Few musicians have combined art and activism as effectively and profoundly as Buffy Sainte-Marie.
Born on a Plains Cree First Nation reserve in Saskatchewan on February 20, 1941, Sainte-Marie was adopted as an infant and raised in Maine and Massachusetts. After graduating with honours from the University of Massachusetts, she moved to New York in 1963 and immersed herself in the city’s nascent folk music scene, as well as Toronto’s equivalent Yorkville scene. Around this time she revisited the Piapot Reserve where she was born and was adopted into the tribe.
Sainte-Marie’s debut album, It’s My Way! (1964), included the anthem “Universal Soldier,” which later became a hit for Donovan and was adopted by the anti-Vietnam War movement. The album also contained the song “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone,” a lament against the genocide of native culture. The acclaim that accrued to the record led Billboard Magazine to name her Best New Artist.
Sainte-Marie explored a variety of musical forms through the ’60s, from folk to rock to electronic experimentation on her 1969 album Illuminations. Her early adoption of synthesizers was evidence of Saint-Marie’s forward-thinking attitude towards technology. To that end she used Macintosh computers to record music and make visual art as early as 1981, and her 1992 album Coincidence and Likely Stories, her first since 1976’s Sweet America, was delivered to her producer via modem.
Saint-Marie’s multimedia skills were put to good use in her Cradleboard Teaching Project, an ongoing effort to teach native children core subjects like science from an indigenous perspective. Cradleboard was a spinoff of the Nihewan Foundation for Native American Education, which she founded in 1969.
Sainte-Marie has also worked in film and television. She was a regular on Sesame Street between 1976 and 1981, discussing topics like native culture and breastfeeding, and acted in the 1993 TV movie The Broken Chain. Sainte-Marie also won an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA for co-writing the song “Up Where We Belong,” used in the 1982 romantic drama An Officer and a Gentleman and sung by Jennifer Warnes and Joe Cocker. She also won a Genie for her 1996 TV special Buffy Sainte-Marie: Up Where We Belong.
Her songs have been covered by a variety of artists. 1965’s “Until It’s Time for You to Go,” for instance, became a hit for both Elvis Presley and Neil Diamond in the years after its original release, while 1963’s “Cod’ine” was recorded by Donovan, Janis Joplin and, much later, Courtney Love. Sainte-Marie also continues to inspire younger generations of native artists, including A Tribe Called Red who remixed her 2008 song “Working for the Government” to acclaim.
Sainte-Marie’s art and activism have been recognized many times over the past 50 years. She has thirteen Honorary Doctorates, was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 2009 and the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1995, is an Officer in the Order of Canada, and was awarded a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award in 2010.
Sainte-Marie continues to actively tour and record. Her latest album, 2015’s Power in the Blood, received three 2016 JUNO nominations and won the 2015 Polaris Music Prize.
Named Best New Artist by Billboard Magazine
Won an Oscar for co-writing “Up Where We Belong” from An Officer and a Gentleman
Inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame
Power in the Blood wins Polaris Music Prize