Beverly Sainte-Marie was born in February 1941 on the Cree nation’s Piapot 75 Reserve in Saskatchewan, Canada. As a youngster, she fell victim to the hideously shameful Sixties Scoop – a catch-all name for a series of policies, originating in the early fifties, enacted by provincial child welfare authorities which saw thousands of Indigenous children taken from their homes and eventually adopted out to white families from across Canada and the United States. These children lost their names, their languages, and a connection to their heritage and sadly, many were also abused and made to feel ashamed of who they were.
She ended up adopted by Albert and Winifred Sainte-Marie and after surviving an abusive few years she moved to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst where she gained degrees in Oriental Philosophy and Teaching and as with many of her peers of that generation – attracted by the bohemian arts scene of Greenwich Village – Buffy as she was now known, moved to New York City.
Her breakthrough came a year later when New York Times critic, Robert Shelton, wrote a piece describing her as “one of the most promising new talents on the folk scene.” A record contract with Vanguard Records followed soon afterwards, with her first album ‘It’s My Way’ being released in 1964. This was a tour de force of a record, covering as it did, in scintillating style, commentary on subjects like Native American Land Rights and intercultural relationships. ‘Now That The Buffalo’s Gone’ acted as a metaphor for the cultural genocide inflicted by Europeans while her personal battle with addiction resulted in ‘Codine’. The album also contained the lead single, the powerful, anti-Vietnam War song ‘Universal Soldier’ (which the older among you will remember as a substantial hit for Donovan) and it still remains as one of the finest songs she has written. Even decades later the power in that album is both disturbing and moving. ‘It’s My Way’ deserves more credit and recognition than it sometimes gets and it stands comparison with any album released at that time. It’s a work of genius which perfectly captures the mood of the younger generations that was sweeping across many nations (and notably in the US) in the early sixties.
Sainte-Marie released her second album ‘Many a Mile’ in 1964 and the love song, ‘Until It’s Time For You to Go’, was covered by, among others, Bobby Darin, Barbra Streisand Neil Diamond and Elvis Presley while ‘Little Wheels Spin and Spin’ followed in 1996 with the track ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying’ being a poignant commentary on the exclusion of Native Americans from mainstream American history.
The largely forgettable (and hugely expensive for Vanguard Records) ‘Illuminations’ was released in 1969 before Sainte-Marie came blasting back with the title song from Ralph Nelson’s gory 1970 western ‘Soldier Blue’ and given the subject matter, focusing as it does on the massacre of the Cheyenne and Arapaho at Sand Creek by the Colorado Militia, it comes as no surprise to learn that the US was one of the few places where the track wasn’t a hit single.
‘Soldier Blue’ came at the right time as ‘Illuminations’, which was the first commercial quadraphonic vocal LP, had been an unmitigated financial disaster for Vanguard and she was under huge pressure to help recover those losses and the inclusion of ‘Soldier Blue’ on the ‘She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina’ album took some of the pressure off. The label had also drafted in guitar support from Ry Cooder and Neil Young (as well as his Crazy Horse band) and the release had also brought a change of direction with five of the eleven songs on the album being cover versions (which she had had rarely done previously). ‘She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina’ was also produced by Neil Young’s producer Jack Nitzsche, whom she later married and co-wrote the hit single ‘Up Where We Belong’ for the film An Officer and a Gentleman, a track which received both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Original Song in 1982.
A few more, largely unsuccessful albums followed and in 1976 she took a break from recording which lasted until 1992 when she released ‘Coincidence (and Likely Stories)’ which she had recorded in 1990 at home in Hawaii and transmitted via dialup modem (yes really!) to producer Chris Birkett in London. In many ways, this album saw her return to her native American activism routes with tracks like ‘Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee’, which was subsequently covered (really well) by the Indigo Girls on their live ‘1200 Curfews’ album.
There is much more to Buffy Sainte-Marie than her music though. Her Native American Indian activism (notably with the American Indian Movement (which had famously taken over Alcatraz Island from 1969 to 1971) had led her to being blacklisted by the Johnson and Nixon administrations and this severely restricted both her radio airplay and her ability to secure performance engagements in the US. Undeterred, her advocacy for the cause saw her fund the philanthropic non-profit Nihewan Foundation for Native Indian Education which is devoted to improving Native American students participation in learning and in 2002 she sang at the Kennedy Space Center for US Navy Commander John Herrington, a Chickasaw tribesman and the first Native American astronaut.
But there’s more. In late 1975, Sainte- Marie was somewhat reluctantly, initially at least, persuaded to take part in the children’s TV show ‘Sesame Street’ and she appeared regularly from 1976 to 1981. She had agreed to the role in order to show a young US audience that Native Americans actually still existed and during a 1977 episode she breastfed her first son Dakota Starblanket Wolfchild (luckily for him simply known as Cody!) and this is believed to be the first representation of breastfeeding ever aired on television. It’s hard to imagine what impact that would have had in the late seventies in the US!
In more recent times she has released ‘Running for the Drum’ and the excellent ‘Power in the Blood’ (2015) which won the Polaris Prize for the best Canadian album of the year and in 2017 ‘Medicine Songs’ which AUK’s own Keith Hargreaves summarised as “A powerful artist still at the coal face and still worth a listen.” He’s a wise man is our Keith!
Buffy Sainte-Marie has packed more into life than most and for sixty years she has consistently risen up and spoken out against the injustices of this world, especially those that have impacted the Native American peoples but we’ll leave this piece with some of the protest lyrics from ‘Universal Soldier’, they are as pertinent today as they were in 1964. “And he’s fighting for Canada/He’s fighting for France/He’s fighting for the USA/And he’s fighting for the Russians/And he’s fighting for Japan/And he thinks we’ll put an end to war this way”.