Buffy Sainte-Marie raises her voice
“I was writing songs about awareness, of things that people didn’t know about.”
In 1966, Buffy Sainte-Marie was a Canadian icon on the rise and her music was bringing Indigenous rights and struggles into the spotlight. At the age of 26, she was introduced to Canadian Television audiences on CBC's Through the Eyes of Tomorrow. This rare footage of her performance seen in the clip above has been buried in the CBC vaults for over five decades. Her powerful words highlighted the plight of Indigenous communities at a time when it was rare to see an Indigenous person on television.
"I was the only Indigenous person highly visible in those times," she explains in the clip.
That same year, Sainte-Marie performed a song she had written called 'My Country 'Tis of Thy People You Are Dying' on CBC's TBA. In the excerpt above, she shares that the song was written "about residential schools and other tragedies of colonized Indigenous history" and used the word genocide. "I used the word genocide about North America before it was being used and people thought I must be mistaken."
"I really did believe that if only white people knew what had happened to North American Indians — actually to Indigenous people all over the world — that they would want to do something about it and make it better."
I really did believe that if only white people knew what had happened to North American Indians — actually to Indigenous people all over the world — that they would want to do something about it and make it better.- Buffy Sainte-Marie
She says says her songs weren't met to be political, but were written to raise awareness."It only became political when politicians objected to what I was saying and to the image I was putting forward."
Sainte-Marie was surprised to learn she had made her way onto the FBI's radar. In fact, the Lyndon B. Johnson White House had even worked to suppress her music. This blacklisting impacted her career. And by the time Sesame Street called in 1975, her American career had slowed down and as she mentions above, she had been cut off from her adult audience.
Instead of counting from one to ten like most guests did, Sainte-Marie and the show went to Taos Pueblo, an Indigenous community in New Mexico and shot a segment performing music for children. For the next years, she appeared as a semi-regular cast member on the show and being a visible Indigenous icon allowed her to reach a reach a whole new generation, and their parents.
Her music and activism has gone on to inspire generations. Reflecting on her career, she shares, "Yeah I could have been bigger but so what. Bigger is not what I was going for. I was going for effectiveness. There's still a long way to go but I think I had an impact. It's really been satisfying to me to reach the people that I have reached and to get to know as much of the world as I have known so yeah, you bet I have hope."