By Lauren Elscott
November is Native American Heritage month. It seems appropriate to acknowledge the important contributions of indigenous musical artists. Buffy Saint-Marie’s artistic career has spanned several decades, from being a major voice in the folk music scene to creating film scores and visual art. A member of the Cree Nation, she is well-known for activism, often incorporating issues regarding mistreatment of Native Americans into her work.
Buffy Sainte-Marie was born in 1941 on the Piapot Reserve in Saskatchewan, Canada but spent most of her early life in New England. In the 1960’s, she began her groundbreaking career in the New York’s Greenwich Village folk scene, alongside artists like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. In 1964 she released her first record, It’s My Way! and was named best newest artist by Billboard. On that album was the anti-war themed song “Universal Soldier,” which became a huge hit a year later after being covered by Donovan.Her 1965 album, Many a Mile, contained one of her biggest hits, “Until it’s Time for You to Go” which would later be covered by Neil Diamond, Elvis, and Betty Davis.
Although many of her songs were part of the anti-war protest movement, Sainte-Marie preferred to focus on writing about the struggles held by the Native American community. Another song on her debut record is “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone,” a lament and a call to arms to bring attention to broken promises about Native American land, specifically targeting the continued construction of the Kinzua dam, built on Seneca land. “My Country Tis of Thy People You’re Dying,” a six minute song on her third album, focuses on telling the true history of indigenous people. When Sainte-Marie was 24, she started a scholarship called the Nihewan Foundation for American Indian Education. Two of her scholarship recipients founded tribal colleges. In 1968, when she was asked to play a lead role on an episode of “The Virginian” she demanded that all Native American roles be cast with real Native American people, which they acquiesced to. In making her demand, she said that “they always used the excuse that real Indians can’t be found but I have made it so they can not say that anymore. Do you know there are 20000 Indians in the Los Angeles area, representing 110 different tribes?” According to the LA Times that year, this was “an unheard-of request because it is a well-known fact in film circles here that real Indians never play Indians in westerns.”
In 1976, Sainte-Marie joined Sesame Street as a recurring cast member who sang and told stories. She joined because it was a means to share about indigenous culture on a popular show, saying “It’s important to get that message through [to children] before any kind of stereotyping makes a presence in their lives.”
Sainte-Marie is also an academy award winner for “Up Where We Belong,” the theme song to the film An Officer and a Gentleman, which she co wrote with Will Jennings and Jack Nitzche. She produced other film scores in the 70’s and 80’s, like music for Where the Spirit Lives, a film about abducted Native American children. Since the 80’s, she has continued to have a vibrant career in not only music, but visual arts as well. She creates digital art and is still active in music; she continues to tour at 81 years old.