Sainte-Marie, Buffy

views updated May 23 2018

Buffy Sainte-Marie

Singer, songwriter

For the Record

Selected discography


One of the most striking voices of the contemporary folk music movement of the 1960s, Buffy Sainte-Marie has enjoyed a career far broader than the protest singer category into which she has sometimes been placed. She has written and lectured on native-American affairs, written poetry and screenplays, and composed film scores, as well as writing, recording, and performing songs in styles ranging from folk to rock and from art song to electronic music. But while she has become known for love songs like Until Its Time for You to Go, Sainte-Marie has never abandoned the social and political concerns that marked her early work. And though she resists the label of protest song, she admitted to Paul Sexton of Billboard, The only reason I ever became a singer in the first place was because I had something to say.

Buffy Sainte-Marie was born on a Cree Indian reservation in western Canada. She was orphaned when she was only months old and adopted by a family from Massachusetts. Though her adoptive parents were part Indian, she has described the cultural environment in which she grew up as completely white. It was routine at the time to place Indian children in white families. Many Indian children were effectively kidnappedit was supposed to be for our own good, she told Diane Turbide of MacLeans. It was not until she was in her teens that Sainte-Marie discovered her Cree roots and was reunited with her relatives.

By the time she was in high school, she had taught herself to play the piano and the guitar, using her own unconventional tunings. She had no intention of making a career in music when she began singing in coffeehouses while in college, but an appearance at an open mike night at Greenwich Villages Gaslight Cafe brought her to the attention of critics and record companies. By the end of 1963, she had given up her plans to become a teacher and was being hailed as one of the most promising talents on the New York folk scene. Another Indian folksinger, Patrick Sky, taught her to play the traditional native-American instrument the mouth bow, which became a distinctive part of her sound, along with her unique guitar style and her sometimes strident, sometimes delicate vibrato-rich voice.

Shortly after Sainte-Marie began singing professionally, she came down with pneumonia. Unwilling to give up performing, she took codeine to ease her symptoms. The illness persisted for six months, and she became addicted to the drug, recovering only after a painful withdrawal; she also came close to ruining her voice. She wrote of her addiction in the song Codine.

That song, as well as two of her best-known compositions, Now That the Buffalos Gone and The Universal

For the Record

Born February 20, 1942 (some sources say 1941), in Piapat Reserve, Saskatchewan, Canada; adopted by Albert C. and Winifred (Kendrick) Sainte-Marie; married Dewain Kamaikalani Bugbee, 1967; children: Dakota (son). Education: University of Massachusetts, B.A. in Oriental philosophy, 1963; Ph.D. in fine arts.

Began performing in coffeehouses, early 1960s; performed at clubs, concerts, and festivals, 1963; recording artist, 1964. Actor in films and television shows, including The Virginian, Then Came Bronson, and Sesame Street; appeared in cable film The Broken Chain, TNT, 1993. Free-lance writer on Indian affairs; associate editor of The Native Voice, Vancouver, B.C., Canada. Founder of NIHEWAN Foundation for Native American Scholarships, Native North American Womens Association, and Creative Native, Inc. Author of childrens book Nikosis and the Magic Hat.

Awards: Billboard Award, 1965; named outstanding artist of the year by National Association of FM Broadcasters, 1975; Academy Award for best song, 1982, for Up Where We Belong (from film An Officer and a Gentleman); Premio Roma Award.

Addresses: Record company Chrysalis, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10104.

Soldier, appeared on her first album, Its My Way. In the liner notes, Maynard Solomon remarked on a hint of blues-inflection, a trace of Indian song, a touch of Parisian chanson, an echo of beat in her music, which was already much more harmonically and rhythmically adventurous than most folksong.

By 1965 Sainte-Maries growing popularity had taken her out of the coffeehouse scene and into major concert venues like New York Citys Carnegie Hall. She toured Europe as well as the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, gaining a large international following. But the folk boom was fading, so Sainte-Marie, who had never let herself be confined by traditional idioms anyway, began exploring other directions. Still, while others were experimenting with folk-rock, she moved another way, recording her song Timeless Love with a string ensemble for her third album, Little Wheel Spin and Spin. In that records notes, Nat Hentoff wrote that Sainte-Marie sang with so unyielding a sense of self that the listener, once seized, finds concern about categories to be secondary.... She is, there is no one else like her, and thats what counts.... The personal thrust of her bristling expressivity is both a satisfaction and a challenge.

Fire & Fleet & Candlelight moved even more in the direction of art song, including a piece by British composer Benjamin Britten and orchestral arrangements by Peter Schickele. But Sainte-Maries next effort, Gonna Be a Country Girl Again, was recorded in Nashville with country musics top studio players; the follow-up, Illuminations, featured hard rock songs like Hes a Keeper of the Fire and Better to Find Out for Yourself, blended with electronic music synthesized from Sainte-Maries voice and guitar.

Though she had won a large following, Sainte-Marie did not score a hit record until the early 1970s. The resurgence of interest in singer-songwriters during that decade, however, finally brought her significant airplay and two hit singles, She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina and Mister Cant You See. Elvis Presleys version of Until Its Time for You to Go, from her second album, also put her in the Top Forty. But her mid-70s albums met with mixed reviews and yielded no hits, and by 1977, Sainte-Marie had stopped recording, though she had by no means retired.

I quit recording when my son was born, she told Paul Sexton of Billboard. [I] decided to take some time off. Her break from the record business stretched to 15 years, but during that time she appeared semi-regularly on the PBS childrens show Sesame Street (where, among other things, she sang the alphabet song to her son and explained breast feeding to Big Bird). She also wrote a childrens book, earned a Ph.D., gave numerous concerts in support of Indian causes, and co-wrote Up Where You Belong, which was featured in the film An Officer and a Gentleman, and for which she won an Oscar in 1982.

In 1992 Sainte-Marie re-emerged with Coincidence and Likely Stories, which Sexton called a striking, modern, and thoughtful collection of rocknroll songs that updates Sainte-Maries musical image. She produced the album in her home studio using state-of-the-art computer technology. While many of the lyrics addressed familiar themes, the modern pop sound displayed on Coincidence was a far cry from the acoustic guitar and mouth-bow of her earliest records. In lesser hands, the washes of synthesized sounds would be an egregious mistake, but Sainte-Marie has artfully managed to tame the technology and bend it to her needs, wrote Tom Graves in Rolling Stone. The result is eleven songs that have deep thematic resonance and that are among her most appealing work. In compositions about the environment, government corruption, and the oppression of native Americans, as well as in love songs, Sainte-Marie demonstrated that her long leave of absence had diminished neither the intensity nor the inventiveness of her music, nor her ambition to tackle major issues in, as she remarked to Macleans contributor Turbide, the kind of songs that would make as much sense in ancient Rome as they would today.

Selected discography

Its My Way (includes Codine, Now That the Buffalos Gone, and The Universal Soldier), Vanguard, 1964.

Many a Mile (includes Until Its Time for You to Go), Vanguard, 1965.

Little Wheel Spin and Spin (includes Timeless Love), Vanguard, 1966.

Fire & Fleet & Candlelight, Vanguard, 1967.

Im Gonna Be a Country Girl Again, Vanguard, 1968.

Illuminations (includes Hes a Keeper of the Fire and Better to Find Out for Yourself), Vanguard, 1970.

The Best of Buffy Sainte-Marie, Vanguard, 1970.

The Best of Buffy Sainte-Marie, Volume II, Vanguard, 1971.

She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina, Vanguard, 1971.

Moonshot, Vanguard, 1972.

Native North American Child, Vanguard, 1973.

Quiet Places, Vanguard, 1973.

Buffy, MCA, 1974.

Changing Woman, Vanguard, 1975.

Sweet America, ABC, 1976.

(Contributor) Bread and Roses Festival of Acoustic Music, Fantasy, 1979.

Spotlight on Buffy Sainte-Marie, Vanguard, 1981.

(Contributor) Greatest Folksingers of the Sixties, Vanguard, 1987.

Coincidence and Likely Stories, Chrysalis, 1992.

(Contributor) An Officer and a Gentleman (soundtrack), Island.



New Grove Dictionary of American Music, edited by H. Wiley Hitchcock and Stanley Sadie, MacMillan, 1986.

Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon, Encyclopedia of Folk, Country and Western Music, St. Martins, 1969.

Tudor, Dean, Popular Music: An Annotated Guide to Recordings, Libraries Unlimited, 1983.


Billboard, June 13, 1992.

High Fidelity, August 1974.

Life, December 10, 1965.

Los Angeles Magazine, May 1992.

Macleans, April 20, 1992.

McCalls, March 1971.

Rolling Stone, April 25, 1974; November 26, 1992.

Stereo Review, September 1974; May 1975; September 1992.

Vogue, May 1969.

Additional information for this profile was obtained from liner notes by Maynard Solomon to Its My Way, Vanguard, 1964, and by Nat Hentoff to Little Wheel Spin and Spin, Vanguard, 1966, and from Chrysalis Records press materials, 1992.

Tim Connor

Sainte-Marie, Buffy

views updated Jun 08 2018

Buffy Sainte-Marie

A major singer-songwriter of the 1960s and the creator of several of that decade's best-known and most incisive protest anthems, Buffy Sainte-Marie (born c. 1941) remains one of just a few Native Americans to have attained international popularity in the field of popular music.

Sainte-Marie's influence on the 1960s music scene has sometimes been underestimated, for several of her best songs became familiar in versions by other artists. Her antiwar song "The Universal Soldier," for example, became a hit for the Scottish folk singer Donovan. Sainte-Marie was an independent, eclectic musician; even if she was generally categorized under the folk label, she ventured into and rock, and in the 1990s she became an early adopter of the personal computer and its potential uses in musical expression. Tying most of Sainte-Marie's activities together has been her ongoing concern with Native American rights and with presenting an accurate picture of Native American culture to the rest of the world.

Adopted by Massachusetts Family

A member of the Cree Indian tribe, Sainte-Marie was born on a reservation in Qu'Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan, Canada. The year of her birth has been variously given as 1941 and 1942. Orphaned as a baby, she was adopted by a Massachusetts family named Sainte-Marie that was partially of Mi'kmaq Native American descent. As a child, though, Sainte-Marie knew little of her own Native background, and her rediscovery of that background later on became an important stimulus for her creative activity. Given the name Beverly Sainte-Marie and nicknamed Buffy, she was later ceremonially adopted by a Cree family related to one of her birth parents. Sainte-Marie lived for much of her life in the United States, becoming a dual U.S. and Canadian citizen, but she told an Ottawa Citizen interviewer in 1993 that she would always identify herself as Canadian.

Sainte-Marie had some piano lessons as a child and also enjoyed writing poetry. She learned the guitar in her teens, and during family vacations in Maine she began writing songs. The timing was good, for when Sainte-Marie began attending the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, coffeehouses with live folk music entertainment were beginning to flower across New England. Sainte-Marie was a coffeehouse favorite as a college student, but she did not neglect her studies, either; she graduated in 1962 with a degree in Eastern philosophy and was recognized as one of the top ten students in her class. She later received a fine arts Ph.D. from the same institution.

After she finished college, Sainte-Marie headed for the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Lower Manhattan in New York City, a mecca at the time for aspiring folk singers. With her unique outlook—virtually no other songwriters dealt with Native American life at the time—and her distinctively edgy vocal vibrato, Sainte-Marie won attention from the start in clubs such as the Gaslight Cafe and Gerdes Folk City. She toured and maintained her Canadian ties, writing "The Universal Soldier" during an appearance one night at Toronto's Purple Onion coffeehouse.

Executives at the folk-oriented label Vanguard signed Sainte-Marie to a contract and released her debut album, It's My Way! in 1964. William Ruhlmann of the All Music Guide website called it "one of the most scathing topical folk albums ever made;" its subject matter ranged from incest to drug addiction ("Cod'ine," based on Sainte-Marie's own experiences in the aftermath of a serious bout with bronchial pneumonia in 1963, was later covered by several rock bands), and it included "The Universal Soldier" and another of Sainte-Marie's trademark songs, "Now That the Buffalo's Gone." Sainte-Marie's second album, Many a Mile (1965) mixed traditional songs with Sainte-Marie originals such as "Until It's Time for You to Go." That song was never well known in Sainte-Marie's own version, but it was covered by a long list of musicians that included Elvis Presley, Cher, Neil Diamond, Barbra Streisand, British icon Vera Lynn, and jazz vocalist Carmen McRae. Presley's version became a major hit in Europe in 1972 and helped put Sainte-Marie on a firm financial footing.

Traveled to Nashville to Record

Sainte-Marie's next two albums, Little Wheel Spin and Spin (1966) and Fire & Fleet & Candlelight (1967, with orchestral arrangements by classical-music satirist Peter Schickele), continued to draw attention, and she appeared at major venues such as New York's Carnegie Hall. Having always enjoyed country music, Sainte-Marie recorded in Nashville with country studio musicians for her 1968 album I'm Gonna Be a Country Girl Again. At the time, bands such as the Byrds had experimented with country-folk and country-rock fusions, but folk icon Bob Dylan's well-publicized Nashville sessions (and Nashville Skyline album) were still at least a year in the future. The album included "Soulful Shade of Blue" and "Sometimes When I Get to Thinkin'," two of Sainte-Marie's most characteristic love songs—a category for which she was known just as much as for her protest songs in the 1960s. Country star Bobby Bare enjoyed a hit with Sainte-Marie's country composition "The Piney Wood Hills," originally recorded on Many a Mile.

Appearing on such mainstream media outlets as the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Sainte-Marie was, if not a star, at least one of the best-known folk musicians in the country. Her songs were often heard on the radio up to that point, but they disappeared as her criticism of the Vietnam War sharpened. According to Sainte-Marie's website, she was blacklisted because her name appeared on a White House list of performers "who deserved to be suppressed." Nevertheless, Sainte-Marie continued to record for Vanguard. Her albums from the end of the 1960s and the early 1970s were an adventurous group; Illuminations (1969) employed the psychedelic rock styles of the time and gave advance notice of Sainte-Marie's interest in musical electronics. The 1972 album Moonshot was mostly a straight-ahead rock effort except for the country-oriented "He's an Indian Cowboy in the Rodeo." That song was one of a group that gained Sainte-Marie a strong fan base among Native Americans, one which persisted even when she fell out of view in the pop mainstream.

Albums such as She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina (1971) and Native North American Child (1973) continued to feature unusual new Sainte-Marie compositions; the title track of the former album put Sainte-Marie back on the pop charts, while that of the latter was a satirical piece pointing to the invisibility of Native Americans in the mass media: "Sing about your ebony African queen/Sing about your lily-white Lili Marleen/Beauty by the dozen, but the girl of the hour/Is your Native North American prairie flower." Sainte-Marie moved to the MCA label in 1974 and issued the experimental Mongrel Pup the following year, with cryptic lyrics like "Laughter is the grease of growth/Support your local clown."

Sainte-Marie moved to Hawaii in the late 1960s and continued to make her home there despite frequent projects that took her back to the mainland. A marriage to surfing instructor Dewain Bugbee ended in 1972. Sainte-Marie married actor Sheldon Peters Wolfchild in 1975, and they had a son, Dakota Starblanket Wolfchild. In 1976 Sainte-Marie withdrew from the recording scene in order to concentrate on raising a family, but she did not remain outside the creative sphere for long.

Won Academy Award

Appearing with her son, Sainte-Marie joined the cast of the long-running children's television program Sesame Street. She appeared on the show between 1976 and 1981. In a way Sesame Street launched the second phase of her career, which was increasingly often concerned with Native American issues. She used the show to introduce children to aspects of Native American life that she felt were poorly served by existing educational materials. Sainte-Marie continued to write songs, and "Up Where We Belong," co-written with Will Jennings and veteran producer Jack Nitzsche, was recorded by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes and used in the 1982 film "An Officer and a Gentleman," bringing Sainte-Marie an Academy Award for Best Original Song. Some obituaries of Nitzsche reported that he and Sainte-Marie were briefly married in the early 1980s.

Sainte-Marie's activities in the 1980s were varied. She appeared in several films, including Broken Rainbow (1985), about the long-running land dispute between the Hopi and Navajo tribes. She wrote about Native American issues for a variety of publications, and she penned a children's book, Nokomis and the Magic Hat, in 1986. The long effort to free imprisoned Native American activist Leonard Peltier listed Sainte-Marie as a stalwart supporter, and she taught courses at several institutions on a wide variety of subjects that included songwriting, musical electronics, and women's studies. She also appeared in a commercial for the Ben & Jerry's ice cream chain.

One of Sainte-Marie's visiting professorships was at the Institute for American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she taught a course in digital technology and art. Perhaps unexpectedly for someone whose creative beginnings lay in the low-tech world of folk music, Sainte-Marie became an enthusiastic user of computers in both her visual-artistic and musical endeavors. Her digital art works, some of them as large as nine feet tall when realized in printed form, were exhibited in Canadian and American museums and galleries including the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta, and the G.O.C.A.I.A. Gallery in Tucson, Arizona.

In 1992 Sainte-Marie returned to the recording arena, working from a home studio in Hawaii controlled by a Macintosh PowerBook computer. The album Coincidence and Likely Stories, released on the Chrysalis label, yielded a British hit in "The Big Ones Get Away." Sainte-Marie became an exponent of the idea that online communication could decentralize power in society generally and facilitate the spread of Native American culture specifically. "It does give an image of Stone Age to space age," she conceded to the London Independent. But she pointed out that Native Americans had been involved with computer technology almost since its inception. "It's natural for any indigenous community to be online, because of our desire to remain in the local community, yet be part of the global community," she pointed out.

Sainte-Marie released Up Where We Belong, an album of remakes of her earlier hits, in 1996. The following year she was awarded the Order of Canada. Her educational efforts continued to expand; her Cradleboard Teaching Project, which included digital material, was a set of resources for educators who wanted to address deficiencies in the ways Native American history was usually taught—deficiencies that Sainte-Marie had encountered firsthand when she had looked at her own son's schoolbooks. "It was the same old dead text on dead Indians," she told USA Today. "It was shallow, inaccurate, and not interesting." Sainte-Marie also set up a foundation that supported Native Americans who wanted to attend law school. She continued to perform about 20 concerts annually, one of which was captured on her Live at Carnegie Hall album of 2004, and the sizes of the crowds she drew—a concert in Denmark, was estimated at over 200,000 people—testified to the lasting impact she had made on the musical world.


Albuquerque Journal, March 31, 2001.

Billboard, June 13, 1992.

Independent (London, England), March 8, 1996.

Ottawa Citizen (Canada), June 30, 1993; March 29, 1994; July 5, 1997; August 24, 2002.

People, June 17, 1996.

Times (London, England), February 16, 1996.

USA Today, December 12, 2000.

Wind Speaker, March 1996.


"Biography," Official Buffy Sainte-Marie website, (December 20, 2005).

"Buffy Sainte-Marie," All Music Guide, (December 20, 2005).

Sainte-Marie, Buffy

views updated May 23 2018


(b. 20 February 1941 in Piapot Cree Reserve, Craven, Saskatchewan, Canada), composer, singer, actress, visual artist, teacher, and political advocate of Native Americans.

Sainte-Marie was born Beverly Sainte-Marie to full-blooded Cree parents. They died suddenly, and she was adopted in infancy by an American couple, Albert Sainte-Marie, a mechanic, and Winifred Kendrick, a proofreader. The couple, originally from Maine, moved to Wakefield, Massachusetts, where Sainte-Marie grew up. The nickname "Buffy" was given to her by her adoptive parents.

A shy child, Sainte-Marie spent much of her time alone. She started to write poetry very early, and at age four began setting her poems to music, having taught herself to play the used piano that her parents had bought. When she was sixteen or seventeen years old, she taught herself to play the guitar, which eventually became her instrument of choice. Sainte-Marie's playing technique was unusual, and she invented thirty-two ways of tuning the guitar, which enabled her to coax new sounds out of it.

The only native child in white schools, Sainte-Marie felt isolated, and later confessed that she had wanted to be blonde like many of her schoolmates. In her mid-teens, she started to research her Native American heritage, and at sixteen, she made a trip to the Piapot Reservation, where she was welcomed by her relatives. She felt accepted as she had never before, and thereafter, she visited the reservation regularly.

Sainte-Marie entered the University of Massachusetts in 1959 to study veterinary science, but changed her studies to education and Eastern philosophy. Among her college activities were practice teaching, theater, and singing. She was encouraged by friends to perform off-campus in local venues. She graduated in 1963 with a B.A. in philosophy, and was voted one of the ten outstanding members of her graduating class.

Shortly after graduation, during the summer of 1963, Sainte-Marie appeared at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village. She was heard by folk-music critic Robert Shelton of the New York Times, who wrote about her singing during that summer. Other appearances at Greenwich Village venues resulted in concert bookings and recording contracts. After some reflection, Sainte-Marie decided to pursue a career in folk singing.

Sainte-Marie signed a contract with the Vanguard Records, and released her first album, It's My Way, on 9 November 1964. Commercial successes came with the albums Many a Mile (1965), Little Wheel Spin and Spin (1966), Fire and Fleet and Candlelight (1967), I'm Gonna Be a Country Girl Again (1968), and Illuminations (1969). She continued to record in subsequent decades, but not as frequently.

Recordings and performances in various media resulted in Sainte-Marie gaining national and international attention. She appeared at Carnegie Hall, Philharmonic Hall in Lincoln Center, the Royal Albert Hall in London, and at the Newport Folk Festival. She has performed not only in the United States and Canada, but also Mexico, France, Finland, and other countries.

Most of the songs Sainte-Marie sings are her own compositions. Her best-known works of the 1960s were protest songs such as "The Universal Soldier" (informally adopted by some as an antiwar anthem during the Vietnam War and which Sainte-Marie was banned from singing on television and radio programs), "Now That the Buffalo's Gone," and "My Country 'Tis of Thy People You're Dying." (The last two songs are about the plight of Native Americans.) Highly prolific, Sainte-Marie has written love songs such as the popular "Until It's Time for You to Go," blues songs, country ballads, and "Cod'ine," about her codeine addiction. Her compositions were appreciated and sung by others, including Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, Bobby Darin, Donovan, Mick Jagger, Sonny and Cher, Glen Campbell, and Tracy Chapman.

Despite her busy concert schedule in the 1960s, Sainte-Marie invested a great deal of time helping the causes of Native Americans. She served as editor of the Canadian publication Native Voices, and as a member of the advisory council for the Upward Bound Project in 1966. She also founded the Native North American Women's Association. In 1969 Sainte-Marie founded the Nihewan Foundation. Its purpose is to provide education and scholarships for Native American students by directing funds to Native American studies programs, and by seeking to educate others about the plight of indigenous peoples.

On 16 September 1967 Sainte-Marie married Dewain Kamaikalani Bugbee; they divorced in 1972. She married Sheldon Peters Wolfchild on 4 September 1974, and together they had a son, Dakota Wolfchild Starblanket, who appeared with his mother on Sesame Street. Sainte-Marie and Wolfchild divorced in 1978, and she married Jack Nitzsche on 19 March 1981.

Sainte-Marie continued to compose and sing after the 1960s, and won an Academy Award in 1982 for the song "Up Where We Belong," from the film An Officer and a Gentleman. She also wrote the film scores for Stripper (1985), Harold of Orang e (1986), and Where the Spirit Lives (1989). Sainte-Marie has also acted. She was in a well-received episode of the television show The Virginian, and appeared in the television film The Broken Chain. She also narrated the documentary Broken Arrow. Perhaps her best-known television appearances were on the Public Broadcasting Company's Sesame Street. She was a member of the cast of the PBS children's show from 1976 to 1981.

Sainte-Marie has worked as an adjunct professor at York University in Toronto, and at Indian Federated College in Saskatchewan, among other places, and has lectured on an array of topics such as songwriting, Indian women's issues, art (she is a notable digital artist), and electronic music. She has also been involved in the Cradleboard Teaching Project, which was designed for elementary and secondary curricula, and emphasizes the contributions that Native Americans have made to science, music, and other fields of endeavor.

The recipient of numerous awards and honors, Sainte-Marie can count among them the Billboard Award (1965), Outstanding Artist of the Year from the National Association of FM Broadcasters (1975), the aforementioned Academy Award, and Best International Artist of 1993 (France). She was inducted into the Canadian Music Juno Hall of Fame in 1996.

Sainte-Marie's activism was unique in the 1960s, as it focused more on the plight of Native Americans and the history of their maltreatment by the United States, rather than on the Vietnam War. As well as championing Native Americans, she also emphasized environmental issues, including the near extinction of the buffalo.

An interview with Sainte-Marie can be found in E. K. Caldwell, Dreaming the Dawn: Conversations with Native Artists and Activists (1999). A profile of Sainte-Marie appears in the Los Angeles Times (20 Apr. 1986). Information about Sainte-Marie's current interests and activities is available at her Web site at

Jennifer Thompson-Feuerherd

Sainte-Marie, Buffy

views updated May 23 2018

Sainte-Marie, Buffy

Sainte-Marie, Buffy , Native American singer, songwriter, artist, activist and mom; b. Piapot Reserve, Saskatchewan, Canada, Feb. 20, 1941. Born on a Cree Reservation in Canada, Sainte-Marie was adopted by a white couple in New England after her mother died in an accident in Edmonton. She was not even aware of her Native-American heritage until her mid-teens. Her memories of her adoptive family seem less than pleasant.

While in college during the early 1960s, Sainte-Marie started to make a name for herself on the folkie coffee-house circuit with her dark good looks and distinctive, dusky, vibrato-laden alto. Although her voice made her a difficult sell for radio, she showed remarkable ability as a songwriter. During this period, she wrote genuinely touching love songs like “Until It’s Time for You to Go” (a Top 40 hit for Elvis) and (later) the Grammy and Oscar winning “Up Where We Belong,” and powerful protest songs like “Universal Soldier” (covered by Donovan). Her songs have been performed by artists ranging from Neil Diamond, Barbra Streisand, and Janis Joplin to noted songwriters in their own right like Tracy Chapman. She described her goal as a songwriter as trying “to write the kind of songs that would make as much sense in ancient Rome as they would today.”

Signed to Vanguard records (along with many other fellow folkies) in the mid-1960s, Sainte-Marie never experienced a great deal of record company support, but they also let her experiment. She recorded songs with orchestrations by Peter (PDQ Bach) Shickele, covered tunes by dark horses like Leonard Cohen and explored genres from country to flat-out rock. Her future husband Jack Nitzsche produced the She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina album, which featured Ry Cooder and Crazy Horse. Her one Top 40 hit as an artist, “Mister Can’t You See” (#38, 1972) came from the Moon Shot album which featured soul stalwarts, the Memphis Horns.

In 1976 Sainte-Marie retired from active touring and recording to be a mother, although she and her son Dakota Wolfchild Starblanket appeared for five years as regulars on Sesame Street, exposing the young viewers to Native American culture. She became very active within the American Indian Movement. During that time, she earned a Ph.D. in fine art, experimenting with digital images on her computer. She also has degrees in education and Oriental philosophy. She wrote a children’s book, Nokosis and the Magic Hat, in the mid-1980s. In her home studio, she also began working on creating music digitally, creating the score for a Canadian documentary about strippers.

In 1993, with her high school senior son in the band, Sainte-Marie released and toured to support her first album in a decade and a half, Coincidence and Likely Stories. Her 1996 album Up Where We Belong found her playing favorite songs, both her own and others, on her new equipment. She claims to sing better in her 50s than when she started, noting in The London Times, “When I was just out of college, I couldn’t sing my way out of a hat.” She also has created the Cradleboard Teaching Project, a multimedia curriculum used throughout the country to teach students in grades 3–12 about the indigenous people of the Americas.


It’s My Way! (1964); Many a Mile (1965); Little Wheel Spin & Spin (1966); Fire & Fleet & Candlelight (1967); I’m Gonna Be a Country Girl Again (1968); Illuminations (1970); She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina (1971); Moon Shot (1972); Quiet Places (1973); Native North American Chilli: An Odyssey (1974); Buffy (1974); Changing Woman (1975); Sweet America (1976); Spotlight on Buffy Sainte-Marie (1981); Coincidence & Likely Stories (1992); Up Where We Belong (1996).

—Hank Bordowitz