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Herstory 30: Buffy Sainte-Marie Pushes You To Be Your Culture

Herstory 30: Buffy Sainte-Marie Pushes You To Be Your Culture


Biding Our Own Time

We’re all too often used to hearing about the passing of a musician at a young age. We seek out their limited body of released work and analyze until we start the cycle again. It’s much more of a rare occurrence to get to take our time with an artist and grow alongside them. For the case at hand, a career spanning well over 50 years is a singularity. Joining one of the many multi-hyphenated artists that we’ve highlighted throughout this series, Buffy Sainte-Marie’s involvement reached not only music but social activism, visual art, and education. Here we take a look at her unwavering legacy.

The Blending of Two Drums

Buffy Sainte-Marie was well known in the folk music community. Among her peers (i.e. Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Janis Joplin), Buffy was one to experiment with bridging traditional styles of music from her indigenous background along with the contemporary rock and folk music of the ’60s and ’70s. Dubbed “Powwow Rock”, Buffy used some of the singing techniques she grew up with some of the musical styles of the time to transform the way that people thought about utilizing your culture alongside your art form.

Buffy Sainte-Marie performing the only known televised version of an untitled song dubbed “Fancy Dancer”.

A Tale Across Nations

Born Beverly Sainte-Marie on the Piapot Plains Cree First Nation Reserve in the Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan, Buffy was born in the winter of 1941. Being adopted by Albert and Winifred Sainte-Marie (based out of the U.S. state of Massachusetts) allowed Buffy to gain lived experience in neighbouring countries throughout her upbringing. 

At an early age, Buffy taught herself the piano and guitar, quietly building a repository of songs that by the time she began university, she’d already written a few of her most notable songs. Exploring the scene in both Canada and the United States, Buffy honed in on what worked in the approach of a budding music career. Fortunate for us, this bound together elements from her First Nations background with the folk, rock and electronic music. Themes surrounding environmental exploitation, indigenous realities, and greed took a central place for audiences to hear the realities of communities that have been historically erased.

In the mid-1960s, Buffy encountered a group of U.S. soldiers returning from Vietnam. At this point, the government claimed to not have any involvement in any conflict in Vietnam (at least publicly). This would be a contributing catalyst to Saint-Marie writing “Universal Soldier”, a song that would be used as one of many international anti-war anthems for decades to pass.

Buffy Sainte-Marie performing one of her biggest anti-war anthems “Universal Soldier”.

In the video, Buffy hints at the trouble the song caused by the U.S. government. The crowd laughs it off casually, but the background behind this is more involved than most people realize.

Years later, Buffy was interviewed as part of the Native Writer’s Series at the National Museum of the American Indian. In the brief clip, she speaks of uncovering that several government officials (including Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon) and their staff had pressured various TV and radio outlets to keep her and other indigenous and black artists from being broadcast. This made it much more difficult to gain any strong traction in the U.S. market and lent more of a focus to Canada and internationally. But the business markets aren’t everything. The frustration was more to do with the messages that those artists were intentionally being silenced.

“Protest songs are good, they’re important, and they talk about a problem…But there are other activist songs which don’t have a label, but they can enlighten and liberate, inform, motivate or otherwise encourage solutions.”
 — Buffy Sainte-Marie

From her album Up Where We Belong.

Buffy Is A Changing Womxn

I never thought I would last, I thought every record would be my last album, I wasn’t a careerist. I wasn’t planning on having a career.
 — Buffy Sainte-Marie

The plan was never to have a long-standing career in the music business. However, the world had other ideas. Buffy struck a chord with audiences worldwide that needed to hear what she had to say. 

With the foresight that things within the industry would eventually change, Buffy kept note of the emerging indigenous community that she would get to share the landscape with. She wouldn’t have to be the exception. But this expanding space heeds its own warnings. She once noted that it was likely to run into “racketeers wherever the money is. If you get honey, you’ll get ants. If you’ve got blood, you get sharks. And if you get money, you get racketeers in every business that there is, including the music business”.

Now at the age of 78, Buffy has not shown a hint of slowing down. Having released her most recent album, Medicine Songs in 2017, Sainte-Marie demonstrates that her work and engagement are nowhere near its end.

Thanks for reading! This blog series is brought to you by Solidarity in Sound, an educational platform for the global, music community.

For our Herstory Lessons blog series
we're retelling the stories of womxn in music that have been misheard, mislabeled, or erased completely from our history books.

If information looks incorrect, please let us know! When we're retelling stories that are left out of our history books, finding info can get tricky. We want to make sure we're portraying these stories as accurately as possible!

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