Born Beverly Sainte-Marie in 1942 on the Piapot Cree Reserve in southern Saskatchewan, she was called “Buffy” as a child, about the same time she was orphaned, and then adopted by her aunt and uncle living in Maine, who were of Mi’kmaq First Nation descent. There, she taught herself how to play piano and guitar.
After finishing high school, she enrolled at the University of Massachussetts in Amherst to study in the Fine Arts fields, continuing to write material on the side. Although she graduated in the top 10 in her class, she pursued her music passion, and was soon touring the coffee houses around New England, barely eeking out a living.
She moved to Toronto to try her hand in the Yorkville district, and although money was scarce, the experience was invaluable. She quickly became a fixture on the circuit, often playing alongside other future Canadian folk legends like Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young. Throughout her career, she would often cover songs written by those artists, among others. And they in turn returned the favour time and time again.
Within a couple of years, she’d moved to New York, and her time in Greenwich Village was a vital part of the emerging folk scene there, as well, where she gained a reputation as a gifted songwriter, as well as a performer, often writing about the changing times and various social commentaries. But she also gained a reputation early in her career for her candidness in personal struggles. In 1963 she became addicted to codeine while battling a bout of bronchial pneumonia. Her dependence, and subsequent recovery became the basis of “Cod’ine,” later covered by a slew of artists, including Donovan, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Gram Parsons. She also spent part of the mid ’60s as part of a North American entourage of folk musicians trying their hand on the street corners and in the coffee houses in the UK, West Germany, and France.
Buffy Sainte-Marie was the first Canadian popular recording star of First Nations descent to gain a major recording deal, when she signed with Vanguard Records in 1964, releasing her debut album IT’S MY WAY later that year. Even then some of her earliest songs showed a fiery spirit and gentle tones, and the Aboriginal lament would become a fixture in her music, with “Now That The Buffalo’s Gone,” “Ananias,” and “Mayoo Sto Hoon” (sung in Hindi). All three of those songs appeared on IT’S MY WAY. Social awareness of the Aboriginal communites remained a fixture of her musical topics throughout the decades, including “My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying,” “The Seeds of Brotherhood,” and the title track to the 1974 album, NATIVE NORTH AMERICAN CHILD, a satirical piece pointing to the invisibility of Aboriginal peoples in the mass media.
Nearly a hundred of her songs have also been covered by others, including the anti-Viet Nam War anthem “Universal Soldier,” by Donovan, which she also recorded for her debut album. The song would be a #1 hit for Donovan, and had her named Billboard Magazine’s best new artist. Inspired by her witnessing wounded Viet Nam veterans getting off the bus after returning home, political and anti-war songs would become a hallmark of her career. But unlike Donovan, her entire first album was original music, almost unheard of a new artist at the time. Although Sainte-Marie was gaining popularity, appearing on several TV programs including several appearances on “Late Night With Johnny Carson,” her anti-Viet Nam War stance also alienated her from many audiences. In fact, she was reportedly blacklisted because her name appeared on a White House list of performers “who deserved to be suppressed.”
Donovan also covered other songs of Buffy’s, as have Chet Atkins, Janis Joplin, Arthur Fiedler & The Boston Pops, Bob Dylan, Roberta Flack, Cher, Bobby Darin, and hundreds of others. “Until It’s Time For You To Go” alone has been covered by over 200 artists, including Neil Diamond, Barbara Streisand, Glen Campbell, and Elvis, before and after she released it herself on her second album, 1965’s MANY A MILE.
Like most early folk artists, she also put her own spin on traditional songs of wide-spanning origins, beginning with “Groundhog” in ’65, then others like “Lyke Wake Dirge,” “Uncle Joe,” and “Song For a Seagull,” among others.
Buffy was not only one of the strongest folk writers even in popular folk’s earliest days, but she proved early that her music also transcended many musical borders and was easily adaptable. Bobby Bare made “Piney Wood Hills” a #1 country hit in 1967, and in turn, she recorded her own version of that song less than a year later on I’M GONNA BE A COUNTRY GIRL AGAIN, taking it into the top 10 in Canada and the US. Recorded in Nashville, the album was heralded by the critics as one of the best country albums of the year. With side one dedicated to Chet Atkins, it also produced what she would call ‘her most satisfying work, and a dream come true,’ getting to work with the likes of fellow Canadian native Floyd Cramer, and guitarists Grady Martin, Ray Edenton, and Velma Smith. And ‘cuz it ain’t country if it ain’t got a fiddle, she called upon local legend Grover Lavender to bend a few strings.
In 1968, she had a role in the popular western, “The Virginian,” but only agreed to the role on the condition all other Aboriginal roles were filled by actual Aboriginal actors, a very rare occurrence for the time. The producers relented and agreed, paving the way for other Natives over the years to make their mark in television and film.
By the age of 24, she’d appeared on stages all over Europe, Canada, Australia and Asia, and closed out the ’60s with uncharacteristic synthesizers and other experimentations with the ILLUSIONS album, a psychadelic folk/rock hybrid album which featured the lead off “God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot,” ‘Suffer The Little Children,” and “The Vampire.”
After a pair of greatest hits packages to start the decade, the ’70s were filled with more top 40 success with “She Wants To Be A Ballerina,” “Mister Can’t You See,” “He’s An Indian Cowboy In The Rodeo,” and “Soldier Blue,” the theme song to the film of the same name.
Early appearances on the screens both big and small included the quiz show “To Tell The Truth” in January 1966, numerous guest spots on Pete Seeger’s “Rainbow Quest,” and performing “The Circle Game” (written by Joni Mitchell) in 1970’s “The Strawberry Statement” film.
On hiatus from her music endeavors while concentrating on family life, she became one of the people in your neighbourhood, teaching all our Sesame Street friends about First Nations and Aboriginal peoples and cultures for five years starting in 1976. In one episode, she even breast fed her son Dakota Starblanket Wolfchild. Now living in Hawaii, she even talked the show’s producers to bring the cameras over to the islands in the later episodes.
But her time with Grover and Mr Hooper almost never happened, as she stated in the ’80s that she’d been approached by a competing program’s producer, which she has never named. She reportedly turned down a deal that would have given her more control of her character and more money, because it aired commercials for GI JOE toys.
Still active in other projects, the 1979 movie “Spirit of the Wind,” featuring Sainte-Marie’s original musical score, including the song of the same name, was an entrie at The Cannes International Film Festival. The film centred around George Attla, the ‘winningest dog musher of all time,’ and had all the parts played by First Nations people, except for Slim Pickens’ role. It made its way to North American cable TV in the early ’80s, and found its way to 13 major Paris theatres, where it eventually made its debut in France in 2003.
It was “Up Where We Belong,” co-written with Will Jennings and Jack Nitzsche, written for Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes that topped just about every chart on the planet in 1982. The main theme for “An Officer and a Gentleman,” it’s her biggest hit in an illustrious career, and earned her a Grammy Award, as well as a Golden Globe Award, the following year. The movie also earned another top 40 hit that year for her, “The Morning After Theme.”
Throughout the ’80s, she appeared in several films, including “Broken Rainbow” in 1985, about the long-running land dispute between the Hopi and Navajo tribes. She wrote about Native American issues for a variety of publications, and she penned a children’s book, “Nokomis and the Magic Hat” in 1986. The long effort to free imprisoned Native American activist Leonard Peltier listed Sainte-Marie as a stalwart supporter, and she even appeared in a commercial for the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream chain.
In 1989 she wrote and performed the music for “Where the Spirit Lives,” a film about the abduction of Native children and forcing them into residential schools. She also voiced the Cheyenne character, Kate Bighead, in the 1991 made-for-TV movie “Son of the Morning Star,” telling the story of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, where Lt Col. George Custer was killed.
Albums-wise things were deliberately relatively quiet during this period for her, while she was exploring her artistic impulsions. But COINCIDENCE AND LIKELY STORIES, produced by Chris Birkett in 1992 still churned out the cross-over hits “Bad End” and progressive rhythm driven scathing commentary of “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee.” The song’s first line contains both “Indian legislation” and “congressman,” and the end to a three year recording hiatus, was rewarded another gold record. The album also produced the British top 10 hit “The Big Ones Get Away.”
Incidentally, her comeback album was also the first documented use of the Internet to deliver a music CD via modem, and was digitally recorded at her home in Hawaii and delivered to Chrysalis Records studio in London, England one file at a time in early 1990. But Buffy has also always kept a keen eye on technology in the studios, having dabbled in computers in one fashion or another while recording since the early ’80s. She would also become an accomplished digital artist, selling several works at major presentations around the world.
In 1993, she returned to television, cast in TNT’s “The Broken Chain,” a film about and shot entirely in Virginia, and accolades also continued as the decade progressed. In ’94, Buffy received the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Saskatchewan Recording Industry Association. Her total of three Juno Award nominations produced as many door stops, and she was inducted into the JUNO Hall of Fame in 1995. A year later, she received a Lifetime Musical Achievement Award from First Americans in the Arts in San Francisco.
1996 also marked her first recording of her biggest ever single, “Up Where We Belong,” as the title track to the album that year, new recordings of old hits. The song made the top 10 in Canada, the US, and in the UK, and earned her first Juno Award. The song would return to the top 20 on the adults charts one more time, in 2006, when Cliff Richard and Anne Murray recorded it for Richard’s duets album, TWO’S COMPANY.
In ’97, Buffy won her first ever Gemini Award for her third television special, also entitled “Up Where We Belong,” beating out both Celine Dion and Alanis Morrisette. She has also been awarded Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Indian College Fund, and has been named an Officer in the Order of Canada, as well as several honorary doctorates in Music and Fine Arts.
After several years of sporadic touring, she released the critically acclaimed LIVE AT CARNEGIE HALL album in ’04, and was welcomed back to the stage with overwhelming response. One outdoor concert in Denmark a year later had a reported draw of over 200,000 people.
After retreating out of the spotlight again, she returned to Birkett to produce the RUNNING FOR THE DRUM album in September 2008, which was packaged in tandem with the documentary DVD entitled “Buffy Sainte-Marie: A Multimedia Life.” The project earned Buffy her third Juno Award the following year. In 2010 she released the definitive greatest hits collection, the four disc set PATHFINDER.
Over the years, Buffy has also been active in numerous philanthropic causes. She founded the Nihewan Foundation for American Indian Education in 1968, whose Cradleboard Teaching Project presently works with First Nations children in Canada and the US with the rest of society. Once again, her tech savvy came in handy, as the NFAIE was based on computer technology and a progressive Native Studies curriculum. In 2003, she became a spokesperson for the UNESCO Associated Schools Project Network in Canada.
Buffy has also earned degrees in Oriental Philosophy, a PhD in Fine Arts, and a teacher’s degree. Sharing experiences and insight as one of Canada’s most successful exports, Buffy has also taught Digital Art and Fine Arts from time to time at several colleges, and helped develop the Cradleboard Teaching Project. Inspired by what she felt was inadequate learning materials in her own son’s school books, the set of resources was designed for educators who wanted to address deficiences in the ways Native American history was usually taught. She also helped set up a foundation to help First Nations people attend law schools of their choice.
Among Buffy’s other lifelong passions, art has played an important role in her life, and she is an accomplished digital artist. Some of her works were among the first of their kind to be shown in major museums, including the Glebow Museum in Calgary, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Emily Carr Gallery in Vancouver, the GOCAIA Gallery (Gallery of Contemporary and Indigenous Art) in Tucson, Arizona, and the Institute for American Indian Arts Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Born on March 20, 1947 Died on June 24, 2011 from heart attack