Buffy Sainte-Marie On Giving Back, Indigenous Rights

OTTAWA, ON – JULY 01: Canadian singer Buffy Sainte-Marie performs during Canada Day celebrations at Parliament Hill on July 1, 2017 in Ottawa, Canada. (Photo by Mark Horton/Getty Images

26 May 2021 | Steve Baltin | Forbes

(on…) May 27 at 7 PM EST, the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame (hosted) a virtual conversation between Jewel and Buffy Sainte-Marie, Yes the same Canadian legend who is the first Indigenous person to ever win an Academy Award (in 1983 for her work writing on The Officer And A Gentleman theme song, “Up Where We Belong”).

Though Saint-Marie is aware many in America thought she disappeared after being blacklisted by then president Richard Nixon for protest songs such as “Universal Soldier,” she is still speaking out loudly and proudly. And she is enjoying a well-deserved reemergence in the public consciousness thanks to a new biography, by Andrea Warner, with a foreword by Sainte-Marie’s longtime friend Joni Mitchell.

Speaking with Sainte-Marie is an incredible experience. At 80 years old she is vibrant, enthusiastic, passionate and, most importantly, still a tireless advocate for Indigenous rights and the human race.

I spoke wither her over Zoom about her start in the Greenwich Village music scene, her childhood and finding her musical voice after being told she would never be a musician.  

Steve Baltin: I understand you just had an Academy Awards event.

Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Academy now has a museum and they have my award in the museum. And they’re doing a whole thing on people who’ve broken various so-called glass ceilings and I guess because I’m Indigenous I was the first Oscar winner from an Indigenous background. Now we have two, Wes Studi won an honorary award (laughs). So that’s good. I get to be the first.MORE FOR YOU

Baltin: But I’m sure it’s also nice to have company.

Sainte-Marie: It is. It’s pretty lonely when you’re the only one for 30 years or more. Wes’ honorary award is very much well deserved. He’s just been a great actor for a long time, so I was glad for him. But it’s hard. I should say, we didn’t invent show business (laughs). There are very few of us on the scene. It’s not as though we grow up in business families where you’re seated at the table and your dad is in the business and your uncle is a lawyer, your other uncle knows somebody. There is no Indigenous music industry. Hundreds of thousands of people in what we’ll call a white music industry. And hundreds of thousands of people in what we’ll call a black music industry, a lot of people in the Latino industry. We’re not there yet. We’re a very, very small population.

Without getting into issues of genocide, at this point there aren’t very many of us. And yet we have a very talented community, especially in Canada. I don’t know a whole lot about the U.S. as compared to Canada, where my family is from. And because of what happened in the [Lyndon] Johnson and [Richard] Nixon administrations. I kind of disappeared from the scene in the U.S. So people probably thought I retired or quit or died or something (laughs). And although I was appearing on Sesame Street and all, all of a sudden things changed for me.

But not in the rest of the world. So Americans are quite surprised to learn that someone they had thought of as the little Indian girl from the ’60s who’ll make you cry, they are sometimes quite surprised to realize my career didn’t end when they lost track of me. So I’m really kind of in the thick of it in Canada and in some other Indigenous places in the world, but in the U.S. it’s just not the same. And that’s something I think we need to address. Black Lives Matter is, thank god, addressing a lot of things that have been systemic for a long time.

And marginalized people have been aware of it for a long time. But when it comes to majority people, people who are in the front seats and on boards, they don’t really have a clear picture of what it’s like to be continually outside. People just don’t think of it. But like I said there is no Indigenous music industry or film industry at this point. But that’s why we’re here, we’re here to change that and grow that. But there are a lot of talented people so hopefully more and more Indigenous artists, directors, producers, makeup people, all of the crafts will be showing up better represented than we are now.

Baltin: Because you didn’t grow up with role models has it always been important to you to be a role model?

Sainte-Marie: You’re starting in the middle. You have to understand before I won an Academy Award I had already been around for decades as they say. Are you aware of The Virginian? So that was in the ’60s and in the ’60s I was invited to take part as a lead role in The Virginian. We talked about the script and they said they’d make the script a little bit better. But I said, “If you want me we have to make sure all of the Indigenous roles are filled by Indigenous people.”

If you watch The Sopranos the doggone thing is so good because everybody involved had the true experience of living in that community. So the people at The Virginian explained to me that they had great makeup people, their makeup people are so good they could make a dog turn into a cat. But I said, “No, it’s not just a matter of makeup and costumes and fooling white people that we’re after here. We’re after giving moviegoers an actual real experience that they can’t get elsewhere. And it’s absolutely appropriate.” So Joel Rogosin and Leo Penn, Sean Penn’s dad, agreed.

And it was the first time a movie had used Indigenous people to play Indigenous people. And that’s what started it. The Academy Award didn’t start it, we were already working on it, making these things happen. But look at the difference. The Academy Award is, you can’t think of a bigger, better spotlight for something like this. But the real core of the story is we had been working towards these things in small communities however we could. Indigenous resistance to erasure and misrepresentation is not new. It’s been going on for a very, very long time.

Baltin: Was there a moment in childhood where you decided the arts were the life you wanted to pursue?

Sainte-Marie: It’s a little bit backwards for me. Because adopted kids, especially Indigenous adopted kids, or kids who are adopted across some kind of cultural line, it’s different for us. For me, there were two important things from my childhood that really made a difference to me and carry through to this day. My life is a little bit of a spiral, I keep coming back to the same things, but each time it’s a little bit different. For instance writing protest songs — wrote them in the ’60s, the ’90s, now. But each time it’s a little different. So in my childhood I was told that I couldn’t be a musician. And that made me cry. I failed music class in school all the time.

And I would come after that and I’d play fake Tchaikovsky and Mozart and anything I’d hear on the radio real good. The reason I was told I couldn’t be a musician in school was I couldn’t learn how to read European notation. So what I was failing was not music, it was music class. And I was shunned and shamed with that. And yet I would go home and reality was, “Heck with that, I can already play.” So I had these two things. I had the world up here telling me, “You can’t because you can’t do it our way.” And then I had my own reality, which was more fun than anything I had ever imagined. “I could do it!” So same thing with Indigenous issues.

If you’re growing up in New England in the ’40s nobody around you knows anything about Indians. And I was told, “No, you can’t be an Indian either cause there aren’t any more. There might be a few in Arizona or one of those places, but no.” So my mom, who was a wonderful person, said, “I can’t tell you too much about music or about Indians because we weren’t told very much in our family.” So I had those two things in my life and they’re still in my life. So I’ve experienced, and Andrea Warner, who wrote the biography, pointed out to me about erasure and I had never really thought about it that way, but I think she is right. And the erasure of Indigenous people is something of course we’re aware of it all the time, but it’s not talked about. So it’s only lately that it’s becoming a conversation. So I experienced erasure, or attempted gas lighting, from a very young age as a musician and as an Indigenous person. And what my mom said was, “You can grow up and go out and find out for yourself.” So I think that’s really what’s gotten me through all these years of experiencing that over and over again.

Baltin: How did all of that negativity influence you musically?

Sainte-Marie: When I first started out in show business in Greenwich Village everybody was supposed to be singing Woody Guthrie songs. “This land is your land, this land used to be my land,” is what my friend Charlie Hill used to say (laughs). I just wasn’t a part of that either. But I think what I have is balance. I think what the experience of everybody saying, “You are impossible” on two counts, that kind of double experience let me know sometimes the world just doesn’t know.

And I became a teacher. I majored in Oriental philosophy and religion at University of Massachusetts, but I also go my teaching degree, And I’m a teacher. So when I would go out onto a stage in Greenwich Village just as a young kid out of college to play the songs I’d been writing all my life and then I would sing to the girls in my dorm there weren’t other people like me. I was writing about things that were original to myself cause I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know any folk songs, but that’s what the music business was selling at the time. So I showed up as a newcomer, I was very green. And I made a lot of show business mistakes. I gave away the publishing for “Universal Solider” for one dollar (laughs).

That was me. Even “Up Where We Belong,” I think people are very surprised to find out that an Indigenous woman had anything to do with “Universal Soldier,” “Up Where We Belong,” “Until It’s Time For You To Go.” I think it’s surprising to people because in show business you almost need someone running interference for you, like a publicist, to let the world know what it is that you’re doing. And I wasn’t in that stable, I wasn’t in the Albert Grossman stable. I didn’t have a high-power manager, I wasn’t connected to the system. When I went to Greenwich Village I had never met a lawyer or a businessman. So I was really, really green.

Baltin: So now all these years later what was the biggest lesson you learned?

Sainte-Marie: What I discovered, this has to do with money and smarts, education, trying to move things forward. What I did with that leftover show business money is I started a scholarship foundation. Because I had discovered that Indigenous people in general, there weren’t enough of us. There was nobody serving our educational needs.

And I realized Indigenous people didn’t know how to negotiate the path from high school to college. They didn’t know what to do, how to apply for a scholarship, there was nobody in their community to help them. So I started a scholarship foundation. My proudest moment was not that Academy Award, it was when I found out maybe 40 years after the fact that two of my early scholarship recipients had gone on to be the founders and presidents of tribal colleges in their community.

So what it did was it let me know that that somebody like me could do some little small thing for someone else and the someone else will magnify it and maximize it into something that I never would have dreamed possible. So how good is that? To have a long career, to make little gifts when you’re young and learn much later that they worked out just incredibly because of other people.


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