Buffy Sainte-Marie honored with Lifetime Achievement Award
By Brenda Norrell
October 22, 2008
The Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards is honoring Buffy Sainte-Marie with a lifetime achievement honor this fall. Organizers of the 10th annual awards gala made the announcement Monday. Born on a Saskatchewan reserve, Sainte-Marie, 67, began her career in the 1960s.
Buffy said in an interview, censored for seven years, that she was blackballed and censored out of the music industry in the US. The censorship included letters from US President Lyndon Johnson to radio stations, and shipments of her records disappearing. This followed the release of “Universal Soldier,” during the Vietnam War and the US government’s realization of the power of song. She was financially forced out of the industry and moved from the US.
The following article was censored by Indian Country Today for seven years, after I interveiwed Buffy in 1999 at Dine’ College on the Navajo Nation. A portion of the article was published by ICT seven years later, in 2006, but the references to uranium mining and other portions were deleted. I self published the article in 2006, after being censored and terminated as a longtime staff reporter by Indian Country Today.
Beyond images of women and Indians: Straight-talk from a Cree icon
By Brenda Norrell (1999)
TSAILE, Ariz. Seated behind the concert stage at Dine’ College, Buffy Sainte-Marie is visionary and philosopher, folk star and educator, mother and confidant to truth-seekers. A voice of history and reason, the Cree poet and songwriter describes life on the rim, beyond the defined images of women and Indians.
Relaxing after her performance onstage, Buffy says she always refused to be categorized as an aerobic-Indian-princess-Pocahontas. The result: She was blacklisted, and along with her Indian contemporaries, put out of business.
“I found out ten years later, in the 1980s, that Lyndon Johnson had been writing letters on White House stationary praising radio stations for suppressing my music.”
Buffy, however, is focused on art, not bitterness, and explains that in Indian communities, there is no name for artists. “In my own language, there is no word for art.” Instead, they say, “It shines through him.”
That, she says is the mystery the artist is a vehicle for the Creator. Backstage, Buffy takes chalk in hand, detailing how the 1960s and 1970s the student movement and American Indian Movement were the roots of change.
In the 1960s in Minneapolis, “The guys were in the streets. The guys who would become AIM.” In Boston, and elsewhere in the East there was no awareness of Indian people.
“I grew up in Maine and Massachusetts, and I was told that I couldn’t be Indian because all the Indians were gone,” Buffy said. “So, in other words, the consciousness was Zero.” But there were inklings in the white world, like in the National Indian Youth Council and the Upward Bound program recruiting Indian students for college, that there was a need for change.”In the Indian community, in Saskatchewan where I am from, the Indian people were real grass-rootsy and they had no clue of how they were being ripped off. In the grassroots in general, people were being worked over by the oil companies. The student movement and coffeehouses of Greenwich Village became her platform in the 1960s. In the multi-racial movement, students were talking and students were listening. The student movement was extremely important. It’s not happening right now, but it was then and it was a small window through which people like myself came into show business. Coffee was the drug of choice.”
And the lyrics and the movement were serious. “It meant that people like myself could get on a bus, in sneakers and a trench coat with a guitar, and fill concert halls. In the late 1960s, coffeehouses were suddenly viewed as moneymakers. In show business, whatever is making money is like honey and it attracted a lot of bugs– a lot of sharks. The lyrics were watered down and coffeehouses that remained open had liquor licenses. In the 1970s, not only was the protest movement putout of business, but the Native American movement was attacked.”
Meanwhile, Buffy cut a singular path.
“I usually didn’t do what other people did. You didn’t find me at peace marches. I was out in Indian country. Then, came the occupation of Wounded Knee and the shoot-out with FBI agents at the Jumping Bull residence at Pine Ridge June 26, 1975. That is where Leonard Peltier’s troubles began” Buffy says.
Buffy says that few people recount the true history of what happened on that day in history. “Who recalls that on that day one-eighth of the reservation was transferred in secret on that day. It was the part containing uranium. That is what never seems to be remembered.”
At the time, Buffy was selling more records than ever in Canada and Asia. But, in the United States, her records were disappearing. Thousands of people at concerts wanted records. Although the distributor said the records had been shipped, no one seemed to know where they were. One thing was for sure, they were not on record shelves. “I was put out of business in the United States.”
Later she discovered the censorship and pressure applied to radio stations by President Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam era, particularly toward her”Universal Soldier” during the anti-war movement.
Buffy says Indian people were put out of business, not just because they were succeeding in Indian country, but because they were succeeding in the broader community. She and others were a threat to the moneymakers of concert halls, uranium and oil.
Then, fellow activist and poet John Trudell’s wife and children were burned to death in a house fire shortly after he burned an American flag in Washington D.C., February 11, 1979.
“I was just one person put out of business. John Trudell is just another person whose life was put out of business. Anna Mae Aquash and Leonard Peltier were put out of the living business we were made in effective.”
But she continued. Moving into electronic music, which she says Americans didn’t want to hear, then into music scoring. In the 1980s, she began producing digital art on her Macintosh at home. Those brightly-colored large-scale paintings are now featured in museums.
“Sixteen million colors are hard to resist,” she says of the computer’s palette.
In the 1990s, she created the Cradleboard Teaching Project to link American Indian students with other students online around the world. Traveling now to Indian communities and colleges, the project debunks stereotypes and shares history and culture by way ofCD-ROM.
Sharing the concert stage at Dine’ College with Trudell, Buffy says she and Trudell were “just puppies,” during the takeover of Alcatraz in the1960s.
Yet, they kept struggling; kept surviving.
“We just kept chugging on. We kept coming to Indian country. We didn’t worry about the fortune and fame because we went with our sincerity, our hearts, and with our friends. There was the pain of seeing people hurt, but the movers of the ’60s and ’70s survived, developed,taught, and shared with old friends the joys of watching children and Indian country grow. It was hard seeing people hurt.”
And there was the pain of seeing women and the elderly treated with lack of respect. But, people began to sobber up and change. Her “Starwalker” is a tribute.
“Starwalker is for all generations past and yet to come. So many people have seen the reality of that in their lives,” she said, adding that the song is one of her favorites.
“Starwalker he’s a friend of mine
You’ve seen him looking fine he’s a straight talker
he’s a Starwalker don’t drink no wineay
way hey o heya
Wolf Rider she’s a friend of yours
You’ve seen her opening doors
She’s a history turner
she’s a sweetgrass burner and a dog soldier
ay hey way hey way heya”
Although Buffy makes her home in Hawaii, much of her time is spent in Canada and on the road. Fame, however, has it drawbacks, making it impossible to simply attend a pow wow. “Sesame Street put an end to it.”
Buffy said Native people in Canada are doing well in all walks of life, the government, television and law. “It’s not like it is in the United States. What has happened in Canada? Canada attracted a different type of European. People didn’t want to put up with the U.S. gobbily-greed.”
Then, she adds, “Native people were hipper. Things are still very pure, but very strong in Canada.”
Questioned about the media, Buffy says if you want to find out the motive behind a newspaper’s coverage, look to see who owns the paper. She was asked by a Native photographer why only negative articles are published in a leading Arizona paper.
“Find out who owns it,” she says, explaining that thisf act will reveal the motive.
Then, she adds, “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”
Buffy was born on the Piapot Cree Reserve in Saskatchewan in 1941. Later, while evolving as a revolutionary folk-singer, she received degrees in Oriental Philosophy and teaching, and a Ph.D. in Fine Art from the University of Massachusetts. A young Bob Dylan heard her sing in Greenwich Village and recommended she perform at the Gaslight, another hangout of the avant-garde. Janis Joplin and Elvis Presley were among those who recorded her lyrics.
On the road, she traveled the world and received a medal from Queen Elizabeth II.
Shifting gears as a mother, Buffy and her son Dakota Wolfchild Starblanket became stars of Sesame Street in 1976 and dissolved myths about who Indians are. “Up Where We Belong,” recorded for the film “An Officer and A Gentleman,” won an Academy Award in 1982.
After the release of her album “Coincidence and Likely Stories,” in 1993, she helped establish a new Juno Awards category for Aboriginal Music in Canada. That same year, France named Buffy “Best International Artist of 1993.”
Defying definition, she has also written country music, including “He’s an Indian Cowboy in the Rodeo.”She served as an adjunct professor in Canada and New York, and as an artist in residence at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.
Onstage at the Native American Music Festival at Dine’ College, a benefit concert for the Dine’ Council of Arts and Humanities, Buffy sang selections from her1996 release, “Up Where We Belong.”Festival organizer Ferlin Clark recalled driving Buffy through Apache country to share her Cradleboard Teaching Project, then convincing her to drive until dawn to reach the Navajo’s Canyon de Chelly.
Once at Spider Rock, Buffy reached for a pen and paper to write. Inspired, she knew she would return.
In concert, Buffy dedicated “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee,” to Leonard Peltier.
The lyrics tell the story of Native people of the1880s and later in the 1960s and 1970s, that fell to the hands of the “robber barons” driven by greed for oil, gold and precious metals. While manipulating the media and politicians, they added uranium to their agenda in the Twentieth Century.
In the song, Buffy sings of a senator in Indian country, a “darling of the energy companies,” and covert spies, liars, federal marshals and FBI. Buffy sings her safety rule: “Don’t stand between the reservation and the corporate bank. They send in federal tanks…”
The song is a also tribute to assassinated activist Anna Mae Aquash, whose murderers remain at large. The lyrics describe the act of the FBI in cutting off her decomposed hands under the guise of identification.
“My girlfriend Annie Mae talked about uranium
Her head was filled with bullets and her body dumped
The FBI cut off her hands and told us she’d died of Exposure…
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee
Deep in the Earth
Cover me with pretty lies bury my heart at Wounded Knee.”