BRANTFORD – To hear her once, you will recognize her unique vocal style forever.
Buffy St. Marie has not changed much in her decades of creating her landscape within her body of work — and it is still creating new music.
To see her, it is hard to fathom this woman turned 75-years-old in February. She remains beautifully creative and eternally youthful.
She was born Beverly Sainte-Marie on Feb. 20, 1941, on the Piapot Cree First Nation reserve in the Qu’Appelle Valley, Sask. After the premature and sudden death of both her parents, she was adopted by Albert and Winifred Sainte-Marie who nicknamed her Buffy, and raised her in Massachusetts.
Her first recording was “It’s My Way” in 1964.
She is always on the cutting edge of technology, when it comes to music and pioneered the whole concept of electronic file sharing of music tracks to remotely record tracks for some of her work.
“I saw a Buchla and Matrix and ARP synth early in the sixties, as soon as they came out, and I was just interested,” she told Vogue Magazine. “Later, I was using a Synclavier and a Fairlight, which were the earliest standing music computers.”
One of the unique things about her songwriting is by using any number of guitar tunings, some unique to her music alone.
At a personal level, Sainte-Marie began studying her Cree roots in her teens, and began being aware of the inequities facing indigenous people around the world.
Sainte-Marie began using her growing musical platform to speak out about Indigenous issues, and the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era.
“Universal Soldier” is a timeless anti-war classic that she was banned from performing on TV or Radio in New York where she was a regular Greenwich Street singer/songwriter.
The song was eventually recorded and released in England by Donavan Leach and became a huge cross-over international hit.
Naive to the music industry, Sainte-Marie gave one of her biggest songs away for a dollar, but years later bought the rights back for $25,000.
In 1965, she was being recognized as a powerful songwriter. Her song “Until It’s Time for You to Go” was covered by some of the biggest names in the industry from Elvis to Barbra Streisand to Bette Davis.
But it was her connection with the American Indian Movement that brought her music and her love for her people to the surface.
While fighting a bout of bronchial pneumonia, she became addicted to codeine, a battle she eventually won.
“During the civil rights and anti-war marches, even though my song ‘Universal Soldier’ was all over the streets, I was absent,” she told the CBC in an interview. “I threw myself into another direction and covered the base nobody else knew about — the reservations. I was friends with Stokely Carmichael, Mohammed Ali, Harry Belafonte and other African-American civil-rights giants. I took Dick Gregory to his first reservation — it broke his heart, he cried on the airplane back. With Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and all the other famous artists appearing at every photo op, I felt that other issues didn’t need my help; the reservations were a different story.”
She started the Nihewan Foundation for law school sponsorships to Native Americans, which is very close to her heart.
“I have an Academy Award, but that’s not my biggest honor,” says the proud but contrite singer/songwriter. “My biggest honor was to find out that two of my early scholarship recipients had gone on to found tribal colleges. Can you imagine that kind of thrill?”
Her first acting job came on an episode of “The Virginian”, directed by Sean Penn’s father Leo. Even then, she was her own woman.
“First, she insisted that the studio cast Native actors for all the Indian parts (‘No Indians, no Buffy’),” Leo is quoted as saying. “She also advocated that the writers bring complexity to her own role. She told them, ‘[I’m] not interested in playing Pocahontas.'”
Her outspokenness put her on a CIA list of dangerous musicians in the 1980s and regarded as “determined to encourage widespread citizen Protest.
As public as her life has been, there are some quiet spells where she retreated from time to time, like in 2009 when she disappeared in Hawaii under an assumed name and raised 27 goats, an old horse and a cat.
At 74, she released the Polaris Music Prize with her album, “Power in the Blood,” and has just released another.
In 2007, Buffy even visited Kanonhstaton and added her profile and support in the Six Nations land claim dispute in Caledonia.
Her list of first and newsworthy accomplishments goes on and on. But for this writer, it’s her song, “Bury My Heart in Wounded Knee,” that stands as one of her most powerful songs; still as pertinent today as the day she wrote it.