Buffy Sainte-Marie
Biography: Native Issues

As a college student in the early 1960s Buffy Sainte-Marie became known as a writer of protest songs and love songs. But unknown to most of the mainstream public, she was even then spending as much time around the drum with her uncles at a small Indian reserve in Canada as she was in front of a microphone on the concert stages of the world. Today, in 2009, her latest CD Running for the Drum wins a Juno Award, a maturing of the same unique core ideas that have motivated this artist from the start.

It was startling in the Sixties to hear anyone speak out publicly concerning corporate land grabs of Indian land; the fact that the speaker was a woman was even more startling, especially that, on the side she was also writing hit love songs which were being recorded by mainstream artists. Buffy Sainte-Marie's songs have been performed by hundreds of artists including Barbra Streisand, Elvis Presley, Courtney Love, Neko Case, Willie Nelson, Tracy Chapman, Janis Joplin, Bobby Darin, Donovan, The Highwaymen, and Quicksilver Messenger Service. Early on, Buffy was signed to Vanguard Records, and her first album "It's My Way" led to her being named Best New Artist by Billboard Magazine in 1964. "Now That the Buffalos' Gone" was singled out in both Europe and North America for its Indian content.

Today Buffy Sainte-Marie still sits around the powwow drum, now with her nieces and nephews, and still makes consistent and joyful efforts to bring the power of Native artistry... traditional, pop, country and classical... to the attention of the world.

The North American folk-scene in the sixties was a mixture of preservationist-purists and originality. There was no Native American category in popular North American 'folk-music', and Buffy fell into the category of original. The few real folk songs she performed were chosen for their uniqueness. Having written "Universal Soldier", one of the anthems of the 60s peace movement, she was nonetheless absent from the big mass protest marches, in favor of shedding her light on Indian rights and environmental issues, which she still does today. Her musicianship was and is a reflection of her curiosity about sound. She strung and tuned her guitar all sorts of unusual ways and played a mouthbow, which relies on harmonics and a remarkable ear. But what Buffy Sainte-Marie has always really been about is songwriting. She was the first one to combine together into one song, both the Indian elements and the mainstream elements of her music, her languages, and her observations. She came up with the concept of Powwow Rock in 1975 and has since seen the concept evolve exponentially throughout Aboriginal music communities worldwide.

Nativebeat Magazine, (Canada) whose June 1993 issue features Buffy on the cover, says:

“There is only one Buffy Sainte-Marie. In the Native community, she is our Elvis and our Madonna, standing at the uppermost peak of stardom and success, and showing children of the world a side of Native people they rarely get to see, as regular folks.”

Still, in the U.S., like other activists of her generation, she faced discrimination and censorship. Her latest (and strongest) record is a hit in Canada and Europe, but most Americans have no idea it's even out.

Throughout the 1960-70s she did countless concerts on reservations, where depression and poverty were rampant, as well as benefits throughout North America in urban Indian areas. "I saw amazing people burning out from painful issues, who needed to have a good time, so I brought them upbeat shows, color, fancy clothes, a good band, and songs that helped to focus on Indian issues, including the beauty of our own people. I combined powwow singing with guitar, keyboard, bass and drums. But White people didn't really get it then and Black people hardly ever heard it."

During this time she wrote "Generation", "Native Northamerican Child", "Indian Cowboy" and other up tempo songs that for a few moments provided Native American audiences respite from problems and a boost in Indian self-identity. In the early seventies, these songs, as well as the amazing "Starwalker" which has since become an anthem for indigenous people worldwide, were well-known to Native people; unknown in the mainstream, for whom the quick fad of hippy Indianism was replaced by disco.

"I've had a career as an Indian artist on the periphery of show business," she says. "The early sixties was a rare time for students and minorities. It's like a window was open for just a couple of years, when originality was not only tolerated but encouraged. The coffee houses that strung across the college towns of America and Canada provided a safe, hip, wired atmosphere of caffeine-heads, homemade music, and ideas. Everybody and his sister played the guitar, and writing songs was as common as driving a car. It was an adventure for a kid just out of college, who had never met a lawyer and knew nobody who'd ever been in the music business. I'd travel on the bus usually, show up for a weekend booking, get held over for a few weeks, playing 2 or 3 shows a night to people who just loved to listen. It was like having a family in every college town in America. In my off time, I'd go to the nearest reservation, doing benefits with the National Indian Youth Council, the Native American Committee, or later with the American Indian Movement, ducking bullets from time to time, but mostly just trying to make things better, like everybody else. My contribution was in raising self-esteem through the arts and drawing focus to the issues within the Indian communities."

Buffy really had two careers at the same time. Mainstream people watching the Tonight Show weren't hip enough to know or care about her life on the reservations or the front lines of Native rights; and most of the reservation people lived lives removed from coffee houses and college concerts.

The songs she wrote were varied. Today most American music students would probably think of her as a writer of protest songs; however, her huge successes, which allowed her to remain an artist, were her love songs, "Until It's Time for You to Go", and "Up Where We Belong" in particular. She had a string of country hits as well including "The Piney Wood Hills", “I’m Gonna Be a Country Girl Again” and "He's an Indian Cowboy in the Rodeo". She wrote and sang the title song from the worldwide number one worldwide hit movie “Soldier Blue”, but it was taken out of American theatres soon after its release because of its truthful content about Native American genocide at the hands of colonials. The protest songs she wrote were scathing, pointed. There is no counter argument against "Universal Soldier", "Now That the Buffalos' Gone", "My Country 'Tis of Thy People You're Dying" or "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee". They are irrefutable history lessons in four-minute packages. However, Buffy's pop love songs were shining a bright light on her, and, she has been told, she became a target.

"Everything changed when Lyndon Johnson started censoring artists of whom he disapproved. By the middle sixties, music business interests had gotten control of the scene, in my opinion. Coffee houses which had started out as free speech platforms of student opinion found themselves hassled and in tax trouble. The coffee houses that survived did so by reopening with liquor licenses. Alcohol is a different scene from coffee; so is the music, so are the words, and so is the crowd. The 'Mamas & the Papas days' were not the same as the 'Phil Ochs days'. Artists not under the protection of powerful management had different experiences from those who were insulated from White house censorship. Ask Eartha Kitt or Taj Mahal."

Buffy began noticing that her concerts would be standing-room-only, but her records wouldn't be in the stores. She blamed the record company, who swore they shipped the records. Air-play disappeared, in spite of well-attended personal appearances. The Tonight Show, who had always welcomed her, made a special point of instructing her not to sing about Indian rights, not to even talk about Universal Soldier, just to bubble and be nice. By the 70s she was spending most of her time in Europe, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, Japan. The only places in the USA she continued to play consistently were Indian reservations. Around 1980, disk jockeys began coming forward with apologies for having gone along with Lyndon Johnson's letters commending broadcasters for having suppressed her music and that of others who "deserved to be suppressed".

"I was very surprised to learn about this," Buffy says now. "My music had continued to develop in its own way, and I had figured I was just too weird for America, which was becoming very conservative. Powwow rock, mouthbows, passionate vibrato, high-heels, Indians, protest songs, electronic music: too much for some people." She quit recording in 1976 when her son was born, to be a mommy and an artist, and to continue as a student of experimental music. After sixteen years away from recording (during which she won both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award), she made Coincidence and Likely Stories, at home in her basement and the reviews were full of praise, especially from Indian country.

In 1967 Buffy had made the first ever totally electronic vocal album, and has continued to cut across racial barriers and musical stereotypes, scoring movies and blazing a trail through electronic music throughout her life. On "Illuminations" she learned about the Boucla Synthesizer. She then got into working with a Serge, and scored films, creating some of the earliest electronic soundtracks. She and her friend Jill Frazer who built and played a Serge were playing before huge European music festivals using the prototype silver trapazoidal Roland MIDI guitar. She was multi-tracking mouthbows in the classic film "Performance", Mick Jagger's first movie in the early 1970s. In the late 70s she was working with a Fairlight and a Synclavier.

When the Macintosh computer came out in 1984, Buffy was at the head of the line. Today her digital home studio is as personal and hands-on for her as a guitar was in the 60s. In 1989 she made the very first digital album to be delivered via the fledgling Internet, sending her music files from her studio in Hawaii to her co-producer Chris Birkett in London, England. The two had never met but the result was Coincidence and Likely Stories (Ensign-Chrysallis-EMI). Sainte-Marie and Birkett paired again in 1996 and co-produced Up Where We Belong for EMI, which won her a Juno Award. Her latest CD, Running for the Drum, is as intense and diverse as her albums always are, with big love songs, acoustic gems, powwow rock, and some of the hippest electronic dance songs out there. In March of 2009 Running for the Drum won a Juno for Best Music of Aboriginal Canada. Her video from that album is called No No Keshagesh. Her bio-documentary Buffy Sainte-Marie: a MultiMedia Life is packaged together with the CD Running for the Drum. Order online through www.buffysainte-marie.com.

September 2009: Buffy Sainte-Marie is inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame.

Buy Album: Running for the Drum
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"Some will tell you what you really want
ain't on the menu.
Don't believe them. Don't believe them.
Cook it up yourself and then prepare
to serve them.”

from Jeramiah © Buffy Sainte-Marie