Published on March 20, 2012 by Amy
Buffy Sainte-Marie, OC (born February 20, 1941) is a Canadian Cree singer-songwriter, musician, composer, visual artist, educator, pacifist, and social activist. Throughout her career in all of these areas, her work has focused on issues of Indigenous peoples of the Americas. Her singing and writing repertoire includes subjects of love, war, religion, and mysticism. She recorded one country album, I’m Gonna Be a Country Girl Again, in Nashville, and her Academy Award-winning “Up Where We Belong” is considered “pure pop”.
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She founded the Cradleboard Teaching Project, an educational curriculum devoted to better understanding Native Americans. She has won recognition and many awards and honours for both her music and her work in education and social activism.
She was born Beverly Sainte-Marie in 1941 on the Piapot Cree Indian reserve in the Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan, Canada. She was orphaned and later adopted, growing up in Wakefield, Massachusetts with parents Albert and Winifred Sainte-Marie, who were related to her biological parents. She attended the University of Massachusetts Amherst, earning degrees (BA 1963 and PhD 1983) in teaching and Oriental philosophy, and graduating in the top ten of her class.
In 1964 on a return trip to the Piapot Cree reserve in Canada for a Powwow she was welcomed and (in a Cree Nation context) adopted by the youngest son of Chief Piapot, Imu Piapot and his wife, who added to Sainte-Marie’s cultural value of, and place in, native culture.
In 1968 she married surfing teacher Dewain Bugbee of Hawaii; they divorced in 1971. She married Sheldon Wolfchild from Minnesota in 1975; they have a son, Dakota “Cody” Starblanket Wolfchild. That union also ended and she married, thirdly, to Jack Nitzsche in the early 1980s, but her current partner is Chuck Wilson (since 1993). She currently lives on Kauai.
She became an active friend of the Bahá’í Faith by the mid-1970s when she is said to have appeared in the 1973 Third National Baha’i Youth Conference at the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and has continued to appear at concerts, conferences and conventions of that religion since then. In 1992, she appeared in the musical event prelude to the Bahá’í World Congress, a double concert “Live Unity: The Sound of the World” in 1992 with video broadcast and documentary. In the video documentary of the event Sainte-Marie is seen on the Dini Petty Show explaining the Bahá’í teaching of Progressive revelation.
In 1996 she received an honorary Doctor of Laws Honoris Causa degree from the University of Regina in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. She then gave the convocation address to the administration, education, and engineering graduates. As part of the address, Sainte-Marie sang a song about the Canadian Indian residential school system.
In 2007 she received an honorary Doctor of Letters from Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. On 13 June 2008, she received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Carleton University, in Ottawa, Canada, an honorary Doctor of Music from The University of Western Ontario on June 10, 2009, in London, Ontario, and an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from the Ontario College of Art & Design on June 4, 2010, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Sainte-Marie played piano and guitar, self-taught, in her childhood and teen years. In college some of her songs, “Ananias”, the Indian lament, “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone” and “Mayoo Sto Hoon” (in Hindi) were already in her repertoire.
By 1962, in her early twenties, Sainte-Marie was touring alone, developing her craft and performing in various concert halls, folk music festivals and Native Americans reservations across the United States, Canada and abroad. She spent a considerable amount of time in the coffeehouses of downtown Toronto’s old Yorkville district, and New York City’s Greenwich Village as part of the early to mid-1960s folk scene, often alongside other emerging Canadian contemporaries, such as Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell (including introducing her to manager Eliot Roberts), and Neil Young.
She quickly earned a reputation as a gifted songwriter, and many of her earliest songs were covered, and often turned into chart-topping hits, by other artists including Chet Atkins, Janis Joplin and Taj Mahal. One of her most popular songs, “Until It’s Time for You to Go”, has been recorded by artists as diverse as Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra, Roberta Flack, Françoise Hardy, Cher, Maureen McGovern, and Bobby Darin, while “Piney Wood Hills” was made into a country music hit by Bobby Bare. Her vocal style features a frequently recurring, insistent, unusually sustained vibrato, one more prominent than can be found in the music of any other well-known popular music performer.
In 1963, recovering from a throat infection Sainte-Marie became addicted to codeine and recovering from the experience became the basis of her song “Cod’ine”, later covered by Donovan, Janis Joplin, The Charlatans, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Litter, The Leaves, Jimmy Gilmer, Gram Parsons as a part of his Another Side of This Life: The Lost Recordings of Gram Parsons 1965-1966, the songwriter Charles Brutus McClay and even – slightly retitled “Codeine” – by the UK based Anglo-Canadian neo garage rock band The Barracudas on the band’s 1981 debut LP “Drop Out with The Barracudas”, and more recently by Courtney Love. Also in 1963 Sainte-Marie witnessed wounded soldiers returning from Vietnam at a time when the U.S. government was denying involvement – this inspired her protest song “Universal Soldier” which was released on her debut album, It’s My Way on Vanguard Records in 1964, and later became a hit for Donovan. She was subsequently named Billboard Magazine’s Best New Artist. Some of her songs such as “My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying” (1964, included on her 1966 album) addressing the plight of the Native American people created a lot of controversy at the time.
In 1967, Sainte-Marie released the album Fire and Fleet and Candlelight, which contained her interpretation of the traditional Yorkshire dialect song “Lyke Wake Dirge”. Sainte-Marie’s other well-known songs include “Mister Can’t You See,” (a Top 40 U.S. hit in 1972); “He’s an Indian Cowboy in the Rodeo”; and the theme song of the popular movie Soldier Blue. Perhaps her first appearance on TV was as herself on To Tell the Truth in January 1966. She also appeared on Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest with Pete Seeger in 1965 and several Canadian Television productions from the 1960s through to the 1990s, and other TV shows such as American Bandstand, Soul Train, The Johnny Cash Show and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson; and sang the opening song “The Circle Game” (written by Joni Mitchell) in Stuart Hagmann’s film The Strawberry Statement (1970).
In the late sixties, Sainte-Marie used a Buchla synthesizer to record the album Illuminations, which did not receive much notice. “People were more in love with the Pocahontas-with-a-guitar image,” she commented in a 1998 interview.
In late 1975, Sainte Marie got a phone call from Dulcy Singer, then Associate Producer of Sesame Street, to appear on the show. According to Sainte-Marie, Singer wanted her to count and recite the alphabet like everyone else, but instead, she wanted to teach the show’s young viewers that “Indians still exist”. Sainte-Marie had been invited earlier that year to appear on another children’s TV show which she would not name, but turned the invitation down since the program ran commercials for G.I. Joe war toys.
Sainte-Marie regularly appeared on Sesame Street over a five year period from 1976–1981, along with her first son, Dakota Starblanket Wolfchild whom she breast fed in one episode. Sesame Street even aired a week of shows from her home in Hawaii in December 1977; where Sainte-Marie and her family were joined by Bob (Bob McGrath), Maria (Sonia Manzano), Mr. Hooper (Will Lee), Olivia (Alaina Reed Hall, who was Sainte-Marie’s closest friend from the Sesame Street cast), Big Bird and Oscar (both portrayed by Carroll Spinney).
In 1979 the film Spirit of the Wind, featuring Sainte-Marie’s original musical score including the song “Spirit of the Wind”, was one of three entries that year at Cannes, along with The China Syndrome and Norma Rae. The film is a docudrama of George Attla, the ‘winningest dog musher of all time,’ as the film presents him, with all parts played by Native Americans except one by Slim Pickens. The film was shown on cable TV in the early 1980s and was released in France in 2003. Sainte-Marie’s musical score has been described as ‘inspiring’, ‘haunting’, and ‘perfection’.
Sainte-Marie began using Apple Inc. Apple II and Macintosh computers as early as 1981 to record her music and later some of her visual art. The song “Up Where We Belong” (which Sainte-Marie co-wrote with Will Jennings and musician Jack Nitzsche) was performed by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes for the film An Officer and a Gentleman. It received the Academy Award for Best Song in 1982. The song was later covered by Cliff Richard and Anne Murray on Cliff’s album of duets, Two’s Company.
In the early 1980s one of her native songs was used as the theme song for the CBC’s native series Spirit Bay. She was cast for the TNT 1993 telefilm The Broken Chain. It was shot entirely in Virginia. In 1989 she wrote and performed the music for Where the Spirit Lives, a film about native children being abducted and forced into residential schools.
Sainte-Marie voiced the Cheyenne character, Kate Bighead, in the 1991 made-for-TV movie Son of the Morning Star, telling the Indian side of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, where Lt. Col. George Custer was killed.
In 1992, after a sixteen-year recording hiatus, Sainte-Marie released the album Coincidence and Likely Stories. Recorded in 1990 at home in Hawaii on her computer and transmitted via modem through the early Internet to producer Chris Birkett in London, England, the album included the politically-charged songs “The Big Ones Get Away” and “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” (which mentions Leonard Peltier), both commenting on the ongoing plight of Native Americans (see also the book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.) Also in 1992, Sainte-Marie appeared in the television film The Broken Chain with Pierce Brosnan along with fellow First Nations Bahá’í Phil Lucas. Her next album followed up in 1996 with Up Where We Belong, an album on which she re-recorded a number of her greatest hits in more unplugged and acoustic versions, including a re-release of “Universal Soldier”. Sainte-Marie has exhibited her art at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Emily Carr Gallery in Vancouver and the American Indian Arts Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
In 1969 she started a philanthropic non-profit fund Nihewan Foundation for American Indian Education devoted to improving Native American students participation in learning. She founded the Cradleboard Teaching Project in October 1996 using funds from her Nihewan Foundation and with a two year grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation of Battle Creek, Michigan. With projects across Mohawk, Cree, Ojibwe, Menominee, Coeur D’Alene, Navajo, Quinault, Hawaiian, and Apache communities in eleven states, partnered with a non-native class of the same grade level for Elementary, Middle, and High School grades in the disciplines of Geography, History, Social Studies, Music and Science and produced a multimedia curriculum CD, Science: Through Native American Eyes.
In 2000, Sainte-Marie gave the commencement address at Haskell Indian Nations University. In 2002 she sang at the Kennedy Space Center for Commander John Herrington,USN, a Chickasaw and the first Native American astronaut. In 2003 she became a spokesperson for the UNESCO Associated Schools Project Network in Canada.
In 2004, a track written and performed by Sainte-Marie, entitled “Lazarus”, was sampled by Hip Hop producer Kanye West and performed by Cam’Ron and Jim Jones of The Diplomats. The track is called “Dead or Alive”. In June 2007, she made a rare U.S. appearance at the Clearwater Festival in Croton-on-Hudson, New York.
In 2008, a two-CD set titled Buffy/Changing Woman/Sweet America: The Mid-1970s Recordings was released, compiling the three studio albums that she recorded for ABC Records and MCA Records between 1974 and 1976 (after departing her long-time label Vanguard Records). This was the first re-release of this material. In September 2008, Sainte-Marie made a comeback onto the music scene in Canada with the release of her latest studio album Running For The Drum. It was produced by Chris Birkett (producer of her 1992 and 1996 best of albums). Sessions for this latest project commenced in 2006 in Sainte-Marie’s home studio in Hawaii and in part in France. They continued until spring 2007.
Sainte-Marie claimed in a 2008 interview at the National Museum of the American Indian that she had been blacklisted and that she, along with Native Americans and other native people in the Red Power movements, were put out of business in the 1970s.
“I found out 10 years later, in the 1980s, that President Lyndon B. Johnson had been writing letters on White House stationery praising radio stations for suppressing my music”, Sainte-Marie said in a 1999 interview at Diné College given to Brenda Norrel, a staff writer with Indian Country Today … “In the 1970s, not only was the protest movement put out of business, but the Native American movement was attacked.” According to Norrel, this article was initially censored by Indian Country Today, and finally published only in part in 2006.
In 1997, Sainte-Marie won a Canadian Gemini Award for her 1996 variety special, Up Where We Belong.
In 1983–4, the song “Up Where We Belong” (music by Jack Nitzsche and Buffy Sainte-Marie; lyrics by Will Jennings) from An Officer and a Gentleman won an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, and a BAFTA Film Award for Best Original Song.