Story by Chris Ryall
“I do a lot of things and to me it’s all the same brain but different tools.”
Describing what Buffy Sainte-Marie does for a living may depend on what she is up to that day or even hour. Most people know her as a world-renowned and award-winning musician and performer with a successful career spanning more than 50 years. That would just be the start. She is also a visual artist, philanthropist, songwriter, and indigenous community activist and educator. She has been active in promoting awareness and protecting the rights of the Native American and First Nations communities in North America.
Her activism and protest songs like the anti-war “Universal Soldier,” prompted former US presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon to blacklist her with some DJs refusing to play any of her music back in the 1970s and ’80s.
Despite such obstacles, Sainte-Marie through has helped thousands of Native Americans and First Nations people in reaching their life goals and careers with various foundations and scholarships. That outreach starts with the children. Sainte-Marie even appeared as a regular on “Sesame Street” for five years and in the process educated the general public about Native American culture. She has received honorary doctorate degrees from several Canadian universities and the University of Massachusetts.
Sainte-Marie’s songs have been covered by superstars such as Elvis Presley, Neil Diamond, Barbra Streisand and Celine Dion. Through mixing pop and aboriginal, she developed the Powwow Rock genre. An innovator, Sainte-Marie began expressing herself through digital art in 1984, years before the term was popularized. Sainte-Marie is one of the featured artists in the “Art is Art” exhibit at the Ottawa Art Gallery as part of the Juno Week celebrations.
During the awards ceremony on April 2, Sainte-Marie will be honoured with the 2017 Allan Water Humanitarian Award. This award recognizes her long-standing commitment to protecting indigenous communities and indigenous intellectual property.
Music, art and activism provided an opportunity to satisfy another passion — travel. Born on the Peapod Plains Cree First Nation Reserve in Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan, Sainte-Marie was adopted and then moved to Massachusetts. She now enjoys Hawaii’s lush mountain scenery where she has lived for decades. Still recording and playing at 76 years old, her passport continues to be stamped in countries around the world as she spreads her message through songs and art.
Vacay.ca recently interviewed Sainte-Marie about her activism, music, Canada, travels and the latest award she will be receiving.
VACAY.CA: What does the Junos’ Allan Waters Humanitarian Award mean to you?
Buffy Sainte-Marie (BSM): That’s pretty humbling. Considering all the other people who have received that award, I can’t say that I feel like the most qualified, but I’m very grateful.
VACAY.CA: What originally inspired you to play an instrument?
BSM: When I was three I saw a piano and I found it made noise. I loved it. I was a kid in solitude because there was a lot of bullying in the neighbourhoods where I lived, and in the house as well, so I was a solitary kind of kid so piano and paper and music and dancing — that’s what I would do at home. Nobody had to teach me, I taught myself. I got my guitar when I was probably 16 and that made the music portable, and that’s what was so exciting, because now I could take my guitar with me into my room, or to the woods or to my friend’s house or later on the road.
VACAY.CA: You’ve been very active since the 1960s in educating the indigenous community. Have you seen a significant change from when you first started in the ’60s and today?
BSM: I’m optimistic, because I’ve seen so much change within the Native American communities and the First Nations communities in Canada. Little by little we’ve made great changes — not only by ourselves, but in some cases with the help of non-aboriginal people too. There has been a lot of change, but not nearly as much as needs to happen. In the ’60s, I wrote a song which was the first real public acknowledgement using the word “Genocide” about the North American holocaust. People did not used to believe that it had ever happened. So now, with Truth and Reconciliation, for an educator like me, it’s a dream come true just to have people understand what actually happened, and why aboriginal people are in these states of poor health and poverty, which for most people is their daily life. But there’s so much more that needs to be done.
VACAY.CA: Technology in your music and visual art has played a big role. How did that evolve?
BSM: I got into technology in the ’60s when I was in my twenties and nobody wanted to know about electronic music then, so I was way ahead of everything. In a way it was good because it was an open field and I got into scoring music, using electronic music and I had made the first-ever totally electronic quadraphonic vocal album called “Illuminations.” Folk music people, they didn’t know what to do with it, but electronic music students and art students, they recognized it for what it was. I didn’t learn about technology from some guy at IBM, I found out about technology by sticking wires into holes and seeing what kind of noise it made. As a musician, I don’t read music, I’m illiterate and dyslexic in music, so as hard as I try, I can never learn how to read music, although I can write for an orchestra and when I read it back the next day, it’s upside down for me.
VACAY.CA: What do you love most about Canada?
BSM: The national parks and animals. There are some beautiful national parks. I want to go to Whitehorse and Yukon. I like dog sledding. I like to get on a sled with four dogs and a bunch of other people who also have dog sleds and ride around in the wilderness.
VACAY.CA: What is your favourite place to visit in Canada? Why?
BSM: I love Algonquin Park. For cities, I love Toronto. I’ve been going back and forth to Toronto since the ’60s. It’s hard to get a bad meal whether it’s some place that doesn’t cost a lot but it’s wonderful like The Papaya Hut on Yonge Street or all the different ethnic restaurants are amazing. I think Toronto is a wonderful city. I’d love to record there — it’s full of great musicians and I think Toronto has a really good attitude. We tend to be self-deprecating and complain about Toronto but I like it.
VACAY.CA: What would be a dream destination for you?
BSM: I would either like to go to India or South America and visit all the ancient sites that pre-date the Mayans and the Incas. There are thousands of years of other civilizations and it’s hard to study them and I’d like to go there.
VACAY.CA: What’s a favourite destination?
BSM: One of my favourite destinations is Guatemala. I love to visit the Mayan villages in Guatemala and the people are really nice. There’s a lot of artists and lots of indigenous everything.
VACAY.CA: Since you are a Visual Artist does art draw you to a destination?
BSM: I’m more interested I think in culture and people and the art that they make but I’m not a person who goes to Paris and spends hours going to see the great masters. I tend to be more interested in things I haven’t seen before. I like discovering more than reviewing.
VACAY.CA: When you’re travelling for fun, what do you like to do?
BSM: I like to wander around and discover, meet people and engage in conversations. One of the great blessings of my life and of being a musician is that I get to travel. It’s something I’ve learned how to do well, because I enjoy it. I’m always impressed that the world works at all—every time I’m sitting on a runway, I’m saying, “Oh, my gosh, look at all the people it took to make this happen.”
VACAY.CA: Do you have an item you always take travelling?
BSM: I do have a favourite purchase and a thing I like to travel with. It’s called a Komfort Kollar. It’s not like those toilet seat-shaped, bean bag neck pillows at all — it has a strap across the front so your head won’t fall to the side or forward and wake you up. So that is my number one tip for people travelling and a little light blanket.
For more information about Buffy Sainte-Marie visit her website. www.buffysainte-marie.com.