Making musical medicine for our times

By Cece M. Scott

Buffy Sainte-Marie, 77, is one of Canada’s most beloved and iconic folk singers. A gifted songwriter, visual artist, and educator, (with a degree in philosophy), Sainte-Marie is a gentle, positive activist. Always a disruptor of the status quo, her anti-war song, Universal Soldier, garnered Sainte-Marie the label of ‘protest singer,’ a designation she disputes. “Of the hundreds of songs I have written, only a half-dozen are protest songs,” she says.

With more than 50 years in the music business, Sainte-Marie’s list of achievements and awards is extensive. She was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1995, the same year she became a semi-regular on Sesame Street, sharing stories of Indigenous people, (and raising eyebrows as the first woman to breastfeed on television).

In 1982, Sainte-Marie became the first Indigenous woman to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song, Up Where We Belong, (with Jack Nitzsche and Will Jennings, for the movie An Officer and a Gentleman). She received Juno awards for her albums, Running for the Drum, 2009; Power in the Blood, 2015, (she also won the Polaris Music Prize, that same year); and Medicine Songs, 2018. She is an inductee in the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, 2005, the recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal, 2002, the Diamond Jubilee Medal, 2012, and the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award, 2010.

As a child, the Cree singer, and Saskatchewan native, endured some tumultuous and traumatic years. Losing her parents when she was an infant, Sainte-Marie was adopted by Albert Sainte-Marie, and his wife, Winnie, who moved off the reserve, first to Maine and then Massachusetts. There were years of mistreatment and bullying from a brother and an older male relative, including verbal and psychological bullying, and physical and sexual abuse.

“While I was going through the worst parts, I kept thinking that nothing lasts forever, not even abuse,” Sainte-Marie says. “Sometimes it was a matter of becoming small and hiding inside, staying quiet in the storm, knowing when not to fight back.”

An unshakeable belief in her Creator kept Sainte-Marie centred and inspired her to both survive and flourish. “I’ve always believed in my own inner connection, the Creator,” she says. “I have a lot of patience; I know how to wait for the wave, how to work the surf, without giving up on the world. Sometimes you have to carry the Medicine for a long time before the disease hits, and it’s useless to scatter it around before its time. It is a Gandhi kind of love.”

By the time she was 3-years-old, Sainte-Marie was playing the piano, a feat notable not just because of her age, but also because she was dyslexic in music symbology. “I couldn’t learn European notation,” she says. “But after school I’d go home and play fake Tchaikovsky on the piano, by ear. Randy Bachman calls it a phono-graphic memory.”

After a stint playing for her college housemates at the University of Massachusetts, Sainte-Marie headed to New York’s famed Greenwich Village, the epitomic folk mecca of the ‘60s. She was also a presence within Toronto’s Yorkville scene, and in fact, finished writing Universal Soldier in the basement of the Purple Onion coffeehouse. That song, along with others that questioned U. S. political motives, (especially around the Vietnam War), were key factors in getting the singer blacklisted by both the Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon administrations.

And while Medicine Songs, Sainte-Marie’s 2017 album, addresses many of the same issues she wrote about in the ‘60s and ‘70s- war, oppression, inequality and greed- the current songs certainly get more air play than they did in the earlier decades.

“It’s like the play is the same but the actors are new,” Sainte-Marie says. “My activism is not about scolding anybody; it is about trying to be effective. We are each evolving. We are supposed to mutate into something better and smarter, little by little, all the time. My main message these days is, people shouldn’t fear reconciliation.”

The singer, a biblio-holic and amateur astronomer, lives on a farm in Hawaii with her tribe of goats and one cat. She attributes her energy and her ability to combat the jet lag that is a part of her gruelling touring schedule, to how well she eats, (mostly vegetarian), ballet and flamenco classes, zero alcohol and her connection to her Creator. “We are made in the Creator’s image,” Sainte-Marie says. “That’s our green light for creativity. We create our songs, our families, our communities, our friendships, our lives.”

Cody, her son with Sheldon Wolfchild, is also integral to Sainte-Marie’s sparkling vitality. A musician in his own right, Cody plays keyboards and makes his own music. “I’m so proud of him,” Sainte-Marie says. “He’s an original, with his own style of activism.”

You Got To Run, (on the Medicine Songs album), is a call by Sainte-Marie for people to get involved. “You’ve got to run for a cause, or run for politics, or run your own life,” she says. “You might be worth more than your neighbours are aware of; but you have to put it out there.”

To that end, the singer is working with the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund, to provide safe spaces for Indigenous youth. She is also working with Canadian colleges on new initiatives through her Nihewan Foundation. “Many of us are serious about applying effective methods in order to make things better. This isn’t new: positive resistance to oppression has been going on for a very long time,” Sainte-Marie says.

The singer’s appeal, which is generational, is fostered by both her love of music and life in general. “There is a lot I like about the world and it shows up in what I give back. I focus on keeping my nose on the joy trail,” she says.

A book on Sainte-Marie, Buffy Sainte-Marie, The Authorized Biography, by Andrea Warner, (Greystone Books), was released this September. Buffy Sainte-Marie’s work is in the permanent collections of the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum, First Nations University, and the Tucson Art Museum, and other galleries throughout North America.