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(2017 - Spring/Summer Issue)


Buffy Sainte-Marie has entertained audiences worldwide for more than 50 years. Her songs act as a medium for people to understand universal issues—love, war, the indigenous community and human rights. “I love words, I love thinking, and I recognize and value the core of a universal idea simplified into a three-minute song,” says Sainte-Marie.  

Born on the Piapot Plains Cree First Nation Reserve in Saskatchewan, Sainte-Marie’s career began in the 1960s when she played in New York’s Greenwich Village and Toronto’s Yorkville coffeehouses, which also featured Neil Young, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. Sainte-Marie’s music lays it on the line. Anti-war and Native American and First Nations activism and songs like her 1964 “Universal Soldier” hit didn’t sit well with everyone. The administrations of U.S. presidents’ Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon considered her an “artist to be suppressed” and she was blacklisted by the U.S. music industry and received no radio play in the 1970s. 

Yet, she persevered and continued her most important mission: educating indigenous communities and protecting their rights. Sainte-Marie founded the Nihewan Foundation for Native American Education in 1969 and has been actively involved ever since. She’s received numerous awards and accolades for her efforts, including 14 honorary doctorate degrees, the Order of Canada, two medals from Queen Elizabeth II, four JUNO awards, an Academy Award (Best Song—“Up Where We Belong”), a Golden Globe Award, and more recently, the Allan Waters Humanitarian Award.  

Sainte-Marie is also a successful visual artist. Her work appears in permanent collections at the Glenbow Museum (Calgary), the Gallery for Contemporary and Indigenous Art (Tucson), Winnipeg Art Gallery as well as in travelling exhibitions around the world. 

Now living in Hawaii, Sainte-Marie continues to perform, educate, paint and indulge in her other passion—travel.  

How would you describe your career?

My career is more than just music. It includes education, art and everything I do when I don’t have a record deal or when I’m not concerned with political issues.

What originally inspired you to play an instrument?

When I was three I saw a piano and I loved the noise it made. I was a solitary child because there were bullies in my neighbourhood and at home as well, so piano, paper, music and dancing consumed my time. Nobody taught me; I taught myself.

What would be a career highlight?

Sometimes you write a little song that somebody tells you it saved their life, like “Universal Soldier.” Or you do some little thing. For instance, I gave two people scholarships in my early career and they went on to do things I never could have imagined. I think those are the biggest successes in my life. They mean more than an Academy Award.

What do you love most about Canada?

Our national parks and animals. I want to go to Whitehorse and the Yukon. I enjoy dogsledding, especially with a bunch of other people.

What’s a favourite destination?

A favourite destination is Guatemala. I love to visit the Mayan villages and the people are really nice.

Do you have an item you always take with you?

A Komfort Kollar. It’s not like those toilet-seat-shaped, beanbag neck pillows at all—it has a strap across the front so your head won’t fall to the side or forward and wake you up. I always travel with hair clips to close the curtains—curtains in hotel rooms don’t close!

When you’re travelling for fun, what do you like to do?

I like to wander around and discover, meet people and engage in conversations. One of the great blessings of my life is that I get to travel. It’s something I’ve learned to do well, because I enjoy it.

How did technology play a role in your music and visual art?

I got into technology in the 1960s in my 20s but nobody wanted to know about electronic music then, so I was way ahead of everything. In a way, it was good because it was an open field and I got into scoring music, using electronic music and I made the first ever totally electronic quadraphonic vocal album called Illuminations. I don’t read music. I’m illiterate and dyslexic in music, so as hard as I try, I can never learn how to read music.

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