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Buffy Sainte-Marie: Singer-songwriter is an activist at heart

After a 60-year career, Buffy Sainte-Marie recently announced she is hanging up her performing clothes for health-related reasons.

Most articles feature Sainte-Marie, now 82, as a musician. However, apart from her creativity, her motive as an activist is usually overlooked. In my research and book, I have examined her commitments and the context she emerged from.

Greenwich Village, 1963

Sainte-Marie was born on Piapot First Nation in Saskatchewan but was raised in Massachusetts and Maine after she was adopted. When Sainte-Marie found her way to Greenwich Village in New York City in 1963, she had already developed an interest in her Cree heritage, wondering why American Indians seemed relegated to museums.

As a university student and budding singer, she created striking ballads including “Now that the Buffalo’s Gone,” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying.” Although the 1960s was an era of social awakening, it was unusual for a woman, let alone an Indigenous one, to be performing songs of such a candid nature examining these issues.

Sainte-Marie’s folk songs were melodic but hard-hitting, and her interest was not confined to Indigenous people.

Anti-war, involvement with American Indian Movement

Her popular anti-war song, “Universal Soldier” was penned after encountering wounded men in an airport who were returning from Vietnam.

She realized a lot of attention was being paid to the cause of Black people and legacies of systemic oppression affecting their communities, but little to the long-standing grievances of Indigenous Peoples.

By the late-1960s, the American Indian Movement (AIM) was gaining national attention. Sainte-Marie worked closely with AIM leaders including Dennis Banks and John Trudell, using her public profile to attract funds.

The artist was involved in the 1978 Longest Walk and occupation of Alcatraz in 1969.

She witnessed the hardships and heartbreak of activism when her friend Anna Mae Aquash was murdered in the chaos that followed the Wounded Knee Occupation of 1973.

Multi-faceted commitments

Sainte-Marie’s activism was multi-faceted, including protest songs, speeches, demonstrations, fund-raising and supporting reservation-based initiatives.

With her lucrative income from recording, she created a scholarship to enable promising young leaders to attend university. Some of those people emerged to become tribal leaders and college presidents.

Another project, the Cradleboard Teaching Project, which continues to today, reflects the artist’s enduring interest in education.

Cradleboard produces original Indigenous-based curriculum in areas as diverse as science and sports. It has connected classrooms from places like Hawaii, Saskatchewan and Arizona via the internet.

Resisting violence, repression

The murder of Sainte-Marie’s friend Aquash was a blow. In this same period, she found her music was disappearing from the radio waves.

She believed she was just a victim of changing tastes, until she discovered the Lyndon Johnson White House had demanded radio stations drop her music, a fate suffered by other activist singers such as her friend Taj Mahal.

In fact, the singer and songwriter’s popularity was as strong as ever, and her fans were wanting more.

She needed a break from music. But it was not long before her creativity found new outlets.

‘Up Where We Belong’

The Mac computer had recently come out, and Sainte-Marie quickly became fascinated with its palette of millions of colours.

She began creating digital art: painting with light, minus the labours of mixing paints and cleaning up. She combined digital and photographic techniques to produce very large canvases. Many works focused on Indigenous themes while others evoked nature.

Another opportunity knocked when Sesame Street invited her to contribute Indigenous content. Her son Cody was born soon after, and Sainte-Marie took the opportunity to promote the healthy practice of breastfeeding, in what has been considered the first depiction of breastfeeding on television.

Additionally, she found a path to winning an Academy Award. Her then-husband, composer and arranger Jack Nitzsche, was searching for a theme song for the movie An Officer and a Gentleman. Sainte-Marie stepped in with chords that resulted in “Up Where We Belong,” which won Best Original Song in 1983.

Pioneer of contemporary Indigenous music

Sainte-Marie finally found her way back to her first passion of songwriting and singing. Her more innovative and rock-sounding tunes included “Starwalker,” often referred to as a First Nations anthem.

Other songs such as “Priests of the Golden Bull” are virulently critical of today’s mainstream society with its greed and inequality. For her role in pioneering contemporary Indigenous music, Sainte-Marie was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.

She has continued to make appearances up until now, inspiring multiple generations. She had vowed to make music and perform for as long as she was able and has generated a fruitful career that is hard to rival.

I doubt that this is the last we will hear of this acclaimed artist and activist. The internet now provides many new avenues with which to reach one’s audience. Sainte-Marie knows how to leverage this technology, and I am certain we will continue to feel her presence.

This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. The Conversation is trustworthy news from experts, from an independent nonprofit. Try our free newsletters.

It was written by: A. Blair Stonechild, First Nations University of Canada.

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A. Blair Stonechild does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.