Buffy Sainte-Marie and Andrea Warner on Amplifying Native Voices and Killing Colonialism

In Depth

Buffy Sainte-Marie has spent more than 50 years at the center of the action, and outside of it. The indigenous Canadian singer-songwriter, a member of the Cree First Nation, was among the artists who comprised the much-mythologized Greenwich Village folk scene in the ‘60s, but her name is often left out among artists like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young. Many of her songs were covered to great popularity by the likes of Donovan and Janis Joplin, but—in another instance of erasure—she didn’t always get the credit. People tell her they loved her set at Woodstock, but she never actually performed there—because she wasn’t even invited. She was named Billboard’s Best New Artist in 1964 at the same time she was reportedly blacklisted by President Lyndon B. Johnson. She appeared regularly on Sesame Street for years, and on a 1977 episode, became the first woman to nurse a baby on mainstream national television. She reportedly has an FBI file. She won an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1982. She was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall Of Fame. She’s released 21 albums. And yet, it’s possible you’ve somehow never heard her music.

Writer Andrea Warner—along with Sainte-Marie—is hoping to help change that with Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography, released last September. The book chronicles Sainte-Marie’s life and career, from her birth on the Piapot reserve in Saskatchewan to her success in the music world and her work as an educator. (Sainte-Marie created a still-used curriculum known as the Cradleboard Teaching Project and founded the Nihewan Foundation for American Indian Education.) In the book, Sainte-Marie also opens up about her art, identity and personal life—her work as a activist and advocate, her travels, relationships, and for the first time, her experiences with abuse. I spoke with Warner and Sainte-Marie about the book and Saint-Marie’s life over the phone while the two of them were spending time together in Hawaii, where Sainte-Marie has lived for years. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Every now and then you get a chance to do something, and a lot of the rest of the time you’re just kind of waiting… But every now and then, you get to make a move.

JEZEBEL: To start, I wonder if each of you could tell me a little bit about how the book came together and why you both wanted to do it.

ANDREA WARNER: I was preparing to interview Buffy for Power in the Blood when that record came out in 2015, and I was frustrated by the lack of information that I could source about her. And then we had our interview and we just really seemed to click. At the end of the conversation I was thinking, ahh, I don’t want to get off the phone and then Buffy said that exact thing herself! I wanted to write a biography about Buffy right after we got off the phone. I just thought that there needed to be more information about her out there in the world.

BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: I had read Andrea’s book, We Oughta Know, and I thought it was so brilliant. We did the interview and then I got a call months later from my manager who said, “Somebody wants to write a book.” I usually say no to those things, but I said, “Okay, who?” And they said “Andrea Warner” and I said “Say yes!”

What was it like for you to collaborate? I know that it must be sort of a tricky process getting to know someone and then trying to figure out how to tell the story of an entire life and career.

WARNER: I came at it from a few different perspectives. In my mind I was like, okay, I am a white settler. I do not need to colonize the story. I really wanted to be aware of that. I want to make sure that indigenous people are telling their own stories. But I thought I could provide a feminist music critic framework and analyze Buffy’s life.

SAINTE-MARIE: I always felt comfortable talking to her for several reasons. Her writing style, her heart. She cares. And I trusted that it would be a delightful read. I knew that, no matter what, even if it turned out that Andrea didn’t like me or wrote an exposé, I knew it would be a good read. There are things in the book that I haven’t talked about before. The hard things that happened to me as a child or as a girlfriend or a wife. The MeToo movement kind of came after we had finished the book, but everything that MeToo is about are things that Andrea and I have been totally aware of all of our lives. So, I found it very easy, because I knew that Andrea and I had a similar purpose in providing the information that she chose to address in this book. For me, it’s not about getting a name in the paper. It’s about being effective. And I think she really got that and hopefully the book is not just a book about a musician with an interesting life, but I believe that Andrea and I have similar visions in what can be a purpose or a strategy for delivering good information that’ll make the world better.

WARNER: You’ve been making the world better for like a very long time, Buffy.

SAINTE-MARIE: Every now and then you get a chance to do something, and a lot of the rest of the time you’re just kind of waiting. You’re thinking, you’re reading, you’re learning, you’re participating, you’re watching. But every now and then, you get to make a move. And I’ve been lucky enough to be in a position a few times in my life to make a move, and I did. There wasn’t any corporation behind it. There wasn’t anybody who gave me a stamp of approval or permission. And that’s something that really got ripe in me in the ‘70s when I felt as though a lot indigenous people were waiting for permission or waiting for a stamp of approval. I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to sometimes add my voice.

I actually pulled a line from the book that I wanted to talk to you both about that sort of relates to that. It’s where Andrea is writing about [Saint Marie’s 1964 album] It’s My Way!: “Saint Marie was recognized as an outspoken public indigenous woman who refused to conform or be silent, whose very existence was a politicized form of resistance.” Andrea, could you talk a little bit about what you were thinking when you wrote that?

WARNER: So, first and foremost, when a woman is loud, there’s often some kind of criticism towards it. It’s apparently defying a gender stereotype—some bullshit thing about how we’re supposed be quiet and demure. So I thought about it on that level, but then I also think about: what are people’s points of otherness? Particularly when Buffy’s talking about not waiting for permission, I think that that’s such an important thing. Because when you are a person who experiences marginalization—it could be as broad as being a woman or it could be more specific—whatever your different points of marginalization are, your literal existence is in opposition to, you know, the patriarchy, for example.

SAINTE-MARIE: We’re swimming upstream all the time.

WARNER: All the time! And I think Buffy really articulated a lot of things that were really critical for me and my thinking—bringing it all back to colonization and that as an umbrella for all the utter fuckery in the world. Whose identity is seen a form of resistance? Whose identity is politicized? I think about this a lot with music, particularly in 1964. All around there was this—as Buffy has called it—this very vanilla thing happening and she was doing something so completely different. Something cool and interesting and imaginative and still rooted in all of these different traditions. I think about what it is to have stood out most of your life and then to take that energy and bring it into your music and your creative pursuit and your art. I have so much admiration for it.

Buffy you mentioned before that a lot of themes in the book have come up in the news and online since it was published. One of those things that stood out to me is this idea of the “angry woman.” It’s been part of the conversation more in the last few years, and during your life, you’ve had to deal with being labeled as an “angry woman” or “angry Indian.” That seems so counter to who you actually are.

SAINTE-MARIE: Well, I know what you’re saying. And I really cannot explain the way I am except that, well, yes, I’m real positive. I know I’ve been through some personal hardships and I certainly see the way the world is, but I’ve been doing it for a long time. And even when I was a little girl, I was different from the other kids. I think having read Dr. Louann Brizendine’s book, The Female Brain, I came to realize some things about just being female, and some of our survival skills that are not highly praised.

For instance, if you’re standing in front of someone who outweighs you by 70 pounds and is using challenging voice, and getting that gorilla stance and that look on his face that every woman knows—when you’re thinking Is he going to hit me? Where are the children? Where were the exits?—all of those things that the female brain does when confronted by an angry male. In a society where groups of angry males are the ones who rule your house or your situation or your neighborhood or your country. I mean, bad leadership does exist and has for a long time, since before the Old Testament, and many of us experienced the same thing that I would call bad leadership in our personal lives. And that’s all it is, it’s just bad leadership.

For me, anger is like a book of matches or fast firecrackers: boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. I got a degree in philosophy and seeing conflict doesn’t mean that you’re going to engage in conflict and make yourself either a target or a perpetrator. So I can see something is terribly wrong without either exploding or collapsing, and that’s something that you do with your mind, with your experience, with your heart, with who you are. And it’s something that can be taught. I think these skills can be taught, but they’re not being taught right now.

So it’s not a matter of anger, it’s knowing how to convert anger into passion, and there’s a difference. Sometimes people will talk about me and they’ll say, well, you know, she had a hard time because she’s so political. I have never one time been political except for campaigning for presidential candidates with everybody else. I have not been political. And they say, “Oh, you, you stood up for Indians. That’s political.” No. “‘Universal Soldier’ was political.” No, it’s only political when a politician came along, heard what I had to say and tried to shut me up. That’s when it becomes political. When a politician tries to shut you up and limit your freedom of speech, that’s when the political word comes in. So I don’t accept either the anger or the political word as being effective descriptions of what I do.

For me, anger is like a book of matches or fast firecrackers: boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.

WARNER: I think that’s one of the things that I started trying to get at in that line that we started talking about originally—that you’re not necessarily political, but you’ve been politicized. Over and over and over.

I want to talk about a story involving buffalo manure. It’s a metaphor that comes up a few times in the book and it’s basically about taking literal shit [in the form of buffalo chips] and using it by turning it into light and fuel. I wonder, Andrea, if you want to talk a little bit about why that story keeps recurring?

SAINTE-MARIE: Because I keep on bringing it up!

WARNER: Yeah it recurs because she brings it up! No, no, it’s a great story. I remember the very first time that you told me that story. I loved it so much and I was laughing so hard. I mean you could boil it down to like: you are a composite of coping strategies. But I actually think that ultimately, you have so many different really resourceful, smart action items. It’s not just about being happy, it’s really truly about like just trying to make the world a better place. And I think the buffalo shit story is like the perfect example of that. It’s about not getting burdened by all the “bad” stuff. It’s about making use out of things that are a waste, or things that other people say are bad. I really loved that concept because I believe in that. But it also speaks to a traditional way of life. I think it’s really important to think about it sort of bringing everything back to the earth.

SAINTE-MARIE: For me it’s just been a metaphor that’s been part of my life for a long time. I use it a lot when I was running the Cradleboard Teaching Project. The way that I was using the metaphor was to heal the confidence of Native and non-Native teachers who either felt embarrassed or guilty. The cure for both is the same thing: Reduce, reuse, recycle. The key is in letting your emotion, your guilt, your bitterness—or the physical buffalo chips—you let them dry out. You don’t pick up the wet doo-doo and throw it at Donald Trump. You let it dry out and you turn it into something. You turn it into song or you turn it into writing or you turn it into dance or you turn it into political thinking. You use the emotions that are troublesome. You take it home. Dry it out. You build a fire. You can do all kinds of things around the fire. But you can do something else: you can also take those buffalo chips and you can put it in your garden to grow something new. And that’s kind of the key to it for me: take the emotions of, in this case, Native and non-Native teachers and students who have been so manipulated out of turning problems into effective strategies that they don’t know how. They’re stymied by their own guilt, stymied by their own bitterness. We don’t have to be. We can use the emotions that come up in our daily lives to better purposes. But you gotta let it dry out! And you don’t put it on your face like makeup and you don’t wear it as your badge of identity.

Buffy, I think they might have missed your calling as a therapist, but that also leads into something else I wanted to talk about which is your role as an educator even while you were a full-time musician—whether it’s with Sesame Street or the Nihewan Foundation or the Cradleboard Teaching Project. Where did that pull to educate come from?

SAINTE-MARIE: Well, you know, I was the first person in my family to go to college. My mom was my savior. She believed that I needed to get out of town and that college was the right way. So she took a loan that required me to get a teaching degree. So from the minute I entered the University of Massachusetts, I knew that I had to have a teaching degree, which sounded pretty good anyway. I loved it. I loved doing it. And at that point I had already discovered philosophy and world religion and Oriental philosophy. So that’s the track that I actually took. I had a double major in college. And what I think you’re hearing in me—in my songs, and the way I think—it has to do with my philosophy degree, because Oriental philosophy was not a thing that was talked about when I was going to school in the ‘40s and the ‘50s. It was only in the later ‘60s after The Beatles came and gave us that poor, exploitive Hari Krishna thing that exploited so many hippies. I was disgusted by the whole thing because they were getting it so wrong. It was just more, you know, “Buy my stuff.” I mean, I’m not blaming The Beatles…

WARNER: Can I blame The Beatles?

SAINTE-MARIE: The are some people who will pimp and exploit anything. And that, to me, is the core of what’s wrong with colonialism. I mean, Native people don’t hate white people. Certainly not because they’re white. People didn’t slaughter Columbus. It’s not about whiteness. It’s about greed. I mean that’s why many colonials wanted to leave Europe in the first place. We don’t care what color Donald Trump is, we care about actions and how these newcomers treat people. Whether it’s a political administration or people from Mars or colonials.

You don’t pick up the wet doo-doo and throw it at Donald Trump. You let it dry out and you turn it into something.

Colonialism is another topic that runs throughout the book—whether it’s in relation to history, or Buffy’s experience with abuse, or environmental racism—and our need to decolonize.

SAINTE-MARIE: Well, I’m going to get myself into terrible trouble now. Do you know who Milton Friedman was? He kind of invented modern economics. He sharpened the blade of colonialism and exploitation. He’s the guy who taught Americans how to run banana republics—how to go in and take as much as you can, and give the least you can. The acts that have been done on the basis of his philosophy… I mean, it’s just heartless. And I’m not trying to put down Milton Friedman. I’m not. What I’m trying to say that business itself, the way that it’s been framed from before the Old Testament, is almost untouchable. There’s a good saying: don’t ever stand between a junkie and his dope. Well, don’t ever stand between a rich man and his way to the bank. They’re money junkies, you know.

WARNER: You mentioned banana republics. I had no idea what a banana republic was for a long time. Then, when I found out what it was, and that there was a store named Banana Republic—I just about lost my goddamn mind! I was horrified. And then you start to see everything everywhere. You start to see this built-in disenfranchisement in the fabric of “western culture.” It’s brutal.

SAINTE-MARIE: It’s a big Monopoly game and the same guy is always gonna win. So what’s the cure? You know, a young person getting a business degree is not necessarily a selfish person, but once they come out the other end of that, they know how to be a son of a bitch. Because there’s big opportunity and because big shots will hire them. So, think of the way that west coast indigenous people have come up with the potlatch idea. Suppose we’re all going to play Monopoly and it’s going to be Caitlin and Buffy and Andrea and Bill Gates. Now, people who have business skills are always going to win that game. So what the potlatch does (and did) was, when somebody has become extremely wealthy, it’s the greatest honor for that person to give all of their wealth away and redistribute it into the society, into the culture, into the people, into the community. Why couldn’t we do that? Suppose we had a ceiling on how much money a person could make: let’s just say $1 million because it’s easy math. As soon as you make $1 million, you get a crown, you get a day in your town named after you, you get a street, everybody kisses your feet for awhile, you become famous and you have given everything back. Colonialism has not found a way to properly redistribute the chips in a way that continually works. And it’s not the kind of thing that is just done and now it’s over. It has to be continual, and the whole society has to be aware of it—how good it is, how wonderful it is and how it redistributes in fairness to everyone. On the other hand, Crees, Lakotas, and some of the people in middle and western Canada—we have what’s called the giveaway. And somebody just shows up and they give away all their stuff to everybody else. This concept of generosity has been stomped out of us. It’s in the Bible, it’s the way Jesus was, it’s the way Gandhi was. It’s not impossible and it’s not ancient and it’s not obsolete and we can still do it.

There’s a bit in the book about you speaking with indigenous women and residential school survivors about your experience with abuse.

SAINTE-MARIE: Actually, I feel quite shy and a little bit inadequate about having stepped up to that plate. I mean I could have done it years ago and nobody would have understood it. I could have done it last week and everybody would have said I was jumping on the #MeToo bandwagon. It’s all very personal to me and if I do talk to people about it, I don’t do it as a Buffy platform and I don’t make it part of my show business life. I’m glad that other people do, but I don’t. A lot of the women and men in my family went through residential school and we’ve addressed it, but we do it privately—person to person, one on one. When I have talked about it, it’s been in rather small groups and intimate, and with a purpose. I really think that, you know, telling my sad story to an audience—it’s just not something that I feel that I need to do, or that people would profit from very much. I have other things that I feel very strongly about that I do write about, but I’ve never raised that particular flag for the sake of Buffy’s career. I’ve never done that.

WARNER: In this iteration of MeToo there’s been so much incredible work done and a lot of people sharing their stories. And one of the things I was so glad about with this book is that Buffy’s had a multitude of experiences that all speak to different ways in which women experience violence from men. And one of the things I think is really critical, is that the way that Buffy has modeled multiple ways to survive and thrive and cope. It doesn’t define your life, it’s part of your life. And I think that that has been really important for a lot of people. And I think the other thing that was particularly important was like, at the end of the chapter where you talked about your marriage to Jack [Nitzsche], you talk very candidly about how you can’t save someone, how it’s really important to not sacrifice yourself, and that you have to just get out, whenever you can, and not being critical of people who can’t leave sooner. We’re so quick to judge women who stay. There’s so many reasons why people stay and there’s so many reasons why people don’t stay. And I think to have a really candid conversation and to hear someone tell their story, largely uninterrupted, in her own words, and with her truth at the center of it—it’s just so, so valid and so important.

SAINTE-MARIE: It’s the same as the buffalo chips story. The abuse that I suffered—I didn’t turn it into my badge of identity and I didn’t wear it like makeup. I let it dry out and then I repurposed that energy. I don’t have a strategy or secret or anything except that the same metaphor holds true for me.

There’s many, many ways that we have to survive. It’s like indigenous government. Government doesn’t all have to be like U.S. Congress or British and Canadian parliament—people yelling at each other. No. The Iroquois Confederacy had an incredible government, you know, with a lot of women leadership, which is totally different from many other forms of government in the Americas. There are many ways to govern, and there are many ways to govern yourself and how you handle information coming at you. You can turn it into tears. You can turn it into passion. No matter what you turn it into, let it dry out first.

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