Buffy Sainte-Marie - Biography

By J Poet

For many years, singer/songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie was the only Native American presence in the popular media. She burst on the folk scene with It’s My Way (1964 Vanguard) an amazing debut that included the fiery protest “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone,” one of the fist counter culture drug songs “Cod’ine” and “Universal Soldier,” which quickly became an anti-war anthem, and Donovan’s second hit single. Never content with the label of folksinger she went on to cut country, folk rock, pop, rock and electronic music for Vanguard. Illuminations (1969 Vanguard) was one of the first pop alums to use electronic instruments and tape manipulation. She has appeared solo, with a band, and fronting symphony orchestras. Sainte-Marie is a fierce advocate for the rights of Native Americans, and indeed, all oppressed people. She’s also a visual artist and educator. When she took time off from her music to raise her son in the 70s, she appeared on Sesame Street teaching kids about Native issues and tolerance as well as their numbers and ABCs. She recorded sporadically but remained musically active, writing “Up Where We Belong” for the movie Officer and a Gentleman in 1981. The song won a Grammy, Oscar and Golden Globe in 1983. 


Buffy Sainte-Marie was born on a Cree reservation in Saskatchewan Canada in 1941. She was adopted by an interracial couple (Native and Caucasian) from Maine and was a shy child, although she played piano by ear even before grade school. Her parents loved music and exposed her to Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Edith Piaf, flamenco singer Carmen Amaya and Indian music, from India. She picked up guitar at 16, and started writing songs soon after, but wasn’t thinking about a musical career. After graduating from the University of Massachusetts with a degree in Oriental Philosophy and a minor in education, she was planning on living in India to continue studying. Before she left, she tried her luck at a few open mikes in Amherst, Massachusetts, then in New York’s Greenwich Village where she caused a sensation. She was quickly signed by Vanguard and followed It’s My Way (1964 Vanguard) with an eclectic group of recordings including Many A Mile (1965 Vanguard) which included “Until It’s Time for You To Go,” a tune covered countless times by everyone from Elvis to Barbra Streisand, Little Wheel Spin and Spin (1965 Vanguard), Fire & Fleet & Candlelight (1967 Vanguard) which veered from folk to Baroque pop, I’m Gonna Be a Country Girl Again (1968 Vanguard) cut in Nashville with the usual session heavies, Illuminations (1969 Vanguard) he most avant garde album which used early Moog synthesizers on a track she co-wrote with Leonard Cohen “God Is  Alive, Magic Is Afoot,” She Usta Wanna Be a Ballerina (1971 Vanguard), Moonshot (1972 Vanguard) and Quiet Places (1973 Vanguard), which despite its title was an rockin’ R&B flavored outing.


She took time off from her music to raise her son in the 70s, but still recorded occasionally waxing Buffy (1974 MCA) and the Native themed Changing Woman (1975 MCA). Sainte-Marie was also politically active in Native American and anti-war circles. During the Kennedy administration, she was invited to Washington DC by Seargent Shriver’s Upward Bound program and met other activist-minded Indians for the first time. Sainte-Marie was considered “an artist to be repressed” by Lyndon Johnson and made Nixon’s enemies list, but in the early she’d already decided to stop recording and concentrate on raising her son, studying electronic music and doing her artwork. She also put a lot of her time and effort into her Nihewan Foundation, which she started in 1968 to help Indians get into college and fund people interested in native American studies, regardless of their ethnic background. In the 80s she created The Cradleboard Teaching Project which offers a core curriculum in native American studies to schools in the US and Canada for children in K through 12th grade. She also appeared on Sesame Street from 1976 to 1981 discussing Native issues and racial tolerance. In 1982 a song she wrote with Jack Nitzsche for the movie Officer and a Gentleman - “Up Where We Belong” won a Grammy, Oscar and Golden Globe.

She returned to recording with Coincidence and Likely Stories (1993 EMI Canada, 1993 Chrysalis US) an album that blended folk, pop and electronica. She helped establish a Juno (Canadian Grammy) for Native music that same year. Up Where We Belong (1996 EMI) included her take on her award winning song, old favorites and a few new tunes. Running for the Drum, an album that combines pow wow music, rock, folk and pop was released in 2008.

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