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In Discussion with Buffy Sainte-Marie at imagineNATIVE 2011

At last week’s imagineNATIVE film and new media festival, a panel discussion was presented with Indigenous icon Buffy Sainte Marie. Hosted by Wab Kinew, Buffy shared her thoughts on publishing copyright, how to stay healthy on the road, an upcoming biography, and just where Indigenous people come from. 

The lineup outside the TIFF Bell Lightbox theatre was long, winding and full of excitement. Buffy Sainte Marie is an inspiration, a role model, and a much loved artist by so many. The opportunity to listen to this incredible woman talk had everyone buzzing with anticipation. Thanks to some technical difficulties, entry was delayed – in fact further technical difficulties with the video playback and the mics plagued the one hour discussion – but it wasn’t enough to even budge the happy mood of the crowd.

Seeing Buffy in person, especially rocking those signature high heels, challenges any preconceived notion of what a woman of 70 might look like. Buffy is gorgeous, she seems to dance when she walks, and it is impossible not to be drawn into her grounded presence. She flopped down next to Wab with such comfortable ease, she could have been getting ready to watch tv in her pjs.

Wab started the discussion wondering how she is still managing to tour at this point in her career, ie how does she do it? Buffy and her band have been on the road for the better part of the past two years, bringing their powwow rock to destinations around the world – a potentially draining endeavor for any musician, much less one who has been working for the past fifty years. Buffy sites her stamina to healthy practices – she doesn’t drink, she swears by starting each day with porridge (although she lamented that’s harder to do in Europe), and she pursues flamenco dance lessons whenever she has the chance. She shared that after a gig she and the band will often find a place to go dancing, to release the energy of their performance and to keep her body in great shape.

As for the band, Buffy had nothing but praises for the current configuration. Two years ago she held open auditions in Winnipeg and without the specific intention ended up forming an all Indigenous group. She described how much better a song is communicated, among the musicians but also particularly to an audience, when the players have lived the experiences behind the songs. Now her drummer can play rock and he knows the round dance too!

If Buffy had any advice for other musicians, she said, it is to hold on to your publishing rights. When she wrote Universal Soldier, she sold the publishing rights for $1 not understanding what it was that she was giving away. Of course the song became famous, emblematic of the time. She’s grateful for the lesson it taught her – when Elvis Presley recorded her song Until it’s Time for You to Go (apparently it was his and Priscilla’s song) and his “people” kept calling Buffy saying “we’re going to need some of that publishing” she held firm, “no”. Elvis recorded it multiple times and Buffy credits that as her most lucrative income over the years. Once she learned the importance of a writer keeping their publishing rights, she made a point of buying them back for Universal Soldier – at a cost of $25,000.

Those two songs are strong examples from Buffy’s catalogue – one a love song, the other a protest song. She excels at writing both, though writing protest songs used to be more difficult than it is today. Buffy said to Jason Spencer in Buffy Sainte-Marie is where she belongs:

“We were blacklisted and our music was suppressed from the airwaves during the [Lyndon] Johnson administration,” Sainte-Marie says. “For me it went on also in the [Richard] Nixon administration because of native issues.”

While the American youth of the ’60s had a draft, today’s teenage music fans don’t see the “immediate, obvious threat,” she adds, before relating the mobilization of the student movement of the aforementioned era to our current online-centric culture.

“Coffee houses were everywhere and people were sober and exchanging opinions — it was an amazing time. … Now we have the Internet, so that’s good. But in the in-between time, we had virtually nothing but repression.”

It’s fascinating to reflect on how the world has changed, and not, over the span of Buffy’s career to date. It’s no surprise that she has been approached many times over the years to do biographies, but she has always turned them down. She felt the rock and roll biographers would never get it right – it had to be someone who could understand her Indigenous identity and experience. Apparently, Blair Stonechild is the man for the job – Buffy revealed an authorized biography of her, by Stonechild, will be published in 2012 with exclusive insight, stories and photographs.

When it came time for questions from the audience, there were many expressions of praise and gratitude – so many people wanted to acknowledge and express how they have been touched and inspired by her work over the years. One woman asked “What keeps Buffy inspired?” Buffy expressed how lucky she feels to have traveled to so many corners of the world. Once she played a concert hall in Paris one night and a small, rural Indigenous community the next. Meeting people in communities who are fighting for their rights and freedoms, the activists and the artists of our communities – this is what keeps her fire burning.

Another question from the room came from a man, a British journalist, who said he had interviewed Buffy in 1965 at Heathrow airport. Apparently he asked her then where Indigenous people came from – while DNA studies support that all humans descended from a single African ancestor, some North American Indigenous people firmly believe that our people originate from right here on Turtle Island. He wanted to ask her again her thoughts on the subject 45 years later. Buffy surprised the audience with “I believe we are a seeded planet” and that there are others like us in the universe. I for one wasn’t expecting that answer, and Wab seemed caught off guard as well – as for the British journalist, maybe he’ll ask again in another 20 years.

While the conversation and questions were enlightening, surprising and charming, the highlight of the evening was when Wab asked Buffy to explain what keshagesh means. Buffy has a song No No Keshagesh and the Cree word was the name of a dog she had as a kid. “It means greedy guts” she said and described how her dog would eat all his food and then look to take food from others, “you know the type”. The song, she shared, is about environmental greed and in a split second Buffy sat up from her lounging postition in the arm chair, her back straight, her feet planted on the ground, and began to recite the lyrics to the song. I’d heard them sung, but she spoke them as a poem, and in that moment the energy instantly shifted from a conversation to a performance, and the crowd shifted with her, suddenly aware that we were being given a gift, the gift that Buffy has been giving us all these years – her words and her ability to channel a focused, grounded, and powerful energy when she performs. There’s nothing quite like it, and for that two minutes of the impromptu No No Keshagesh, I was transfixed, and now, a few days later, I am grateful that I was there for that moment, more than any other that night.

The imagineNATIVE festival may be one for film and new media, but they manage to successfully tie in other arts as part of their programming. The diversity is akin to the representation of Indigenous people from around the world at the festival. In Buffy Sainte-Marie lends experienced voice to indigenous issues, Buffy commented on that diversity to Tyler Hagen:

“Geographically, it’s not the same. Tribally, it’s not the same. Linguistically, it’s not the same. But, if you see a lot of it, you start to see a true picture of who we are…”

So true. Thank you Buffy for being part of that picture.

2 Comments

  1. Buffy Ste. Marie – I have been listening to since grade 3, (along with REDBONE ♫Come & get your love♫ )

    My youngest girl loves “Coincidence and Likely Stories ” which we always bring when travelling home.. she knows by heart & sings at the top of her lungs – Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee -which is a great introduction to Indian issues in the Americas since it is still on-going! (check out the lyrics)

    Mind you when we cross the border I always Play ” Darling Don’t Cry” from the album “Up where we Belong” so the border guards have an auditory answer when I answer ” North American Indians as per the Jay Treaty of 1794 & the Treaty of Ghent of 1812- to their question of citizenship…

    Butty created “The Nihewan Foundation”( in 1969) for Native American Education is a small private non-profit foundation dedicated improving the education of and about Native American people and cultures.
    She also created “Cradleboard Teaching Project”, in 1996, ( at her sister’s request as a teacher) which offers education to children about Native American culture via interactive multimedia – should be offered in every school in the Americas! – maybe in the future.

    Her motto : Learn your culture Teach Your Culture BE YOUR CULTURE

    She was also blacklisted by the US gov’t

    see: 2008 Native Writer’s Series #3 – Buffy Sainte-Marie
    http://www.youtube.com/watch#playnext=1&playnext_from=TL&videos=RMUrIfd3zpM&v=C5_3IhqNZKI

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