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Buffy Sainte-Marie and the Universal Soldier

May 13, 2010

I grew up in Maine and Massachusetts, and I was told that I couldn’t be Indian because all the Indians were gone. – Buffy Sainte-Marie

Photo via David Gahr

When I first went to the Hillside Festival on Guelph Island last year, I have to admit, I hadn’t heard of Buffy Sainte-Marie. As it turned out, I had heard one of the songs she had co-written without actually knowing she had written it and you’ve probably heard it too; it’s called “Up Where We Belong.”

But I was at Hillside for the headlining acts of Tokyo Police Club and Owen Pallett. Who was this down-to-earth performer who had managed to score a headlining act among indie favorites known for creating noise inducing chaos? As I made my way to the front of the stage (in hopes of reserving a spot for the Tokyo Police Club set that would follow) I wished that somebody could have told me to remove my socks. Because little did I know they were about to be blown off.

Sainte-Marie’s performance was by far the highlight of the entire weekend and possibly one of the greatest sets I’ve ever attended. Without even knowing anything about her long career, I could already feel the struggle and soul within the music itself—and the sheer force behind what I thought would be just an acoustic guitar.

Since her first album came out in 1964 (and probably long before that), she has been writing songs with universal power, songs about love and passion, and songs about oppression.

Indian legislation on the desk of a do-right Congressman
Now, he don’t know much about the issue
So he picks up the phone and he asks advice from the
Senator out in Indian country
A darling of the energy companies who are
Ripping off what’s left of the reservations.

– lyrics from Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee

Native American reservations have time and time again been used and stolen over by government officials without the proper authority (Re: the No Olympics on Stolen Land campaign at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics) and Sainte-Marie expresses these injustices in her music.

Regarding environmental and Native American issues, it used to be, like fifteen years ago, that you’d see Native American people standing on the side of the road with signs that said “Protect Mother Earth” and people would drive by and smirk… They point out things like how uranium waste is dumped onto Indian reservations, and the rest of the population doesn’t see it happen. – Buffy Sainte-Marie

Sainte-Marie has spent her life spreading messages of hope—hope that dreams for aboriginal people will come true. For a long period of time, Sainte-Marie was the one of the few aboriginal persons who had made it into public consciousness. Though she has always striven to be herself as a natural, self-taught musician, due to her politically charged lyrics, she has faced significant criticism throughout her career and has even faced censorship from the President of the United States himself:

I found out 10 years later, in the 1980s, that President Lyndon B. Johnson had been writing letters on White House stationery praising radio stations for suppressing my music.

When Johnson came to power the lid came down … and a letter campaign from the White House ‘advised’ TV networks against work by people like me, Eartha Kitt and others, stating that they ‘deserved to be suppressed’. – Buffy Sainte-Marie

Though Sainte-Marie’s records were selling well in Canada and in other parts of the world, in the United States her records were nowhere to be found. According to her distributor the records had shipped, but nobody could find any of her records in American stores. Now that her lyrics were reaching a mainstream audience, she was responsible for making people more aware of the atrocities that governments and corporations were committing on the indigenous community. Needless to say, the powers that be were frightened of her.

Buffy says Indian people were put out of business, not just because they were succeeding in Indian country, but because they were succeeding in the broader community. She and others were a threat to the moneymakers of concert halls, uranium and oil. –Brenda Norrell interviewing Sainte-Marie

As a social, environmental, and peace activist, Sainte-Marie sings not only for herself or her craft, but for all the other voices that have been suppressed, dismissed, or simply labeled as irrelevant. She frequently lectures on topics that include songwriting, Native American studies, and women’s issues. In the 1990s, she helped to found the Cradleboard Teaching Project—a foundation dedicated to helping Native American students participate in learning.

The below video shows a stirring performance of ‘Universal Soldier’ for Veterans for Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War in front of the Capital and Native American Museum in Washington DC—on the five year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.

In 2009, Buffy Sainte-Marie released her 19th album Running for the Drum and was recently given the honour of lighting one of the torches at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. Her campaign for equal voices and love for all continues to this day.

Kyle Bachan is the Performance Arts editor here at GAB.

5 Comments
  1. Clara Fischer permalink
    May 17, 2010 9:14 am

    Kyle, I must admit I’ve never heard of Buffy Sainte-Marie before, but she sounds great! I’m looking forward to familiarising myself with her work.

    • May 17, 2010 2:10 pm

      I encourage you to do so! She really is a living icon… it’s such a shame that her music was basically hidden from part of the world when she was getting big.

  2. Maria Guzman permalink*
    May 18, 2010 12:09 am

    I cannot believe that President Johnson took time to suppress music! It reinforces the point that music is an effective political resource for many yet also displays the misguided causes that past “leaders” have chosen to act upon. I will look this artist up and look forward to hearing more!

    • May 19, 2010 1:42 pm

      It is crazy, huh? Imagine if something like that happened today, the outcry would be immense. But at the same time, there isn’t a very good way to ensure that it ISN’T actually happening today–the worst type of censorship is the kind that you can’t see…

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