BY BRiAN LUSH
In a career spanning nearly fifty years, the music of BUFFY
SAINTE-MARIE is marked by its unparalleled range of styles and the
unwillingness to compromise. While the plight of the Indigenous peoples
North Americas is the issue most familiar in her music with songs such
COUNTRY TIS OF THY PEOPLE YOU’RE DYING’ and ‘BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED
SAINTE-MARIE has also given voice to the plight of the human condition
songs like ‘UNIVERSAL SOLDIER’ whose anti-war message is frightfully as
relevant today as it was back in 1965. The Cree songwriter’s innate
articulate matters of the heart into words and music is one that has
her to millions and has inspired countless interpretations of her work
varied and legendary group of artists such as ELVIS PRESLEY, BARBARA
NEIL DIAMOND, JANIS JOPLIN, CHET ATKINS and JOE COCKER. Now with the
‘RUNNING FOR THE DRUM’ – her first album in many, many moons – the
of “Pow Wow Rock
” proves to be every bit as spirited
and committed to
the art of making music as ever. Co-produced by CHRIS BIRKETT,
the listener on a musical journey that kicks off with the opening track
KESHAGESH’ – an indictment against greed and corruption set to an
driving beat. On the track ‘I BET MY HEART ON YOU’, SAINTE-MARIE gets a
help from TAJ MAHAL on the ivory and a haunting sample of THE BLACK
SINGERS echoes in the chorus of the rambunctious rocker ‘CHO CHO FIRE’.
with the CD is a DVD documentary entitled ‘BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE : A
LIFE’ which features interviews with JONI MITCHELL, ROBBIE ROBERTSON
COSBY and shines a light on SAINTE-MARIE as a singer-songwriter,
artist, activist and educator.
had the privilege of speaking with BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE over the phone.
how it went.
kept you away from recording and what was it that brought you back?
I never left. I’m always recording. I’ve got a recording studio in my
And the last three albums I made, which started in the late eighties,
recorded at home, so I’m recording all of the time. I never break from
recording. Every now and then I will go ‘Okay, I feel like going on the
My life is in a good place where I feel like I can go on the road and
things together on an album. I co-produce with the same person all of
and I’ve put out my last three albums like that. The reason that I
recording during the last administration is probably perfectly clear.
no sense in putting your baby out in the rain. I knew that the timing
right. I had also been working on the CRADLEBOARD PROJECT for along
time and I
wanted to get that to a place where our dream would come true – where
make it free online to everyone instead of having to run a business. I
to that point a couple of years ago and at that time, someone
make a bio documentary about me and I always turned those down because
they’re always so freaking boring with a bunch of talking heads and the
panning slowly from left to right over a black and white photo. No
Everybody else wanted to do stories of who I was back in the sixties
film crew from Canada knew that I was more than that and I think they
good job of capturing all of the things that I like to do. That was
and I had all of these songs that I really liked and I was campaigning
BARACK OBAMA in Albuquerque
timing was right. It was personal timing as well as market timing. I’ve
been the kind of recording artist that does things just because the
company needs money right now. This album is on my own label.
aren’t any record companies anymore anyway.
is ‘RUNNING FOR THE DRUM’ different from previous releases?
It’s funny. I wish you would say what makes it cohesive with all of my
albums. From my very first album, I’ve always been very diverse in
style. I came up in a very lucky time during the sixties when the
were very wide. If you turned on a radio station, people would be
music next to flamenco, next to blues next to pop music. People could
different kinds of music at the same time. Throughout the seventies and
eighties and nineties, the playlists got really tight. A country
station was a
country station. Now we have a time that is very similar to the sixties
the internet. I’m still creating songs that are the best love songs
happened to me and my perfect points of view when it comes to the way I
world in songs with social meaning like ‘NO NO KESHAGESH’ and ‘WORKING
GOVERNMENT’. They are the best that I can do about that subject. There
always the songs that are just for fun like ‘I BET MY HEART ON YOU’ or
the dance tunes that are on the album. Since the late eighties, I’ve
recording at home in my own studio with lots of computers. I’ve
computers since the 1960’s. I had the first ever totally electronic
that was ever made and I made the first album in the nineties to be
by the internet. I’ve been comfortable with computers for a really long
and with recording at home. The one thing that is a bit new to people
follow my music but not knew to people who know me is that some of the
that sound like remixes were done a long time ago but I felt that the
place wasn’t buying that at the time so I held them back. And I
them back during the BUSH and REAGAN years because of their content.
They had a
real different kind of thing that you could only do with computers and
wasn’t until quite recently that people have been ready and willing to
some of the crazy things that we can do with computers.
remember reading about your embrace of technology back in the early
and the digital art that you were making. Describe what it was like to
around with that technology in its infancy.
It was really fun because I’m an artist and a musician. I’m not doing
I’m not trying to get someone to vote for me or to launch a rocket or
war. For me, computers have always been about art. If you go into some
studio you see the damnedest things in there. You see hammer and nails
paintbrushes and stuff that they paste onto other stuff. For me, a
just another tool and ingredient in what I had always done all my life
making sound, music and pictures and make up stories. To me, this is no
mystery. This is what every little kid does at the beach. You take
year olds to the beach and they are all artists. They all make sand
they make pictures and plays and stories. They use their imagination.
one of the lucky ones who always held onto that and I think it’s
natural. I have no schooling in music. As a matter of fact, two years
found out that I am dyslexic in music. That was why I could never learn
it. I know how but it’s so frustrating to me to try to read. I lose my
the third bar. It’s like trying to write with my left hand. I can write
orchestra but I can’t read it back.
your embrace of technology, what is your stance on the argument that
internet has ruined the music industry?
The music business has been pumping and pimping artists for money for
as we can remember. It’s true that those old dinosaurs have gone out of
business like some banks have gone out of business. They’ve gone out of
because their cheating ways finally tracked them down and caught up
There are a lot of changes that need to be made in the market place and
record business was one of them. It was unfair, inefficient, wasteful,
bone-headed and old-fashioned. It wouldn’t listen to opinions and
from outside including artists whose records were being created and
misrepresented. Although the business did give us some great music, the
internet is far more efficient way to go about doing things. I like the
playlist and I like to go online and discover new things as well as
albums that came out in the forties that I’ve always been curious
about. To me,
this is a huge palette of millions of colors – just like digital art is
I’m a happy girl.
back to the documentary that is coupled with the CD – Who did you work
putting it together?
There is this company called CINEFOCUS which is run by the director
and her husband JOHN BESSART. They approached me like many other
companies had before. I said yes to them because I felt like they “got”
They were Canadian and not American so they knew me very well. The
and some of the Canadian companies – that had approached me in the past
to do a kind of ‘where are they now?’ piece on the “Little Indian Girl
Sixties” and I had no interest in that. Not even when I was the “Little
Girl from the Sixties”. The CINEFOCUS people had seen some of my
museums and were highly aware of my CRADLEBOARD TEACHING PROJECT and
really familiar with all of the songs. I thought that they would do a
creative and accurate and fun presentation than any of the other people
wanted to do a documentary on me. I’m happy with the way it turned out.
the early days of the folk movement up until now, what has been the
surprise for you? What didn’t you expect?
You mean in terms of me?
Oh God! I had no idea that I had ever been blacklisted. That was such a
surprise. I found out that the JOHNSON Administration had blacklisted
after the fact. I was totally surprised. I got to see my FBI file and I
just flabbergasted. Two years ago, I found out about the CIA and the
Administration too. Those have been the two most surprising things in
life. I had no idea that anyone thought that I was that important. I
broken the law. I’ve always had a very clean record. I never smoked
dope on the
WHITE HOUSE lawn or nothing like that.
you ever find out why?
No. they don’t tell you. You see your FBI file and anything pertinent
crossed out. They were following me because they thought that I might
trouble maker. They continued to follow me after they never turned
so it was a total waste of money on their part.
followed JOHN LENNON around too and what did he ever do?
They followed lots of artists. When I found out about in the eighties,
I going to do? Call a press conference? Who gave a shit? No one knew
who I was
I guess. They do it very well and they don’t tell you that they’re
going to do
it and there is not necessarily a good reason for them to do it. They
destroy a career. TAJ MAHAL was good friends with EARTHA KITT and the
us were in the same boat. We all found out about it in the eighties.
felt that LYNDON JOHNSON was just an egotistical man and that people of
were being targeted in his Administration because we were already doing
that he wanted to take claim for which was ‘The Great Society’. We were
doing it. That was what she felt about it but I don’t know. Who knows?
it was just a bonehead being a bonehead. I never thought I was
to warrant such consideration so I was really surprised when it turned
I did. The only thing that really pissed me off was that at that time I
really very serious about being effective in making good social change
was gagged. That was the part that bothered me. Now NIXON – that was
put together because it was the NIXON Administration that was a part of
PINE RIDGE RESERVATION being transferred to the government in secret –
of the land that contained uranium. I was one of the people that ended
hurt because of that. Many other Native people were hurt worse than I
Where are they now?
And I’m still having fun! I’ve got a great record and a great DVD.
do you think the need to express yourself musically comes from?
I don’t think it was a need. I think it was fun. It’s not as thought
sat me down and ordered me to take piano lessons. I saw a piano when I
three and I never developed a fondness for dolls or for sports – team
just nailed myself to the piano and my crayons and paper and dancing
used to lie on the floor with vacuum cleaner pipes to my ear listening
I invented the headphones. You didn’t know that did you?
That was the kind of kid I was. I just loved things that people
the arts. My family didn’t call it the arts though. They just knew that
playing the piano and they thought that was nice. There no lessons for
there was no need.
the hundreds of people that have covered you songs over the years,
interpretation stands out the most for you?
Oh God! JOE COCKER and JENNIFER WARNES! I won an ACADEMY AWARD because
I like that! I’m actually looking at the statue right now. They did
also had a lot to do with the arranger STUART LEVINE and WILL JENNINGS.
know what? I also like CHET ATKINS’ cover of UNTIL IT’S TIME TO GO. His
is so beautiful. They’re all beautiful. What I like about them is that
all different. To think of writing a song that is so personal to m that
personal to other people is just a trip. It’s a privilege to write
other people like too. How nice is that?
NO KESHAGESH strongly resonates for me as a listener. What inspired it?
The state of the world that we’re living in inspired it. I started
during a Republican administration and into a Democratic administration
back again to a Republican one. During this time, I saw people go from
to greedier to greediest. I had been saying since the seventies
TRUDELL once told me. He said “BUFFY, there are some people in the
don’t want Indians or anybody else interfering with their complete
all available lands and natural resources. That has been such a
statement to me. Whenever I see things going really bad, I put myself
any time in our history and there has always been an upper one-percent
wants to own and control everything including nature and people. We
survived these boneheads that seem to appear in America
every thirty years or so. We’re in another war right now and to me war
‘Money Laundering 101’. Back to ‘NO NO KESHAGESH’. KESHAGESH is what we
puppy that eats his own and everybody else’s. It actually means greedy
Back on the reserve, we had a little puppy and we called him KESHAGESH.
Sometimes, I’m just kind of open hearted about songs – especially love
but other times, I’m quite strategic about writing a song like
SOLDIER’, ‘BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE’ or ‘NO NO KESHAGESH’.
SOLDIER’ came out at a time when people really like the sound of a
voice and a
guitar, but ‘BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE’ was written at a different
I wanted it to be effective but people were into a lot of
male-dominated rock n
roll so I put ‘BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE’ in that kind of a format
you’re too busy dancing to it before you realize what it’s about.
Strategically, I’ve found that a song that has a strong message is
served in a simple and more danceable format. ‘NO NO KESHAGESH’ is very
song with very serious things to say but its’ very danceable. It stays
interesting and keeps changing and it sounds like a big rally.
CHO FIRE’ is another song. What inspired that one?
That’s got its own story. When my nephew was a teenager, he used to
around to pow wows with a tape recorder and he’d send me copies of the
Once he sent me a tape of a group of kids and they were singing in
language. After listening to that tape, I wrote a song around it but we
couldn’t figure out who it was that he had taped. He thought it was one
and I thought it was somebody else. It turned out to be the BLACK LODGE
when they were kids and they’ve gone on to be one of the most beloved
groups ever. I got in touch with KENNY who is the lead singer for BLACK
and I sent him the tape that I had and he said “Yeah, that’s us!” So I
deal with him and we went fifty/fifty on it. A lot of people will rip
indigenous music just because they can. I don’t do that. He ended up
the writing credit on the song even though he never heard it. CHO CHO
another really danceable tune and it’s dedicated to the jingle dress
–if it’s explainable – how the creative process works for you in terms
songwriting. How do you go about that?
The same way I go about it with regard to writing curriculum or
just kind of pops into my head and if it’s intriguing enough for me to
intrigued then maybe someone else will like this too. Depending on how
stay interested is as far as I develop it. I’ve got thousands of songs
I’ve never let other people hear. Usually, it’s all one thing for me
it’s writing curriculum or a song or a painting. At the heart of it,
something that needs to be communicated either through visuals or words
through music or interactive multi-media curriculum. If you can say
in three minutes that takes somebody else four hundred pages in a book
their point, then you’ve done a good job. The song ‘UNIVERSAL SOLDIER’
minutes makes a certain point. It’s about individual responsibility for
didn’t rite a big, fat book over it. I did it in three minutes. The
same can be
said about ‘BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE’ – it keeps you rocking all
through. That is the same thing that I’m trying to do with curriculum
The problem with education in my opinion is that kids are bored and
are bored and they don’t have to be anymore. We can use all of he new
make engaging, accurate curriculums that are also fun to use. Our kids
really sophisticated when it comes to multi-sensory computers. There is
reason why we can’t be using multi-sensory learning in classrooms.
about the CRADLEBOARD PROJECT.
I was a double major in college. I had a degree in Oriental Philosophy
Education. I was already a teacher and I already knew how to write
and I had already been on SESAME STREET
and all of that. When my son’s teacher came to me and showed me the
that she was using, it was the same bologna that they had tried to pass
me. I knew that changes needed to be made. I put my teacher’s hat on
long as I was just writing text and showing pictures, it just wasn’t
thing that I wanted it to be. I wanted the kids in the classroom the
experience that I had when I went back to Saskatchewan
and spent time on the reservation. There was real, live people doing
things. The idea of taking kids online in the late eighties was very
to me. I connected one of the schools on the Star Blanket Reserve with
school here in Hawaii.
It all came
alive, once we put the kids in touch with one another using faxes and
and we were taking them online before it was considered possible to go
The whole thing came alive! I started my foundation in 1968 – the NEWAN
FOUNDATION – and I had always been the only donor. It had all been on
dime so I had continued with the CRADLEBOARD TEACHING PROJECT from the
late eighties and in 1996, the KELLOGG FOUNDATION gave us a grant to
project initially in eighteen states and everywhere form there. We’ve
SCIENCE THROUGH NATIVE AMERICAN EYES as well as GEOGRAPHY and SOCIAL
THROUGH NATIVE AMERICAN EYES. These are all real school curriculums.
like those stupid curriculums that are still in schools today. They’re
shallow that they wind up being about nobody. Nobody can identify with
were writing real school curriculums. People are surprised that every
that has survived has science. Science is simply a matter of observing
experimenting and finding out what works and passing that knowledge on
people. It’s a whole paradigm shift with regard to interactive
multimedia as a
means of delivering education and also cross-cultural education. I
how much trouble education departments are with those old fashioned
that don’t seem to be very engaging to students or teachers.
far do you think contemporary Native Music has come and where do you
When I first started doing Pow Wow Rock and gave it a name in the
envisioned it as being in the same boat as blues music was in the
was incredible. It had a lot potential but nobody knew about it. People
pretty surprised when they heard Pow Wow Rock for the first time or
heard about it for the first time. They didn’t really know what to
the Native American community got it immediately. Since that time, we
the Aboriginal Music category for the JUNO AWARDS in the eighties.
GRAMMY’s caught on and they followed suit in the late nineties. During
time, because of my records and touring and a lot of the work that I
with local musician groups and aboriginal records companies, people
different genres who also happened to be of First Nations backgrounds
plain gotten the idea in their heads that they can be who they are.
It’s a new
way of thinking for Indian people. It’s a new way of thinking for a lot
people. A lot of people think that there are only a few options
them because that is all that is being advertised on TV that week.
journalists used to ask me “What are you? A folk singer or are you a
traditional Indian singer?” or “Oh my God! Are you a pop singer?” As if
things mattered and they don’t. We are who we are. I learned a phrase
long time ago that goes “…reality is your friend” That’s what keeps me
going nuts during it all. I’ve won a whole lot of awards for ‘RUNNING
DRUM’ so I’ve been going to a lot of award shows as well as Aboriginal
shows. In Canada
we have three major, ACADEMY AWARD – level Aboriginal music award shows
are televised. That’s a lot of Indian people making all different kinds
music. We’ve come up with all different kinds of music that define our
existence and our reality. It wasn’t like the record business invented
lot of genres so they would know where to stick their records so that
could find them in a store. The new way of thinking is that you make
business fit reality instead of trying to make reality fit into the
You get to have a GRAMMY category or a JUNO category just because they
that the Indians got left out. If you have the numbers you can suggest
they have a category for you and we have the numbers on both sides of
would you like a person to come away with after they’ve listened to
I want them to come away with the desire to hear it again. I hope that
find something that they absolutely love and that they find new things
a little surprising. The quote FOREST GUMP, ‘Life is a box of
all taste good to me. I’ve made each song its own little movie. I hope
will come away with a sense that they can do many things. All of the
that they could’ve done when they were younger can still be done now.
still an artist in there and there is still a musician in there. For me
all about play – the music and the paintings. The DALAI LAMA says the
of life is happiness and if you can look around and find happiness in
crazy world that e live in then I think you’re on the right trail. For
always been about keeping your nose on the joy trail. You’ve got to
things in life that bring you closer to joy because there are tears in
world. We need t keep a good handle on what keeps us going and pass
skills on. For me I pass them on through playing music.