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April 21, 2024

Interview with Buffy Sainte-Marie

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Buffy-Sainte-Marie.photo by Matt Barnes


Byron Bay Bluesfest  |  9–13 April 2020

Buffy the Truth Sayer

Last week I had a phone call lined up for a 20–minute chat with Buffy Sainte–Marie. At 81, this Indigenous Canadian–American singer songwriter is a world elder – she’s also an Oscar–winning composer, visual artist, educator, pacifist, and social activist. I was meant to be chatting with her ahead of her performance at Bluesfest. Unfortunately, the call didn’t get through, so my excitement at connecting with her – even if only over the phone, went to disappointment. But Buffy ended up doing something much better. She answered all my questions via email, with the most detail and consideration I think anyone ever has. Due to space requirements I can only run two answers in Seven. If you want to read this interview in full, and you should, you need to go online to Echonetdaily.

Mandy: As a woman, a feminist, a believer in peace and justice for First Nations peoples, and for wild spaces around the planet, I am always moved by artists who use their voice to give rise to the voices that often aren’t heard or acknowledged – how did you first find your passion to talk the talk and walk the walk?

Buffy: I guess I had a fortunate (and unfortunate) childhood in that regard: I was shunned from the standard path, but I actually loved my solitude in the wilderness they left behind!

The misogynists in the family were typical of the time, but I had a great mum who was unaware of their pedophile behavior, and she kinda protected me with a sense of humor, a recognition of my natural talents as fun and nourishing, and the information that I could grow up and discover all the stuff I wanted to know. So I had a love of life itself and a fascination with possibility, in spite of cruelty, bullying, pedophilia and both innocent and deliberate gaslighting.

Mandy: Why do you think music and art has a way of getting through to people – especially those who may not have been open to an argument or more ‘intellectual’ approach?

Buffy: Ha ha, sometimes you have to be sneaky.

Your question is right on, and I experienced exactly that when the initial folk/protest audiences of smart college students expanded to include all our usual human boneheads; the drunk, the greedy and the duhhhhs – everybody. That’s us.

The majority of consumers show up in the shallows for a quick adrenaline rush, I understand that. For them music is just an extension of their personal binge, part of an evening out. (No shame – that’s where they’re at, because of everything in their lives so far. By this I mean that they’re “young” in experience. Immature, un-ripe, compared to their best potential which may be up ahead somewhere, or not.)

Let’s step back. See, before I was a professional singer, I was a teacher. My college degree isn’t in music or business, it’s in Oriental Philosophy, which was the closest I could get to studying people’s experiences with the Creator and creativity, which was my deepest passion. I never associated creativity with lessons – art lessons, music lessons etc. And that’s the key to who I am.

Actually, I learned about ten years ago that I’m dyslexic in certain kinds of symbology, and that may be why I’ve never been able to sight-read music: I play by ear (which doesn’t make anybody any money). Shunned and shamed in school music class, I wasn’t allowed to be in band and got bad grades in music, because, although I can write music accurately, I can’t read it back.

This is how my life was before I entered show business. I already knew that there wasn’t a place for me with the cool kids (the Judy’s and the Joanie’s et al handled by shark managers). The only way I could survive stage fright was that I believed in the content of the songs, and my acoustic [ITAL]Now that the Buffalo’s Gone[/ITAL] reached a lot of people who had no concept of Indian anything. For a short time in the mid-1960s, before the crowds became huge, I believed that if my coffee house audiences only had the information about indigenous issues, the audiences might wake up and help; and I was right, and they did – but not enough. Teachers especially appreciated a song on my third album called My Country Tis of Thy People which was Indian 101, in six minutes.

Mandy, you with your research and living in the present time may or may not realise that Indigenous 101 had not come up yet in the public consciousness! Nobody had raised the questions, and certainly not via music. When I used the word genocide the reaction was “Aw, the little Indian girl must be mistaken.” It took another fifty years before Truth and Reconciliation in Canada examined it, and then educated the public about genocide, the residential schools, and the gaslighting concomitant to their ignorance. Makes me wonder whether I could have reached more people more powerfully if I had composed that song with a hot track instead.

By contrast, regarding both me and the world of consumers, (givers and receivers of information) many years later when I was writing Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee I strategically put this bulletproof information into a hard-rocking track so that people were digging and dancing – before they even knew what the song was about. That’s what I mean by sometimes you have to be sneaky: use your brain instead of your ego.

Mandy: It feels to me like things are changing? Or am I deluded? How do you maintain your sense of hope and belief?

Buffy: It seems like my sense of hope and belief are built in. Or else established at the root level.

Regarding things changing, things are always changing. It’s all about surviving the naturally recurring cycles of termites. If you live in a wood house, you’re gonna get termites – don’t take it personally. Termites come and termites go. Whether or not they destroy your house depends on more than just one thing, but includes your own vigilance. You can get rid of them for a while, but unless you’re vigilant they will come back. Or their next generations will. Or their cousins. Don’t focus on how awful the termites are; focus on your own vigilance and what you are protecting.

Bad leadership, inequity, oppression and misogyny are not new and found even in some indigenous cultures as well, but on a tiny scale. In Europe and the Middle East however, they’ve all been institutionalised for centuries by politicians and religious rackets who feed off whatever people love, including innate spirituality. The big racket (I call it the [okie-doke) was exported and distributed all over the indigenous world by profiteers: banks, churches, monarchs and dictators. But not everybody did it. That’s where I focus.

As I see men slaughtering the forests for short time rewards, I still love, respect and believe in Nature – the greatest source of inspiration.

As I witness potential despotism and Nazi views in the eyes of young white men, I’m aware and grateful to all the rest of us, and them, who have evolved further than that, and I have sincere hope and confidence that we’re all continually ripening as a species and as individuals.

Mandy: Has there been a moment for you that really confirmed that this is the right path for you? How do you cope or manage that sense of smallness and powerlessness in the face of the machine of first world colonial capitalism?

Buffy: Re confirmed the right path, many times. And very obviously. My so-called career never strayed very far from my earliest ways of knowing and doing. I never felt powerful and at home in the world of my childhood exploiters, or in the world of Clive Davis and others who run the business part of show business; but there’s no way I could not feel at home in my own creativity – which is like breathing in and out, involves input and output, continual learning and teaching, continual refreshment. My education in philosophy helps me every day too, because I’m right at home with conflicting opinions about ‘the meaning of life’ and other big human issues. I don’t fear controversy. And I can tolerate – even appreciate – a multiplicity of views. Like an orchestra 🙂 Ta dahh!

Here’s a clue: when I entered show business, I had already been hit in the face with several facts about the big bad world, that I boil down in my rant on termites.

1. I had been told I couldn’t be a musician because I couldn’t sight-read European notation.

2. I had been told I couldn’t be an Indian because we were all vanished.

3. My university denied my right to graduate because I had aced the test for a half-credit speech course as a freshman, and therefore didn’t need to take the class; but they’d never pointed out to my guidance counselor that the half-credit would need to be made up.

So ‘life’ had punished me for my reality instead of rewarding me, three times.

The blacklisting that was yet to come was the fourth coincidence in this pattern.

And the recent erasure at the pre-Academy Awards was a fifth time. (Christian Bale and Wes Studi proclaimed on television that Wes was the first Native American to win an Oscar. Actually I was. The Academy has apologised profusely – it wasn’t their fault.)

So in 1962 I was an Oriental Philosophy major on a mission to serve the world through art via Mahatma Gandhi’s university in India. I was one of the ten outstanding members of my class and had excellent grades. Three weeks before graduation, the University of Massachusetts told me I couldn’t graduate because of a technicality. This left me with nothing to do, so I entered show business, somewhat a detour from my original mission… or maybe not. Everybody liked my songs and I could see concerts becoming an even likelier way to serve.

The world was a bit different in 1962 from how it is now, but even then, some of us were into what we now would call intersectionality; Civil rights, indigenous rights, gender rights, age rights etc. All of it. The pundits told us we had to make up our mind on where they should focus. They asked me, “Are you more of an Indian, or a woman?”  Huh? Can’t we champion a lot of things?

Mandy: How do you want your albums to affect people? Are they music remedies for tired spirits?

Buffy: I don’t know. People have their own reasons for liking things. I can’t pretend to be writing this stuff just for myself, and I do like show business, at least the show part. That is, I now know (because people tell me so) that audiences are touched and affected in various ways by my music and my ways of thinking. Some people refused the draft, burned their draft cards, moved to Canada because of [ITAL]Universal Soldier[/ITAL]. A lot more people fell in love to [ITAL]Until It’s Time for You to Go[/ITAL] or [ITAL]Up Where We Belong[/ITAL].

Mandy: Singer songwriter Áine Tyrrell tells the story of what an Australian Indigenous Elder of our region told her – that Indigenous nations around the world are experiencing a move from grandfather time to grandmother time – where we embrace the wisdom of the grandmother, and the men need to support that. Do you feel like that is happening? What wisdom do the grandmothers have to offer that might change our trajectory?

Buffy: On both a spiritual and every day human level, the Sacred Feminine in most every woman knows more than what most of us are saying, given the misogyny most of us experience in the home, the neighborhood, at church and at work. Christians hear the words Father, Son and Holy Spirit but most people are poorly educated in history, language and philosophy so they might not come across the idea of the Holy Spirit (in the Bible – the breasted one) as being feminine, not that this proves anything except that the concept is not new among great thinkers. Women like me know enough not to trouble the patriarchy openly with these thoughts and find other ways to do our magic.

On the level of human grandmothers, this too, literally, is so beautifully expressed by the Haudenasaunee Confederacy wherein the Clanmothers are a ruling factor in every stage of life. Really, the Sacred Feminine doesn’t need to brag, or win, or any of that. Our intuition is a great protector, and we should not ignore feminine alarm bells.

Mandy: You seem to have this relentless energy that moves from music to art to educator to composer… what is a typical day like for you? How do you harness this drive to create art, conversation and change? What do you do to restore yourself?

Buffy: When I’m home I do everything the same day: I get up in the dark (east coast jet lag in Hawaii) – very early, might paint something, write something, listen to parts of several books, work in the garden, and I love to do housework since I miss it on the road. I’m never caught up, everything is always moving ahead. On the road a typical day is: I stand in a lot of lines, fly on several airplanes, check into a hotel, carry gear, rehearse with the band, do interviews, concerts, autograph signings – I stay really busy until bedtime, when I’m wide awake until 5am, so that’s when I read, listen to audiobooks and music, watch movies etc.

Zero alcohol all my life, plus now I avoid grains and sugar as well, and so far I’m super healthy. And I dance, work out classes at the gym with a bunch of other women. Bed and a bath cures almost anything. I gave up sugar to get rid of brain fog (incredible change in energy – easy, highly recommend it) and now I eat like a champion: butter, cream, high fat yogurt, avocados, extra-virgin olive oil, salmon, blueberries, lotsa greens: a very greasy diet. I was convinced I’d miss sugar, but like leaving a bad boyfriend, I got away. Best nutrition books: Gut by Giulia Enders. And Genius Foods by Max Lugavere.

Mandy: In Australia we still struggle to acknowledge the trauma we have inflicted on our First Nations peoples, is it a similar story in Canada?

Buffy: I guess it’s similar in Canada, even more so in the U.S. But, regarding how to solve the dilemma, look at it as a teacher – not a victim. Do you really want to teach? Or do you just like to scold people? The keys to interacting with a five-year-old are different to interacting with a business shark, an educated grandmother, a criminal. That is – who are you trying to change? If you’re building a garden, the solutions and techniques are different for a lush mountainside than for a flat desert. The fact is modern people are poorly educated in terms of nutrition and history. Consumers are encouraged to live on lies and sugar. But we can educate and take care of ourselves and to some extent our families.

Until White people understand the Doctrine of Discovery, I have little hope for quick change.

Mandy: What are the issues you are most passionate about right now – the ones affecting Native Americans?

Buffy: Poverty, inequity, voting rights, land theft, climate change, resource extraction, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, the Doctrine of Discovery –

I wish Steven Spielberg would make a great accurate movie about that one.

Mandy: Tell me about Universal Solider – were you aware at the time that you’d written an anthem for the peace movement? How did being blacklisted affect you – did it grow your audience? Did you feel a push-back from the establishment?

Buffy: Girl, you’ve got to be kidding! Grow my audience? I was gagged and disappeared from the marketplace. My audience was denied my voice and the thoughts behind my songs. It just kills me when people applaud the caricature of being blacklisted – implying there’s some kind of courage there. Although I appreciate the sympathy, courage never came up. I was ambushed in the dark, without even being aware I’d been victimised. It’s not as if they tell you, and you get to defend yourself. You’re just drowned and disappear. Your fans just imagine you’ve quit, or died, or something. I just thought singers come and singers go. Over twenty years went by before I saw my FBI files.

Mandy: How important is it, do you believe, to remain and become more dangerous and disruptive as you age? How have you done it?

Buffy: I’ve never tried to be dangerous or disruptive (just the opposite; that’s for boys’ egos) and I don’t advise anybody else to be so. I try to be effective, which is sometimes just the opposite, and requires patience, skill and awareness that predators can wipe you out. Refer to Bury My Heart above; effectiveness is strategic, and sometimes involves not appearing dangerous and disruptive. There is nothing of the triumphant martyr in me, I just want to be effective. Regarding the 1960s – I think I failed, misperceived the termites to be just ants, and the termites ate my house. But while they were eating my house, I was writing, painting, learning, teaching all kinds of art and philosophy that have gone on to much higher regions than I would ever have imagined. While I was being secretly blacklisted I built an educational foundation, and over the years saw two of my early scholarship recipients become the founders and presidents of tribal colleges. And I made sure that all the Indian parts in television’s The Virginian would be played by actual Native American actors (a first in Hollywood); and I taught Big Bird about breast feeding on Sesame Street, and a whole lot of other good things.

So even while the pros are trying to erase you, there are still lots of pictures left to paint and songs left to sing. Don’t concentrate on the weeds, just keep feeding the garden, and weeding wherever you can, whenever you get a chance.

Buffy Sainte-Marie is one of the featured acts at Bluefest this year. Don’t miss her. 9–13 April, 2020. bluesfest.com.au

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