In celebration of Women’s History Month, we are featuring early pioneers who disrupted narratives and gave voice to musicians around the world.
There may be a group of Buffy Sainte-Marie fans who may have first seen her not as a musician responsible for one of the 1960s most exciting debuts, or as a passionate activist speaking out against colonialist violence, but as one of the trusted (and lucky) adults who got to surround themselves with Muppets on a regular basis. Beginning in 1975, Sainte-Marie served as a writer and performer on Sesame Street, performing music while breaking down stereotypes of Indigenous people along the way. “The fact that Indians exist—that was really important to get through to little kids and their caregivers,” Sainte-Marie recalled in her biography. Her work as a musician, and as an activist has always been about breaking down things, be they boundaries or stereotypes.
“Making art, making things, making a connection to earth is all intertwined to her,” says her biographer Andrea Warner. “She doesn’t create separation. It’s all one beautiful interconnected flowing continuum.” Throughout the years her music has crossed genres—pop, folk, electronic, country—but all rooted in bearing witness, in speaking up, in being seen. “Buffy’s songs give space to people who were utterly non-represented in pop culture,” Warner continues. “She’s correcting history with her music.” As a self-taught guitarist and pianist, she embraced the diversity of music, from the quarter tones of India, to the chanteuses of France. And as an activist, she spoke up against the violence and indiginities done to Indigenous people. She created space inside of her music for both craft and social justice, and her career has been a lesson in both.
Sainte-Marie was born most likely in 1941, on or about February 20, likely on a reserve called Piapot in Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan. The details are vague because as Warner writes in her biography of the singer, “to be born Cree in the 1940s in Canada was to be a person who was not always counted.” She, like many Indigenous children at the time, was separated from her history, removed from her home. As Warner explains, “many Indigenous children were sent to residential schools, others were taken from their parents and adopted into white homes.” For Sainte-Marie, it was the latter. She was adopted by the Sainte-Maries and raised in Maine and Massachusetts. She was drawn to music at an early age. At three years old, she’d listen to her brother play the piano during his lessons, and rush to the instrument as soon as he finished to play, not just his lessons, but as she recalled, “what I really wanted to play, which was anything in my head.” Throughout the years, she never took lessons, but just played what was inside of her. “All I’ve ever been able to do is improvise,” she said. “I don’t read music, and I was never boxed in that way.”
Despite never taking formal lessons, Sainte-Marie used music to explore her inner life. Although her parents were supportive and loving, her homelife was marred by sexual abuse from two family members. It was music and nature that helped her find some measure of freedom and healing in those early years. She spent hours alone in the woods near her house, crafting stories and songs in her head. Those years of rooting her art to the nature, to the world around her, would be themes in her later works, as well. It was during her college years, that her music and her activism really began to come together. She studied philosophy and world religions; met students from the National Indian Youth Council who shared similar stories and backgrounds; shared conversations on politics, art, and philosophy with other engaged students; and she did one thing that would change her life—she began sharing her music with others.
She played with a local folk music club, and her classmates (including the blues musician Taj Mahal), and after graduation she played the coffee house circuit, eventually playing full-time in 1962. All the while, her activist spirit grew, and it was important to her that her songs spoke to larger social issues, particularly those affecting Indigenous people. During one of her musical stints in Canada, began to explore the country’s Indigenous history, eventually reconnecting with her Cree family. She poured her life, both the one she’d known and the one she’d reclaimed, into her music. She wrote about the US’s growing involvement in Vietnam (“Universal Soldier”), and pointed critiques of colonialism (“Now That the Buffalo’s Gone”). And when she moved to New York that year, and stepped into the city’s vibrant folk scene, she gained attention with her powerful songs and voice. She was offered a deal by Vanguard Records in 1963, and released her debut, It’s My Way!, in 1964 to raves reviews, even being named best new artist of the year by Billboard Magazine. It was the beginning of a long career steeped in truth and activism.
Although her songs would be covered by artists like Elvis Presley, Donovan, and Roberta Flack, Sainte-Marie’s name is less known. Even today, her songs “Cod’ine” and “Universal Soldier” are often credited to Donovan, with people often insisting that it’s true, “I’ve had people actually confront me about it,” Saint-Marie told Warner. But despite the constant attempts at erasure (including US-government led blacklisting, and the loss of the publishing rights to “Universal Soldier”), she remains. With nearly 20 albums over her 50-plus year career, she’s still using her voice to speak out against war, environmental racism, and issues affecting Indigenous people. “I never envisioned a ‘career’ in show business,” she told Warner. “I really thought I was a guest.” But the music she’s created has shown otherwise, “There are a lot of answers in her music that people have been searching for for a very long time,” Warner says. “It’s interesting, innovative music that will continue to find listeners.”