Born on the Piapot Plains Cree First Nation Reserve in Saskatchewan, Buffy Sainte-Marie was raised by adoptive parents in Massachusetts, earned degrees in Oriental philosophy and education (and, later, a Ph.D in fine art) and embarked on a six-decade career as a singer, songwriter, teacher, activist and philanthropist. The Oscar-winner’s songs challenge long-accepted viewpoints, especially in her depiction of Indigenous/Aboriginal/Native American history. On the eve of her 80th birthday, Buffy Sainte-Marie spoke to PKM’s Benito Vila.
“And my belly is craving
I got a shakin’ in my head
Feel like I’m dyin’ and I wish I was dead.”
Any addict can relate. And there’s no doubt in those words. The writer, Buffy Sainte-Marie—who turns 80 this month—also wrote the melody to the most hard-to-get-out-of-your-head Hollywood song, “Up Where We Belong”, the theme for An Officer and A Gentleman. Sainte-Marie’s creative talent first came to be known to a wider audience on the 1960s Greenwich Village folk music scene. Vanguard Records, who had launched the careers of The Weavers and Joan Baez, was impressed enough to sign her to her first recording contract. Sainte Marie’s 1964 debut album, It’s My Way!, brought songs of Native American dignity, codeine addiction, sibling incest and moral responsibility to record players in dorm rooms and teen bedrooms across the country, all under the guise of “folk”, with Eisenhower-era parents “not-getting-it”.
Regardless of whether anyone back then “got it,” there’s no denying the reach of her music. Her love songs have been covered by a who’s who of international music. “Until It’s Time for You to Go”, from her second album, Many a Mile, became a hit for Bobby Darin, Elvis Presley, Neil Diamond and the U.K.’s The Four Pennies, and has been recorded by the likes of Cher, Roberta Flack, Barbra Streisand and Chet Atkins.
“Until It’s Time For You to Go,” performed live on BBC-TV, 1971:
Her most famous political/protest song, “Universal Soldier”, asks its listeners––as a collective and as individuals––to take responsibility for the killing-machine mindset of soldiers everywhere and points out “this is not the way to put an end to war”. Released on It’s My Way!, “Universal Soldier” became a hit for Donovan in 1965, who’s popularity then carried the song around the world just as the Sixties’ youth-based peace movements were starting to take form.
Buffy Sainte-Marie talks about how she wrote “Universal Soldier,” then performs the song:
And while Sainte-Marie’s “Cod’ine” mimics the drink-is-my-ruin sentiment found in folk-blues, its words are a personal story and a warning, an anti-drug song covered by Janis Joplin, The Charlatans and Quicksilver Messenger Service, and, later, Courtney Love and Gram Parsons.
Many of Sainte Marie’s songs challenge long-accepted viewpoints and narratives, especially in her depiction of Indigenous/Aboriginal/Native American history. Her outspokenness on Native American rights led the Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon administrations to blacklist Sainte-Marie, limiting her radio airplay and restricting her American touring even as she grew in popularity in other countries.
Adopted from a Cree tribe in Saskatchewan at an early age, Sainte-Marie was raised in Maine and Massachusetts, the somewhat “different” daughter of a largely White, Euro-American family.
Her 2018 authorized biography, Buffy Sainte-Marie, by Andrea Warner, reveals the racial abuse and the sexual violation she had to contend with as a child, which led her to find refuge in nature and reading. An attraction to music and writing buoyed Sainte-Marie and kept her afloat in circumstances that are not easy to read or describe. In the late 1950s, good luck, and a friend in New York City, brought her to DJ Alan Freed’s live rock ‘n’ roll shows where she saw Chuck Berry, Little Richard, JoAnn Campbell, The Platters, LaVern Baker, The Everly Brothers and Fats Domino perform, long before they became mainstream names.
Sainte Marie’s 1964 debut album, It’s My Way!, brought songs of Native American dignity, codeine addiction, sibling incest and moral responsibility to record players in dorm rooms and teen bedrooms across the country, all under the guise of “folk”, with Eisenhower-era parents “not-getting-it”.
Explosive show business success, and the too-much attention that came with it, fueled Sainte-Marie’s desire to escape the spotlight. A concert in Honolulu in 1966 led her to explore the Hawaiian Islands, and she’s lived there ever since, caring for a menagerie of rescue animals: horses, dogs, cats and goats. Her mid-Pacific home has not kept Sainte-Marie out of work or quelled her creativity. In 1989, she began recording the first album to be produced via the Internet, using CompuServe to trade MIDI files with a producer in London. Curious about computers and synthesizers as they were being developed, Sainte-Marie created one on the first techno-driven pop albums, 1969’s Illuminations, the first quadrophonic vocal album ever recorded.
Her other firsts include being the first Native American cast member of Sesame Street and the first woman to nurse her baby on TV, casually demystifying breastfeeding for Big Bird and his viewers.
Buffy Sainte-Marie on Sesame Street:
Sainte-Marie was also the first Indigenous person to win an Academy Award (for “Up Where We Belong” as Best Original Song in 1982, a collaboration with songwriter Will Jennings and, then-husband, music producer Jack Nitzsche).
Sainte-Marie’s relationship with Nitzsche was unexpected and tumultuous. The brilliant and volatile composer, the great grand-nephew of the brilliant and volatile German philosopher Freidrich Nietzche, and a contributor to the early success of both the Rolling Stones and Neil Young, pursued her. As she said in a recent Broken Records podcast with Rick Rubin, “Jack was on good behavior.” But that behavior didn’t last, and in looking back at their seven-year marriage in her biography, Sainte-Marie says, “Sisters, it was not worth it. Please, don’t go through it; it’s not worth it. Your sacrifice or martyrdom to Bluebeard means nothing. God is not giving out points for women’s service to bad men. You have a brain: use it. Find a safe way out, find support, make a plan, and escape. Survive. Don’t put your beautiful heart under the thumb of some monster who thinks your love can heal him. It can’t. It’s sad, but it can’t.”
That’s the honesty and clarity Sainte-Marie’s fans have come to know her for. Whether it’s in talking, writing and singing about the highs and lows of love, the need for cultural understanding or the power of education. She’s known within the entertainment industry that way, too. Music agent, Eliot Roberts, took Sainte-Marie’s advice and launched the recording career of Joni Mitchell, and TV director Leo Penn did things “Buffy’s way” by finding and casting Indigenous actors for “Indian” roles when that seemed impossible.
Few things in Sainte-Marie’s life have ever worked out according to her “plan”. She left the University of Massachusetts, looking to go to India and continue her studies in Oriental philosophy, but found herself in Greenwich Village instead. Fittingly, our interview didn’t go as planned either. I sent Sainte-Marie press-agent-approved, music business questions, about her 2020 pet adoption book, Hey Little Rockabye, about her life, her songs and her playing the mouth bow (an instrument that looks more like a tool for an arrow than for music), but we quickly got off-track. If there are two words to describe Buffy Sainte-Marie, they’re teacher and student.
God is not giving out points for women’s service to bad men. You have a brain: use it. Find a safe way out, find support, make a plan, and escape. Survive. Don’t put your beautiful heart under the thumb of some monster who thinks your love can heal him. It can’t. It’s sad, but it can’t.”
PKM: You’ve been described as a counterculture singer. How do you define “counterculture”?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: I don’t think about it very much. Artists are either ahead or outside of the status quo. Our work sometimes gets denigrated because it disturbs the pecking order, especially when the cops-in-charge suddenly don’t know where to stand within the new idea that an artist comes up with. I’ve learned that there are times you have to carry your medicine a long way before other people realize that it’s needed. And I’ve also learned there’s a difference between an artist and somebody who happens to be in show business. Those are two different realities. There’s the show, and there’s the business. Many artists really don’t want to have much to do with the business. We wind up in the business. Starting as an artist, we just happen to see things a little differently. Again, sometimes we’re ahead of the time. I’ve had a whole lot of projects be ahead of the time, and I had to wait until the times ripened to a point where they needed the song. People go, “Oh, my god, that’s great.” It’s something I wrote 30 years ago, but just wasn’t time to present it. I write what comes into my head. If it’s counter or something, well, that’s somebody else’s language.
And I’ve also learned there’s a difference between an artist and somebody who happens to be in show business. Those are two different realities.
PKM: How do you define the words “folk”, “artist” and “protest”?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Folk songs are non-professional songs written from inside a person, but outside the music business––they’re like wild flowers, as opposed to Big Ag. Artists, to me, are born that way, and it can’t be taught. I’ve never been able to sight-read music. I’m self-taught, and––like some people are about sports or about business––I love to do it and I can’t stay away. Protest songs, like “The War Racket”, describe problems, but there’s another kind of protest song, with no name yet, like “Carry It On”, which are about solutions. Maybe those should be called “activist songs”.
PKM: What drew you to folk music in the early ‘60s?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: [Laughs] I’m a songwriter. I wasn’t a folk singer. I’m a songwriter, who happened to go to Greenwich Village in the ‘60s, and the record business was selling folk music. They said I was a folk singer, which was fine with me. As a matter of fact, once I started traveling, spending time hanging out with other musicians, I got to understand what folk music was. And there were genuine folk artists around––Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Ewan MacColl. They were singing songs that had lasted, songs that were 300 years old. I sang some of those. For me, it was just fun. I was an outsider. I was a person who had written songs from the time I was three. I started off listening to Tchaikovsky, and fell in love with rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll through the Alan Freed shows when I was a teenager. Then I took my own songs to college and Greenwich Village. It was folk music time. That’s how come people started calling me a folk singer. Once I was there, I liked that music, too. But I like a lot of different kinds of music. On my first album, I had a song that I sang in Hindi, a song from India, and I wrote songs that nobody was writing about Native Americans. Nobody ever gave the first thought to Native American stuff then. They were barely recognizing the Black issues, let alone Native American issues.
You’re asking me about folk music. People perceive I know something about folk music––they always ask me questions about folk music––and, hell, I don’t know. I was a philosophy major with a teaching degree. I was coming from outside, I wasn’t accepted by those guys. Songwriters were not accepted during the early folk music days. You were supposed to do your own research and…[pause]…and be like Pete Seeger. He was a real folk singer. Pete Seeger researched the folk music of the Appalachian Mountains, and he was a friend of Woody Guthrie. That’s what you were really expected to be like. Pete Seeger had a television program for a while. On one show, where Bob Dylan was singing Woody Guthrie and Joan Baez was there, they asked me to sing along to “This Land is Your Land”. They didn’t understand why I would object to that. I said, “I don’t want to sing it,” and they said, “No, no. You got to, you got to”, so I stood on the stage with everybody else at the finale, but I wasn’t singing. What I’m trying to tell you is that there was no Native American consciousness then. Years later, maybe a year or two before he passed away, I explained all this to Pete Seeger. He finally got it. He didn’t understand at the time that the entire world of so-called folk music was just unable to see us and kept insisting that we sing, “This Land is Your Land”. This used to be my land. That was the take on that that Native Americans had. It took a long time for even somebody as wonderful as Pete Seeger to understand that some of us don’t come from Main Street and yet we’re expected to act that way in show business.
On one show, where Bob Dylan was singing Woody Guthrie and Joan Baez was there, they asked me to sing along to “This Land is Your Land”. They didn’t understand why I would object to that. I said, “I don’t want to sing it,” and they said, “No, no. You got to, you got to”, so I stood on the stage with everybody else at the finale, but I wasn’t singing.
Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest television show, 1965, featuring Buffy Sainte-Marie, who arrives at the 9:42 mark:
PKM: What will it take for people to have a consciousness of Native American culture?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: A whole lot more experience. When I was first singing in coffee houses, I was singing things, like the song my first album called “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone”. That was a song about the building of Kinzua Dam in upper New York state. They were flooding the Seneca Reservation and evicting all the people. In order to do this, the U.S. government unilaterally broke the oldest treaty in the Congressional archives, a treaty written in the time of George Washington. Nobody saw anything wrong with that until I started speaking up about it and singing that song. As a teacher, I wasn’t singing the song to embarrass anybody or to put anybody down. I was trying to offer people something new that they couldn’t get from anywhere else. Instead of trying to be a second-hand Joan Baez, I had my own thing going. I was trying to give people something unique, and I’ve always been trying to cover the base that nobody else is covering. For me, that was what I could give people, and I gave it to them in a good spirit. And I wasn’t trying to give them the information in an enema. I don’t believe in scolding an audience and making an audience feel bad just because I’m on stage and they’re not. My trying to offer information that people couldn’t get anywhere else, dovetailed into activism, even when the folk people of those times weren’t showing up.
Nobody ever gave the first thought to Native American stuff then. They were barely recognizing the Black issues, let alone Native American issues.
There were people who were showing up and supporting what I was doing, and they did that well into the ‘70s. Muhammad Ali was one of them. He and Ken Norton did a 14-round exhibition bout. Dick Gregory came to my reservation. There were a lot of African-American people who were supporting us, but we’re a tiny minority compared to the White music industry, which is huge, or the Black music industry, which is huge, or even the Latino music industry, which is huge. We don’t have one. We’re just a little bit over 1% of the population in North America. What will it take? It takes a lot and whether it will ever be properly understood, especially in a good way, I don’t know. It’s been uphill so far and I think it will continue to be uphill, not because anybody’s against us, but because we are a very small minority. It’s a big world, there’s a lot of information and everybody competes for column space.
PKM: Did you awaken to your Indigenous roots as an adult?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Partly. I was raised, basically, in a White town. I was adopted and raised in Maine and, later, Massachusetts. In the town of North Redding, Massachusetts, there was only one other Indian person and he was a mailman. I was told in school that not only I couldn’t be a musician because I couldn’t read music, but I also couldn’t be an Indian because there weren’t any anymore. That’s the way it was. My teachers told me, “Oh, there are some in Arizona maybe, but they’re all gone from around here, so you must be mistaken.” I have a whole history in my life of being told that, that I’m mistaken, for instance, when I would sing songs like “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone” or “My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying”. The information I was giving was so new to audiences that the attitude was usually, “Oh, the little Indian girl must be mistaken.” That racism was really, really there. I felt it as a kid. My mom told me not to believe the Cowboys-and-Indian movies. She was real smart. She was an autodidact, self-taught. I don’t think she ever finished high school, but she worked at a newspaper and, later on, at book companies as an editor. She was a real reader and she prepared me. She told me that what you hear about many things in life, including Indians, is not all there is to know. When I grew up, I could find out about the world and that’s what I did.
Muhammad Ali was one of them. He and Ken Norton did a 14-round exhibition bout. Stevie Wonder and Dick Gregory came to my reservation. There were a lot of African-American people who were supporting us, but we’re a tiny minority compared to the White music industry, which is huge, or the Black music industry, which is huge, or even the Latino music industry, which is huge.
When I started traveling, I was connected with Cree people in Saskatchewan who may or may not be my relatives. They took me in and became my new family. I’m still very, very close to them. Throughout my life, throughout my travels, when I would go to an Indigenous part of the world––like when I was in Sweden or Norway––I’d do my concert in Oslo or Stockholm and then go up north to spend time with Sámi people, the Indigenous people from Scandinavia. They educated me. When I’d go to Australia, I’d hang out with Aboriginal people and they’d educate me. It was finding out firsthand from real people, as opposed to going to school and trying to read out-of-date, maybe not-so-accurate history books. I’ve learned firsthand what I care about, what other people care about and that’s how you do it. You learn from other people and from your own personal experiences. At the University of Massachusetts, I was majoring in oriental philosophies and I realized there was no such thing as a native studies program. I had to learn first person, and, later on, in the late ’60s, I used to spend time with the National Indian Youth Council in Washington, D.C. They taught me a lot. I was in my late teens when I found I wanted to know more and I realized there were some things that I could learn through books, and the rest I would have to learn by knowing people. That’s been very rewarding as a scholar. What I wanted wasn’t on television. It wasn’t in the education system. But, like most things, if you go looking because you want to, you usually find. I’ve been lucky enough to find.
PKM: How does the Native American community regard going from 100% to 1%?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: I don’t know how much in-depth you want to get on that question, but I could go on for a very long time on it. It’s taken 500 years.
PKM: How does that happen, without feeling angry?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Sometimes you do feel angry, but how you express your anger is what’s important, at least for me. Like I said, I’m not trying to hurt anyone. There are people who write protest songs, who go on television and are so angry in making their point that they drown the baby. You talk about throwing away the baby with the bath water…well, they just get so angry that they hurt their audience. They seem vindictive. That’s really not what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to give people information. I think that any success that I’ve had has been because, probably because, of that attitude. I am a teacher. I did teach first grade and I do teach in colleges. I don’t believe in being angry at people for not knowing, and a lot of the problem comes from people not knowing. Ignorance has kind of a nasty tone to it, but what it really means is that you just don’t know. Most Americans––black ones, brown ones, white ones––most of them have never had a chance even to know. With my songs, whether they’re exciting and happy rock ‘n’ roll, or whether they’re protests and laying out the facts that are sometimes tragic, I’m giving people information that’s real hard to find. Often people start to get interested after they come to hear me sing some pop song, some anti-war song, because maybe they’ve never heard anybody talk about Native American culture. I’ve seen people get turned on because of the music and go on to learn more things.
Serial killers on the thrones of Europe is what happened to Native American people.
PKM: How do you describe the patriotism of your people?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: I’d never use that p word in connection to Indigenous people anywhere. But I would say “matriotism”, with an m. Instead of trying to live up to the patriarchal values of the Roman Empire, it’s a personal, first-hand understanding of Mother Nature being our source and destiny, the Sacred Feminine, the Holy Spirit, who is ultimately in charge. Our sense of leadership consists of drawing out a consensus of opinion and using that to make decisions––together.
PKM: How do you describe what Indigenous people have had to overcome since the Europeans arrived?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: That’s not something you’ll read in a book. When it comes to those who’ve been educated in the European system––white or brown or black, or whoever––they’ve learned through European eyes. European eyes are not the same as Indigenous eyes, thank god. And when I’m talking about that education, I’m talking about 500 years of American education. It’s basically recycled European dogma that has more to do with the elites from Europe from many, many years ago than it has to do with us here. We didn’t go through the Judeo-Christian-Muslim crusades. We didn’t go through any of that hatred. We never went through the Roman Empire. We never went through the serial killers who were on the thrones of Europe. But that’s when we were discovered and nobody ever talks anybody that. In 1492, who was on the thrones of Europe? It was Ferdinand and Isabella, who were running the Inquisition. That didn’t last just for a few months, that thing went on for 700 years. They were turning each other upside down, filling their bodies with lead. The serial killers of Europe. We never ever even think of them like that. Who was on the throne in the late 1400s and early 1500s when European explorers start running around the world? Who was on the throne in England? It was Henry VII and Henry VIII. Historians estimate Henry VIII alone murdered over 40,000 people. And why? Because he could. Because nobody stopped him. Who was on the throne in Eastern Europe when we were being discovered? It was Vlad the Impaler. That’s Dracula. That’s what happened to Native American people. Serial killers on the thrones of Europe is what happened to Native American people.
The slave trade in Native America was about bodies, especially those of women and girls. It happened a whole generation before the son of Christopher Columbus wrote to the King and Queen of Spain, requesting Africans be imported into the Americas. You never even hear about the Native American slave trade. Hundreds of thousands of people branded on the face and sold into slavery throughout the Caribbean just in the first few years, five million Indigenous people taken into slavery in all. Sold into slavery in the Middle East and in the Philippines, in Holland, in France, in England, in Scandinavia. All over Europe. Nobody even knows about it. We continue to struggle today with missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, especially in Canada, and it’s starting to be a well-known issue in the U.S., too. It has never stopped, but people aren’t aware of it. People don’t realize it. In South Carolina, in the early 1800s, there were more indigenous women being exported than there were African slaves being imported. If any of your readers are scholars enough to want to follow up on this, there’s a really good book about slavery.
European eyes are not the same as Indigenous eyes, thank god. And when I’m talking about that education, I’m talking about 500 years of American education. It’s basically recycled European dogma
PKM: What’s the book called?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Other Slavery. It’s by Andrés Reséndez. He did much of his research in Spain. He’s got the names, dates and serial numbers of exactly who was doing what, when and why. Slavery was a big business and nobody ever writes about the Indigenous slave trade. We hear about slaves and what do we think of? Most of us think about Roots. We think of African people, but the people selling other people into slavery didn’t care what color you were. I’ll tell you something I feel very strongly about and that’s the fact that in those times, European men were sexually repressed. If a guy was going to get any, it was because he was working for the King or for the Church. And soldiers in those days weren’t drinking orange juice and milk––it was alcohol. And the way that they were paid was with indigenous women, who were thrown to them. It’s a terrible tragedy and it’s not very well known. It’s only one of the many reasons why Americans don’t know about native people. We were wiped out. There are different percentages of how many people survived European domination. It wasn’t the measles, by the way, that got us. Slavery came first. It’s a very sad story. I’m sorry to go on and on, but you started it.
PKM: Fair enough. People should know. When you started recording music, did you find aspects of Indigenous music already being a part of your playing?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Not really. It wasn’t that easy for the average person to come across Aboriginal music and I was just an average person. You could find a few things on Folkways [Editor’s note: Folkways Records is a label founded by Moses Asch in 1948 that sought to document folk music around the world. Today, Folkways is a non-profit label run by the Smithsonian Institute]. The first time most people heard anyone singing about Indigenous people was on my first album, It’s My Way. That came out in 1964 and it led to me being selected Billboard magazine’s best new artist that year. Until then, there wasn’t really anybody speaking up much about Native American culture at all. Peter La Farge sang a couple of songs, ones that Johnny Cash discovered later on and then made popular, but the average person was not going to come across Native American music. I think the first time that anybody used powwow music in a pop format was in 1975 when I first recorded “Starwalker”.
I also used powwow music a bit, later on in the ‘70s, in scoring Spiritof the Wind, a movie about the famous dog sled racer, George Attla. I had a chance to play around with Indigenous music on that. By then, I was already in Saskatchewan with my family. My uncles would sit around the drum and sing the songs they knew and loved. They never chased me away and that made for a real gradual, homemade sharing of those styles. I loved it so much and I felt that Indigenous music might be able to help to bridge the gap, the knowledge gap, the friendship gap between Indigenous people and everybody else. I thought our music could have a place in pop music, and by pop music I mean “everybody music”––classical, or rock ‘n’ roll, or country, or whatever it is. I thought our music would be interesting to others if they ever got a chance to hear it.
PKM: Is there something you think people should hear, as far as starting place, if they’re going to do some listening?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Listen to A Tribe Called Red or listen to my song “Starwalker”. Listen to some of the things that are on my albums. In Canada, especially, there are a lot of Aboriginal people making jazz records, pop records. In the late ‘80s, we started a JUNO category––the JUNOs in Canada are like the Grammys in the U.S.––we founded an Aboriginal Canada category. In order to do that, we had to prove that there actually was an Indigenous music community. In other words, we had to come up with how many records had been made, how many artists there are, who are the studios, who are the producers, who are the sidemen, who are the writers, so we did all that and we got our own category in the JUNOs. For a little while, the Grammys had a Native American category. I don’t think they have one anymore but things are quite different in the U.S. compared to Canada. I always say, the farther south you go the harder it is for Indigenous people.
PKM: I’ve seen that. I was born in Chile. The Indigenous tribes there are outcast and regarded as freaks, relics.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: I’m a biblioholic. I have thousands of Audible books and I have a huge library of print books. Sometimes if I like a print book, I’ll get the Audible copy and vice versa. Anyway, there’s a really good series on Audible.com called The Great Courses, by Edwin Barnhart. In that, he did a series, called Lost Worlds of South America that’s not about the Mayans, the Aztecs and the Incas. It’s about the people thousands and thousands of years before that, before the invention of war. He talks about civilizations in the Americas that go back way, before the pyramids. Did you know that there are mummies that have been found in South America that are thousands of years older than the mummies found in Egypt? It’s a fascinating series, and that’s another one your readers might enjoy.
PKM: Thank you. Ok. Let’s go back to your start in the music business. What was your “big break”?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: After college, I got on a train, went to Greenwich Village and I started singing my own songs in open mic coffee houses. Bob Shelton of The New York Times came and heard me at The Gaslight Café and wrote a spectacular review. The Gaslight blew it up into a big cardboard poster, put it outside, and I was on my way.
PKM: What was going on for you when you wrote “Cod’ine”?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: I was appearing at Freddie Neil’s coffee house in Coconut Grove, near Miami, and I developed a cough I couldn’t get rid of. A doctor over-prescribed me codeine during the next few weeks. Later, I heard he’d gone to jail for luring young girls into some prostitute/slave situation. Anyway, that doctor gave me daily injections and a prescription for pills. I left town with some friends who were driving to Atlanta, and got weirdly sick. I tried to fill my out-of-state prescription and the pharmacist explained withdrawal to me. I’ve avoided opiates ever since. Only lately has that kind of addiction become a well-known issue.
PKM: There’s an aspect of your singing on “Cod’ine” that I equate to Édith Piaf.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: I love that. I have two big singing influences. Édith Piaf is one of them, because, number one, she wasn’t afraid of a little vibrato. Number two, she sings from emotion. Most American singers do not, and most folk singers did not. They were trying to be scholarly or something. The other one who really influenced me is Carmen Amaya. She’s known as a flamenco dancer, but she was just a pure flamenco. Her whole family was flamenco gypsies and she’s a singer, too. My singing––hell, I thought my first records were just awful––I had to learn how to listen to myself sing because I really didn’t know how to. The only reason I dared to get on a stage was that I believed in the songs and in the content of the songs. I knew I was giving people songs that they weren’t going to hear from Bob Dylan or Pete Seeger or anybody. I knew they were really from my own point of view. I wanted to give them to audiences and I didn’t think I’d last. I thought like, “This is my last chance”. I was singing like Carmen Amaya or Édith Piaf, and would just let her rip. I wasn’t singing as a singer, being in tune and on time. [Laughs] I wish I had, but I wasn’t. I get a really heavy vibrato when I get emotional because my throat closes up when I’m almost on the edge of tears. When you mention Édith Piaf, that’s my emotional way of telling it the way it really feels. It’s for real. It’s not like acting. Although it sounds dramatic, it’s telling the story from a point of view of feeling, as opposed to the point of view of being like Barbra Streisand or Céline Dion, who are virtuoso vocalists. It’s a different approach to music. That’s why I liked punk. The punks were coming from that raw emotion. Even though it might be, “Fuck you, fuck you”, at least it was real, and a lot of pop music at the time was not.
PKM: In “Cod’ine”, you sing, “It’s real, it’s real. One more time.” It’s chilling.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: [Laughs] That’s so nice to hear. Thanks. I still have people challenge me on that song and “Universal Soldier” because they think Donovan wrote it. Donovan was a singer in the ‘60s, and he wrote all of his own songs except for two, “Universal Soldier” and “Cod’ine”. I don’t know if he ever said that he wrote it, but his managers never said that he didn’t. It’s all over the Internet that Donovan wrote them, but he knows he didn’t and I know he didn’t.
PKM: So many people covered your songs, but no one copied you in playing the mouth bow. How did you learn to play the mouth bow?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Practice. Pure practice. Actually, Patrick Sky showed me the first one. I love that instrument. Imaginary music happens in your head, kind of like Mongolian/Tuvan harmonic throat singing.
PKM: You, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, David Crosby and Paul Simon all turn 80 this year. So do George Clinton, Charlie Watts, Ron Isley, Aaron Neville, John Van Hamersveld and Twyla Tharp. Do you see any connection there?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: What a group. What stands out for me is originality, and the youth movement of the ‘60s.
PKM: Do remember what your high school senior class song was?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Gosh, no. When I left that town, I never went back. I was not happy. I just wanted to get out of there. It was full of bullies and pedophiles. It was really nasty. College saved my life. UMass Amherst opened up the world for me. All of a sudden, there were international students, people who were different from the kinds of trolls that were part of my growing up. I don’t mean to say I had a terrible childhood. I didn’t, but there were terrible things going on, and thank goodness for nature, music, my mom and books. Being like a lost kid, I found my way through to some beautiful avenues that I’ve always been grateful for. I could say some pretty damn negative things, but I feel positive about the world. I’ve got a lot of hope. I don’t believe in holding on to pain. If there’s pain, or if there’s negativity and stuff, I don’t turn it into a mantelpiece. I don’t turn it into my badge of identity. To me, it’s like poop. I flush it, or else I use it as fertilizer and try to build something, try to grow something brand new.
I have two big singing influences. Édith Piaf is one of them, because, number one, she wasn’t afraid of a little vibrato. Number two, she sings from emotion. Most American singers do not, and most folk singers did not. They were trying to be scholarly or something.
I used that metaphor in the teaching kids in the Cradleboard Teaching Project. I asked them to think about Indigenous people out on the prairie, and how they bend down and pick up something, put it in a bag, and then, again, they stop, pick up something and put it in a bag. I asked the kids, “What are they picking up? Is it wood? Is it rock? Is it food? It’s none of those things. It’s buffalo chips. That’s manure.” Of course, all of the kids laugh, “It’s poop.” The point is you let it dry out. You wait until it’s not stinky anymore. This is how I process emotion, too. I let it dry out, and then I can either burn it like fuel, which is the best miracle only human beings do––burn fuel and extend the length of the light of day. Or, you can spread it on your garden like fertilizer and grow something brand new, but the key is you let it dry out. That’s what I do with any kind of pain, especially childhood pain or people trolling on you or bullying you. I don’t cling to pain. I let it go or put it to use. I guess Buddhists would approve of me in that.
PKM: Hey Little Rockabye is what you sing to each of your rescue animals. Do you identify with being cast-off?
Buffy Sainte Marie: I do identify with it. “Were you born on a cold winter’s day? Are you a poor little orphan? Did somebody throw you away? Now you’ve got somebody who loves you.” When I sing that on stage, I cry at that point just about every time. All my animals have been shelter pets, and that song has become the song for Humane Canada. They’re like the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty. It’s a big organization. They bought 2,000 books and they’ve distributed them on reservations and other places where they don’t have libraries.
PKM: Which of your projects, what aspect of your work, do you want to see carried on?
Buffy Sainte Marie: The Cradleboard Teaching Project. It’s grown out of something I started in the late ‘60s, when I was a young singer with too much money. Originally, I started a scholarship foundation called the Nihewan Foundation. At first, I only gave scholarships. The proudest moment of my life wasn’t when I received an Academy Award. It was when I found out many, many years later that two of my early scholarship recipients had gone on to become the founders and presidents of tribal colleges. One of them founded the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. Around the same time I started the Nihewan Foundation, I was asked to take part in a two-hour NBC television show called The Virginian. I said, “I’ll do the part only if all the Indian parts are played by Indians.” The producers said, “Oh, that’s impossible,” I said, “No, it’s not.” I made that condition, “No Indians, no Buffy,” and they went along with it. The headlines the next day read “Indian girl changes Hollywood.” [Laughs] We did it. We pulled it off. Do you know we found there were 20,000 Indians in the Los Angeles area, representing 110 different tribes?
As an extension of that same attitude, working through show business, I developed the Nihewan Scholarship Foundation into something that I called The Cradleboard Teaching Project. I ran that on my own dime for maybe 15 years. I rewrote the Native American school curriculum, but I don’t mean the history of how the White man screwed the Indians. That’s what people always think it’s going to be. We didn’t even cover history. We covered science, we covered geography; we covered government. We came out with a real early CD-ROM called Science: Through Native American Eyes. People can’t imagine what that is because they think the Greeks invented science, which is a crock. That’s just what Europe has told us. Every society that’s survived has had science. We studied the principles of sound––there’s no reason why it all has to be opera and pianos and tubas––we studied the principles of sound through Native American musical instruments, like flutes, like an Apache fiddle. How does the drum work? What’s the science behind when you cover the holes of the flute? Why does the sound change? It’s because you’re lengthening and shortening the column of air by putting your finger over the hole. You’re shortening the column of air that’s blowing across the reed. When you hit a drum, why does it change pitch? Why does this get higher or lower? I followed it up with a curriculum on frequency and amplitude, which has no ethnicity. Why is science always only White? Why can’t it be any culture?
That’s why I liked punk. The punks were coming from that raw emotion. Even though it might be, “Fuck you, fuck you”, at least it was real, and a lot of pop music at the time was not.
The Cradleboard Teaching Project was in 18 states, with the help of the Kellogg Foundation. I ran it for a long time on my own dime, until the Kellogg Foundation heard about it and asked if I would make a proposal to them. I did, and they came on. We ran it with them for 12 years and in those 12 years, we had kids and teachers in Indian communities partnering with non-Indian communities always far across the country, never neighbors, and always far across the country. We had Apache kids partnering with non-Indian kids in Minnesota. Haudenosaunee Mohawk kids in New York state partnering with non-Indian kids in the state of Washington. We put Native American communities, teachers and students into the driver’s seat of delivering their own self-identity, saying who they are. The Mohawks didn’t have to teach about the Apaches and the Apaches didn’t have to teach about the Lakotas. Everybody taught about themselves. It was way ahead of its time. When George Bush came along, they tried to privatize all the foundations. By then, we were involved with NASA, and when the first Native American astronaut, John Herrington, got his ride, NASA asked me to sing “Starwalker” and “Up Where We Belong” for his launch. It was a really nice moment for me. Anyway, the Cradleboard Teaching Project, it’s defunct now, but I would love to see somebody pick it up and run with it.
A note from Buffy Sainte-Marie appeared in my in-box about a week after this article went off to PKM. The subject line was PKM Interview, and it read:
Re the mouth bow (also spelled mouthbow): When I introduce it onstage to new audiences I say something like, “This is called a mouth bow. It’s said to be the oldest stringed instrument in the world. Obviously based on a hunting bow. I’ve always guessed that eventually some musician in the group figures out you can make music on a weapon.”
Turning swords into plowshares? Imagine turning modern weapons into art and music. Betcha it could happen!
I’m on the Board of the (Canadian) Downie-Wenjack Fund, founded by the leader of the rock group The Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie who died of cancer and gave his fortune to creating a path toward reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. With Covid quarantining, we’re finding ways to engage Indigenous students from remote reserves in the arts, so I used the mouthbow to teach science principles (frequency, amplitude etc.) through a study of indigenous instruments.
A few months ago I did the second of two Creative Native Zoom conferences involving high school youth. They had made their own bows, had their own songs. Very cool. I sent them all guitar picks with my picture on them, the kind we usually throw out to audiences. I’m also working with a couple of other foundations in youth outreach initiatives, including one who send hiphop choreographers to remote reserves and make dance an accredited part of their PE program.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: A Multimedia Life, an hourlong documentary, 2006: