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From the archives

The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Dear Prudence

A life of exuberance and eccentricity

Who’s Afraid of Alice Munro?

A long-awaited biography gives the facts, but not the mystery, behind this writer’s genius

Illuminated

Listening to Buffy Sainte-Marie

Alicia Elliott

Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography

Andrea Warner

Greystone Books

304 pages, hardcover

ISBN: 9781771643580

I first met Buffy Sainte-Marie in the basement of Massey Hall to interview her for an article I was writing. She was hunched over, reading newspaper clippings that decorated the walls. As soon as she heard me approach she turned, offering a smile that melted my anxiety into warm affection. Trying to keep your journalistic wits about you when interviewing someone as charismatic and charming as Sainte-Marie is no easy task. I’m sure my critical skills all but disappeared that day, and when I sat down to write I wanted to convey to readers only what it was like to hear Sainte-Marie walk you carefully through her thoughts, to show how her words had felt like a door to a secret, beautiful world; to share how she humanized and empathized with nearly every person she spoke of, even those who treated her badly.

Reading Andrea Warner’s authorized biography, it’s easy to see Sainte-Marie’s charm won Warner over, too. However, Warner tempers her enthusiasm with careful research into not only Sainte-Marie’s life and work, but also the historical periods and the people and places she’s writing about. In the intimacy Warner created with Sainte-Marie over sixty hours of conversation, they covered in depth some aspects of Sainte-Marie’s private life that she has rarely spoken of in interviews. Sainte-Marie’s story has always been far too interesting, complex, and wide-ranging to be summed up in the few thousand words of a magazine profile; it gets its due here.

When you have a character as self-aware, observant, and hilarious as Buffy Sainte-Marie, you can do worse than just stand back and let her speak. Warner makes the wise decision to give Sainte-Marie this space: long stretches of her dialogue go on uninterrupted. Here she is, for example, discussing her socially conscious musical peers:

“Joni [Mitchell] had two of the world’s giant sharks shepherding her career. [In her biography], she complains about show business, and her complaints are—they may be accurate, but they’re not the same kind of complaints that most of us have had. Bruce Springsteen too—he’s got complaints and stuff, but basically, they’re protected by this huge colonial career system, and you can complain if your colonial shark is not keeping up with somebody else’s colonial shark. But none of them really come out and complain about [the bigger picture]. They just don’t seem to identify it…Artists can help a lot and sometimes do—but I don’t understand why they stop. What happened to Bob Dylan’s sense of outrage? ‘Masters of War,’ or ‘With God on Our Side.’ What happens? How does it go away? For me, it hasn’t gone away. And I don’t understand how somebody can be that smart, talented, rich, famous, and in the perfect position without continuing to want to make change.”

Those quotes sum up both why Buffy Sainte-Marie is a singular artist, and why Warner’s biography is a singular book. Like Sainte-Marie herself, Warner connects the past and the present, contextualizing Sainte-Marie’s life within a wider history. In doing so she elevates the book from just another sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll biography to an insightful indictment of colonialism and capitalism, illustrated through the life of one trail-blazing Cree woman whom history has continually tried to erase.

The attempted erasure started almost from the moment Sainte-Marie was born. In the hands of a less sensitive writer, the story of her birth, which was most likely on the Piapot Reserve in the Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan, and her subsequent adoption by Albert and Winifred Sainte-Marie in Maine, might remain a footnote. Warner uses it as an opportunity to reflect on “the ­combination of ­religious hubris and colonizer supremacy” that created stories like Sainte-Marie’s in the first place. Many non-Indigenous writers (and publishers) might shrink from this sort of direct criticism of religion and colonialism to sugar coat painful truths for white readers. Warner never does, instead focusing on “children who, like Buffy Sainte-Marie, were adopted or taken, had their birth stories erased, stolen by people whose motivations were rooted in misconceptions.” She correctly positions these adoptions as coming from the same policies of cultural genocide that stole Indigenous children from their families and forced them into residential schools. When Sainte-Marie speaks on the effect this had on her, you see how damaging it was:

“There are all these possible painful scenarios that you never know…You not only don’t know who the white soldiers were who raped your great-grandmother, or the name of their sons who raped your mother, or the other guys who raped your sisters, but you don’t even know, in most cases, who your Native American ancestors were because the colonials changed people’s names. It leaves a big hole where your self-esteem ought to be, and it’s heartbreaking, over and over again.”

In a country that still takes Indigenous children from their families and places them in care at astronomical rates, these are insights we desperately need.

Given the success Sainte-Marie has had, some forget how much more difficult it was to attain that success as an Indigenous woman in the 1960s—particularly an Indigenous woman with no interest in softening her politics. Two presidential administrations over two decades actively tried to derail Sainte-Marie’s career, a story that emerges in this book. For a number of years Saint-Marie’s music wasn’t getting as much attention in the United States, though she hadn’t put much thought into why. During a radio interview she gave in the late 1980s, however, she learned the reason: Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon had both encouraged radio stations to suppress music “which ‘deserved to be suppressed.’ ” The DJ interviewing her had a letter on White House stationery thanking him for blacklisting her and other artists. His on-air apology to Sainte-Marie was the first she had known of any of this. Sainte-Marie may have noticed if she hadn’t been so busy: creating the first entirely quadrophonic electric vocal album (1969’s Illuminations), teaching a generation of kids on Sesame Street that Indigenous people still existed, and becoming the first woman to breastfeed a child on a mainstream American network. (She explained the process to Big Bird as she fed her son Cody.) Sainte-Marie has resisted erasure by learning, by speaking, by forging new paths for others to follow.

Fans of Sainte-Marie’s music looking for insight into her process won’t be disappointed by Warner’s book. There’s a story behind every song: “Universal Soldier” came from a conversation with a soldier returning from the Vietnam War; “Cod’ine” is about the addiction she developed after a doctor prescribed her codeine without her knowledge or consent. Each of her political songs was developed and fact-checked as though it was a thesis to be defended. In “Now that the Buffalo’s Gone,” for example, Sainte-Marie tackled the building of the Kinzua Dam. “I wanted them to understand it. The Seneca Reservation was flooded for a bunch of businessmen, and the oldest treaty in congressional archives was broken.” It’s difficult to write a song that educates, takes a political stand, and still remains a good three-minute song to sing along to, but Buffy Sainte-Marie did exactly that. She updated the lyrics and re-released the track last year, and some of her more acerbic lines remain as relevant now: “And told all your friends of your Indian claim/…Some great-great-grandfather from Indian blood came” go two verses, which seems custom-made for the current political moment.

Sainte-Marie’s insights into the American Indian Movement (AIM) should be of particular interest to Indigenous readers in the era of #MeToo, given allegations of abuse and sexual misconduct against powerful Indigenous figures such as Sherman Alexie. Sainte-Marie is refreshingly frank about the misogyny that permeated the movement: “Those guys [in AIM] were just getting out of jail, and although they were doing great work in informing urban Indians of their civil rights, they also loved having teenage girls just in from the reservation looking up into their big brown eyes.” Influential Indigenous men in AIM exploited Sainte-Marie’s celebrity. They would claim falsely that she would be at an event in an attempt to get more people to come, then blame her for being a no-show. “They were not smart or experienced enough to listen to women, including me,” says Sainte-Marie in the book, “And they were surrounded by wonderful women.”

The tragic climax came in the kidnapping, rape, and murder of Mi’kmaq activist Annie Mae Pictou Aquash, whose body was discovered in 1976. Sainte-Marie had become friends with Aquash years before, even securing her a position as her publicist’s assistant and taking her on tour. Significantly, Sainte-Marie voices support for Aquash’s daughters and sister, whose research has suggested high-ranking AIM members were behind Aquash’s murder. “I do believe their research,” Sainte-Marie says, “even though it implicates some old friends in terrible ways.” In a time where conversations about abuse and misconduct seem to revolve around “due process” and men’s reputations, this support is significant, proving Sainte-Marie is still, at seventy-seven, ahead of so many of us.

The book’s last chapter and afterword make for an especially thoughtful and affectionate way to end. They detail the ways Sainte-Marie’s friends view her, and how Warner came to write this book and develop her own friendship with Sainte-Marie. After reading about Sainte-Marie’s more than five decades of innovation and resistance, there is something absurd and endearing about hearing her joke about how hard it is to reach hotel-room electrical outlets for your vibrator and still remain in the mood. “My own language has a tendency to be rooted in destruction,” Warner writes, “while [Sainte-Marie’s] language is rooted in possibility, a desire to grow and explore and persuade. This is just one of the ways she models how to thrive.” Reading this, I was reminded of so many Indigenous women I know and love—in close proximity, and from a distance, as I do Buffy Sainte-Marie. Watching these women fight off attempts to erase them, observing their influence and contributions, and witnessing them stand up to colonialism has taught me how to thrive.

Alicia Elliott is an award-winning Tuscarora writer living in Brantford, Ontario, with her husband, kid, and dog. Her book of essays, A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, is forthcoming in March 2019 from Doubleday Canada.

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