Buffy Sainte-Marie: “I didn’t know then that I was ahead of the crowd”

Buffy Sainte-Marie vividly recalls the reaction she got in folk clubs of the ’60s when she performed her song Now That the Buffalo’s Gone, which lists a litany of besetting sins committed against Native Americans. “I would see all these very smart white people’s faces turn ashen,” she said. “They knew nothing about Indians and were amazed to hear that all these things were still happening under their watch – even in New York! They would say, “Oh, that little Indian girl must be wrong.” I was insulted by them the whole time. And it was horribly, terribly painful.”

Yet today, when Sainte-Marie speaks on vexing subjects like this, she exudes an abiding calm, punctuating even her most scathing observations with a chuckle that carries the listener along, as if to say, “Can you believe we had to say that ? Enough with all that crap?”

“I have a scathing attitude about these things for a reason,” Sainte-Marie said in a phone interview from her home in Hawaii. “A lot of people come into politics with their fists raised. But you have to really see through that in order to be effective. And for me, it’s all about being effective.”

Thanks to a sweeping new documentary titled Carry It On, viewers can now see just how effective Sainte-Marie has been in her eight decades of life. The documentary details most, but not all, of the “firsts” of her career and reveals how far ahead of the crowd she was in the fields of music, film, television, technology and politics. At the same time, the film covers troubling issues in her personal life, from sexual abuse at the hands of several family members, to manipulation and confinement by a later romantic partner, to memos and calls from people associated with various US governments to stop radio stations from playing their music in the 60s and 70s.

Sainte-Marie only found out about government interference in her career years later. “They don’t tell you, ‘Hey, you’re being monitored,'” the singer said, laughing. “I found out about it on a radio show in the ’80s.”

However, Sainte-Marie makes it clear that the US government did not directly blacklist her. “It’s much worse,” she said. “A blacklist would require an act of Congress. Instead, a bunch of shabby employees go into the back room and make nasty calls to whoever management tells them to make nasty calls to. It takes place on a social level. It’s not even politics. President Johnson was a Democrat and President Nixon was a Republican, but neither wanted to know what I was singing about. They were scared to death about the whole tribal law situation because they were heavily invested in energy companies, and when it comes to tribal rights, that’s the motivating factor.”

Sainte-Marie’s sensitivity to Indigenous issues began early in her life, partly due to confusion about her own identity growing up. As an infant, she was adopted by an American family in Saskatchewan, Canada, but records containing information about her birth parents and their circumstances were sealed. “As adopted children, we don’t even know when it’s our birthday,” the singer said. “You spend your whole life asking questions you can’t answer.”

The parents who raised her in New England were supportive, especially her mother, who was part Mi’kmaq Indian. Her father was Italian-American. As a result, she said, her family was “more The Sopranos than Dances With Wolves.”

Although Sainte-Marie said her father was affectionate, “there were pedophiles in his family,” she said. She alleges that two relatives sexually abused her, including her brother, who also bullied and constantly humiliated her. The singer’s parents didn’t know the full extent of the abuse, although she said they tended to downplay what they knew as “boys are boys.” Also, her father didn’t understand why a girl would want to go to college. Thankfully, her mother, an editor at Houghton Mifflin, understood Sainte-Marie’s intellectual curiosity and took out a government loan to fund her college education. By this time Sainte-Marie had devoured the few informed books then published about Native Americans, driven by a hunger to find a reflection of herself she rarely saw. The lack of information hurt her, as did the many people who told her she couldn’t become a musician because she didn’t read European notation. At the same time, she showed a natural aptitude for playing the piano since childhood. Later, when she started writing more challenging songs, she wasn’t keen on her voice, but she had unwavering faith in her melodies and lyrics. “I knew I had something to say,” she said.

After graduating college, she entered the village folk scene in the early ’60s “after the beatniks but before the hippies,” she says. “Back then, singer-songwriters weren’t considered legitimate. It was still the Great American Songbook and songs like This Land is Your Land or Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore that the neat boy bands sang. I have a completely different background.”

Buffy Sainte Marie in 1970
Buffy Sainte Marie in 1970. Photo: GAB Archive/Redferns

The rarity of her presentation – from her pounding vibrato and unusual moods to her proud ethnicity and trenchant lyrics on indigenous issues – shook people or captivated them. Rave reviews led to a deal with Vanguard Records, who released their debut album in early 1964. Sainte-Marie wrote almost all of the material for the album, making her the first modern singer-songwriter, ahead of Janis Ian (who came out the next year), Laura Nyro, Carole King and Joni Mitchell. “I didn’t know then that I was ahead of the pack because I didn’t know there was going to be a pack,” she said.

The album opened with Now That the Buffalo’s Gone and included two other songs that became touchstones. Their ballad “Universal Soldier” contradicted a view then widespread among anti-war activists, who tended to blame the soldiers primarily for the fight. The lyrics of Sainte-Marie’s song made it clear that we are all guilty of keeping a war going. A cover version of the song became a Top 5 hit for Donovan. Sainte-Marie’s debut also included the song Cod’ine, which railed against both opioids and the role of the medical establishment in promoting them, decades before these issues became part of mainstream conversation. Over the next year, Sainte-Marie proved she was just as adept at writing classic love songs when she released Until It’s Time for You to Go, whose lyrics upheld romance while also giving a sober account of its likely demise. The song was later seen as a proto-feminist anthem of autonomy. “When I wrote it, nobody had used the word feminism!” Sainte-Marie said with a chuckle. “For me, the most important line in the song is ‘We’ll make a place in the lives we’ve planned.’ It’s about leaving space in your life for life to happen.”

The song inspired 157 covers from Barbra Streisand to Elvis Presley. The latter shot almost didn’t happen. Back then, Presley’s reps usually demanded a portion of the release in exchange for such a big star recording an author’s song. Having previously sold her publication to Universal Soldier for virtually nothing, Sainte-Marie persevered, and eventually Presley’s people relented.

In the documentary, Sainte-Marie admits that she wasn’t always that smart about her business decisions, but she’s rarely faltered in her creative choices and apparently never in her role as an activist. When the hugely popular Western television show The Virginian asked her to play a Shoshone woman in 1968, she only agreed if the other Indigenous roles on the show also went to actors from the community. “They said to me, ‘Oh, we have great makeup artists who can turn a dog into a cat,'” Sainte-Marie said, laughing. “I told them, ‘It’s not about fooling the white people. It’s about bringing more wonderfulness to the project that people didn’t know about.’”

By bringing on the producers for Sainte-Marie, he helped open a discussion of casting issues that is now pervasive. In 1975, she did the same when the producers of the children’s educational show Sesame Street asked her to recite the alphabet. Instead, she suggested using the show to teach children about Indian culture. Her efforts proved so popular that Sesame Street hired her for the next five years. She went further on the show when she suggested breastfeeding her newborn son in one episode. The scene has often been cited as the first example of breastfeeding on American television. Interestingly, Sainte-Marie said the practice didn’t cause controversy at the time, but it does sometimes now that various groups have tried to remove the clip on YouTube. “People now feel free to sexualize anything,” she said. “Back then, people would have been embarrassed to criticize something so natural.”

Over the years, Sainte-Marie has pushed just as many boundaries in her art. Their 1969 album Illuminations was probably the first to mix folk and electronic music, representing one of the earliest uses of the Buchla synthesizer. She was one of the first artists to record digitally in the ’80s and became the first Native American to win an Oscar in 1982 for co-writing Up Where We Belong, a #1 hit from the film An Officer and a Gentleman. At the time, she was married to her song’s co-writer, the late mega-producer Jack Nitzsche, who Sainte-Marie said was both “brilliant” and “a nutcase.”

He controlled her terribly, she said, and demanded that she put her career on hold for over a decade. In one crazy moment, she claims he injected heroin into her skin while she was sleeping. Eventually, Sainte-Marie found an escape route, but not without careful and difficult planning.

Aside from her Oscar success, Sainte-Marie’s career went off the radar in the US in the ’70s, partly because of the government’s work against her. But it continued to thrive in Canada and other territories. Most successful was her 2015 album Power in the Blood, which won the prestigious Polaris Music Prize for upsetting a popular Drake set. Today, Sainte-Marie continues to balance her artistry with her activism. “They work together like they have two arms or two legs,” she said.

While the struggle for indigenous rights and recognition still poses significant problems, Sainte-Marie said she has seen progress since she began singing about these issues in the village all those years ago. “The good news about the bad news is that more people know about it now,” she said.

No doubt her upbeat and forgiving attitude has helped sustain her through the many years in between. “Some people walk around with a backpack full of resentments and unforgivables,” she said. “You cling to old nightmares and I don’t. As bad as it is, the point is to make it better.”

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