Buffy Sainte-Marie: 75 things you need to know about the Canadian icon
Buffy Sainte-Marie has been making music since she was three years old. On Feb. 20, the prolific and inspiring Canadian legend turns 75, and we're thrilled to celebrate her extraordinary life.
Scroll down to explore 75 amazing things you need to know about Sainte-Marie: her earliest days as a self-taught folk singer shaking up the coffeehouses and consciousnesses in Greenwich Village and helping Joni Mitchell get discovered; her lifelong commitment to and advocacy for Indigenous and Aboriginal people around the world; how she changed the education system from within, and how her passion for social justice, equality and the earth mixed with her love of sound and songs. And we'll explore her legacy as an ever-curious, ever-evolving, and technologically pioneering musician, producer, composer and artist — despite her inability to read a note of music.
Enjoy this deep dive into the extraordinary life (so far) of Buffy Sainte-Marie.
1. She was born Beverly Sainte-Marie on Feb. 20, 1941, on the Piapot Cree First Nation reserve in the Qu'Appelle Valley, Sask.
According to the book A to Z of American Indian Women, after the sudden deaths of both of her parents, Beverly was adopted by family relatives Albert and Winifred Sainte-Marie, nicknamed Buffy, and raised in Massachusetts.
2. Sainte-Marie taught herself to play piano at age 3 and began setting her poems to music at the age of four.
She told Vogue about her lifelong fascination with musical experimentation: "As a little kid when I was three, I discovered a piano and I found out it made noise and I was fascinated and taught myself how to do what I wanted to do on it. I could play fake Beethoven, and do other things with strange chords that other people didn't use but that I liked. I banged on pots and pans, I'd play with rubber bands, I'd blow on grass, I played the mouth bow. I saw a Buchla and Matrix and ARP synth early in the sixties, as soon as they came out, and I was just interested. Later, I was using a Synclavier and a Fairlight, which were the earliest standing music computers."
3. At 16, she taught herself guitar and ultimately invented 32 different ways of tuning her instrument, creating sounds completely unique to her music.
4. Sainte-Marie was so inquisitive that she would even take apart the vacuum cleaner and try to create her own headphones by hooking its tubes to the broken record player.
"I learned very fast not to argue with my teachers. In school they said, 'Columbus discovered America' or 'The American-Indian was….' My teachers told me music was lines and notes and paper […] I never disagreed with them. I just learned to keep my head down and avoid conflict. Then I'd go home and play my own fake-classical music."
6. Sainte-Marie began researching her Indigenous heritage in her teens and making trips back to the Piapot reserve and connecting with her Cree community.
7. Sainte-Marie majored in teaching and Oriental philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and graduated with plans to travel to India. But she was also writing and performing songs.
She told Democracy Now: "I started playing songs for the girls in my dorm and my housemother Theresa de Kerpely, who was from Europe. She really encouraged me, and she encouraged me to listen to people like Edith Piaf, Carmen Amaya, the flamenco dancer-singer, people from other countries. So, from the start of playing for other people, I was absorbing and reflecting, I think, a very wide world culture. International students at the university were a big influence on me."
8. Sainte-Marie's friends encouraged her to perform publicly and eventually she found herself in New York City in the early days of the counterculture movement.
She began singing in coffeehouses in Greenwich Village where Bob Dylan heard her sing and urged her to perform at the Gaslight, a famed folkie hangout.
9. She was already performing "Universal Soldier" in these coffeehouses in 1963, but she was banned from singing it on the radio and TV. Donovan would make it a huge hit and help it crossover into the mainstream in 1965.
10. Later that year, Sainte-Marie developed bronchial pneumonia and almost ruined her voice. While recovering from the infection, she became addicted to codeine, and her subsequent struggle to get clean became the basis for her song, "Cod'ine."
Guitarist Danny Kalb told Whispering Pines, "When I saw Buffy Sainte-Marie singing about codeine, I knew it would be several more years before I had enough experience underneath my belt to sing the way she did. She was raw and great."
11. Sainte-Marie's first record, It's My Way!, was released in 1964.
In an interview with Democracy Now, Sainte-Marie said, "The songs that I was writing, I thought people sort of ought to hear, but also deserve to hear, because I knew I was reflecting some points of view that weren't being verbalized, but they were felt by fellow students, like things about Native American stuff and love songs with more feeling than just, you know, 'I'm going to die if I don't get you in bed tonight,' or things like 'Universal Soldier.'"
12. At the time, she didn't consider herself much of a singer, but audiences loved her. Billboard even named Sainte-Marie the best new artist of 1964. The songs were the source of her confidence.
"I didn't think I was much of a singer, but because of the songs, I had the nerve to step out onto a stage and to give the people the songs. So I wasn't concentrating on myself as a singer. I probably should have been concentrating more. Later on, I learned to sing."
13. But Sainte-Marie found the sudden fame overwhelming. She vanished to Spain to spend three months alone without telling anyone, not even her manager, who didn't find out where she was until he got her bills for the tickets.
14. In 1965, Sainte-Marie released her second record, Many a Mile, which included one of her biggest, most commercially successful hits of all time: "Until It's Time for You to Go." The song would go on to be covered by everybody from Elvis to Barbra Streisand to Bette Davis.
15. Though she'd written one of the most covered, popular, and scathing anti-war songs, Sainte-Marie found herself removed from the scene and instead focused on what was happening on the American Indian reservations.
"During the civil rights and anti-war marches, even though my song 'Universal Soldier' was all over the streets, I was absent. I threw myself into another direction and covered the base nobody else knew about — the reservations. I was friends with Stokely Carmichael, Mohammed Ali, Harry Belafonte and other African-American civil-rights giants. I took Dick Gregory to his first reservation — it broke his heart, he cried on the airplane back. With Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and all the other famous artists appearing at every photo op, I felt that other issues didn't need my help; the reservations were a different story."
16. Sainte-Marie also resisted the label "protest singer."
In 1965, she told Time: "I have written hundreds of songs and only half a dozen are of protest. I believe in leaving politics to the experts, only sometimes the experts don't know what's going on. I'm trying to scatter what I can of beauty in the places I think need it, to get rid of the boredom and the meanness in the world."
17. But Sainte-Marie was also about to learn some hard lessons about looking out for herself in the industry.
"I sold the rights to 'Universal Soldier' for one dollar. Ten years later I bought it back for $25,000. I try to be positive. I was lucky that my music had put me in a position where I was able to buy it back."
18. Time labeled her a "pennypincher" even though she was already reportedly making about $100,000 a year at the time. In truth, Sainte-Marie knew she was financially stable, so she turned to philanthropy. She founded the Nihewan Foundation which gave law school scholarships to Native Americans.
She told Vogue: "When I was maybe 24, I was a young singer with too much money, I knew I'd be able to have two meals a day for the rest of my life, so I took my leftover singing money and I started a scholarship called the Nihewan Foundation for American Indian Education. I really set out to address the problem I saw in Indian country where Indian kids would graduate from high school, want to go to college, but didn't know how to negotiate the path to college. They didn't know how to get a scholarship, they weren't connected by family and friends. I have an Academy Award, but that's not my biggest honor. My biggest honor was to find out that two of my early scholarship recipients had gone on to found tribal colleges. Can you imagine that kind of thrill?"
19. Sainte-Marie's third album, 1966's Little Wheel Spin and Spin, indicated the future direction of her music. Little Wheel made room for electric guitar and some string arrangements, and it became her first album to reach the Billboard Top 100 Pop Charts, peaking at 97.
It also features the heartbreaking song, "My Country 'Tis of Thy People You're Dying," which Sainte-Marie talked about with Democracy Now: "I wanted to give people Indian 101 in six minutes. It's a long song. But Indian 101 has never been presented to the North American public, let alone anywhere else."
20. 1967's Fire & Fleet & Candlelight, Sainte-Marie's fourth record, featured a full rock band, orchestration and two covers of Joni Mitchell songs, including "The Circle Game."
21. In fact, Sainte-Marie helped Joni Mitchell get her break: "Joni also came from Saskatchewan and was being ignored by the folk bosses who ran the record companies. I thought that she and my friend Leonard Cohen were fantastic talents, so I carried Joni's tape around in my purse, playing it for all the bigwigs. Finally a young guy in an agency I was working with got it! He became her manager and built a huge career with her. But basically people like me, Phil Ochs and Joni were also-rans to the major management stables."
22. In 1967, Black World (then Negro Digest) reported on Sainte-Marie's Seventeen Magazine interview. It's a candid, fascinating piece full of wisdom, fire and frustration.
"Lots of white teenagers don't know what it means to be deprived. I don't mean that you can't buy a party dress. I mean you may not be able to do your homework because the electricity has to be shut off at nine o'clock in the evening. Or you may not be able to do your homework because you have a job in the evening to help you stay in school; or, you may not be able to stay in school at all."
23. Later that same year, Billboard labeled Sainte-Marie the patron saint of "non-hippy hipsters," based on her show at the Philharmonic, wherein she received a 10-minute standing ovation from a crowd of "well-bred intellectuals."
24. For her fifth album, I'm Gonna Be a Country Girl Again, Sainte-Marie worked with acclaimed country musician and producer Chet Atkins.
She told the Globe and Mail a little about their friendship and how they bonded over playing and writing by ear rather than reading music.
"Chet Atkins was a friend of mine. He brought a lot of artists to Nashville. He loved songwriters and artists and he was just a really nice and supportive guy to work with. Back then I had some self-esteem issues, partly because I am what is known as music dyslexic, which means I can't really read music. Chet told me that one time somebody asked him if he could read music and his answer was, 'Not enough to hurt my playing.' I loved that! It always stuck with me and gave me the confidence to know that my way of playing music is okay."
25. That year, Sainte-Marie was asked to appear on an episode of the TV western, the Virginian. According to the LA Review of Books' 2012 writeup of Sainte-Marie's biography, It's My Way!, she made two demands when director Leo Penn, (Sean Penn's father) came calling:
"First, she insisted that the studio cast Native actors for all the Indian parts ('No Indians, no Buffy'). She also advocated that the writers bring complexity to her own role. She told them, '[I'm] not interested in playing Pocahontas.'"
— Leo Penn
26. Sainte-Marie married Hawaiian surfer Dewain Bugbee in 1968, but they divorced in 1971. There is a great photo of the couple on this Buffy-related Tumblr.
27. 1969's Illuminations was wildly experimental, electronic and a huge flop. But it was also totally ahead of its time.
Sainte-Marie recently told Maclean's about how its reputation has changed. "It wasn't until many years later that [1969's synth-heavy] Illuminations was named 'one of the albums that set the world on fire' [by The Wire magazine]. I was 30 years ahead with a lot of ideas. At a certain point, I realized that I was too early with some songs. Other times, I was right on time."
28. The album also featured her beautiful collaboration with fellow Canadian, Leonard Cohen, in which she set his poem, "God is Alive Magic is Afoot," to music.
29. Sainte-Marie started getting more involved with movie and TV soundtracks. 1970's Performance is a super weird little film starring Mick Jagger, with music by Jack Nitzche (Sainte-Marie's future collaborator and husband). This gorgeous, transfixing experimental tune from Performance features Sainte-Marie and Ry Cooder.
30. And her cover of Joni Mitchell's "The Circle Game" was used in the opening credits of the 1970 film, The Strawberry Statement, about the counterculture and student protests of the '60s.
31. She also wrote the title song for the film Soldier Blue, which depicted the brutal slaughter of the Cheyenne village by Colorado State Militia.
"No one knows Soldier Blue in North America. I can guarantee you won't find three people in the U.S. who know it. It was taken out of the theatres after a few days." Sainte-Marie told the Guardian in 2009. When the reporter asked her why the film was yanked from the theatre, she answered: "What year did Soldier Blue come out? 1970? Oh, that'll be Richard Nixon."
And all of the songs she wrote and performed were published by her own company, Caleb Music.
32. Sainte-Marie was also active in and supportive of the American Indian Movement, which was formed to address a variety of issues pertaining to sovereignty, leadership, land treaties, problems with law enforcement and elected officials, and harassment and racism. The '70s were particularly volatile following the murder of two Lakota men from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation by white men who received minimal charges and sentences, as well as corruption in the government.
33. Sainte-Marie was prolific in her first seven years releasing records. Not only did she release a new album every year between 1964 and 1969, she had enough material for her first "Best of" compilation. And there was enough left over that she released a "Best of" volume two in 1971.
34. Because Illuminations tanked financially, Sainte-Marie's record label put significant pressure on her to do something more commercially viable for her seventh album, 1971's She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina.
Sainte-Marie recruited Neil Young and Crazy Horse to help out, and included "Blue Soldier" as well as a cover of Young's "Helpless".
35. Sainte-Marie performed for the first time in Scandanavia in 1971 and was awarded the Silver Disk for "Soldier Blue," which sold more than 50,000 copies in Sweden.
36. The 1972 album, Moonshot, featured Sainte-Marie's highest Billboard-charting pop single, "Mister Can't You See."
37. In 1972, The Buffy Sainte-Marie Songbook was published. The first print run alone was 20,000 copies.
38. Despite all of her earlier success, Sainte-Marie's relationship with her label had been strained for years. She wanted to be released from her contract, and finally, with the release and subsequent failure of 1973's Quiet Places, she successfully dissolved her relationship with Vanguard Records.
39. 1974's Native North American Child: An Odyssey was an anthology album of all of Sainte-Marie's Indigenous-focused songs.
"Who's got the rhythm of the universe inside him?
Who taught the pilgrims how to make it in the wild?
Who's got a credit card with old Mother Nature?
Yeah! Native North American Child!"
40. 1974's Buffy was Sainte-Marie's reinvention — and her major label debut on MCA.
Sainte-Marie left Vanguard because she wanted to make music that wasn't just about her voice and a guitar. She'd never even had a personal manager or booking agent, opting instead to go out on the road alone, setting up her own tours with a variety of agencies. She cobbled together $45,000 and went to Nashville to make the album that would eventually become her major label debut, Buffy, and help her breakthrough to mainstream American audiences.
41. The response was great.
Sainte-Marie's live shows had always been must-see events. This glowing 1974 review by Phil Gelormine in Billboard concludes that her MCA debut, Buffy, "should bring Ms. Sainte-Marie to the forefront, where she's always belonged."
She was voted FM Personality of the Year by the free-form disk jockey association in 1974.
42. The album, which Sainte-Marie likened to a collection of singles in this 1974 Melody Maker interview, was meant to present a refreshed, revitalized version of her as an artist.
"For the Buffy album I was writing as a 15-year-old who loves a rock star, a country person who cares about the environment and a socially conscious student. This year especially, people are realising that there are lots of different types of music to respond to. Just because you have a thought in your head, it doesn't mean that you don't want to get up and boogie."
And according to an interview with Sainte-Marie in Billboard in early 1975, Buffy "outsold every LP I ever did on Vanguard."
43. Sainte-Marie's aptly titled 1975 album, and her last for MCA, Changing Woman, was a bit of a return to 1969's Illuminations, and her second-to-last record before a 15-year hiatus.
44. She married Sheldon Wolfchild from Minnesota in 1975, and they had a son, Dakota "Cody" Starblanket Wolfchild, in 1976.
Both Sainte-Marie and Wolfchild were outspoken activists for Native Americans, which they said put them on the radar of federal law enforcement agencies.
"Sheldon" — she inclines her head towards Wolfchild — "who's a Vietnam veteran and worked as an artist at Walt Disney Studios — what could be more American than that — has the FBI showing up at his place of business asking all kinds of foolish questions."
"They found my name," explains Sheldon, "on a piece of paper that was layin' on the ground on a reservation in South Dakota. They came around and asked me questions for two hours. They asked what my name was doing on a piece of paper on a reservation in South Dakota. How should I know?"
45. 1976's Sweet America was Sainte-Marie's final album before her hiatus. She dedicated the record to the American Indian Movement, but reviews were mixed.
New Musical Express's Charles Shaar Murray praised part of the album while panning the rest. "Basically, half of it (side two, to be precise) is the best work she's done since the exemplary She Used To Wanna Be A Ballerina way back in '71, whereas the first side is just about as lacklustre as the rest of her post-Ballerina albums."
46. In 1976, Sainte-Marie joined Sesame Street, where she was a semi-regular for five years.
47. Sainte-Marie said she "wanted little kids and their caretakers to know one thing above all: that Indians exist. We are not all dead and stuffed in museums like the dinosaurs. With the help of Big Bird and Oscar and friends, we put out this simple message of reality three times a day to the children of 73 countries of the world, providing them with positive realities, before racism and stereotyping ever had a chance to set in."
48. During her time on the show, Sainte-Marie acted, sang and played music. She shared songs and stories of Indigenous people, and also became the first woman to breastfeed on Sesame Street in 1977.
49. Sainte-Marie left Sesame Street in 1981 and won an Oscar in 1982 for "Up Where We Belong," the theme song to the film An Officer and a Gentleman. She co-wrote the song with Will Jennings (who would go on to co-write "Tears in Heaven" and "My Heart Will Go On") and Jack Nitzche, whom she also married the same year.
50. Sainte-Marie told Dazed in 2013: "Right now my Oscar is in the Smithsonian, because I'm the first Native American, I think the only, to win an Oscar."
51. Sainte-Marie wrote the theme song for Spirit Bay, a CBC TV series and the first Aboriginal TV series in Canada, which aired from 1982 to 1986.
52. Sainte-Marie received her first honorary doctorate from the University of Massachusetts in 1983. She now has more than 10 such honours from universities and colleges throughout North America.
53. Sainte-Marie and Martin Sheen narrated 1985's Broken Rainbow, a documentary about the government relocation of 10,000 Navajo Indians in Arizona.
54. Sainte-Marie scored the 1986 film Harold Of Orange, an American Indian comedy.
55. She also scored the 1989 film, Where the Spirit Lives, about Aboriginal children being stolen and forced into residential schools.
56. Sainte-Marie voiced the character of Kate Bighead in the 1991 miniseries Son of the Morning Star, which told the Native American side of the Battle of Little Bighorn.
57. 1992's Coincidence and Likely Stories was Sainte-Marie's first album since 1976's Sweet America.
58. Sainte-Marie had long experimented with electronic and computer technology, and built her own home recording studio in order to make the record on her own terms in her own way. According to Sainte-Marie, when she sent the files to her label in 1991, Coincidences and Likely Stories became the first-ever album delivered via the internet.
59. Sainte-Marie had very specific goals for the record, which she shared with Los Angeles Magazine in 1992: "Regardless of what my career or my lyrics have been about, the record should be judged on only one thing: I either stand up to Mariah Carey and Bryan Adams or I've failed."
60. In 1993, Sainte-Marie appeared in The Broken Chain, which IMDB describes as "two Iroquois brothers caught in the Revolutionary War," and starred Pierce Brosnan.
61. Sainte-Marie was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1995 at the Juno Awards.
According to Billboard, she thanked Aboriginal musicians for their inspiration, several people in the music industry, and the Apple company for the computers and technology that helped make it easier for her to write and record. "The recording industry really is about more than making money and getting famous."
62. In 1996, Sainte-Marie's digital art was featured in a one-woman exhibit at the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum in Santa Fe. She scans old photos, typically 19th-century images of Indigenous people, and utilizes the computer to manipulate the pictures.
63. Pink Village, printed on Kodak Professional Endura Metallic VC Digital Paper, 49″ x 52.5″
"An image of a Native elder looms above and inside a valley, in which tipis are visible. The colors are hot pinks and other bright hues, fragmented and pixelated. The atmosphere is one of Wisdom bearing witness to chaos and destruction."
64. Self Portrait, printed on Kodak Professional Endura Metallic VC Digital Paper 33″ x 45.5″
"A photo was imported into my computer and I played with it. It is a headshot where I was wearing a lightweight veil; black hair, blackened background; and streaks of very interesting computer colors in some feathers."
65. Sainte-Marie founded the Cradleboard Teaching Project after her son's grade five teacher asked for input on the curriculum regarding American Indians.
"We looked at the available teaching materials and they failed! Lots of dead text about dead Indians. I wrote up a simple corrected version of the encyclopedia material. Each year I continued to upgrade and expand this little Indian Unit.
"In 1984, I got my first Macintosh computer. I'd already been using computers for recording music and scoring movies for several years, so I had a bit of a head start. By the early '90s I was using my computers for online interaction and making new friends. I thought it would be interesting to connect a First Nations (Indian) school in Canada with Adrya Siebring's Island School in Hawaii. The kids exchanged letters and boxes of local goodies and information about their communities, their schools, and most of all themselves. They also had their first experience with email and Live Chat on a computer, which was very new at the time."
66. In 1997, Sainte-Marie was named to the Order of Canada.
67. And, in 1999, she was inducted into Canada's Walk of Fame.
68. Following another 15-year hiatus from releasing albums, Sainte-Marie released 2008's Running for the Drum. It won the Juno Award for best Aboriginal album.
"I didn't fall out of love with music," she told the Guardian about the second lengthy break. "In fact I'm always writing and recording, but there's no sense in putting out an album unless you're going to be in the music business and tour, and I just didn't have time. But I had these songs and I was kinda hot to go on the road again."
69. In 2009, Sainte-Marie told the Huffington Post that she is an amateur astronomer.
"On Hawaii, we have this local navy base, and I have security clearance to go and use their telescopes. I'm an amateur astronomer, and when you look at the stars... or even when you spend time with your kitty cat in your lap... To me, it's the most beautiful, natural phenomenon, the earth. It's what connects us all together with everything and each other."
70. In an interview with the Honolulu Advertiser, Sainte-Marie talked about the anonymity of her life in Hawaii. She lives under an assumed name on a farm with 27 goats, a cat and a retired horse. She also gives away her trees.
"I give away Christmas trees, little ones and big ones. The very tall Norfolks go to woodturners of Kaua'i, who use the wood for art projects for bowls and platters. Could be some folks have wooden bowls that were from my trees."
71. According to Blair Stonechild's 2012 Buffy Sainte-Marie biography, sometime in the '80s, Sainte-Marie learned that her music was censored and suppressed by the U.S. government. Johnson and Nixon created a blacklist of musicians who were deemed dangerous and "determined to encourage widespread citizen protest."
In 1999, ex-CIA agent Charles Schlund III confirmed the Vietnam-era radio blacklists. Sainte-Marie also discovered that her phones had been tapped and that there was a 31-page FBI file on her. Sainte-Marie expanded on the contents of the file in an interview with Maclean's.
"There was nothing there. Buffy Sainte-Marie has never broken the law. I did not smoke pot on the White House lawn, I don't get traffic tickets and I'm not a criminal. It was ridiculous — they had letters from people in the file asking the FBI if they had a file on me. Also: everything was blacked out. It was very petty, very high school and very nasty."
72. In 2012, Sainte-Marie gave the commencement address at UBC. It was an uplifting, emotional talk that was both simple and inspiring.
"Every time you got up out of that bed early and came to class, investing your time and your energy, which is precious, and even more precious, your hope in the future. It takes work sometimes. And as you have expanded your personal knowledge base, so the university does, too. And the city and the province and the country and the world itself. This is no small thing that you're doing, that you have accomplished ... [Lifelong learning] gives you a beautiful life ... Every moment, every day, you keep on learning something, that's how the future happens."
73. In 2015, a 74-year-old Sainte-Marie released her newest album, Power in the Blood, to critical acclaim.
74. Power in the Blood went on to win Canada's largest cash music award, the Polaris Music Prize. Backstage, Sainte-Marie spoke candidly with CBC Music.
"Aboriginal music has been good for a very long time, but nobody has been listening to it."
Although her career has spanned 50 years, Sainte-Marie said that the big difference with Power in the Blood was that "it got heard. That's always been my problem because I had some serious, serious issues. Most people know my first three albums … but it was a matter of getting blacklisted in the '60s and having radio play denied to me for many years. It's real hard to regain that momentum. … People did not want to hear the types of things I was saying in my generation, in the '70s."
75. Sainte-Marie celebrates her 75th birthday about a month shy of the 2016 Junos where she's up for three awards including songwriter of the year, contemporary roots album and Aboriginal album of the year.
"I'm really always pushing people to polish up their chops, polish up their musicianship, listen to more music than what you hear on the radio, explore the entire heart and soul of world music, because it's all wonderful and it's exciting," Sainte-Marie told CBC Music. "And when you get excited as a musician, you're likely to come up with something not that copies what you've been listening to, but you're likely to come up with something that's totally out of the box and new. My songs, the ones that I keep, they don't sound like songs that I've heard before. They don't sound like second-rate Joni Mitchell or second-rate Leonard Cohen. They're not. I was singing Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen before they could get record deals because they were unique."