Buffy Sainte-Marie, native Canadian singer-songwriter, social activist and member of the Cree First Nation, is now in her 70s and has co-authored the first and only authorized biography that tells her story — a story of a woman whose career has stretched from the coffeehouses of Toronto and Greenwich Village in the early 1960s to concert halls around the world. Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography is co-authored with Andrea Warner.
Sainte-Marie was born on a reserve in the Qu'Appelle Valley of Saskatchewan, Canada, but later taken from her indigenous family to be adopted by a family in Massachusetts.
"It had been going on for generations where native children were removed from the home," Sainte-Marie says. "What happens to children who are kind of lost in the system like that, they're assigned a birthday, they're assigned kind of a biography. So in many cases, adopted people don't really know what the true story is."
But although she doesn't know her exact birthday, she does know she didn't have a choice when it came to finding music."I didn't play Barbies and I didn't play sports, but when I saw a piano and I figured out what it could do, I taught myself how to play and I never got up," she says with a laugh.
Sainte-Marie survived an abusive childhood and attended University of Massachusetts Amherst where she continued to hone her love of music. In 1963 at Toronto's Purple Onion Coffeehouse, Sainte-Marie wrote the poignant protest song "Universal Soldier" in response to the Vietnam War. It later became the lead single to her 1964 debut album It's My Way!
"He's a Catholic a Hindu an Atheist a Jain / A Buddhist and a Baptist and a Jew / And he knows he shouldn't kill / And he knows he always will / Kill you for me my friend and me for you," Sainte-Marie sings on the song.
From then, Sainte-Marie rose to prominence. She was mentioned in the same company as Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, but she made a different career choice. As biographer Warner explains, Sainte-Marie discusses in the book how she wasn't looking for the trifecta of fame, money and sex that a lot of other musicians do.
"She had different dreams," Warner says. "She had this goal of bringing truth to her music [and] talking about indigenous realities. It really stuck with me that her dreams weren't coming true and that's how she's continued to advocate and resist and write these songs that have so much power, so much meaning and so much capacity to change the world."
And while Sainte-Marie was releasing her own songs of protest and social justice, she was also writing music for others. In 1982, her co-writing credit on the song "Up Where We Belong" from the feature film An Officer and a Gentleman, earned Sainte-Marie both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe in the category of Best Original Song. "I'm the only native person ever to win an Oscar," Sainte-Marie says.
Sainte-Marie still releases music, her most recent album being 2017's Medicine Songs. Looking back on her career, Sainte-Marie sees her impact as one of overall empowerment, not just protest music. Warner sees Sainte-Marie's early music as an anchor into the '60s, but argues that her new music has a contemporary context that makes it even more important.
"Buffy has sort of mapped a lot of her life experiences through her songs," Warner says. "She's given us an incredible map for hope."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Do you know your birthday?
BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: (Laughter) No, I don't.
SIMON: Buffy Sainte-Marie has joined us. The acclaimed Canadian singer-songwriter and social activist and member of the Cree Nation, who's now in her 70s, has co-authored the first and only authorized biography that tells the story of a woman whose career has stretched from the coffeehouses of Toronto and Greenwich Village in the early '60s to concert halls around the world.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SAINTE-MARIE: (Singing) He's 5'2" and he's 6'4". He fights with missiles and with spears. He's all of 31, and he's only 17. He's been a soldier for a thousand years.
SIMON: That's a performance of her classic, "Universal Soldier." "Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography" is co-authored with Andrea Warner, who joins us now from Vancouver. Thank you very much for being with us.
ANDREA WARNER: Thank you so much.
SIMON: And, of course, from Hawaii, Buffy Sainte-Marie.
SAINTE-MARIE: Thank you, too.
SIMON: For the sake of people who may not know your story, you were adopted. Tell us what happened.
SAINTE-MARIE: In Canada, we had something that, sometimes, a little bit later referred to as the Big Scoop. But it had been going on for generations, where native children were removed from the home for their own good. Uh-uh. But what had happens - what happens to children who are kind of lost in the system like that, they're assigned a birthday. They're assigned kind of a biography. So, in many cases, adoptive people don't really know what the true story is.
SIMON: You were adopted by Albert and Winifred Sainte-Marie in Wakefield, Mass., right?
SAINTE-MARIE: Yeah. For the most part, they were wonderful. There were some terrible predators in the neighborhood, and some bully predators in the house. But it's certainly not anything that's this discussable in a minute.
SIMON: Well, and, you know - and Andrea Warner, I want you to come in and help us out with this, too. You know what's going on in the United States this week. And - well, and it's not just this week, obviously. But given the news this week, I have to ask you about you and your brother, I'm afraid.
SAINTE-MARIE: Well, in the first place, thank you so much for saying that it's not only going on this week. I assume you're referring to #MeToo and other issues of abuse against women. And this kind of situation is not new. It's been going on since before the Old Testament. It's not human nature. Rape is not human nature. Spouse abuse, misogyny is not human nature. It's a choice.
WARNER: Buffy, you know, you really - you talked about it in the book a lot. And I think you tied it really perfectly and clearly for a lot of people to its roots in colonization and that sort of patriarchal system, that misogyny, that pecking order that you talk about, a hierarchy of fear. It's a function of power.
SIMON: I gather your mother could sense you were troubled. But you never told her what was going on, right?
SAINTE-MARIE: Well, I thought I was telling her what was going on. But little girls don't have names for what big boys do to them. We don't have that language, and we certainly didn't during the '40s. My mom would say, has he been teasing you again? So I thought that's what it was called. However, I think we need to point out that Andrea's book is not about these issues. It is not something that has become my main story. My story is about getting beyond that.
SIMON: How did you find music?
SAINTE-MARIE: (Laughter) I didn't have any choice (laughter). When I was about 3...
SAINTE-MARIE: ...I didn't play Barbies, and I didn't play sports. But when I saw a piano and I figured out what it could do, I taught myself how to play, and I never got up.
SIMON: Let's listen to another section, another stanza of "Universal Soldier."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNIVERSAL SOLDIER")
SAINTE-MARIE: (Singing) He's a Catholic, a Hindu, an atheist, a Jain, a Buddhist and a Baptist and a Jew. And he knows he shouldn't kill, and he knows he always will kill you for me, my friend, and me for you. And he's...
SIMON: Andrea Warner, this song was a huge hit. Buffy Sainte-Marie was in that company with Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, other Canadian favorites. She made a different career choice, didn't she?
WARNER: (Laughter) I think she did. Absolutely. And, I mean, she talks about in the book how she wasn't really looking for that trifecta that a lot of musicians do, which is fame and money and sex, you know? She had different dreams. She had this goal of bringing truth to her music, talking about Indigenous realities. It really stuck with me that she said her dreams weren't coming true. And that's how she's - you know, she's continued to sort of advocate and resist and write these songs that have so much power, so much meaning and so much capacity to change the world because her dreams are so different than everybody else's.
SIMON: I have to ask. So when you did a song, for example, a great song, like "Now That the Buffalo's Gone"...
SAINTE-MARIE: Thank you.
SIMON: ...Did a music executive ever say to you, oh, come on, can't you write something of more general interest here?
SAINTE-MARIE: No. And, by the way, I was already writing things of general interest. It's funny, Scott. I was writing very hard-hitting things. Meanwhile, Elvis Presley and other people were recording my love songs. Only nobody knew I wrote them. So I just didn't get a - I didn't have a, like, a press person out there (laughter) letting everybody know, hey, she's so terrific. Look at this. No, that wasn't going on.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOE COCKER AND JENNIFER WARNES SONG, "UP WHERE WE BELONG")
SIMON: We have to ask, of course. You became, I believe, the first native woman to win an Oscar.
SAINTE-MARIE: I'm the only native person ever to win an Oscar.
SIMON: All right. With...
SAINTE-MARIE: But nobody ever says that. I don't know why they don't say...
SIMON: Well, we just said it. The only native person ever to win an Oscar. There. We've said it...
SAINTE-MARIE: Thank you. But it does appear very often that I'm the only native woman. Nobody ever will say, no, she's the only native of anybody. No guys did, either.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UP WHERE WE BELONG")
JOE COCKER AND JENNIFER WARNES: (Singing) Love lift us up where we belong...
SIMON: Of course, "Up Where We Belong."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UP WHERE WE BELONG")
COCKER AND WARNES: ...(Singing) Where the eagles cry on a mountain high. Love lift us up where we belong far from the world below...
JOE COCKER: ...(Singing) Up where the clear winds blow.
SIMON: You say towards the end of this book, Miss Sainte-Marie, we're all living on thin ice. That has been going through my mind for the past few days. Undoubtedly true, do you feel more of that now these days?
SAINTE-MARIE: No. See, I've always felt it. I really have. I - listen. The way I would put it is the good news about all this bad news is that, now, more people know. As a child from an abusive childhood, as a person who was abused by boyfriends and spouses, this is not new. This has been long incoming. But, also, when it comes to world peace, you know, hoping for world peace, we had some pretty gosh darn lazy citizens. To me, citizenship is something that - a lot of people these days are just thinking about for the first time that they have a role in making the world better.
WARNER: You know, Buffy has really sort of mapped a lot of her sort of life experiences through her songs. She's given us an incredible map for hope. And I think with her last two records, they're so vital. They're so contemporary for as much as all of these songs have this sort of history. And she has this great anchor into the '60s. Her current protest songs are absolutely as important, arguably more so.
SAINTE-MARIE: You know, writing songs about current events isn't always protest. Sometimes, it's empowerment. We don't really have a name. We have a name for a protest song. But there's another kind of song that I call - I don't know - empowerment songs. There has to be a better word for it. But there's a song called "You Got To Run." And OK. It might be about running a marathon for breast cancer in your community. Or it might be, you got to run for election if you don't like what the present crop of bozos are doing. Or you might just be able to run your own life if you've put some thought into it.
SIMON: Buffy Sainte-Marie and Andrea Warner, co-authors of "Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography." Thank you both very much.
SAINTE-MARIE: Thanks, Scott.
WARNER: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE AND TANYA TAGAQ SONG, "YOU GOT TO RUN (SPIRIT OF THE WIND)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.