Buffy Sainte-Marie,
The TVD Interview

Buffy Sainte-Marie has spent much of the last seven decades doing things people said she couldn’t do. Her youthful defiance comes to the fore more than once over the course of an hour’s conversation on what was—for her, in Hawaii—an extremely early morning. Her laughter is effusive, her joie de vivre inspiring as I cling to my coffee for dear life five time zones east. It’s not what you might expect of a self-identified recluse who lives “with a bunch of goats in the mountains,” but Sainte-Marie has made a career of defying expectations.

“I was told that I couldn’t be a musician,” she says. “I was told as a child, ‘You can’t be a musician because you can’t learn to read European music.’” At the same time, “I was told that I could not be indigenous. ‘You can’t be an Indian because there aren’t any more around here.’” She went home with a laugh and played “fake Tchaikovsky” or whatever she heard on the radio, “pretty happy just being [her]self.” You can still hear happiness in her voice, decades later. “I’m just like a kid who’s having fun,” she says—something she insists children naturally know how to do. “They don’t have to be told.”

But she did have a little help from her mother: “My mom told me when I was a kid that sometimes the grown-ups were wrong… She always told me that I could grow up and go find out for myself,” a refrain long-time listeners might recognize. “It was presented to me in that non-judgmental way, just, ‘You can go and find out.’ Not just music or indigenous issues, but whatever you want.” Exploration and open conversation would characterize the rest of Sainte-Marie’s career, which has spanned not only decades but a wide field of humanistic endeavors including music, visual art, activism, and education.

When I ask how she balances all her projects and personas, she makes it sound like the simplest thing in the world: “It all goes together,” she says. “My world and my lives… they all make sense together.” From the outset, her motivations have rarely wavered. Despite being the first person or first woman or first indigenous woman to do a lot of things (listed on her extensive Wikipedia page), she’s never had “any hunger of innovation” or any desire “to get a hit record for Buffy.” Instead, the unifying themes of her work are content and communication. Of her career as a folk singer, she explains, “These are not protest songs. We don’t really have a name for the opposite of a protest song. A protest song lays out what the problem is but there’s another kind of song that’s about the solution.”

Her search for solutions, now as when she first got started in the Sixties, follows her mother’s example. “Instead of scolding people and shaking a fist at them, I was trying to inform,” she says, and uses her song “Buffalo” as an object lesson: “It was just facts set to music… the Kinzua Dam was being built and the Seneca nation was being flooded.” Her audience, she realized, knew nothing about it. “I wanted to fix that. I didn’t want to get a hit record for Buffy, I wanted to fix that… I wanted to present the problem to other people and see if I could make a difference.” Unselfish motives, she says, were “the only way I could have the courage to get onstage, because I was so shy.”

The word shy, like the word recluse, doesn’t ring quite right. She talks fast and effusively, with a ready wit and ready laughter, and even a few four-letter words deployed with heat-seeking precision. “What’s really bothering me is the damn border,” she says, when I ask what she has her sights set on after Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On, a documentary feature film that began production in September. “People [are] trying to come across a border that shouldn’t even exist—they are indigenous peoples of the Americas—and nobody gives a fuck,” she opines. “Nobody’s squawking about it. So here’s the first squawk.”

This is one among many injustices faced by indigenous communities. Another is the recent discovery of the remains of hundreds of children connected to former residential schools in Canada; Sainte-Marie refers me to the work of the Downie Wenjack Fund, co-founded by Tragically Hip vocalist Gord Downie and the family of Chanie Wenjack, an Anishinaabe boy who died of starvation after fleeing from a residential school in Ontario in 1966. The organization “aims to build cultural understanding and create a path toward reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples,” according the website, and Sainte-Marie urges me to review the action items of Pledge 215+, which are based on the five stages of grieving. But she’s equally adamant about the need to “counterbalance” what she calls “our horror history.”

The displacement of Indigenous peoples back and forth across colonial borders is only one thing she’d like to hear more squawking about. “It’s not all bad about Indians!” she exclaims. “We invented team sports. Long before Columbus and those guys.” If a protest song is paddling the canoe on one side, she says, “letting children know our contributions to the world too is paddling on both sides.” That is, of course, the only way to move forward in a canoe, and that’s exactly she wants to do. “We’re not trying to insult an audience, we’re not trying to scold students, we’re not trying to be mad at white people. We’re trying to move forward, including all the information.”

Her progressive instinct isn’t, by any means, confined to politics. “I have a deep philosophy which I call ripening,” she explains. “The idea of ripening is we expect to evolve. And many people think you’re not supposed to, [but] if you realize that you are ripening and so is the world, it kicks in that forgiveness thing. Self-forgiveness and the forgiveness of other people…. It means you always have another chance.” She was reminded of this recently by (of all people) Paul Cézanne. On a recent concert tour, her bass and guitar players wanted to visit the museum of modern art, where she “got captivated by seeing dozens of false starts and erasures.” Watching Cézanne “try and fail and get up again” inspired her to give drawing, which she “always considered [her]self to be terrible at,” another chance. Now her visual art has evolved—maybe I should say ripened—to include pastels, acrylics, paper sculpture, and even digital painting.

Though she may not have any hunger for innovation, she does have a knack for it. She describes herself as a “natural artist” and a “playful” one. “Nobody gives kids the credit for being real artists,” she says, “and to me they are.” That might be because they’re not preoccupied with sales and marketing, and simply seek to entertain themselves. “Before there’s a market for what I do as an artist, that’s where I really live. I live before there’s a market.” She cites her 1971 record Illuminations as an example of one break with the tastemakers: “Folk singers held their nose and ran the other way, but the electronic music community and people who were really hip and doing film scores, they got it immediately… it was a product of that kind of thinking.”

Unlike so many musicians of her genre(s) and her generation, she evolves happily in tandem with technology. Instead of bemoaning the rise of streaming or celebrating the vinyl resurgence, she embraces it all as part of the artistic circle of life. “As a recording artist with my own studio for many, many years,” she says, “I know that as soon as I step out of the studio, whatever I play the music on next is going to be different from what I have.” Like seeing Cézanne’s false starts and rough drafts, “playing my mix in my car or someone else’s car or someone else’s stereo, it’s made me very forgiving and very tolerant of hearing things in different ways.” Her secret to successful innovation and evolution is surprisingly simple: “Whatever you love, just open your ears and listen and enjoy.”

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