For more than 40 years, Oscar-winning singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie has used her public platform to address serious political issues, shedding light especially on challenges faced by Native Americans. With the recent well-publicized resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline, Sainte-Marie sees a new opportunity to raise awareness about critical issues that, ultimately, affect everyone. She and her band will perform as part of American Songbook on Thursday, February 23, in The Appel Room.


Lara Pellegrinelli: Can you talk a little bit about your early life? You were born on the Cree reservation in Canada, but you were raised by adoptive parents in Massachusetts.

Buffy Sainte-Marie: And in Maine, around Sebago Lake. My mom was part Mi'kmaq. But she was of the generation removed from the safety of being Native American, where most people didn't talk about it much. What my mom always told me was that if I was interested when I grew up, I could find out more. And that was very good because that was what I wanted to do and I did.

College really did save my neck. I was raised in a town where there were predators in the neighborhood and predators in the house. So I really needed to get out of town. I went to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst as a C student and came out an A student, one of 10 outstanding seniors in my class. It was a multicultural community. That really hitched into something I had discovered in high school: world religion. I wound up with a degree in Education and Oriental Philosophy.

LP: And, as a musician, you were self-taught?

BSM: Yes, I just played with music. I thought it was a toy. I never played with Barbie dolls and I never played sports. But I saw a piano for the first time when I was three and learned to play it. I would make things up the way little kids do. And lucky for me, I never lost that.

LP: In the 1960s there was a coffeehouse scene that supported artistic experimentation and expression.

BSM: Diversity wasn't only tolerated, it was actually enjoyed at coffeehouses among student audiences. And it was like that on the radio, too. You could hear flamenco side-by-side with Delta blues, British songwriters. We went from a time when people were really appreciating that to when corporations took over and started blacklisting artists. I was still welcome at places like The Tonight Show, but had to stick to celebrity chat.

LP: You're talking about censorship.

BSM: A lot of people will say, "You were blacklisted and gagged and your voice was silenced deliberately. Doesn't that make you hate the United States government?" But it had nothing to do with the government. Congress did not pass an act against my music. How it happens is an administration gets elected. It's just a handful of guys. And someone goes in the back room and makes nasty calls to their friends at the networks. It took me 20 years before I was convinced that it had even happened. Two broadcasters came forward and apologized to me for having gone along with letters from Johnson's White House, commending them for suppressing my music. I wrote "Universal Soldier" when Johnson had a war going on. Nixon had all kinds of Indian wars.

LP: During the Civil Rights Era, many Americans tended to see race in terms of black and white. How did indigenous people fit into the movement?

BSM: In the 1960s, there were a lot of ways that musicians could get their names in the paper, but you would not get your name in the paper by supporting Native American actions. And very few of the big names in folk music did. Where were Peter, Paul & Mary? Where was Bob Dylan? Where was Judy Collins? They did not show up. I’m not saying that was anybody’s fault.

There were others who supported me and other early Native American activists before the American Indian Movement was founded: Dick Gregory, Stokely Carmichael, Stevie Wonder, Muhammad Ali, and Harry Belafonte. The bigger point is that we are a very small minority in our very own country. So our issues are somewhat conditionally affected by who knows what's going on.

LP: In a 1970 New York Times interview, you're quoted as saying, "I think we [Native Americans] are worse off than any other minority group." Is this still true today?

BSM: By and large Native Americans are on the bottom of the pile in our own country. Our health rates. Our poverty rates. It was true then and it is true now. Geographically, we're isolated. We can feel invisible. Sensationalist headlines are usually the only means by which non-Indian people get to peek through the keyhole to see what's happening every single day. If it bleeds, it leads.

Which is what has been happening with Standing Rock. They're trying to put a pipeline under the Missouri River. People need to understand that these things are not new. Every now and then it will appear in your breakfast news, but the resistance to the desecration of the land, the very unwise destruction of clean water, and the failure to look ahead to the use of resources in future generations is something we've been resisting for 500 years. Generally, the things that Native American people are sticking up for are ones that impact everybody.

LP: What can people who aren't part of the Native American community do to help?

BSM: I've been funding people in Canada to go to Standing Rock; my son is there right now. There's a great article in the New York Times titled "Battle Over an Oil Pipeline" that compiles all the background you could want on the issue in a lesson plan designed for students. To stay informed on Native American issues in general, you can read Indian Country Today. My motto is stay calm and decolonize.

LP: Several of your songs deal with underreported incidents that happened in decades past. "Now That the Buffalo's Gone," for example, is about the flooding of Seneca land in New York State in the 1960s.

BSM: That's about the building of Kinzua Dam. There were alternative sites where they could have put it, but they chose to evict the Senecas from their reservation, which had been protected by one of the oldest treaties in the congressional archives and signed by George Washington. These kinds of actions usually take place in the dark, in secret, when influential people are not looking. I was one of those trying to shine a light on it through songwriting.

LP: What is your approach when you're writing a song like "Power in the Blood," the title track of your most recent recording?

BSM: Some of the love songs, like "Until It's Time for You to Go" and "Up Where We Belong," were written in about five minutes. With others, like "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" or "Power in the Blood," I work on them very hard. I try to make them so they'll make sense for generations, like those 400-year-old folk songs you'd hear Pete Seeger performing. In other words, I try to make them about universal values.

There are a number of hymns titled "Power in the Blood." This one was actually written by Alabama Three (A3), British boys from Brixton who wrote the theme song for The Sopranos. They're friends of mine. And when I heard it, with its lyrics about bloody swords and cutting people from limb to limb, I said, "This would make a great peace song." So I changed the words—with their permission: "When that call it comes, I will be ready for war" becomes "Say no, no, no to war." It was a great song with great potential for good. Everyone in Canada knows that song. And it's really made an impact.

LP: Some writers have described your music as eclectic, but I'm not sure that's accurate.

BSM: Thank you! Eclectic means you went out and stole things from this tradition and that tradition. What's been important to me about my music has to do with originality. The idea for me has always been to cover the bases that nobody else has covered. They're about contemporary issues. I don't know what to call them. What's the opposite of a protest song? Songs of extreme encouragement? Medicine songs.


Lara Pellegrinelli is a Lecturer in Music & Theater Arts at M.I.T. and lives in Jackson Heights, Queens.