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Politics, Justice

Meet Indigenous Icon and Activist Buffy Sainte-Marie

Happy birthday to a living legend.

2/20/2021 8:05:00 PM

'Find something you believe in and learn it, practice it, research it, support it with all your heart.'

Happy birthday to a living legend.

Teen Vogue:You were one of the first well-known Indigenous women who broke into the mainstream. What were your experiences like as a Native woman in public life during the 1960s and 1970s?Buffy Sainte-Marie:It was pretty lonely. I didn't have a band, so I traveled all over the world alone. I had graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1962 with a degree in Oriental philosophy and education, never took music lessons. This was after the beatniks and before the hippies, and Pete Seeger and the Weavers were becoming famous singing American folk songs. I went to Greenwich Village to try my luck singing the songs I'd been writing all my life, in coffeehouses. I didn't drink alcohol, had never met a businessman or a lawyer, and I didn't go out to the bars after my show, which was where social and business deals were made. Business-wise, that was considered a mistake, but it's probably why I've had such a long and healthy life. Still touring and winning awards at 80 — yikes! — until COVID sent everybody home.

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A lot of my downtime I spent in Saskatchewan with my Cree family (who adopted me in my late teens), but mostly I was on the road. If I had a concert in Norway, I'd be up in Lapland with the Saamis (who are the Indigenous people there). In Australia, I'd do concerts in Sydney and Melbourne, then take off with Aboriginal friends there. So I lived my public life with mainstream audiences, and my private life with Indigenous people internationally, which was really fun and enlightening from both sides. I was friends with

and others from the National Indian Youth Council, who were advancing Native American law issues, but, as I say, it was pretty lonesome for a girl alone on the global road with few connections to show business.AdvertisementPortrait of singer Buffy Sainte-Marie, late 1960s or early 1970s. headtopics.com

Jack RobinsonTV:You have an extraordinary, inspiring history of social justice activism and speaking truth to power. Please tell us about some of the causes you were involved in and why they were close to your heart.BS-M:Well first, it's been my love songs — “Until It's Time for You to Go” and “Up Where We Belong” — not my activist songs that have made me enough money to be in show business, which is expensive. Traveling alone, I was solo but all over the place, kind of a one-girl cause. There weren't any Native American causes then. I had a lot of education and a big mouth, and audiences had never heard anybody stick up for Indian issues. In 1968 I was invited to play a lead role in an episode of

The VirginianI insisted on all the Indigenous roles being filled by Indigenous actors and actressesor I wouldn't take the part, and guess what? They said yes! With Jay Silverheels and Lois Red Elk from the Indian Actors Workshop, we filled all the roles, and that was the first time it had ever happened. The headlines said, "Indian Girl Changes Hollywood"! Pretty good, eh?

The big photo ops staged by managers of white folk singers never mentioned Indian issues and I wasn't part of their stable, never was invited. The [Oneida-Cree] comedian Charlie Hill used to complain with me that in Indian Country, where we should have had big audiences and could have made change, the big energy companies owned the theaters, the colleges, the newspapers, and radio stations, and we were kept out. I had big hits in New York and L.A., but people in Oklahoma and South Dakota never got to hear us. I didn't learn about the radio blacklisting or

FBI surveillanceuntil 20 years later and had no idea what I had been up against, just had thought, Singers come and singers go.I just continued doing grassroots concerts with the American Indian Movement and other activist groups, spotlighting local Indian issues and providing platforms for others, although the male activists seldom handed over the microphone to a woman. When my son was born, I joined the cast of headtopics.com

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Sesame Streetin 1975 and for five years was a semi-regular, where we did shows about breastfeeding, Indigenous languages, sibling rivalry… It was great! They never tried to stereotype me, included my writing in songs and scripts, and made a huge worldwide impact on things I care about that affect everybody.

AdvertisementTV:What an amazing career you’ve had, spanning across disciplines and hemispheres. Out of all your accomplishments, what are you most proud of?BS-M:Bringing Indigenous issues to a global audience generation after generation. Although white show business didn't support Indigenous issues, guess who did? Muhammad Ali, [fellow boxer] Ken Norton, [Black civil rights activist] Stokely Carmichael, Stevie Wonder, [singer and songwriter] Richie Havens! And [comedian] Dick Gregory even came with me to my reservation in Saskatchewan to help us raise public awareness of issues there! Flying away, we were both crying on the airplane and Dick said he'd had no idea about that kind of poverty and oppression in Indian Country.

Another thing I've always been proud of is carrying Joni Mitchell's demo tape around in my purse for months all over the world, playing it for anybody who would listen when show business didn't want to let her in. I sent [record executive] Elliot Roberts down to hear Joni sing in Greenwich Village one night. He became her manager and they made a great career together.

Read more: Teen Vogue »

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shannonminter5 A strong, talented, intelligent woman. So proud that she is a Canadian that stands up for what she believes in. She has not had the easiest time and became so much stronger because of it. ❤❤❤