Buffy Sainte-Marie is an award-winning singer and songwriter, Indigenous-rights activist, children's-book author, former Sesame Street star, mother, teacher and mixed-media digital artist. Now 80, the Cree icon is still creating, performing and speaking out, knows how she'd like people to think of her: as an innovator. "I've always kind of tried to cover the base that nobody else is covering," she tells Yahoo Life.
Sainte-Marie, who lives in Hawaii, is uncertain of her origins, though believes she was born in 1941 on the Piapot First Nation reserve in Saskatchewan, taken from her biological parents when she a toddler, and adopted by a couple in Massachusetts. Growing up there, she faced many challenges, including bullying and sexual abuse, she says — and the messages, through school, that she "couldn't be Indigenous, because there aren't any anymore around here," and that she "couldn't be a musician" because she was unable to read European notation.
Sainte-Marie went on to teach herself guitar and become a successful folk singer and activist, getting her start in the '60s coffeehouse scene, becoming known for her anti-war anthem "Universal Soldier" and releasing her first of nearly 20 albums, It's My Way!, in 1964, and always speaking out about indigenous issues.
"I'm working with little kids right now in Canada, where we're facing all this bad, bad, bad, bad news about the bad, bad, bad, bad residential schools," she says, noting that she's working to also counteract the awful news with some good through her role on the board with the indigenous-awareness Downie & Wenjack Fund in Canada.
"We're making a series of one-minute videos that are some little piece of wisdom. And the part that I wanted to contribute … was to offset [the tragic news] with that of our contributions about what we've given to the world," she says, citing team sports, syringes and more. "You only hear about either our victimization or the problems of white people stealing our land," she stresses. "You only hear those two terrible stories, but there's a lot of good news."
BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: Whether it was electronic music or speaking out about indigenous issues, when I was singing those songs, I believed if only my audiences knew, they would try to help. And in many cases I was right.
I'm Buffy Sainte-Marie, I'm a songwriter. I was raised in Maine and Massachusetts as an adopted child. We are Cree from Piapot Reserve and Craven, Saskatchewan. As a little child, I was told I couldn't be a musician. Because you can't read European notation, so you can't be a musician.
Instead of going home and crying about that, I'd go home and I'd sit down on the piano. And with no lessons at all, from age three, I just played my little head off. I'd play anything that I heard. The Academy Award, wow, how'd that happen. So what it gave to me, was a sense of you know what, sometimes the world is wrong. Sometimes the world doesn't know, and sometimes you do.
I've had a real long career, when it comes to thinking about what I would like people to remember about me. I was always trying to cover the base that nobody else was covering.
BIG BIRD: Whatcha doing Buffy?
BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: I'm feeding the baby, so he's drinking milk from my breast. When I was in my second year of Sesame Street, I discovered that I was expecting. I suggested to the producers, could we do something on breastfeeding.
Lots of mothers feed their babies this way. Not all mothers, but lots of mothers do. You know, I became a teacher. And as a teacher, you don't get mad at people because they don't know. And kind of as a young singer, singing about indigenous issues, people didn't know about these things, but I did.
I didn't get mad at the audience for not knowing these things. Instead, I included them in the lyrics. It was a little bit different way than what was going on at the time, when everybody was singing this land is your land, this land is my land. No, no, this land used to be my land.
What I think is the most amazing thing about your bill is that you dare to call it the Native Americans Equal Opportunity Act, when actually you ought to call it the Native Americans Rip Off Act. Sometimes people ask me how I can stay calm during a situation, like when I was debating that Congressman on Good Morning America. Every few years, you know, some congressmen will come up with the idea of doing away with all Indian treaties, and he'll name it the Indian Equality Act, or something right.
Indian resistance is not new. Indigenous people have been resisting for 500 years. I'm 80, and it is frustrating to have had a long career like this. Going through kind of a mental agony about other people, especially in Canada, where you know, we're facing all this bad, bad, bad, bad news about the bad, bad, bad, bad residential schools. I mean, you know, we're exhuming bodies.
And it's not only awful for us grown-ups, but think of all the little kids. The part that I wanted to contribute was something that could offset this important, but tragic news. I'm on the board of the Downie Wenjack Fund, we're making a series of little videos that are some little piece of wisdom about what we've given to the world.
Mouth bows, like drums, are found all over the world. Let the children know how many scientific achievements, and developments, and inventions, things that have been contributed by indigenous people. You never hear about them. You only hear about either our victimization or the problems that white people had in stealing our land, you know. You only hear those two terrible stories. There's an awful lot of good news that has yet to be shared about indigenous people, and hopefully ears are opening.