Buffy Sainte-Marie: A Life of Song and Social Justice Activism

Buffy Saint Marie performs at one evening concert. Grace Presbyterian Church, Calgary AB. Mar. 20, 2012. Photo by J. Chong
Buffy Saint Marie performs for one evening concert. Grace Presbyterian Church, Calgary AB. Mar. 10, 2012. Photo by J. Chong

Several weeks ago, Buffy Sainte-Marie, the Canadian Cree Indian folk, country and rockabilly singer fired up a Calgary audience with songs of unabashed activism on social justice, as well as love and aboriginal identity. She plastered the song charts in the 1960’s and throughout her career, with song themes which included: pacificism (her famed song Universal Soldier) during the Vietnam War, environmental protection activism intertwined with aboriginal rights (Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee), corporate greed (No, No Keshagesh), and celebratory aboriginal identity (He’s an Indian Cowboy).

Swaggering, Robust Performance of a  71-Year Old Singer
The evening show was all more astounding from a 71-year old songstress. Buffy dance-swaggered in her curvy tight black jeans and tall black leather boots while her resplendent bead and silver jewellery swayed against a dark jacket. That evening, her

Buffy Saint Marie. Calgary AB. Mar. 10, 2012. Photo by J. Chong
Buffy Saint Marie. Calgary AB. Mar. 10, 2012. Photo by J. Chong

foot stomping, hip swaying and powerful ululating aboriginal cries of rage, suffering and joy that infused her lyrics, were a shout for action by this international singer-teacher-activist.

Songs of Activism Coinciding with Current Albertan Controversies
Buffy was inspiration that night, to her own generation and to upcoming generations. Right now, Alberta is tussling with national, if not also international players in polarizing limelight and condemnation, for controversial expansion of its northern oil tar sands at Fort McMurray.  There are proposed major gas pipelines, with one running south into the U.S. to the Gulf of Mexico and another pipeline cutting west through virgin forests in northern British Columbia.  President Obama administration has, as believed by observers, only temporarily stopped the Keystone pipeline proposal after enormous, alarmed protest from Americans. At this time, there is a Canadian commission that is holding public hearings for Canadian groups and individuals during the remainder of this year to express their concerns.

The boomer generation, born in the 1950’s to early 1960’s, may have dim memory of an iconic song or two of hers. The majority of the audience seemed to fall in the same age category if one can judge grey hair without hair colouring. I remembered her song, Universal Soldier that was released after Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind, another 1960’s anti-war protest song that defined that era.

Final relay torchbearer at destination Four First Nations Host Pavilion. Singer Buffy Saint-Marie is on the left. Vancouver, BC. Feb. 12, 2010
Final relay torchbearer at destination Four First Nations Host Pavilion at 2010 Winter Olympics. Singer Buffy Sainte-Marie is on the left. Vancouver, BC. Feb. 12, 2010. Photo by J. Becker

Blacklisted by FBI and CIA for Her Songs
I dimly recalled Buffy on the ever-popular children’s show, Sesame Street in the 1970’s.  However I didn’t learn until recently, that she gladly took upon regular show appearances for five years because she was blacklisted by the FBI and CIA by the U.S. Johnson and Nixon administrations for Universal Soldier and for the latter, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a strong aboriginal protest song against uranium pollution in the water. None of her songs were broadcasted in the U.S. during that time.

Turning Teaching Lessons of Life and Fun: Sesame Street
But she was more than happy to play a role familiar to her, as a fun teacher for children, in an educational TV show.  Later, she won the Academy Award for best film song, Up From Where We Belong which has been recorded by other artists, Roberta Flack, Neil Young, Glen Campbell, etc.

Ululating Fusion in Song: Rage, Joy and Memories of Aboriginal Canadian
During the Calgary evening concert, she belted out a short, but anguished solo of Relocation Blues that encapsulated the isolation and fear experienced by some Canadian aboriginal children, who were ordered to attend residential boarding schools

Below, is a March 2010 national TV broadcast interview by George Strombolopolous with Buffy, on a popular CBC current events show, The Hour.  With Buffy Sainte-Marie.  Part I.

far from home. Some children were subjected to abuse, as well as forbidden to express their aboriginal language and culture. She sang this song in 1996 for the first time at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan during the university’s convocation address.  It is on her latest CD recording, Running for the Drum.

Although now she lives in Hawaii with a herd of goats on her farm, her identity, artistry and soul is still deeply rooted as a Canadian Cree woman. She expressed warmly her eagerness to perform on “home turf” of Canada, particularily in the prairies since she was born in Saskatchewan.  Her heart and allegiance to her aboriginal identity, shone through her song with pow-wow dance imagery, Love Still Goes On and On:

In every dream, I can smell the Sweetgrass* burning
And in my heart I can hear the drum
and hear the singers soaring
and se-e the jin-gle dancers and
Still this love goes on and on
Still this love goes on.

It was a fine evening graced by Buffy Sainte-Marie, a woman who lived a long rich life of learning, artistry, community giving and uncompromising courage.

*Sweetgrass is a wild grass that grows 40 degrees north in North America, Asia and Europe. It is used by native North American Indians (or in Canada, more correctly termed as “aboriginal” or “First Nations people) in prayer and purification ceremonies. Hence it may be referred colloquially as “prayer grass”.

Interesting Reading
In-depth Biography of Buffy Sainte-Marie.
Roe, Jon.  Q & A with Buffy Sainte-Marie. In Swerve Magazine, Mar. 9, 2012.

11 Comments Add yours

  1. Maiya says:

    This touched me. Thank you for writing about her. Inspiring!!!


    1. Jean says:

      I’m very glad that she ignited your interest. She put on an amazing performance last week here in our city. I could hear other folks walking out of the church afterwards, where she performed that they never expected her to be so fiery. Her work is showcased occasionally across the country. However she is one of these amazing accomplished women….who have yet to be featured in Canadian women’s magazines whenever there are profiles of remarkable women who have contributed a great deal. I believe the subject matters she sings and her community activism for aboriginal community in North America, and most likely worldwide, still puts her a little out of the mainstream. So it’s always good when she receives national / international coverage and recognition for her achievements. It would be good for the younger generations to become more familiar with her work.


  2. zenmaiden says:

    you just introduced me to a new cultural influence. Im surprised I didnt know of this artist before being familiar with many issues close to her heart.


    1. Jean says:

      Glad you learned something new!


  3. ava says:

    Wow! She is, I was going to say, the stuff that legends are made of, except she is a living legend! Amazing woman! Such and amazing and inspiring person. This post is very beautiful Jean.


    1. Jean says:

      She has incredible energy to perform. And her voice has not weakened with age –yet. She conveys a warm, yet fighting spirit on stage.


  4. Joanna says:

    what a great post, I remember this fine woman’s work well, though I don’t listen to much music these days, she is very good, all kudos to her and her energy, wonderful to hear that she is still going strong.


  5. What a superb piece. You’re right about boomers being influenced. I certainly was. I played her albums endlessly (Circle Game was my favorite) and she really did open my generation’s eyes to many Canadian aboriginal issues for the first time. So here we still are, hearing yesterday in the federal budget how the feds are going to fix things for the 322nd time.


    1. Jean says:

      @Joanna & boomerontario: Let’s hope a few more generations after us, become inspired by her singing messages and graciousness as we were/are also. You would have enjoyed the concert.


  6. djtoasterbiscuit says:

    She is an icon. I feel very empowered after reading this post. Women such as Buffy Sainte-Marie are should and shall be models as to how we should raise our children.


    1. Jean says:

      I totally agree. When the concert was over, one could hear audience members just as equally amazed by her energy and spirit.


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