When she agreed to tell her life story, Canadian singer and artist Buffy Sainte-Marie didn’t want a rock ‘n’ roll biography.

The singer, who grew up on the Piapot Cree Reserve in Saskatchewan's Qu'Appelle Valley, wanted her role as an artist, an educator and an activist for native rights given equal play.

Although she'd turned down would-be biographers in the past, Sainte-Marie said yes to historian Blair Stonechild, head of native studies at First Nations University in Regina.

"I knew that Blair would get it right. I knew that he could interview people in Cree. I knew that he cared and I knew that no other writers would get that part," Sainte-Marie told CBC News.

Stonechild dug into the history of Sainte-Marie's family and unearthed the rougher sides of growing up on a reserve in the biography It’s My Way. 

Universal themes

Sainte-Marie is best known for her songs with a social conscience, including Universal Soldier, Now That the Buffalo is Gone and Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. Looking back on her work while talking to her biographer, she saw the universal themes that emerged in the music over the years, from corporate greed to abuse of the environment to the role of war in making investors rich. Some of those issues affected native people before they became important in worldwide social movements, she said.

The singer-songwriter says she’s always written a wide range of material: from political songs to pop tracks, including the Oscar winning Up Where We Belong and hits like Until it's Time for You to Go that were covered by multiple artists.

Now 71, she’s been making music for close to 50 years. However, she now spends as much time painting and working on educational projects as on her music.

"The music business didn't know or care that I was an educator or a painter and I was a visual artist since I was three. The same day I discovered a piano was the same day I was making visuals and making up stories, because that's what creative people really do," she said.

Now, however, she says it’s easier to display a range of artistic talents because of the internet.

"It used to be the voice was owned by corporations, but now the people can blog and find each other online — different countries, different kinds of music. We realize that all of us are multitalented in some ways."  

A show of Sainte-Marie's digital art, Sixteen Million Colours, is currently showing at the Gurevich Fine Art gallery in Winnipeg