Buffy Sainte-Marie: ‘I didn’t know I was ahead of the pack at the time’

The groundbreaking singer-songwriter discusses government surveillance, her Indigenous identity and a revealing new documentary

Buffy Sainte-Marie vividly remembers the reaction she would get in the folk clubs of the 60s whenever she would perform her song Now That the Buffalo’s Gone, which lists a litany of persistent sins committed against Native peoples. “I would see the faces of all these very smart white people turn ashen,” she said. “They didn’t know anything about Indians, and they were flabbergasted to hear that all these things were still happening on their watch – even in New York! They’d say, ‘Oh, that little Indian girl must be mistaken.’ I was gaslighted by them all the time on that. And it was terribly, terribly painful.”

Even so, when Sainte-Marie talks about vexing subjects like this today she exudes an abiding sense of calm, punctuating even her most withering observations with a giggle that brings the listener in, as if to say, “can you believe we had to put up with all this crap?”

“I don’t have a scolding attitude about these things for a reason,” Sainte-Marie said in a phone interview from her home in Hawaii. “A lot of people come at politics with their fists raised. But you really have to see through that in order to become effective. And to me, it’s all about being effective.”

Now, thanks to a comprehensive new documentary titled Carry It On, viewers can see just how effective Sainte-Marie has been in her eight decades of life. The documentary delineates most, but not all, of the “firsts” in her career, making clear how far ahead of the pack she was in the fields of music, film, television, technology and politics. At the same time, the film covers disturbing issues in her personal life, from sexual abuse by multiple family members to manipulation and confinement by a later romantic partner, to memos and calls made by people associated with various US administrations meant to discourage radio stations from playing her music in the 60s and 70s.

Sainte-Marie only found out about the government’s interference in her career years after it occurred. “They don’t tell you, ‘hey, you’re under surveillance,’” the singer said with a laugh. “I found out about it on a radio show in the 80s.”

Sainte-Marie makes clear, however, that the US government didn’t blacklist her directly. “It’s much worse than that,” she said. “A blacklisting would take an act of Congress. Instead, a couple of sleazy employees go in the backroom and make nasty phone calls to whomever the administration says they should make nasty phone calls to. It’s done on a social level. It’s not even politics. President Johnson was a Democrat and President Nixon was a Republican but neither one of them wanted to hear about what I was singing about. They were deathly afraid of the whole Indigenous law situation because they were highly invested in energy companies and, when it comes to Indigenous rights, that’s the motivating factor.”

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

Though Sainte-Marie said her father was loving, “there were pedophiles in his family”, she said. She alleges that two relatives sexually abused her, including her brother who also bullied and consistently humiliated her. The singer’s parents didn’t know the full extent of the abuse, though she said they tended to downplay what did know about as just “boys being boys”. What’s more, her father didn’t understand why a girl would want to go to college. Thankfully, her mother, an editor at Houghton Mifflin, well understood Sainte-Marie’s intellectual curiosity and took out a government loan to finance her higher education. By that time, Sainte-Marie had devoured the few informed books published back then about Native Americans driven by a hunger to find a reflection of herself she otherwise barely saw. The lack of information wounded her, as did the many people who told her she couldn’t be a musician because she didn’t read European notation. At the same time she displayed a natural gift for playing piano since she was a child. Later, when she began to write more sophisticated songs, she wasn’t thrilled with her voice but she had unflinching faith in her melodies and lyrics. “I knew I had something to say,” she said.

After graduating college, she came to the Village folk scene in the early 60s “after the Beatniks but before the hippies”, she said. “In that time, singer-songwriters weren’t seen as legitimate yet. It was still the Great American Songbook and songs like This Land is Your Land or Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore, which preppy boy groups sang. I came from a whole different background.”

Buffy Sainte-Marie in 1970
Buffy Sainte-Marie in 1970. Photograph: GAB Archive/Redferns

The rarity of her presentation – from her resounding vibrato and unusual tunings to her proud ethnicity and pointed lyrics about Indigenous issues – either shook people or riveted them. Rapturous reviews from critics led to a contract with Vanguard Records, which issued her debut album in early 1964. For the album, Sainte-Marie wrote nearly all of the material, making her the first modern female singer-songwriter, ahead of Janis Ian (who came out the next year), Laura Nyro, Carole King and Joni Mitchell. “I didn’t know I was ahead of the pack at the time 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 featured two other songs that became touchstones. Her ballad Universal Soldier contrasted a view commonly held by anti-war activists at the time which tended to lay blame for battle mainly on the soldiers. The lyrics to Sainte-Marie’s song made clear that in order to sustain a war all of us are culpable. A cover version of the song became a top five smash for Donovan. Sainte-Marie’s debut also featured the song Cod’ine, which railed against both opioids and the medical establishment’s role in promoting them, decades before those subjects became part of the common conversation. The next year Sainte-Marie proved herself equally adept at writing classic love songs when she released Until It’s Time for You to Go. Its lyrics cherished romance while also soberly accounting for its probable demise. Later, the song was viewed as a proto-feminist anthem of autonomy. “When I wrote it, nobody had even used the word feminism!” Sainte-Marie said with a chortle. “To me, the most important line in the song is ‘we’ll make a space in the lives we’ve planned’. That’s about leaving room in your life for life to happen.”

The song went on to inspire 157 cover versions by everyone from Barbra Streisand to Elvis Presley. The latter recording almost didn’t happen. Back then, Presley’s representatives usually demanded part of the publishing in exchange for having such a big star record a writer’s song. Having earlier sold her publishing to Universal Soldier for virtually nothing, Sainte-Marie held firm and, eventually, Presley’s folks gave in.

In the documentary, Sainte-Marie admits she wasn’t always so savvy in her business decisions, but she rarely faltered in her creative ones and never, it seems, in her role as an activist. In 1968, when the hugely popular western TV show The Virginian asked her to play a Shoshone woman, she agreed only if the other Indigenous parts in the show went to actors from the community as well. “They said to me, ‘oh, we have great makeup artists that can turn a dog into a cat,’” Sainte-Marie said with a laugh. “I told them, ‘it’s not a matter of fooling white people. It’s a matter of bringing more wonderfulness into the project that people were unaware of.’”

In winning the producers over Sainte-Marie helped inaugurate a discussion about casting issues that’s now ubiquitous. She did much the same thing in 1975 when the producers of the children’s educational TV show Sesame Street asked her to come on to recite the alphabet. Instead, she proposed using the show to teach kids about Indian culture. Her efforts proved popular enough for Sesame Street to employ her for the next five years. She broke further ground on the show when she proposed breast-feeding her newborn son in an episode. The scene has often been cited as the first example of breastfeeding on American television. Interestingly, Sainte-Marie said the practice drew no controversy at the time but now sometimes does, as various groups have tried to have the clip taken down on YouTube. “People feel free to sexualize anything now,” she said. “Back then, people would have been embarrassed to criticize something so natural.”

Over the years, Sainte-Marie pushed just as many boundaries in her art. Her 1969 album Illuminations was probably the first to mix folk and electronic music, marking one of the earliest uses of the Buchla synthesizer. In the 80s, she became one of the first artists to record digitally and in 1982, became the first Native person to win an Oscar by co-writing Up Where We Belong, a No 1 smash from the movie An Officer and a Gentleman. At the time, she was married to her co-writer on the song, the late mega-producer Jack Nitzsche, who, Sainte-Marie said, was both “brilliant” and “a nutcase”.

He was horribly controlling she said, demanding she put her career on hold for over a decade. In one crazy moment, she claims he skin-popped heroin into her when she was asleep. Eventually, Sainte-Marie found a way to escape but not without careful and fraught planning.

Outside of her Oscar success, Sainte-Marie’s career fell off the radar in the US in the 70s, in part because of the government’s work against her. But she 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 in an upset over a favored set by Drake. Today, Sainte-Marie continues to balance her artistry with her activism. “They work together, like having two arms or two legs,” she said.

While significant hurdles remain in the struggle for Indigenous rights and recognition, Sainte-Marie said she sees progress from when she started to sing about those 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 in the many years between. “Some people walk around with a backpack full of grudges and unforgivables,” she said. “They hang on to old nightmares and I don’t. However bad it is, it’s all about making it better.”

  • Carry It On premieres on 22 November on PBS with a UK date to be announced


Jim Farber

The GuardianTramp

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