knowing that sometimes the world is wrong and you’re right is a tremendous advantage in understanding it.”
Graduating college in the early 1960s, she began playing at coffee houses and folk festivals, quickly distinguishing herself with her vibrato vocals, emotional delivery and fearless lyrics. Intensely passionate about her craft and convictions, she became an outspoken activist for Indigenous rights and an unwavering voice for the oppressed.
Some 20 years after the release of her first album It’s My Way! (1964), which contained the popular anti-war anthem “Universal Soldier”, she found out that her songs had been banned from airplay on American radio stations by the Johnson and Nixon administrations.
“There was nothing I could do about it when I did find out,” she says. “The reality: I just kept on writing, painting, making music – even though I was getting nowhere in showbiz, because that’s what I love to do anyway. I’m an artist.”
Sainte-Marie’s work – from hit love songs such as “Until It’s Time for You to Go”, “Up Where We Belong” and “Still This Love Goes On” to serious protest songs like “Universal Soldier”, “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone”, “The War Racket” and “No No Keshagesh” –has constantly evolved, blending and transcending genres. Although she says she’s influenced by all music, she admits to being crazy about Tchaikovsky and Little Richard and identifying closely with the emotionally unbridled vocals of Edith Piaf and Carmen Amaya.
“Those let ‘er rip styles feel very natural to me. Singing powwow is nothing like the honey-and-lemon sing-your-scales approach of ‘official’ music. We sing all night, no problem,” she says. “I’ve also listened to a lot of old Delta blues men tell their stories. That’s what I like, no matter where or when it comes from. Real emotion, unique entertainment.”
Over the years, Sainte-Marie has channelled her boundless energy and creativity into more than just her music. For a number of seasons, she shared her warmth and wisdom with millions of children as a regular on Sesame Street. She is also a talented multi-media artist whose deeply meaningful and visually arresting works hang in galleries across Canada and the United States.
“It’s just another kind of fun: same brain, different tools. Believe it or not, I’m not some purposeful scholar making art with a goal in mind. I’m like a kid: I’m playing with colour, sound, light, melody, line, contrast, harmony, reflection, rhythm, repetition. All the elements of basic design,” she explains. “I’d do the same thing playing in the sand at the beach.”
This same attitude is also reflected in Sainte-Marie’s openness to using innovative technologies of the day to create her art. In 1969 she released the world’s first quadraphonic vocal album, Illuminations, which also marked the beginning of her experimentation with electronic sounds. In 1984, she began creating her digital fine art collection using the earliest version of MacPaint on the first Macintosh computer. In 1991, she recorded the first-ever album delivered using the internet: Coincidence and Likely Stories.
Still performing at age 80, Sainte-Marie’s talent, unique artistic vision and extraordinary bravery in the face of adversity have won her a passionate and loyal following across the country and around the world. With more than 20 albums to her name, she has seen her music covered by hundreds of artists – including Elvis Presley, Neil Diamond, Barbra Streisand and Cher.
Sainte-Marie has received many accolades, including appointment as a Companion of the Order of Canada, multiple JUNO and other awards – among them, an Academy Award for co-writing the hit ballad “Up Where We Belong” for the movie An Officer and a Gentleman – and, now, her own commemorative stamp.
Although she is honoured by such recognition, she confesses that the achievements that mean the most to her are her educational and philanthropic efforts. She is particularly proud of seeing two of her early scholarship recipients go on to become the presidents of tribal colleges. And, she hopes that her Cradleboard Teaching Project – which has developed a curriculum that teaches core subjects such as science, history and geography through Indigenous eyes – will be embraced in Canada, as it has been in parts of the United States.
“It’s like trying to gather water in a lace curtain. Our histories, the health of our communities and our capacities to survive the present onslaught of challenges have all been disjointed, like chicken parts rendered for the fryer,” she says. “We each deal with it in our own ways, and for me, scholarship, creativity and public outreach is the path for both my gift to others and my way of healing myself from life’s little bruises.”
Her advice to up-and-coming Indigenous artists?
“… you can develop endlessly, continually challenged by new issues but also refreshed by new creativity, knowing that the world may be naive about something to which you have the key,” she says. “Let’s see you aim your personal sunshine on the collective apple; take a shot at ripening us along.”
New stamp honours renowned singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-MarieAvailable now