By Christine Leonard
CALGARY – Artist, activist, mother and role model, Buffy Sainte-Marie has lived many lives in her 77 years on this planet. A trailblazing singer-songwriter whose distinctive voice was first heard in beatnik cafes and reservation dance halls, she has come represent the civil upheaval of the sixties as much as the Cree Nation she was born to in Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan. From the early success of her 1964 debut, It’s my way!, and its blacklist-making Vietnam protest track “Universal Soldier,” to winning the Academy Award for Best Song (for co-writing “Up Where We Belong” from 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman), to her recent collaborations with modern musicians, Sainte-Marie is much more than the figurehead of a bygone era of social revolution. She’s a very real and relevant force to be reckoned with.
“I work hard and I try hard too. I think that a lot of us feel as though we’re not going to have to try hard anymore after high school, or when I get married, but to keep on growing and learning and having fun and producing and practicing– it is a lot of work, but it’s what I want to do. I try real hard to stay healthy and I’m 77, but I would recommend to anyone at any stage in their life that they get into bodybuilding. It’s so much fun and there’s so much you can do to keep fitting in the clothes that you really love. But you’ve gotta try and try hard.”
A meaningful and inspiring follow-up to 2015’s Power in the Blood (True North Records), which saw her take home both a Juno Award and a Polaris Music Prize, Sainte-Marie’s latest Medicine Songs (True North Records) dropped in 2017. Focusing on the healing properties of song, her new album was introduced to the world with the spirited single “You Got To Run (Spirit of the Wind),” featuring renowned Inuk vocalist Tanya Tagaq.
“That song is about three things. You’ve got to run a marathon for breast cancer in your community maybe, but also you’ve got to run for election if you think you can do better than the current crop of bozos. That takes some courage; that’s being a champion too. And, how about, you’ve got to run yourown life if you don’t like the way it’s going? So, that song’s a triple entendre I’ve got three meanings going on. All equally simulating, empowering, valuable, and whatever.”
Quick to laugh at the suggestion that she should consider going into politics, Sainte-Marie is keenly aware of balancing ambition with wisdom. She’s also very conscious of avoiding trying to appeal to the mainstream and dismissive of the trendiness that drives public attention towards certain issues and interests over others. According to Sainte-Marie, her version of activism hasn’t changed much of the years, even if it meant missing out on cashing in. But that doesn’t mean Sainte-Marie isn’t pushing formore inroads, by her estimation it’s high time for Indigenous musicians to start claiming their fair share of the pie.
“I don’t object to people who do play where there are seldom Indigenous spaces. That’s not the problem, the problem is that there is so little entry for an Indigenous person into the music business. We don’t know where the door is. We don’t have the networking. We don’t have the address book that the big white music industry or black music industry would have, because they have a background both in music and business and they have the numbers. I’m not blaming anyone for keeping Indigenous artists out. It’s that Indigenous artists don’t know how to get in.”
Truth be told even once you’re “in” the struggle doesn’t end. A fact that faithful advocate and living legend can attest to. Thankfully, when Buffy speaks–now more than ever – people listen.
“The realities and logistics of being a musician like me and travelling from town to town it gets really expensive. It’s making it very difficult for musicians, for bands, high school and college bands and also for sports teams to travel. We’re having a hard time doing the boonies now. We’re can afford only to work in the cities, doing one-nighters, because it’s just so freaking expensive.”
The only solution was to take matters into her own hands and shine a spotlight on an issue that Sainte-Marie believes has long-term consequences for artists of all stripes.
“I’m a visionary; I’m not an administrator. It’s quite, quite different,” she explains.
“But, I went to both the Junos and to Parliament with my suggestions. So, that’s a concrete thing that you can do as an activist, which is not the same as carrying a sign to get your picture in the paper.”
Buffy Saint-Marie performs September 9 at Skookum Festival (Vancouver)