40 at 40: Buffy Sainte-Marie discusses what we weren’t ready for in 1988

It’s fitting that we’re launching a series of 40 memorable NOW covers with Daryl Jung’s April 14, 1988 cover story on Buffy Sainte-Marie. Throughout her lengthy and varied career, the Oscar-winning Cree singer/songwriter/artist/author has personified what NOW has stood for. She is, as Jung writes, “a global citizen with a strong sense of human rights and a belief in the power of love.”

Catching up with her more than three decades later on Zoom from her home in Kauai, Hawaii, the Saskatchewan-born Sainte-Marie radiates energy and enthusiasm. She reread the cover story and wanted to clarify a few things. For the concert in 1988, Rob Yale was the man playing the Fairlight, and the album she was discussing turned out to be 1992’s Coincidence And Likely Stories.

“I never recorded Children Of Another World, which is a wonderful song,” she says. “But this album included songs like Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, Starwalker, The Big Ones Get Away, Fallen Angels and The Priests of the Golden Bull – so it turned out to be pretty major. It turned into something even better than what I had anticipated or that [Daryl] was able to write about.”

Her descriptions of those songs in the story (“they deal with polarity and trying to bridge the gap between ourselves and other people – whether the other person is different racially or politically or emotionally”) sound familiar, so I ask how she feels about our current political moment.

“Bad leadership is nothing new,” she says. “It’s like termites. If it’s your first time experiencing this, you’ll suddenly realize that for many years the termites have been chewing at your house. They’re always going to come back.

“About every 30 years, even though the last war was supposed to put an end to all wars, we get another war, because another group realizes there’s money in it. I think it’s just something the human race has to grow out of and into something new. It’s very sad what’s been going on in the U.S.”

As for the evolution of Indigenous issues and rights since 1988, she says one of the most significant events was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission looking into the effects of the Indian Residential Schools system.

“My song My Country ‘Tis Of Thy People You’re Dying is on my latest album, which is all activist songs, called Medicine Songs. But I first recorded it in 1965. And back in 1988, when NOW put me on the cover, I don’t feel as though people were ready for it then. I wouldn’t have performed it then because there just wasn’t enough background. When I first put out that song, people thought, ‘Oh, the little Indian girl must be mistaken.’ It was total gaslighting because they didn’t know. But now more people do. Whether you’re talking about recent events in the U.S. or global issues or local Indigenous issues, the good news about the bad news is that more people know.”

She’s keen to talk about lots of other Indigenous initiatives she’s involved with. There’s a recent post on CreeLiteracy.org exploring her song My Country ‘Tis Of Thy People You’re Dying, complete with a Cree translation and explanation by Solomon Ratt and annotations by Sainte-Marie.

Besides being on the board of the Downie Wenjack Fund, she’s been working with Harriet Visitor – one of Chanie Wenjack’s nieces – to help teach the science of Indigenous musical instruments.

She helped found the Creative Native Project at Ryerson, which teaches youth how to get into the arts as a profession. And she wants to signal boost Tracee Smith’s Outside Looking In program, which, among other things, brings hip-hop choreographers to reserves to teach dance as an accredited subject.

And then there are the Indigenous musicians who’ve come after her, like A Tribe Called Red, Tanya Tagaq, Lido Pimienta, Snotty Nose Rez Kids, Crystal Shawanda and Susan Aglukark – “so many artists who have been patient while the world’s ears ripen to hear their music.”

This week, Sainte-Marie is taking part in The Elements Of Story at Canadian Stage, a discussion on how three particular books have shaped her life. In her home she has two libraries – one for Indigenous books, magazines and papers, and another one for general books. Plus she has downloaded thousands of audiobooks.

“If I get on the plane in Hawaii and I fly to Toronto, I’ll stop in a bookstore while waiting for a plane and buy a book, and if I like it I’ll buy the audiobook, too, or the other way around. I began watching The Queen’s Gambit on TV recently, and liked it so much I bought the audio. I’m hungry for both information and entertainment.”

She’s not revealing what three books she’ll be discussing at the event, but she will say two of them are “short, somewhat famous and have been made into movies. And the third is a very, very heavy book about an unknown subject I think everybody ought to read. It certainly ought to be in college libraries and Indigenous studies programs, but so far it’s not.”

Give it a few years, and with Sainte-Marie’s endorsement, likely it will. 

– Glenn Sumi

Check back every Monday morning for a new 40 at 40 cover story marking NOW’s 40th anniversary year. Below is Daryl Jung’s cover feature on Buffy Sainte-Marie, republished from our April 14, 1988 issue.

Politics temper tunes of the heart

Buffy Sainte-Marie’s 60s protest songs still cast the longest shadow in her prolific career but it is her love songs, recorded and performed by scores of other artists, that have paid the bills and, in the case of the theme song for An Officer And A Gentleman, earned her an Oscar.

Not just a political artist, the singer with the relentless vibrato sees herself as a global citizen with a strong sense of human rights and a belief in the power of love. Aside from the imminent release of a whimsically political pop album, Children Of Another World – her first LP in 10 years – her main venture is supporting Jesse Jackson for president.

“Politics are definitely a part of my life, like my right arm is a part of my body,” says the direct and charming, Saskatchewan-born Sainte-Marie from her home on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, where she lives with composer/producer Jack Nitzsche and her 11-year-old son, Dakota Starblanket Wolfchild.

“But politics are not all there is to my writing or what’s in my head. Songs like Until It’s Time For You To Go and Up Where We Belong are the way I look at love. And songs that are about Indian affairs and the world political situation are also part of my nature and concern me very much.

“All I can say is that I have as wide a range of interests as anyone, and I write from all those different points of interest. So my music is, and always has been, quite varied.”

Regardless of the success of hits like Until It’s Time, Universal Soldier and Lay Down, Sainte-Marie has kept a low profile of late, resisting playing anywhere in North America except native reservations – concerts that came to be known as “medicine shows” rather than pop concerts.

“I have never really made it ‘big’ in that sense. I’ve always been more naive on the business end than rebellious. Performing exclusively on reservations for so long was not a career or anti-career decision. I just can’t resist playing on reservations, because it needs to be done. There’s nobody who goes to reservations and provides fun and entertainment.

“It’s hard work, the sound systems can be disheartening and the travel can be difficult. It’s not like flying from Chicago to Detroit. You’re going from Nova Scotia to a reserve 100 miles north of Yellowknife. It can take three days to come and go from a concert. And it costs a lot of money. But it’s what I really want to do.”

Women’s songs

Her enigmatic career has brought her to Toronto again and again in the 20-plus years since she played Yorkville’s legendary Purple Onion. But few of those visits were as close to her heart as this weekend’s benefit concert for the Native Canadian Centre – billed Ezhinagamwad Kwewug (Ojibway for songs or music of women) – where she and pal Salome Bey hit the stage together for the first time.

“For the past several years I’ve been doing annual Christmas concerts at the Toronto Native Centre, which I think is the best in North America. I’ve been involved with the centre since the very beginning. I used to go and hang out there, like everybody else, and I’ve watched it grow into a very nice facility involving really excellent art, not to mention outreach programs for people coming out of reserves who need connections and friendship.

“The folks there came up with the idea of the concert with Salome, and I think it’s a very good one. I’ve always admired her, and I think it’s very nice for her audience to hear me, and mine to hear her.”

And she was also as keen to record a new album after her extensive hiatus, with an updated approach to songwriting that is evident in her new compositions.

“To me it’s a startling escalation of a compassion that I’ve always felt, but never to this degree. The Iran-Contra hearings blew my mind. I haven’t stopped writing since all that came up, because I was impressed by people I never knew could impress me because they are so completely different from myself politically. I’ve always very naively looked down my nose at hawks. And I’ve realized that that has been a failing in me spiritually. The album is about what I’ve found within my own heart – an ability to empathize with someone who is completely different from myself.”

Raised in Maine and educated at the University of Massachusetts, Sainte-Marie began singing her tunes solo in 1962, at New York clubs like the Bitter End and the Village Gate. Venue mythology notwithstanding, she rebelled against being pigeonholed as a “folk singer” early on, and resisted what she considered the encroaching frivolity and regalia of the hippie culture.

Sesame stint

Buoyed by a Billboard award for best new artist, and the beginning of a long association with folk-pushing Vanguard records in 1964, she continued to sing her songs, and then bit off some fame with the 1969 success of her maudlin Until It’s Time For You To Go – recorded by over 200 artists, from Bobby Darin to Sonny and Cher and Elvis Presley to the Boston Pops.

Her career simmered in the early 70s. In 1976 she and her son started a five-year stint on Sesame Street. It was a segment that instructed mothers and children on the realities of childcare from both viewpoints. She stopped recording then to spend time with her son.

She quit Sesame Street citing Ronald Reagan’s arts funding cuts. With original funding, the show was able to travel to Hawaii and the reservations. But the new budget prohibited travelling, and the roaming kids’ show was forced to establish itself in New York. Sainte-Marie was unwilling to make that move, settling instead in the 50th state.

Sainte-Marie’s next round of work saw her appearing in Torontonian Doug Cameron’s video, Mona And Her Children, with Seals and Crofts, and singing on the soundtracks of the films Starman, Jewel Of The Nile and 9 1/2 Weeks. For her live shows she goes all out – in her Toronto concert she’ll employ 10 synthesizers, two computers, live bass and drums and a Fairlight played by local musicians.

“A lot of the new songs I’ll be doing will be coming from the new album,” she says. “And they deal with polarity and trying to bridge the gap between ourselves and other people – whether the other person is different racially or politically or emotionally.

“I feel that in order to put an end to war in the world you have to put an end to the war in the human heart. That takes understanding, and most of us don’t have much these days. We’re just name-calling and ‘them and us-ing,’ as human beings have always done. But we don’t have to do that. We can do better.

Pop messages

“Some of the songs are dealing with addiction. Not drug and alcohol addiction so much as money and power addiction, or whatever pleases our selfishness and gives us a kick that separates our selves from other people and makes us think we are better than they are.

“But I’m doing it in the context of love songs, so it’s sort of a new form. I haven’t heard it done in pop songs from this kind of lyrical standpoint. The songs are saying things very softly to someone who might be unwilling to listen – like a dove singing to a hawk.

“What I’m aiming for is to reach a lot of people. Some of the things I want to say are real important and I’m trying to say them in a way that’s exciting to listen to. The songs aren’t preachy at all. My most successful songs have been simple, yet clever in their simplicity. I want things to make sense on a lot of levels.”

Returning to familiar Toronto turf, Sainte-Marie may unload a local grievance while in town.

“Racism in the schools of Toronto is a big thing with me. It’s just not getting any attention. Without going into great detail, I just want to let people know that there’s a racism in the public and private schools that is not being addressed. Racism where, for example, a part-Indian girl in Ajax has to sit in a school room and listen to a lesson about homelessness and how homeless people drink in order to keep warm. This is supposed to explain why Indians are alcoholics.

“It’s tragic when a child has to listen to that, and then come up against a system, in a brutal way, when she tries to complain. People ought to know about this, especially when the principal backs up the teachers. Among the good teachers in Toronto, there are some who may not feel they are racist, but carry an insensitivity into the classroom that is destructive and cruel for all kids. And as long as it is subtle, and people look the other way, we will continue to need to address it.

“It bothers me a lot when a child’s racial identity, or creative identity, is snuffed out at a young age because of thoughtlessness on the part of the teachers. I don’t think it is a kind of a Ku Klux Klan type of racism, but we can do a lot better.”


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