Buffy Sainte-Marie is an Indigenous icon. The Canadian singer, songwriter, and activist first rose to prominence in the 1960s, when real flesh-and-blood Native people were seldom seen in pop culture, essentially assumed to have gone extinct. Her music was wildly popular and commercially successful, but she forged her own path, unafraid of controversy and sharing harsh truths from her own Indigenous perspective.
Sainte-Marie comes from humble beginnings. A member of the Cree First Nation, she was born on a reserve in the Qu’Appelle Valley of Saskatchewan, Canada — but like many Native children, she was taken from her birth family at a young age. She was adopted by a family in Massachusetts, later attending the University of Massachusetts Amherst. It was there that her musical talent really began to blossom. One of her earliest songs, “Universal Soldier,” was an anti-war anthem responding to the Vietnam War. She later took an active role in funding the Native occupation of Alcatraz and had comrades on the ground during the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee by American Indian Movement activists. During the 1970s, she also joined the cast of Sesame Street, once famously breast feeding her son on-air at a time when such behavior was considered provocative and virtually unheard of.
Sainte-Marie went on to become the first Native woman to win an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for co-writing “Up Where We Belong,” a song featured in the 1982 film An Officer and a Gentleman. Despite her professional successes, her unwillingness to keep quiet came with a price. She was blacklisted by Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, and suspects that her career prospects in the U.S. were dampened by government officials wary of her activism. Nevertheless, she kept right on working. In 2018, she was the subject of Andrea Warner’s Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography, with a forward written by Sainte-Marie’s friend Joni Mitchell, and her latest album Medicine Songs is a collection of frontline songs about unity and resistance.
Teen Vogue recently had the privilege of interviewing this living legend over email ahead of her birthday on February 20.
Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
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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.
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 Thelma Stiffarm 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.