Beginning her career in the early nineteen sixties and continuing to perform today, Buffy Sainte-Marie is a brilliant singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, composer, actor, visual artist, scholar and educator. Her songs range in style from folk, pop, soul, roots, rock ‘n roll and protest anthem, and have been covered by numerous artists, from Elvis to David Bowie to Galaxie 500 to Neko Case. Sainte-Marie’s music offers an array of themes –love, addiction, Cripple Creek – and she established herself as a protest singer early on, passionately addressing subjects no one else dared to: advocating for Native American rights, educating people about misrepresentation of Native culture, spotlighting environmental destruction, and calling for an end to war.
Buffy Sainte-Marie was born to Cree parents in Saskatchewan, was adopted, and grew up in Maine and Massachusetts. The sense of Maine’s magical landscape comes into Sainte-Marie songs like I’m Going to be a Country Girl Again, and Piney Wood Hills, “I’ll return to the woodlands, I’ll return to the snow, I’ll return to the hills, and the valley below…I grew up on a song there…” Sainte-Marie says that she taught herself piano at an early age and the forest was her refuge. Her voice blows our breezes and makes our eyes well with moon.
Sainte-Marie sums up why the military gives us reason to mourn in her song Universal Soldier, the resistance-movement classic written in 1962.
“You’re the one who must decide
Who’s to live and who’s to die
You’re the one who gives his body
As a weapon of the war – And without you all this killing can’t go on.”
In discussing the song, Sainte-Marie said, “we are each responsible – civilians, mothers and sweethearts – so long as we tolerate it” – it is not only the soldier who is complicit, together we allow war to happen. “Universal Soldier” is still applicable today. Youth, particularly the underprivileged, are recruited into being killed and killers at early ages with the promise of money, stature and opportunity. As Sainte-Marie says, we need the peace activist version of west point academy teaching the youth non-violence instead.
The power of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s defiance towards injustice was recognized early on by the u.s. government. President Lyndon B Johnson said Sainte-Marie’s music “deserves to be suppressed” and there are letters on LBJ stationary ordering radio stations to ban her music. Sainte-Marie was blacklisted, along with artists like Eartha Kitt and Pete Seeger who protested the Vietnam War. In retrospect, Sainte-Marie reasoned it was the fact she advocates for Native American rights that made her such a threat to the LBJ administration, and speculates that she would have a much wider audience in the u.s. if not for the blacklisting that went on—and that it is a shame to have been silenced because her music is medicine to the people.
Censorship of Native peoples is still going on today. Buffy Sainte-Marie has been in the news recently because of the banning of ethnic studies in Arizona. One of the primary banned books is Rethinking Columbus, which includes lyrics to the Sainte-Marie song, “My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying,” one of the most poignant songs about the exploitation of Natives in existence,
“Hear how the bargain was made
for the West
with her shivering children
in zero degrees
‘blankets for your land,’
so the treaties attest.
Oh, well, blankets for land
is a bargain indeed.
And the blankets were those
Uncle Sam had collected
from smallpox disease-dying
soldiers that day
and the tribes were wiped out,
and the history books censored
a hundred years
of your statesmen have felt
it’s better this way
Yet a few of the conquered
have somehow survived.
Their blood runs the red earth….”
It is ironic how Sainte-Marie calls out censorship of history in this song, and now, fifty years later, the lyrics are being censored again. Arizona is retrograding with its horrendous policies that try to deny the human rights and existence of brown people – such as making it lawful to interrogate anyone authorities suspect to be an illegal immigrant.
Censorship often makes banned materials more prominent and recognized for their quality art and truth – the suppressed surfaces stronger than before. Hopefully more people than ever will now be reading Rethinking Columbus, which includes other important authors such as Leslie Marmon Silko, Joy Harjo, Martin Espada, and Eduardo Galeano.
Buffy Sainte-Marie’s song-writing ability is unmatched – her lyrics are rhythmic poetry and speak universal truths. When using her talents to protest war and injustice – Sainte-Marie is powerful and effective, bringing chant-pop momentum to carry audiences towards justice.
Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “The Priests of the Golden Bull” calls out corporate greed in hypnotic melody. The song offers a stark message, combined with a sense of being lifted up:
“Third Worlders see it first
The dynamite, the dozers
the cancer and the acid rain
The corporate caterpillars come into
and turn the world to pocket change
Reservations are the nuclear frontline
Uranium poisoning kills
We’re starving in a handful of gluttons
We’re drowning in their gravy spills”
The desolation of this scene still rings true today: environmental destruction, being sold out for corporate interest, tribal lands being poisoned, destruction of amazon rain forests and peoples – the list of murders for profit goes on.
The Sainte-Marie song “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” is a rock-roots ballad that fiercely challenges the injustice enacted against Native people since colonizers first set foot on America, still going on today. In the song, Sainte-Marie references the tragic story of her friend and comrade, the Micmac AIM leader Anna Mae Aquash.
“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”
These lyrics sum up the twisted foul play the u.s. government sanctioned in the murder and murder-cover up of Anna Mae Aquash—a mother and active AIM member who stood up for her people and land. Anna Mae Aquash has become a symbol of strength and courage, and of all the wrong enacted against Native people.
Buffy Sainte-Marie continues to spotlight greediness, blood money, and other wrongs of the world. Her 2009 album, Running for the Drum, includes the track, “No No Keshagesh,”
which people are now using as an Occupy Movement theme song. It is intoxicating pop rock with tribal percussion and lyrics like, “[They] want all the resources and all of the land. They make a war of it, blow things up for it,” the chorus defiantly protests war and greed, “you can’t do that no more (no more no more no more),” using the classic protest song motif of presenting an oppositional solution. No No Keshagesh brilliantly has crowd noise in it – giving the momentum of an empowering rally – and of dancing together, saying “we’ve taken back the world, war is over.”
In her introduction to Heartbeat of the Earth – A First Nations Artist Records Injustice and Resistance by ‘Wii Muk ‘ Willixw (Art Wilson), Buffy Sainte-Marie offers this remedy:
“The great matriarchies of the indigenous world ensure that we operate with one hundred percent of our brain power, not just fifty percent. The great potlatch generosity of indigenous cultures is The Solution to the dilemma of modern nation state corporate greed.” – 13
Sainte-Marie praises the intrinsic genius of being harmonious – taking care of one another and the earth and realizing there’s enough for all if we’re not greedy.
Buffy Sainte-Marie is an example to us. She’s dedicated her life to justice, pacifism, art, and being a good person – remaining beautiful and defiant as ever in her elder years – her roots are strong and deep . I am proud that she grew up in Maine – that this place is of her – giving balm to the soul of the world.
Rethinking Columbus, edited by Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson, 1998
Heartbeat of the Earth A First Nations Artist Records Injustice and Resistance, ‘Wii Muk ‘Willixw (Art Wilson), 1996
The Life and Death of Anna Mae Aquash, Johanna Brand, 1993