Culture  Buffy’s Medicine Songs

Buffy Sainte-Marie on Indigenizing Music and Environmental Justice

The McGill Daily had the chance to interview Buffy Sainte-Marie while she was in Montreal for her February 16 show at Corona Theatre. The show promoted her 2017 album, Medicine Songs. We discussed her identity as an Indigenous artist in the ‘60s, environmental justice, and her efforts to decolonize the music industry through her activism and music.

The McGill Daily (MD): Where do you draw inspiration from when writing your music?

Buffy Sainte-Marie (BSM): For me, it’s like I have a little camera in my head, and I’m always taking little snapshots, and then when life does something impressive in front of me, I’ll take a picture or I’ll write a song or I’ll get inspired to make a painting. It’s just the everyday stuff that inspires me. It’s the same stuff that happens to me and to everybody who’s listening. It’s very ordinary things.

Sometimes it’s things that most people are not seeing. I have the great advantage of having all these airplane tickets that have allowed me to travel to, not only the great stages of the world as a concert artist, but also small Indigenous places in Scandinavia, Australia, or in the Americas. I get to report back on things that most people are not getting to see.

MD: What do you see as the role of music and social activism, and more specifically, how do you use music as a form of activism?

BSM: Oh golly, you know it’s so natural to me that it’s almost hard to look at it in that way. I don’t feel as though music is required to do anything because music is about everything, just everything. Think of a 360 degree sphere: musicians come from every part of that sphere and we appreciate, write, and develop all kinds of things. So I don’t feel a responsibility to write activist songs.

For instance, the songs that have enabled me to make enough money to be in show business, which is very expensive, are love songs. Like “Up Where We Belong,” which won an Academy Award, and “Until It’s Time for You to Go,” which was recorded by Elvis Presley and hundreds of other artists. So it’s funny for me. It’s a very good question from you, but I don’t have a great answer for it.

It happens pretty naturally for me. I think it’s who I am and I think it’s who I was as a little kid, too. I never played sports, and I never played with Barbie dolls. I got bullied and because of this, I was the kind of kid who was really happy to go and teach myself how to play the piano because it was just so much fun. So my activism really comes from a sense of enjoyment and play. Even if it’s a tough subject that I’m writing about, even if it’s angry, even if I’m crying when I’m writing the lyrics to some song that deals with a human event that’s just awful, I still feel the same kind of motivation that most people would feel if they were playing. It comes very naturally to me.

MD: Has there been a political or social experience that shaped your music more than others?

BSM: I think that what has shaped me is the sense of, “holy smokes, it’s still that way?” I mean most Americans don’t realize that we, Indigenous people, didn’t even have religious freedom until the 70s. Just that kind of inequity, unfairness, and the fact that our fellow North Americans are not even aware of it. It’s a big picture thing that inspires me. It’s not one incident.

I’m not looking for show business material. Life is happening to me and, as an artist, I’m lucky enough to have the motivation and the interest, as well as a little bit of skill, to turn it into something! But I’m not doing “activist music” as career fodder. I mean, activist music is what I’m doing anyway. Show business is the vehicle through which I’m trying to do other things, like letting people know about important issues.

MD: I know that you were blacklisted from the radio in the 60s because of the issues you chose to sing about.

BSM: Maybe not. Maybe yes, maybe no, we don’t know for sure. It was no single song, people just became suspicious of me. The administrations of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon didn’t want me opening my mouth about the environment. They especially did not want Indigenous people interfering with their complete control of available land and natural resources. It’s kind of a complicated issue, the reason why I was blacklisted.

MD: What would would say to young activists and musicians today?

BSM: If you really do want to change the world, you have to take care of yourself. Don’t burn out. Don’t get involved with some troll on the internet and discourage yourself. You’ve got to let some things go in one ear and out the other and just keep on with whatever your mission is. And, you know, your mission changes all the time, but if you’re a person who really wants to solve big picture issues, it’s not difficult. Just do it one day at a time, and if you have an opportunity to speak up, or to offer something, or to help, you do it. Next month, it might be something else. But if you’re a lifelong positive person and that’s the heart of your mission, you find ways to be involved, sometimes in a very small ways, and other times in big ways.

MD: You have been singing about the environment and environmental justice since long before it became a mainstream concern, can you speak to how you have centered Indigeneity in environmental justice?

BSM: Oh gosh, you know, if you had been walking in my shoes these past 50-something years, it would become very obvious that colonialism is based in European greed, control, and lack of understanding. And the lack of understanding about the environment is primary. Indigenous people throughout the world are very close to nature. Europe was an anomaly. Europe was governed by popes, kings, serial killers, and people who thought, “if we don’t control it then it must be of the devil.”

That kind of control of women, of money, and of nature comes right down the pecking order from the popes and the kings who wanted to control everybody. There’s a huge difference between Native America and European colonialism when it comes to nature and the environment. The Europeans were taught for generations that you’re supposed to defeat it, you’re supposed to fight it, you’re supposed to get rid of it and control it.

It’s primary material, not secondary material that I had to read about. I’ve been in these Native communities. They go to a clean spot and pray and work together to preserve nature, to bring back the buffalo, to bring back wilderness in areas that have been mistreated by colonialism.

In my song “No No Keshagesh,” keshagesh means greedy guts. The song is saying, “no no greedy guts, you can’t do that anymore.” So in that way, I am coming from an Indigenous point of view, and from primary experience in the Native community. Why not speak from that platform since that is who I am, what I know, what I do.

It can be very tricky as a songwriter. I mean, how do you actually put that into a format that doesn’t sound like a speech, that doesn’t sound like some politician yelling at you? You have to be clever. So you put it in a rock and roll track, you give it a great video, you make it danceable, and once people do hear the words they say, “oh, wow, you know, that makes a lot of sense,” but it has a sense of humour to it too.

That’s part of not burning out. You have to take care of yourself. Sometimes what you need is a bed and a bath and time to think. You don’t just pedal to the metal all the time. Basically you’re turning shit into Shinola.

MD: In Andrea Warner’s book, Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography, she mentions the creation of the Indigenous Music Album category at the Juno Awards. Can you tell us a bit about how that category came about, and the work you did to decolonize the Junos in the 1990s?

BSM: Well, I heard that Elaine Bomberry and Shingoose were trying to set up a “Music of Aboriginal Canada” category for the Junos. I called Elaine and I said, “you need any help?” and she said yes. So the three of us went in. The Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, who are the parent organization of the Junos, don’t establish a new music category because they think you deserve it. You have to come up with the numbers and actually show that there are people making records. Show that there are recording studios, producers, engineers, musicians, songwriters, etc. So Elaine and Shingoose did that, and we got to establish the “Music of Aboriginal Canada” category. Sometimes you get a chance to do that and you do it.

Medicine Songs can be streamed online. You can find more information about Buffy Sainte-Marie’s music, activism, and upcoming tour dates on buffysainte-marie.com

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.