She grew up close to where I grew up. I knew so little about her. She has fascinated me with her grace and no nonsense approach to life. A friend attended classes with her in Amherst. She always spoke her truth and I loved that. Recently, I have discovered more her depth. She is a prolific song writer and so much of her work has been done by many popular artists. The fact that she was the artist who wrote the songs is often overlooked. I knew and admired her activism but not the extent to which she had composed and written music.
There is so much to say about her, but I have tried to condense some of the high points of her amazing life here. Now in her 70’s, this vibrant and beautiful woman is still making art and advocating.
Beverly “Buffy” Sainte Marie was born on February 20, 1941( or maybe 1942), on the Piapot 75 reserve in the Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan, Canada. She was orphaned as an infant when both of her parents died. She was adopted by Albert and Winifred Sainte-Marie who lived in Wakefield, Massachusetts. The couple were of Mi’kmaq descent, but her upbringing was completely white. She grew up in the wilds of Maine loving the woods and music, both were her escape. She began to play piano at the age of three, teaching herself, and guitar shortly after that.
She relates that her childhood was abusive. "It had been going on for generations where native children were removed from the home," Sainte-Marie says. "What happens to children who are kind of lost in the system like that, they're assigned a birthday, they're assigned kind of a biography. So in many cases, adopted people don't really know what the true story is.” Hence the confusion around her actual birth date.
By the time she was in high school, she was playing in clubs, using her own unconventional tunings. She had no intention of making a career in music but an appearance at an open mike night at Greenwich Village’s Gaslight Cafe brought her to the attention of critics and record companies. By the end of 1963, she had given up her plans to become a teacher and was being hailed as one of the most promising talents on the New York folk scene. Another Indian folksinger, Patrick Sky, taught her to play the traditional native-American instrument the mouth bow, which became a distinctive part of her sound, along with her unique guitar style and her sometimes strident, sometimes delicate vibrato-rich voice. She moved from the coffeehouse scene to appearing at Carnegie Hall, in also in New York, in 1965.
Shortly after Sainte-Marie began singing professionally, she came down with pneumonia. Unwilling to give up performing, she took codeine to ease her symptoms. The illness persisted for six months, and she became addicted to the drug, recovering only after a painful withdrawal; she also came close to ruining her voice. She wrote of her addiction in the song “Cod’ine.”
She attended the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, earning degrees in teaching and Oriental philosophy. While she did not enjoy her early school life, she graduated in the top ten of her class from the University of Massachusetts. Her career in music had taken off but through the Cradelboard Teaching Project, she did manage to teach and continues to do so today.
As that career rose to prominence she was often mentioned in the same company as Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, but she made a different career choice. Her authorized biographer, Andrea Warner, says she was not looking for fame, money, popularity or sex that many other musicians were. “She had different dreams,. She had this goal of bringing truth to her music and talking about indigenous realities. It really struck me that her dreams weren’t coming true and that’s how she’s continued to advocate, resist and write these songs that have so much power, so much meaning and so much capacity to change the world.”
Buffy is an Oscar winning composer, singer-songwriter, musician, visual artist, educator, pacifist and social activist. In all of these areas during her career, she has focused on issues that affect the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Through her singing and writing she talks about love, war, religion and mysticism. She has won wide recognition, awards and honors for her music as well as her efforts in education and social activism.
When she returned to the Piapot Cree reserve in Canada for a powwow, she was welcomed and according to Cree ways, adopted by the youngest son of Chief Piapot, Emile Paipot and his wife, Clara Starblanket Piapot. They helped Sainte Marie know the value of her native culture and its place in her life. This was a huge influence in her development and something she had been searching for.
She appeared on Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest in 1965 and in several Canadian Television productions from the 60’s to the 90’s. American broadcasts included American Bandstand, Soul Train, the Johnny Cash Show, the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. She sang the opening song, “The Circle Game” (written by Joni Mitchell) the film The Strawberry Statement in 1970. She appeared in Then Came Bronson and Mating Dance for Tender Grass. She and her son Dakota, were regulars on Sesame Street for over five years. She appeared on Democracy Now in 2015.
I wondered why for a while she had not been heard from. This may explain it. In 2008, in an interview at the National Museum of the American Indian, that she had been blacklisted by American radio stations and she along with other Native American activists in the Red Power movements were pretty much put out of business in the U.S. during the
During an interview in 1999 at Dine College for Indian Country Today she said, “I found out ten years later, during the 80’s that President Lyndon B. Johnson had been writing letters on White House stationery praising radio stations for suppressing my music…In the 1970’s not only was the protest movement put out of business, but the Native American Movement was attacked. The blacklisting and attacks were allegedly led by Presidents Johnson and Richard Nixon, FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, and Nashville disc jockey, Ralph Emery. Sainte Maris says, “I was put out of business in the United States.”
"Buffy has sort of mapped a lot of her life experiences through her songs," Warner says. "She's given us an incredible map for hope."
A few of her original works:
Broke Down Girl, 1965, covered by Penny Lang
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, 1992, covered by Indigo Girls
Cod’ine1992, covered by 22 other artists
Guess Who I saw in Paris, 1969, covered by 2 artists
He’s an Indian Cowboy in the Rodeo, 1972, covered by 2 artists
I’m Gonna Be a Country Girl again, 1968, covered by 11 artists
Johnny Be Fair, 1965, covered by 6 artists
Little Wheel Spin and Spin, 1966, covered by 3 artists
Main Theme from an Officer and a Gentleman, 1982, (Buffy and Jack Nitzsche) covered by 68 artists
Moonshot 1972, covered by 2 artists
Now that the Buffalo are Gone, 1964, covered by 4 artists
Qu Appelle Valley Saskatch, 1976, Covered by Red Box
She Used to Wanna Be a Gallerina, 1971, covered by 2 artists
Suffer the Little Children, 1969, covered by Morrissey
Summer Boy, 1967, Covered by Veda Hille and the CBC Radio Orchestra
Take My Hand for Awhile, 1968, Covered by 13 artists
Tall Trees in Georgia, 1968, Covered by 2 artists
The Dream Tree, 1969, covered by Jenny Hoyston’s Paradise Island
The Piney Wood 1965, covered by 6 artists
The Universal Soldier, 1963, covered by 30 artists
Timeless Love, 1965, Covered by Ed Ames
Until It’s Time for You to Go, 1965, covered by 127 artists
Winter Boy, 1966, covered by 2 artists
For further reading I suggest, Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography by Andrea Warner, 2018. Also, If you don’t know her music…LISTEN!
There is also a really good documentary on YouTube, Buffy Sainte-Marie A Multimedia Life The Documentary