Day 6

Ahead of her time for a long time: A new biography documents the storied life of Buffy Sainte-Marie

Andrea Warner says Buffy Sainte-Marie has remained true to herself for half a century, as a musician and a defender of Indigenous people.

'She is one of the most incredible people in the entire world'

Buffy Sainte-Marie at the Juno Awards in 2017. Her life and career is the subject of a new biography. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
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Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography is a new book by music writer Andrea Warner. (Greystone Books)

From her early days of being adopted and removed from the Piapot Plains Cree First Nation in Saskatchewan, to becoming an award-winning musician and activist, Buffy Sainte-Marie has led a long and storied life.

Now, her journey as an artist is chronicled in the new book, Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography, which features Sainte-Marie's insights and the stories behind some of her songs.

Andrea Warner, a music writer and regular member of the Day 6 music panel, authored the biography and spoke about it with host Brent Bambury.

Brent Bambury: Buffy is a hero of yours and it's a risky thing to meet your heroes, but you spent a lot of time with her for this. Did it pay off?

Andrea Warner: Oh absolutely. I mean, she is one of the most incredible people in the entire world. Do not be afraid to meet your heroes. You can meet Buffy Sainte-Marie.

BB: Early on in your book you write about a scene that you witnessed after a show in Woodstock, New York. Tell me what happened there and what it told you about Buffy.

AW: Well, it was the most amazing thing and no one expected it.

A water defender from Standing Rock had travelled all the way to Woodstock to be at this show. And towards the end of the night, after most of the line had died down for autographs, the water defender, she came out in her full regalia carrying something. We didn't know what she was carrying. It looked like a blanket. And she presented Buffy with the flag — the actual flag — from when her people defeated General Custer.

Singer Buffy Sainte-Marie at the Royal Alexandra Thetre in Toronto May 25, 1986, for the week-long Toronto Arts Against Apartheid Festival. (Bill Becker/CP)

BB: So it was like 150 years old?

AW: A hundred and 50 years old. And we're looking at this flag, like Indigenous people defeating their colonizers. And she did a flag ceremony with Buffy and Buffy didn't know it was coming. It was just the most chilling, amazing, moving thing I've ever experienced in my whole life.

BB: And what did you witness from Buffy in the way that she connected with this unexpected guest with that amazing gift?

AW: She moved out of the way. She created space. She ceded the floor to her to let her speak.  And then Buffy just gave a very short, eloquent, humble speech about the importance of listening to people, of rising up together and supporting these incredible, incredible activists on the frontline.

She has the microphone. She knows that she is the one in the spotlight, but she brings people into the spotlight with her and makes sure that other people's voices are heard.- Andrea Warner, author of Buffy Sainte-Marie : The Authorized Biography

BB: So a deep sense of connection, but at the same time the humility of a person who understood what it is to give that other person a chance to be heard?

AW: And I think that's what she does in her music as well. She has the microphone. She knows that she is the one in the spotlight, but she brings people into the spotlight with her and makes sure that other people's voices are heard.

BB: Universal Soldier was part of the anti-Vietnam War movement before there even was one, and she started writing it after an experience that she had at the San Francisco Airport in 1962. You tell us about this in the book. What happened?

AW: She was coming back from Mexico and flying on her way to Toronto, actually. She was in the airport. It was the middle of the night and she saw some soldiers deplaning people on stretchers.

And so she asked them what was going on and they confirmed this is actually what's happening in Vietnam. And at this point, America really was denying their involvement at all in Vietnam. There was not a lot of awareness going on. And so, she wrote this song.

She described it as she was a journalist telling the news. She had witnessed a truth and she needed to share it with the world, talking about our complicity in war and warning us about the dangers.

Buffy Sainte-Marie performs at the Americana Music Honors and Awards show n Nashville, Tenn. (Mark Zaleski/Canadian Press)

BB: But it's interesting, you make it sound like it was journalism. She actually uses the phrase "factually bulletproof" when she describes that song. Why was that important for her?

AW: She knew that people could try to say, 'No, you're just sour grapes-ing. You're just trying to push your agenda.'

And this, I think, has always been at the root of her songwriting because she's talking about Indigenous realities. She's talking about war. She's talking about things that challenge authority, that challenge colonial infrastructure that we are all somewhat complicit in as we uphold it. And when you want to tackle the power structures, you bring facts with you.

Canadian folksinger Buffy Sainte-Marie speaks at a rally in Edmonton on Nov. 19, 1981, urging people to continue their fight. (Dave Buston/CP)

BB: Right, but you also pay a price because these songs, like Star Walker and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Universal Soldier, attracted the attention of the authorities and it turned out that Buffy Sainte-Marie was blacklisted twice. How did she find out that she was persona non grata?

AW: She didn't find out until after the blacklisting was well over. She didn't realize that she was blacklisted by two different U.S. presidential administrations — and she found that out in an interview with a journalist on the radio. He apologized for being complicit in suppressing her music and showed her the letter from the White House that was congratulating him for not playing her music.

BB: Do you feel that she regrets the fact that her career was hurt, or that her voice was silenced as a result of her protests?

AW: I don't think so at all. No. I think she feels that that is what she had to do. It's the right thing to do. I mean, for governments to want to silence you to that extent, it just makes you have that much more conviction about what you're saying.


This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. 

To hear the full conversation with Andrea Warner, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.

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