Buffy Sainte-Marie reflects on activism, reconciliation — and being an elder

In an intimate and wide-ranging interview with Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild, Oscar-winner Buffy Sainte-Marie reflected on her decades as an activist, what reconciliation looks like to her and what it means to be an elder.

'You don't have to tear the system down in order to improve it,' the legendary musician told Unreserved

A woman sits in front of some trees.
Buffy Sainte-Marie, 81, spoke with Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild about reconciliation, her career and what it means to be an elder. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Reconciliation is a continuous process — one that has to happen "heart by heart," says Buffy Sainte-Marie.

Still, the Oscar-winning musician says there will always be people who stand in the way.

"I think that we're going to make progress continually from now on. I think that even in 100 years, there's still going to be bozos around," she said. "I just think it ripens slowly."

For decades, Sainte-Marie has been outspoken about the injustices Indigenous people have faced, and led the charge for cultural reclamation. Now 81, she knows what it takes to stay on the map when others try to erase you, and how to teach tough truths with kindness.

In an intimate and wide-ranging interview with Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild, Sainte-Marie reflected on her decades as an activist, what reconciliation looks like to her and what it means to be an elder.

Here is part of that conversation.

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You were … involved with the American Indian Movement to some degree. What was that like — the early days of that movement? 

It was really interesting in the early days. And I would like to point out, because it seldom is done, that at least in the '60s, when I was first spending time with the American Indian Movement — in the early '70s, too — a lot of those guys had just gotten out of jail and what they were doing in the streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul, [Minn.,] they were educating and informing, especially, Indigenous people living in the street. 

They were trying to get us to understand that we actually do have rights. And if the policeman comes up to you and arrests you for no reason, you do have rights. And a lot of us were not being informed. I mean, the police weren't telling us. And so many of us were silenced. 

Buffy Sainte Marie describes her political stance in 1966

1 year ago
Duration 0:53
The singer and musician tells CBC in 1966 how she can advocate for Indigenous people in both Canada and the U.S.

You know, sometimes people say, "Do you think that anybody's being silenced today?" But it's much harder to actually silence anything today with cameras and cellphones and the internet. It's quite different than how it was in the '60s and '70s.

In terms of advice, the one thing that I would say to activist people or people who … want to be effective is you have to have the information straight and on the tip of your tongue. You've got to be able to say it in three sentences. 

Try to think in terms of effectiveness; be bulletproof. I mean, anything that you say, you should be able to back it up with footnotes. Start enjoying researching and writing things down. When you get a chance to make your contribution, try to be ready, whether you're a musician or a speaker or just somebody sitting in the back of the car with your friend.

People will throw huge blocks in your way, you know, to try to stop you and complicate your life, but it's not hard. Just keep your mind, keep your nose on the joy trail and try to be effective when you get a chance.

And of course, the other half of that … [is] the people that you're trying to change minds of. What advice do you have for them in terms of listening with an open mind and a full heart? 

I know a lot of settler colonial people, whatever we want to [call them] — I hate designating people like that — but white folks. I know a lot of people who are just plain there for us. I know a lot of people who would be [open minded], but they don't really have the information yet. 

So their hearts are in the right place. But it's going to take you, it's going to take ordinary people who are listening to this, to step up and say in real language what's going on. And it doesn't have to be combative. 

The good news is that you don't have to tear the system down in order to improve it. You don't have to, but there are some people who are going to say that to you.

Sainte-Marie performs at the Toronto International Film Festival's kick off event in Toronto on Sept. 8, 2022. (Alex Lupul/The Canadian Press)

Do you think that we'll ever get there in terms of reconciliation? And what does that even look like? 

I don't think there is any "there" for reconciliation. I think it's ongoing. Every day. Hit or miss. Win some, lose some. One step forward, one step back, two steps forward, one step back, three steps forward, one step back. You know, life is like that. 

Life is not like a boardroom where you make a plan and you have a deadline and then life happens…. And I think that with reconciliation, it's just going to have to happen heart by heart.

As a person, you learn what your own filters are, you learn what your own boundaries are, and you find your way of contributing. And with reconciliation, no, I think there are always going to be … people who are kind of immature.

I think all of us are just very young. The smartest Indigenous elder you can think about, I still think, is very young. I think our species itself is very young and, you know, undeveloped. Most of us are like, you know, first graders, you know, and we look down our noses at kindergarten kids because they spill their milk.

We're all involved in this pecking order. And until you stop being stupid, you tend to look down on anybody you can in order to make yourself feel better. That's just what the pecking order is about. 

A woman sits in a grassy valley with a guitar.
Sainte-Marie is seen in Saskatchewan during the filming of a 1994 CBC special. (CBC Still Image Library)

You have shared so much of yourself, so many of your gifts. You teach so much. I have fond memories of watching you on Sesame Street. Do you see yourself as an elder? 

Oh, I think about it now and then, and it's certainly something I would like to be.

I do when I'm thinking about myself as a philosopher, a writer, an entertainer. I do like that. But in terms of an Indigenous elder, I know what that is. I mean, in the '60s, I was spending time with people who I would just never really say, "These are Indigenous elders." I mean, my dad was a medicine person and I'm not, so I do know the difference. 

But I would take it as a compliment if it were used to describe me by anybody, really…. I'm 81 and I work out a couple of times a week and I eat like a champion. So I feel really good. I mean, I survived both cancer and COVID over the last few years … and I feel as though there's just not enough time and attention given to the good parts of every day, every year.

No matter how old you are, it's all good. And yet it's kind of trendy for young people to think, oh, it's all over when you're 21 or 30 or pick a number…. You know, all that kind of nonsense, it's stupid. 

Every year can be just great. Every day can be as good as you can make it. And you know what? When it's over, it's over, and you get another one. 

Produced by Kim Kaschor.