Homepage image: Wesakechak the Trickster (detail) © Buffy Sainte-Marie (Photo © Gurevich Fine Art)
IN THE EARLY 1960s in Wakefield, Massachusetts, an introverted, musically gifted outsider named Buffy Sainte-Marie was mustering the courage to try out for her high school’s majorette squad. As one of the only Native Americans students in her school, she found the mascot, the Wakefield Warrior — a red-eyed Indian chief with a cartoonishly menacing scowl — a little disquieting, though she couldn’t help but admire the intricate, kaleidoscopic headdresses the baton twirlers got to wear. She practiced her routine diligently. In the end, though, it wasn’t enough to make the cut; the Wakefield Majorettes — like so many other things, she’d find out later — appeared to be a meritocracy but when you got up close turned out to be a good old fashioned American popularity contest.
Poetic justice came swiftly, though, and by the end of that decade, Buffy Sainte-Marie had achieved the kind of renown that left even the captain of the Wakefield Majorettes coughing in her dust. Her elegantly crafted, fiercely passionate folk songs like “Universal Soldier,” “Cod’ine,” and “Now That The Buffalo’s Gone” earned the immediate adulation of Bob Dylan and the rest of the Greenwich Village coffeehouse scene in 1963; a year later she’d recorded a hit debut LP (It’s My Way!) for Vanguard records and become Billboard’s Best New Artist of 1964. She recorded with Chet Atkins in Nashville, taped TV specials with Johnny Cash and Pete Seeger, and wrote a song that her musical idol Elvis became fond of performing live (“Until It’s Time For You To Go”). By the late 1960s, she’d made enough money to set up a non-profit organization that helped put Native kids through college, and with what was left over she bought a little slice of paradise: a house on a Christmas tree farm halfway up a dormant volcano in a remote area of Hawaii, where she’d periodically retreat to live under an assumed name, taking respites from the ever-brightening limelight.
One thing it took her much longer than usual to get: a biography. This fact seems particularly suspect right now, as we’re living through a moment of boomer-rock-memoir and -biography glut, when you could probably wallpaper a small mansion with the covers of books about the lives of the other musicians who passed through the Gaslight Café (or maybe even just the Canadians alone: it seems like every year brings a new Joni Mitchell study, and Alan Light has a book coming out next month about a single Leonard Cohen song). But up until now, an Amazon search for books about Buffy Sainte-Marie has offered nothing but the long-out-of-print Buffy Sainte-Marie Songbook, a 1971 collection of sheet music, song lyrics, and essays, the musty fumes of whose few existing eBay-able copies you can almost smell through your computer screen.
That was all — until recently. Last month, just shy of the 50-year anniversary of Sainte-Marie’s debut album, indigenous studies professor and Saskatc...read more