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Buffy Sainte-Marie

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Buffy Sainte-Marie was a graduating college senior in 1962 and hit the ground running in the early the Sixties, after the beatniks and before the hippies. All alone she toured North America’s colleges, reservations and concert halls, meeting both huge acclaim and huge misperception from audiences and record companies who expected Pocahontas in fringes, and instead were both entertained and educated with their initial dose of Native American reality in the first person.

By age 24, Buffy Sainte-Marie had appeared all over Europe, Canada, Australia and Asia, receiving honors, medals and awards which continue to this day. Her song “Until It’s Time for You to Go” was recorded by Elvis, Barbra and Cher, and her “Universal Soldier” became the anthem of the peace movement. For her very first album she was voted Billboard’s Best New Artist.

She disappeared suddenly from the mainstream American airwaves during the Lyndon Johnson years. As part of a blacklist which affected Eartha Kitt, Taj Mahal and a host of other outspoken performers, her name was included on White House stationery as among those whose music “deserved to be suppressed”. In Indian country and abroad, however, her fame only grew. She continued to appear at countless grassroots concerts, AIM events and other activist benefits. She made 17 albums of her music, three of her own television specials, spent five years on Sesame Street, scored movies, helped to found Canada’s ‘Music of Aboriginal Canada’ JUNO category, raised a son, earned a Ph.D. in Fine Arts, taught Digital Music as adjunct professor at several colleges, and won an Academy Award Oscar for the song “Up Where We Belong”.


Buffy Sainte-Marie virtually invented the role of Native American international activist pop star. Her concern for protecting indigenous intellectual property, and her distaste for the exploitation of Native American artists and performers has kept her in the forefront of activism in the arts for forty years. Presently she operates the Nihewan Foundation for Native American Education whose Cradleboard Teaching Project serves children and teachers in eighteen states.

Born on a Cree reservation in Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan, Buffy Sainte-Marie was adopted and raised in Maine and Massachusetts. She received a Ph.D. in Fine Art from the University of Massachusetts. She also holds degrees in both Oriental Philosophy and teaching, influences which form the backbone of her music, visual art and social activism.

As a college student in the early 1960s, Buffy Sainte-Marie became known as a writer of protest songs and love songs. Many of these became huge hits and classics of the era, performed by hundreds of other artists including Barbra Streisand, Elvis Presley, Chet Atkins, Janis Joplin, Roberta Flack, Neil Diamond, Tracy Chapman and The Boston Pops Orchestra.

Buffy had a unique career outside the States, working in Europe, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong and Japan. She wrote songs and essays, established a scholarship foundation to fund Native American study, spent time with indigenous people in far away countries, received a medal from Queen Elizabeth II and presented a colloquium to Europe’s philosophers.

In 1976 she quit recording to be a mommy and an artist, and to continue as a student of experimental music. Buffy and her son Dakota Starblanket Wolfchild became well known for their five-year stint on Sesame Street, where they taught us that “Indians still exist”. As a composer, she won an Academy Award in 1982 for the song “Up Where We Belong”, as recorded by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes for the film An Officer and A Gentleman.

With Dakota grown up, Buffy re-entered the music scene in 1993 with her comeback album Coincidence and Likely Stories (EMI). That year, she also helped establish a new Juno Awards category for music of aboriginal Canada. Her recognition as a major Canadian artist that summer was accented by a performance with the National Arts Center Orchestra at the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. The next day’s newspaper headlines described Buffy’s concert as “superb, powerful, and moving, drawing a roaring and deserved standing ovation”. That same year, France named Buffy Sainte-Marie “Best International Artist of 1993” and the United Nations chose her to proclaim the International Year of Indigenous People. In July, she headlined a group of indigenous concert artists out on the arctic tundra of Lapland, with the national television stations of Norway, Sweden, Germany and Finland smiling on. She also starred with Pierce Brosnan in the American television film The Broken Chain.

Buffy continues to draw huge crowds on the concert circuit - she played to 210,000 people in Denmark and a million people in Washington D.C. for the Smithsonian’s 150th birthday - but she never forgets her own people and performs regularly on the smallest of reservations across North America. Her art and music are also teaching tools, and she uses these continually to enlighten.

An educator before she was ever known as a singer, Buffy lectures at colleges and civic venues on a wide variety of topics: film scoring, electronic music, songwriting, Native American studies, the Cradleboard Teaching Project, women’s issues, the Native genius for government, and remaining positive amidst tough human realities. She serves as Adjunct Professor in Canada at York University in Toronto and Saskatchewan Indian Federated College in Regina, and in the U.S. was an Evans Chair Scholar at Evergreen State College in Washington State. She has also taught at the Institute for American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

An early Macintosh pioneer in digital arts and music, Buffy Sainte-Marie’s works were among the first to be seen in museums and galleries across North America at the Glenbow Museum (Calgary), the Emily Carr Gallery (Vancouver), the Mackenzie Gallery (Regina), the Institute for American Indian Art Museum (Santa Fe), The Isaacs Gallery (Toronto), Ramscale Gallery (New York), and the G.O.C.A.I.A. Gallery, (Tucson). The images are created as very limited edition Ilfordchrome photographic prints, ranging in size from two feet to nine feet high. The pieces are then framed and exhibited in galleries, both physical and virtual. She likens electronic painting to “painting with light”. Working on her Macintosh at home, using mainly Photoshop software, she combines colors and light, sometimes with scanned-in realities (photos, fabrics, feathers and beads to create huge, brilliantly colored paintings which she describes as being “both reflective and deep, like new car paint”. Her works have graced the covers of Art Focus and Talking Stick magazines and been featured in MS. Magazine, Yahoo and USA Today.

As digital media caught on, Buffy assisted many other artists in understanding computers as an additional tool for art. She was keynote speaker at the Interactive ‘96 conference (in Toronto), where tangible versions of her artwork were exhibited amidst great media attention. Singing a concert with the Regina Symphony with her magnificent huge digital paintings exhibited in the foyer of the concert hall, her continuing theme Cyberskins: Live and Interactive crosses media boundaries but always emphasizes how Indians are alive and thriving even within the digital revolution.

In February 1996, Buffy released Up Where We Belong (EMI), a collection of new songs with new recordings of her best songs. She was recently awarded the Award for Lifetime Musical Achievement by the First Americans in the Arts (US), who also paid homage to Buffy and her legendary career by naming the award after her.

Since 1996 she has limited her concert appearances to about twenty a year, speaking engagements to about the same number, and focused her time mostly on the Cradleboard Teaching Project, using her multimedia skills to create accurate, enriching core curriculum based in Native American cultural perspectives. The interactive multimedia CD-ROM SCIENCE: Through Native American Eyes features Buffy on camera as well as producer and director.

 “Buffy Sainte-Marie’s first album in 17 years finds her spirit as undiluted as her charm, still making persuasive, engaging arguments for Native American attitudes, and using the establishment’s devices against itself - as in a version of 'America the Beautiful’ that features the rarely performed line, 'Till selfish gain no longer stain the banner of the free.’. . . .

Buffy Sainte-Marie has been running for the drum practically her whole life, pursuing its internal call to life, love, independence, creativity and activism. That drumbeat has led her to multiple careers and finally drew her back into the recording studio to create Running for the Drum (2009), her first new recordings since 1996.

Since her recording debut 45 years ago, Sainte-Marie’s original songs have attracted cover versions by artists including Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, Janis Joplin, Cher, Roberta Flack, Neko Case, Courtney Love, and seemingly half the folksingers of the 1960s. Her co-written “Up Where We Belong”, the theme from the 1982 movie An Officer and a Gentleman , won her an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award.

The multi-talented Sainte-Marie recently shifted her focus from her work as a visual and digital artist, an educator, and a Native American sociopolitical activist to record Running for the Drum in her home studio in Hawaii. With musician Chris Birkett as her co-producer, as he was on her last two CDs, Buffy crafted eleven original songs and an expanded version of “America the Beautiful” into what she calls her “usual whiplash collection of many styles - pop, protest, country, rock, dance-remix, rockabilly and big love songs.”

Using electronic samples and drum programming as well as more conventional instruments, primary musicians Buffy (keyboards, percussion, guitar) and Birkett (guitars, bass, percussion) match their music to Buffy’s eclectic songs. Her contemptuous putdowns of corporate greed (“No No Keshagesh”, which Buffy performs in a new video posted on YouTube) and the political establishment (“Working for the Government”) are set to whirling electronica and wailing “powwow” vocals, as is the jubilant “Cho Cho Fire”. There are contrastingly gentle arrangements of love songs “Too Much is Never Enough” and “Still This Love Goes On”; a boisterous “I Bet My Heart on You” features Buffy and guest Taj Mahal dueting on pianos; the quietly comforting “Easy Like the Snow Falls Down”; an amped Elvis approach to “Blue Sunday”, and appropriately acoustic treatments of “America the Beautiful”, outfitted with new lyrics to reflect the Native American community, and a lovely re-recording of a Sainte-Marie classic, “Little Wheel Spin and Spin”.

Packaged with Running for the Drum is a DVD documentary, Buffy Sainte-Marie: A Multimedia Life. The biography traces Buffy’s fascinating path from her birth on a Cree reservation in Saskatchewan to her early success in the Greenwich Village folk scene, her subsequent musical and political activism, which earned her a spot on the government’s blacklist, and to her current role as artist, educator, unstinting activist and timeless musician. Directed by Joan Prowse, the documentary includes interviews with such influential artists as Joni Mitchell, Robbie Robertson, Bill Cosby, Randy Bachman, Appleseed labelmate Eric Andersen, and Steppenwolf’s John Kay.

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