Mòshkamo: Buffy Sainte-Marie looks at life from both sides now and always

Buffy Sainte-Marie will perform Sept. 15 in Southam Hall.

Buffy Sainte-Marie usually gets up early — between 5 and 6 a.m. Sometimes, if she has been travelling away from her home in Hawaii, she’s up earlier.

“That’s jet lag mostly, these days, though, clocks mean less and less,” she said over the phone while she was petting one of her two Siamese kittens. She calls this one Anderson Copper because of his striking resemblance to the CNN host.

When you are a legendary singer-songwriter time can stretch. It certainly has for Buffy.

No matter what the time frame, the woman who started her career in the very early 1960s is still doing up to 200 events a year. She’s performing in concerts such as the Sept. 15 show in Southam Hall, or speaking to gatherings, literally around the globe, about things that concern her. And she’s still releasing albums. Her last is Medicine Songs out in 2018.

“That is a collection of activist songs.” But, she said, the record also includes songs of encouragement.

Buffy Sainte-Marie in the late ’60s.

“Protest songs spell out a problem and the others, they are positive message. … These go together. I have always written both.

“When I am programming a concert, I always make sure if I am doing something heavy I follow it with an answer or a solution or something that makes you feel good.”

She does offer hope about many things.

“I believe in questioning and in trying to find solutions.”

When she started in the 1960s, there was protest in the air. What about now?

“I think humanity goes through these waves of change. Bad leadership is not new. It goes way back before the Old Testament. It has run and operated many of the world’s most famous nations for thousands of years.”

The cycle of 24 hours news reporting and the impact of social media does make it seem more intense, but even there, Sainte-Marie sees the upside.

“I look at social media as a positive. With social media, for the first time someone from a marginalized community … all of a sudden it feels as if they are on television.

“Everybody has their opinion. It’s kind of like a big stadium crowd shouting my opinion, my opinion, my opinion.”

The only solution is to continue to deal with one’s own neighbourhood. “Cumulatively that works.”

Sainte-Marie, asked about a possible new record, said she is always working on new music.

“My life as an artist is that I am always doing that. Every now and then I enter the commercial arena of books or philosophy or music.”

But, she said, her private life is pretty much as it has been since she was a kid.

“I spend a lot of days painting, decorating, doing crafts and music and cooking and cleaning house.

“As a professional, I get on an airplane and I go to a place and people think I’m being very creative. But I’m not because don’t have time or space” when she’s performing.

“I’m usually creating in my own head wherever I am. If I am going to turn it into some kind of product, that takes concentration and the time and place to actually work on things.”

Her natural, innate, instinct seems to have been to be an artist.

Sainte-Marie was born on the Piapot Plains Cree First Nation in Saskatchewan. As an infant, she was adopted by Albert and Winifred Sainte-Marie who lived in Massachusetts.

She said doesn’t know what happened before her adoption or why it happened.

“It’s not as though they put a label on the back of your neck telling you where you came from or saying please wash separately and drip dry.

“They invent a birth certificate for you. I don’t even have a horoscope.”

Her adoptive mother was a wonderful person, she said. “She was just precious.” While the men in the family “were typical pedophiles. They were peeping and doing the things that men who were like that do. … Nobody said anything. No one talked about it.”

But typically, she says her childhood was both bad and good. She says she is very grateful to have had a family at all.

“As much as a person can grow beyond what happens to you as a child, I have dealt with it. I’m alright. I’m fine. But I definitely think it’s awful. It shouldn’t happen to any child.”

For her, music was always there as her personal toy box.

“I didn’t play with Barbies. I didn’t play sports. I played colouring and crayons and music. I saw a piano for the first time at three and it became my toy.

“I am pretty much the same as I was as a little kid. I’m not much of a hanger-outer. I never learned how to drink alcohol, so I never went to bars. I never went down those roads.”

She believes it’s good for an artist to still be approaching all the arts as play. That doesn’t mean the pursuit of stardom is wrong.

“A lot of my friends, that’s the way they have done it and that’s fine too. In my experience, I have been around 360 degrees of music and it can come from anywhere.”

Her mother “appreciated me as an artist. She didn’t make me do stuff. I flunked Girl Scouts for lack of attendance. I never had my dime for dues. But my mom was happy to have me playing piano all the time. She liked the art I made.

“She took me to a piano teacher when I was five and I sat down and started to play Tchaikovsky. The teacher told my mother, ‘Don’t force her to learn how to read music unless she wants to’.”

She didn’t want to until high school when she found out that she couldn’t physically read the notes. She later found out that even though she can play what she hears, she is musically dyslexic.

“I can write for an orchestra but I can’t read it back. I could hear something at three and just sit down and play it.” She can written words just not musical notation.

Her career as a performer is as a result of twist of fate.

“When I was graduating college, I was one of the 10 most outstanding seniors in my class. I had a 3.8 grade point average. Two weeks before I was to graduate a guidance counsellor called me into his office and said ‘I’m sorry but they won’t let you graduate.’ Turns out that when she was a freshman at the University of Massachusetts she took a compulsory class on public speaking that, “if you ace’d a speech, you wouldn’t have to take the class.” But they never told her that she needed to make up the credit.

So, “I wound up going to Greenwich Village and trying my luck at singing the songs I had been writing and playing at an off-campus coffee house.

“Normally I would never have had the courage but I figured I would be there for a few days only,” she why not try. She started singing Universal Soldier, Now that the Buffalo’s Gone and more “and all of a sudden I had a career.”

She did graduate from university with a philosophy degree and later she got a PhD in Fine Arts (Digital Fine Arts).

Her philosophy training is still with her. As the interview continued, she said she was entertaining herself listening to an audio book on the life of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche.

Her training has equipped to give speeches including one about climate change at a conference in Toronto along with David Suzuki and Stephen Lewis.

“I have the head of a playful artist and of someone who craves to talk about any philosophical deep thinking.”

However, unlike many philosophers, “for me, if I can say what I have to say in a three minute song and somebody else takes 400 pages of a book that will wind up on a shelf, then I feel the value of the three minute song is amazing. It replicable. It’s translatable.”

As an artist, Sainte-Marie’s view of humanity is that, “I think we are free and that’s not popular thinking.

“Today we all want to talk about is the fact that so many of us are so unfairly and heavily influenced by big corporations. I see that as true, but part of the solution to that is knowing you are free to go home and think what you want. I prefer to encourage people to indulge in that and don’t worry about about the rest.

“I really try very hard to throw out little life boats of positivity that people can use to clarify their thinking.

“I understand what it means to be an artist in the record business who is being advised by all of her advisers to fake a protest song, that now is the time to really be angry and carry a sign but I don’t think like that.”

She says she does get back to Saskatchewan a few times every year. Her Cree family is there and she has many friends in this country.

“With my Cree family, we don’t know if I’m a blood relative or not but it’s never been important to any of us. In Cree culture, if a family has lost a child they keep their hearts open to some day adopt other children.

“My sister Brenda and I were adopted into that family. We guess, and there are stories, but nothing is conclusive.

“I have had two adoptive families. The second one has been a gas all the way and first one was at least half wonderful.”

She believes that the reconciliation process is travelling in the right direction and that artists can lead.

“I think that some artists definitely lead the way, and that artists can lead the way but not everybody wants to, or can. It’s all good. Artists are not required to carry a sign or be an activist.”

Re: reconciliation: “I’ve tried hard myself on these hard issues and although it’s taken 50 years, I say ‘The good news about the bad news is that now more people know about it.’

Buffy Sainte-Marie.

It’s also true when it comes to the good news about Indigenous people. There was a time when you would not hear people with famous names mention Indigenous people.

“We Indigenous people have been into this resistance thing for more than 500 years. We do know what we are talking about.”

She added that Indigenous people are moving forward on their own, becoming business people, academics, scientists and more.

“We all tend to think of Indigenous people as being caught in a time stereotype. They need empathy and those poor Indians and look at them they are going to dance a powwow at the opening of a shopping mall, isn’t that nice. What people don’t understand is the power of education and networking and working for many years to get advanced degrees in important fields.”

To that end she sits on the board of The Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fundd. It is focused on providing safe spaces for kids all across Canada.

“I feel we have an opportunity to show Indigenous and non-Indigenous students a whole other approach to delivering education and curriculum,” Sainte-Marie who has founded her own non-profit foundations.

“Sometimes people may think I’m kind of a Pollyanna, that I’m not angry enough; others may think she’s always pissed off, the truth is that because of the privilege of travel and networking I can see things going on before the wider public.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.