Curtains Up interview with folk hero and pop icon Buffy Sainte-Marie
I have interviewed everybody from Cher to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and I rarely get nervous. But when I called up folk hero and pop icon Buffy Sainte-Marie at her home in Hawaii last week, I had the butterflies.
That’s because Sainte-Marie has famously written pop standards that have been sung and recorded by the likes of Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, Donovan and Elvis Presley. She wrote the anti-war anthem Universal Soldier, is the only Indigenous woman to win an Academy Award, not to mention she spent five years on the classic children’s television series Sesame Street. She continues to record new music, and her album Power In The Blood won the 2015 Polaris Music Prize.
The woman is a musical monument.
Not surprisingly, the globally beloved 77-year-old singer-songwriter – born on the Piapot Cree First Nation reserve in the Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan – quickly put me at my ease.
She gave a candid interview ahead of her much-anticipated concert at the Corona Theatre on February 16, her first in Montreal since 2009. This rare show promises to be one for the ages.
This week Sainte-Marie also received the People’s Voice Award at the 2019 International Folk Music Awards held at the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel on February 13, and she will do a public Q&A with her biographer Andrea Warner of the CBC, on February 15 at the Rialto Hall.
You have said your song My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying is “about residential schools and other tragedies of colonized Indigenous history.” Do you think Canadians are closer to accepting that Canada did indeed commit genocide?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: I think Canadians are much closer now to understanding what happened. I’m not sure Canadians have the same kind of understanding of it that I have since I have been familiar with it for so long. But the history behind the Canadian genocide upon Indigenous people started in Europe long before colonial people set out for the Americas. It’s built into Europe that things you cannot control should be destroyed. Nature is the enemy, Indigenous people are savages and their land is therefore up for grabs. This kind of business concept was running Europe for a very, very long time, since before the Old Testament, in my opinion, and it’s one of the reasons why a lot of people wanted to leave Europe.
You rewrote that song to reflect specifically Canadian issues when you sang it in Ottawa on the closing day of the in 2015. What was that moment like for you?
BSM: It was a warm place in my heart to know that things have changed enough that I could feel comfortable singing that song to people who are more knowledgeable now than they were when I wrote it. There is no edge of bitterness to that at all. It takes a long time to change things and things change not just because of what any individual does, but also because of what is going on elsewhere. Even though I was writing about the Canadian genocide against Indigenous people 50-something years ago, it took all these years for the word to spread, and for people to do the research that makes the argument bulletproof.
Did this colonial history give you pause when you were named an Officer in the Order of Canada in 1997?
BSM: Absolutely. I met the Queen a couple of times, I have some medals, I did a command performance courtesy of the first Prime Minister Trudeau. You know, the first thing I always tell government people when they want to involve me is that as an adopted person, I don’t even really know where in Canada I may have been born. So if they still want to honour me knowing who I happen to be, then okay, I’ll consider it.
Being named an Officer in the Order of Canada gave me pause, but it didn’t stop me because nobody is all bad or all good. My goal was not to become famous, I am just trying to be effective. I am trying to make actual change, and making change really does take a village. So I felt if governments want to honour some of the things that I have done or said, then that would put me in a stronger position to be effective.
Your politics got you blacklisted in America. Then in 1983 you became the first, and only, Indigenous woman to win an Academy Award, for the song Up Where We Belong. Was that a vindication?
BSM: It was a very quiet moment for me. At the time I was in an abusive relationship. I went onstage with (co-writers) Will Jennings and Jack Nitzsche and we accepted our Oscar. But I didn’t have a manager, didn’t have an agent, I didn’t have a publicity person. There was none of that. It was really quiet. There was no sense of vindication.
And anyway, the idea of vindication – no one has ever asked me that before, but since you have – what really made me feel better about having to struggle was when I had the opportunity to go to Hollywood. I was offered the lead role in an episode of the TV series The Virginian and I agreed to do it only if all of the native parts were played by native people. They said that was impossible. I said, “No it’s not!” And we made it happen. That’s what makes me feel vindicated.
Getting an Academy Award is nothing compared to being effective and making real change. All those Hollywood people now know they can no longer say they can’t find Indigenous people to play Indigenous roles.
What are your thoughts on adoption, and your adoptive parents Albert and Winifred Sainte-Marie.
BSM: My mom believed she was part Mi’kmaq – people didn’t really know very much (about their ancestry) if they were removed from communities – and she was wonderful to me. The dad who raised me was kind of absent. He did not support my Mom’s wish that I go to college.
Aside from them, I was surrounded by bullies and predators, both in the house and in the neighbourhood. A lot of children are in this position, so I don’t talk about adoption much as being a good thing or a bad thing. I am certainly grateful that I had adoptive parents but I am open-eyed about how some adoptions don’t work out well for the child. I don’t do much championing of adoption, but when it comes to predation, I squawk bigtime.
In this #MeToo era, looking back, have you had to deal with sexual harassment in your career?
BSM: Of course, I think every woman does. But I don’t make it my spearhead. I’ve been aware of it for a long time, I’ve been involved with inner-child workshops where you try to heal the parts of you that still hurt. But I have never made it a centrepiece of my career because there are other things I can uniquely do that other people cannot do. I applaud and am grateful to women who champion this movement. It must not be forgotten.
What do you think of fame, especially the sudden fame you experienced early in your career?
BSM: It was very surprising and a whole lot of fun! For me, fame comes and goes, like the Bee Gees. They were famous, then they couldn’t get arrested, then they were famous again, then people hated them, then they became famous a third time. I’ve had that kind of career. I’ve had fame, then it goes away. But that’s just the business. I don’t take any of it personally.
I apologize for the Journalism 101 question: Why do you think your song Universal Soldier still resonates today?
BSM: Because that song is Journalism 101! I wrote Universal Soldier as if I was a journalist. I made it bulletproof, factual. It’s got names, states and serial numbers. It’s not some politician who is going to call bullshit on it. It’s real. I know what I’m talking about. I do the research. I’m a college girl. I got a 4.0 in college! So I know how to write a song from the point of view of a student who is determined to get an A out of some professor who doesn’t like me or my topic. I still want an A. That’s been my way of writing that kind of song, and that’s why I think Universal Soldier still makes sense.
When you look back on your years as a regular on Sesame Street, what are you most pleased about?
BSM: I am most pleased to have had an incredible opportunity to work with genuinely children-centred educators. Before I was a singer, I went to the University of Massachusetts. My first degree was in Oriental Philosophy and my second degree was in Education. So, I started out as a teacher. I practice-taught first grade. So to work on Sesame Street on genuinely child-centred issues – like sibling rivalry, breastfeeding and multi-culturalism – was the great honour of my life. I think my favorite characters were Big Bird and his alter ego, Oscar, and Grover, who was insecure and so sweet.
You’re doing a February 15 public Q&A in Montreal at the Rialto Hall with Andrea Warner – who wrote the terrific Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography – and your concert the following night, on February 16, will be your first concert in Montreal in 10 years. How do you feel about returning to Montreal?
I can’t wait and I’m real glad that I’m bringing my band because I don’t think Montreal has seen me with this band, and they really are great. We’ll be playing songs from every decade. I’ve got a hot band!
What is it like to call Hawaii home? Are you happy out there?
I’ve been in the same place for over 50 years. I am happy. It’s a farm, it’s quiet, it’s in the mountains. I get to garden, I have animals, it’s home for me, it’s a dream come true.
And there is no snow!
No snow! And I don’t live at the beach. Where I live it looks like Alberta or Colorado, it’s mountainy. It doesn’t look like anything in the tourist posters.
You are an icon, a living legend. Do you see yourself as a role model?
That’s hard to escape because that’s what other people project. It comes from their observation of what you do. I have never thought of myself as a role model, it was not my intention. I was just having fun and doing the best I could. I guess I have inspired other Indigenous people and young women to power on through the misogyny and uphill competitiveness of the music business. To be in show business is quite a surprise because I always thought I was going to be a teacher. I guess in some ways I still am a teacher. I’m still trying to make a difference with my songs.
Buffy Sainte-Marie headlines the Corona Theatre on February 16. For tickets, visit evenko.ca.
For more about Buffy Sainte-Marie, visit buffysainte-marie.com.
Photos courtesy SIX Media Marketing Inc. / evenko