Buffy Sainte Marie joined the cast of Sesame Street in the 1970s in order to let children know that “Indians still exist.” Now Buffy is less alone in the public eye as an Indigenous artist. She collaborates with younger musicians and won a Polaris Music Prize for Power in the Blood in 2015, fifty years into her career.
Born on the Piapot First Nation in Treaty 4, just north of Regina, Saskatchewan, in 1941, Buffy was adopted and raised in Massachusetts and, like a lot of stunningly original artists, first performed in the folk scene of the early 60s. She is equally adept at writing protest songs like “Universal Soldier” and “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” and love songs like “Up Where We Belong.”
A singer and guitarist who accompanies herself, Buffy has also embraced unconventional instrumentation throughout her work, from the mouthbow on her early folk recordings, to synths on her early experimental album Illuminations and her mid-career masterpiece Coincidence and Likely Stories. Most distinctive of all, though, is Buffy’s voice, with its tender and uncompromising vibrato, rising above everything, where the eagles cry on a mountain high.
We reached out to Buffy via email, and she sent back the following responses through her representation.
1. Your music has changed a lot over the years, and has embraced a lot of different styles at different times. What drives those changes? Do you find inspiration from working in new genres and with new sounds?
Some people think I have kept “changing over the years” as genres changed, but actually in each and every album I changed from song to song! In some cases I was inventing styles for which there still is no “genre.” “Cod’ine,” “Little Wheel Spin & Spin,” “Starwalker,” “Disinformation,” “Eagle Man,” “Qu’appelle Valley Saskatchewan,” “God Is Alive – Magic Is Afoot,” and a whole lotta songs I’ve never recorded are all outside the box.
I try to record each song as I hear it in my head.
(Some artists actually do create original music, though their record companies may discourage it. Genres are marketing conveniences for companies who sell music, not create music.)
2. What kind of music did you listen to growing up? Was the traditional music of your territory part of your upbringing?
When I was little, I heard whatever the grownups had on the radio: mostly old-style pop. I also made up my own music by ear on piano from about age three. I could play fake Tchaikovsky and Wagner, or write songs real easy. When my folks got a record player I liked Swan Lake, still do. At about age 12, I heard Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Little Richard, and the Platters and I could relate immediately because of the freshness and believability of genuine highly motivated original youth music. Raised in Maine and Massachusetts, I heard almost no Indigenous music, certainly no Cree music.
3. When you started out in the folk scene playing clubs in Greenwich Village, did you have a sense that this was an especially important time in music?
The folk scene in Greenwich Village and later Yorkville, and streets and college campuses everywhere, was important for a lot of reasons. Young people had discovered our brains and were not going to support some businessman’s damn war. Music from around the world was being spread by people like me: talented young creatives in coffee houses, emerging singer-songwriters with airplane tickets, as well as international music festivals who would bring in artists from Africa, the UK, the American South, all over the world. Culture became hip and people’s minds expanded beyond what our parents had known.
4. You used synthesizer early on (on Illuminations), and later on Coincidence and Likely Stories. What drew you to the synthesizer?
Curiosity! Like most little kids, at age three I would try to make music on pots and pans, glasses, a little xylophone, a ukulele – anything that’d make noise – and I still do. As a teenager without a teacher, I invented weird tunings on my guitar, re-tuned pianos in strange ways, put banjo and bass strings on my guitars, just for the fun of it to see what they sounded like. I used early sixties synthesizers (Arp, MOOG, other matrix electronic instruments) on Fire and Fleet and Candlelight, Illuminations, and just about every album after that, as well as the movies I was scoring at the time, and it was very new. Using big synths like the Synclavier and the Fairlight (heaven!) allowed me to play violins and cellos, whole orchestras in new ways and it was really wonderful. And I could process my voice to change into a cello and then to a coyote. Irresistible! And movie scoring allowed me to develop different desires and skills.
5. You’ve collaborated with other musicians, and have recently worked with Tanya Tagaq and A Tribe Called Red. How do you think starting out as an Indigenous artist now is different than it was for you in the 60s?
Thanks for that question, because we really have made progress in becoming more visible/audible. Here’s the background. Show business came out of New York vaudeville which was mostly Jewish in style, including business style (producers, managers, agents, stars, composers, writers), the grandchild of European parents. It was a world that used to be almost impossible to enter. Not a matter of talent: just a matter of business and networking and who you could call to help launch a lucrative career, and we didn’t even know where the door was. It’s not that Indigenous people were not welcome: we had absolutely no access, didn’t have an uncle in the business, didn’t know a lawyer, had no understanding that a lot of the guys running things had all gone to high school together and were in intense competition for power and money. The same bunch of guys controlled the recording studios. Used to be there was not one single Indigenous person who had made it in show business, except for Jay Silverheels from Six Nations Reserve, who played Tonto in the Lone Ranger series; and Maria Tallchief, the Osage prima ballerina of the New York City Ballet. [Editor’s note: please see Editorial Comment below.]
Contrast that with the progress we’ve made since then. Although the music business is mostly driven by White and Black markets and still intensely competitive, we now do have networks and have taught each other what’s what to some extent. When we created the Music of Aboriginal Canada Juno category, Elaine Bomberry and Shingoose and I had to come up with the numbers that convinced CARAS that there indeed is an Indigenous music industry: artists, musicians, songwriters, traditionals, multi-genres, producers, studios, and records being made. Now there are loads of Indigenous artists who create and circulate their own creations via their computers, phones, and the internet. Indigenous artists, traditionals, and bands seem to be more supportive of one another than in the vaudeville model who can be pretty cutthroat. I’m real proud to have seen all this develop and help when I can.
It would be my dream to create traveling workshops for emerging Indigenous artists of all kinds, where we would share the ins and outs and pitfalls and booby traps, and fun and joys of a life in professional music.
Buffy Sainte-Marie performs at Showplace Theatre on August 18 as part of the Peterborough Folk Festival’s ticketed Kickoff Show.
We were quite shocked by Ms. Sainte-Marie’s comments about the Jewish people, and we condemn them. It is undoubtedly true that success in the music industry has often been based on relationships, which has made it difficult for Indigenous musicians to get the exposure they deserve. It is also true that there have been a number of Jewish managers and bookers.
However, to draw a causal relationship, or claim that the “business style” of the Jewish people was to specifically exclude non-Jews, is untrue and offensive. We believe it plays into regressive and hateful stereotypes that paint Jews as an insular clan working to secretly control things and prop up their own. Historically, these stereotypes have often led to suspicion and violence directed against Jewish people.
We reached out to Ms. Sainte-Marie’s representation for a follow-up, but did not hear back. If we get a response, we will post it on our website.
After this article was published, we received the following response from Ms Sainte-Marie:
Thanks for your comments. Although I tried to be clear in my attempt to contrast how starting out as an Indigenous artist now is different than it was for me in the 60s, apparently I was not clear enough. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that ‘the “business style” of the Jewish people was to specifically exclude non-Jews”, as you say in your comment.
My own comment said “It’s not that Indigenous people were not welcome: we had absolutely no access”, and that refers to the facts of social, cultural and business networking of the time.
I’ve been reading lots of show business biographies and histories over the past two years and I can recommend several books celebrating the enormous contributions of Jewish entrepreneurs in building and developing the entertainment industry.
One of the things that many people seem to agree on is crediting Jewish business leaders first – followed by their second-generation immigrant counterparts – with inventing and developing modern show business. Show business as we know it today– both the show model and the business model – originated within European Yiddish theatre transplanted to New York, and developed into huge industries, especially vaudeville, Broadway and movies. Not only the actors but also the theatre owners, distributers, writers, composers, producers, agents, managers and studio executives who have built show business have overwhelmingly been Jewish talent. This seems to be something to celebrate, and it is celebrated widely, including by me. (Please see book list below.)
But in contrast, consider some Indigenous artist from the boonies, never been to New York and knowing no one and nothing about show business, especially somebody from a reservation or Indian town for instance, trying to negotiate the path into show business with no contacts at all; he or she would find themselves on an invisible road without a helping hand. We had no circuit, no network, no address book, no friends or relatives; no lawyers, no producer or development teams, like the Shubert Brothers, from our own particular culture. Essentially no entry into show business at all. No welcome mat. Not even a map to the door. We were from seriously “out of town” and didn’t know anybody. Moreover, we were “invisible” to most North Americans who seldom thought of us at all, and we were popularly said to have “vanished”.
Scholars point out (please refer to book list below.) that Jewish artists and creators could momentarily escape anti-Semitism* in richly Jewish vaudeville and theatre where the infrastructure, audience and talent were all on the same page, where they could feel at home with the stories, the music, the jokes, and the underlying references. That’s great.
But Indigenous people have had no similar “home” in show business anywhere: no collaborators with an appreciation of our underlying culture, music or humor, nobody who even had a pitying glimpse of how our lack of business experience and business connections would affect somebody who’d never been around it.
This is not a comment about Jewish people; it’s a comment about colonialism, which typically has not seen beyond its own mandate.
I suggest the following references for anybody interested in the history of North American show business and particularly the Jewish talent that is largely credited with its development.
There Was A Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream by Ben Sidran
*A History of the Jews in America by Howard Morley Sacher
The Genesis of Mass Culture: Show Business Live in America, 1840 to 1940 by Jay Springhall
The Journey Home: Jewish Women and the American Century by Joyce Antler
The Jews in America Trilogy by Stephen Birmingham
Encyclopedia of Modern Jewish Culture edited by Crowley Lecturer in Post-Biblical Hebrew Fellow in Modern Hebrew Literature Oxford Center for Post-Graduate Hebrew Studies Glenda Abramson
City of Promises: A History of the Jews of New York by Howard B. Rock, Deborah Dash Moore, Jeffrey S. Gurock, Annie Polland, Daniel Soyer, Diana L. Linden
An Empire of Their Own by Neal Gabler
Cover photo by Matt Barnes.