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10 things we learned about Buffy Sainte-Marie, a Canadian living legend

At 81, Buffy Sainte-Marie is still building on her incredible artistic legacy. The Cree folk musician sat down with Q's Tom Power for an in-depth conversation about her life, music and activism.

In a Q interview, the Cree folk musician looked back on her life, legacy and activism

Buffy Sainte-Marie in the Q studio in Toronto. (Christy Kim/CBC)

Click the play button above to listen to Tom Power's full conversation with Buffy Sainte-Marie on The Q Interview podcast.

There are few people who've lived a life quite like Buffy Sainte-Marie.

Revered for her voice and innovative songwriting, the acclaimed folk musician made a name for herself alongside other greats like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. She's won several Junos, a Golden Globe and she was the first Indigenous person to win an Oscar. Through her music, she became an advocate for Indigenous rights, singing about injustices in both Canada and the United States.

Now, Sainte-Marie is the subject of a new CBC podcast called Buffy, which unpacks her music and legacy. And at age 81, she's still releasing creative projects of her own, like her latest children's book, Tâpwê and the Magic Hat, which came out on June 7. 

To take us deeper into her incredible life and career, Sainte-Marie sat down for an interview with Q's Tom Power. Here are 10 things we learned along the way.

WATCH | Buffy Sainte-Marie's full interview with Tom Power:

When she was in school, she was told she couldn't be a musician

Sainte-Marie said she developed an interest in music the very first time she saw a piano when she was just a toddler. Unfortunately, her school didn't encourage her talent.

"I was told I couldn't be a musician because I couldn't read European notation — turned out I was dyslexic in music — so they wouldn't let me in band or anything," she told Power. "But I'd go home and I'd play the heck out of that piano!" 

A reporter from Toronto broke the story about her return to Saskatchewan's Piapot First Nation

Sainte-Marie was born on the Piapot First Nation reserve in Saskatchewan's Qu'Appelle Valley, but was adopted as an infant by Albert and Winifred Sainte-Marie, a Wakefield, Mass., couple of Mi'kmaw descent.

When she was 18 or 19, Sainte-Marie was welcomed back to the reserve by Chief Piapot's youngest son, Emile Piapot, and his wife, Clara Starblanket Piapot.

"They became my family," she said. "I didn't tell anybody for years anything about that. I got busted. I think it was the Toronto Star who busted us. It was a winter day, and I'm sitting in the cabin with the Piapots … and there's a knock on the door, and it's snowy, it's awful, right? And this guy from [the] Toronto newspaper who wants to interview me. Of course, I wanted to hide under the table."

"He found me, I don't know how. And he did a big Sunday supplement…. That's when people found out about my connection with the Piapots. But up until then it had been totally private."

She helped Joni Mitchell get a record deal

Folk singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, who grew up in Saskatchewan, was being ignored by record companies, so Sainte-Marie decided to step in.

"Well, I thought she was so good and … nobody wanted to know about her," said Sainte-Marie. "She came to see me and she gave me a tape … and I carried it around in my purse, and I played it for managers and agents. I played it for my record company. Nobody wanted to know."

Finally, a junior agent named Elliot Roberts — the music executive who would later become known for starting both Mitchell and Neil Young's career — agreed to meet with her.

"He said, 'I'll go down and see your friend,' and of course he and Joni made a great career together," said Sainte-Marie.

She was one of the first public figures to use the word 'genocide' to describe the treatment of Indigenous people in North America

In the '60s, Sainte-Marie began singing about Indigenous rights. "I think I was the first person to use the word 'genocide' with regard to the North American holocaust," she told Power.

This subject elicited mixed reactions from her audience, which was primarily comprised of students and "older people from a previous generation."

"The audience would just sit there and some who'd heard it before — well, who already knew where I was coming from — they would just love it. But many people were just shocked," she said.

"The attitude really was: the little Indian girl must be mistaken. Yes, so that has kind of been the reaction that I've been living with my entire career."

She educated Pete Seeger on the plight of Indigenous people

Sainte-Marie was good friends with folk singer and activist Pete Seeger, but during one performance together, she said he tried to force her to sing Woody Guthrie's protest anthem This Land Is Your Land against her will.

So I stood on the stage and I wasn't singing. I just wanted to cry. I felt so bullied.- Buffy Sainte-Marie

"At the end of the show, we were supposed to come out on the stage and hold hands and sing, 'This land is your land, this land is my land,'" she recalled. "[I said,] 'What? You're asking me to sing that? This land is your land — this land used to be my land!' And Pete insisted that I do it."

"So I stood on the stage and I wasn't singing. I just wanted to cry. I felt so bullied. And so years later I mentioned that to Pete and he acknowledged it."

Sainte-Marie said she didn't mind helping Seeger learn from the experience because he was simply uninformed. "He didn't have that knowledge," she said. "But I'm a teacher, so I can give that knowledge. So that's a blank that I can fill in."

She didn't know her music was banned from American radio stations

Sainte-Marie's association with political causes during the '60s and '70s led to her music being banned by the Johnson and Nixon administrations, which severely impacted her career. But she didn't know about this until about a decade later.

"I didn't find out I had been blacklisted until the '80s," she said. "I had been blacklisted for many, many years before, but I just didn't know it. I just thought, 'Well, you know, careers come and go. I was popular in the U.S. for a while and now I'm not.' I felt lucky to be there anyway. I never expected to have a career."

In 1977, she breastfed her son on Sesame Street — a first in TV history

Sainte-Marie made multiple appearances on Sesame Street from 1975 to 1981. One of her most memorable appearances was when she breastfed her son, Dakota "Cody" Starblanket Wolfchild, in a 1977 episode that's believed to be the first representation of breastfeeding on television.

"Sesame Street were wonderful, they really were," she said. "I was on Sesame Street for five and a half years. They never stereotyped me."

"The day that we did the breastfeeding one, the way that happened was I was breastfeeding him anyway, you know, just off camera and stuff when he needed to eat…. And so I asked them, I said, 'Should we do this?' And they said, 'Ah, that's a great idea!' So we wrote it up. And we did it, you know, in a day or two."

The singer said there was no reaction to the episode at the time, though there's been a big reaction since. "It wasn't controversial," she said. "We didn't get any mail on it."

Buffy Sainte-Marie nurses her son on Sesame Street as a curious Big Bird looks on. (PBS)

People think of her as a protest writer, but her biggest hits are love songs

Two years after she left Sesame Street, Sainte-Marie won an Oscar for Up Where We Belong, the theme song to the film An Officer and a Gentleman. She co-wrote the romantic track with Will Jennings and Jack Nitzsche, whom she married the same year. 

One of Sainte-Marie's other biggest hits, Until It's Time for You to Go, is also a love song. The mournful ballad was covered by everybody from Elvis to Barbra Streisand to Bette Davis.

"A lot of people think of me as a protest writer," she told Power. "But the two songs that have really given me a career in the public have been both love songs." 

Winning an Oscar doesn't necessarily mean you can quit your day job

Sainte-Marie was the first Indigenous person to win an Oscar, but it turns out writing a best original song doesn't pay much.

"The movie company owns the publishing, you don't own the publishing," she said. "It helps because you get more famous. And so then when you go out on the road maybe you can, you know, maybe they'll pay you more, because you're better known. But no, I didn't make a lot of money on [Up Where We Belong]."

Her new children's book is available in both English and Cree

Sainte-Marie is the author of three books for children. For her latest, Tâpwê and the Magic Hat, she requested that the picture book also be published in Cree.

(Greystone Books, Matt Barnes)

"I begged and pleaded with Greystone Books … to also do the book in Cree and they did," she said. "So it's translated by Solomon Ratt, who's a Cree linguist [and] teacher at First Nations University."

Sainte-Marie also mentioned that several of her songs have been translated into Cree and have been made available on the website creeliteracy.org. "[It's] really a lovely resource," she said.


Written by Vivian Rashotte. Interview produced by Kaitlyn Swan.

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