Illuminations: A Biography of Buffy Sainte-Marie

By Lindsay ZoladzDecember 2, 2012

Buffy Sainte-Marie: It’s My Way by Blair Stonechild

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 Saskatchewan Book Award winner Blair Stonechild published the first Buffy Sainte-Marie biography, It’s My Way. Good news, of course, but its release provides occasion to wonder: why has it taken so long for a single book about Buffy Sainte-Marie to emerge? It’s a dangerous, frustrating question. Because once you start asking, you are likely to come upon the pretty uncomfortable truth that, for all their countercultural gusto, certain corners of the rock establishment aren’t much more enlightened than the stiffs running Wakefield High.


Sainte-Marie was born in 1941, probably (there’s no birth certificate), to parents of Cree heritage near the Piapot Indian Reserve in Saskatchewan. Information about her birth parents remains unknown; like so many children born on poverty-stricken reservations at the time, she was put up for adoption shortly after she was born. “Social and religious workers of the 1940s thought the future for Indians was bleak,” Stonechild writes, “and that their only salvation lay in assimilating into white society.” Sainte-Marie’s adoptive parents were a Massachusetts couple named Albert and Winifred St. Marie — a mechanic and a newspaper copy editor of modest means. Although Winifred was of Micmac descent and Buffy (who knew from a young age that she was adopted) was aware her birth parents were Cree, she says that Winifred didn’t “[tell her] Indian stories” or talk much about what it meant to be Native. Winifred’s heritage did, however, make for a certain attitude of healthy skepticism that trickled down to her young daughter: “What she did tell me was that I shouldn’t necessarily believe everything I read in books or saw in the movies.”

Sainte-Marie had it rough in Wakefield. In her interviews with Stonechild, she alludes to abuse (“There were pedophiles in the neighborhood, in the family, in the house”), poverty, and constant feelings of alienation. Given the cultural climate of Wakefield, the last is understandable: so much of Buffy’s understanding of her Cree identity was reflected back at her through the tone-deaf caricatures, simplifications, and misunderstandings of her white peers and elders alike. “I learned very fast not to argue with my teachers,” she says. “In school they said, ‘Columbus discovered America’ or ‘The American-Indian was….’ My teachers told me music was lines and notes and paper […] I never disagreed with them. I just learned to keep my head down and avoid conflict. Then I’d go home and play my own fake-classical music.”

As a kid, she loved Elvis, rockabilly, Swan Lake, and Carmen Amaya; when she was left alone in the house, she’d disassemble the vacuum cleaner and hook its tubes up to the family’s defective record player like makeshift headphones, trying get as close as she could to being inside the sound. She heard beautiful, sometimes unsettling melodies in her head — “inner media,” she’d call it later — and would try to replicate them on the piano. When she was 16 she got a guitar that she didn’t know how to tune, so she twisted its knobs until it made the sounds she heard in her head. (She’d later inspire her friend and fellow Saskatchewan daughter Joni Mitchell to develop a similar technique.) Odd, unresolved chord progressions and a palpable sense of curiosity and wonder would become the distinguishing hallmarks of her sound. For Sainte-Marie, music was — and would always be — a place of solace, privacy, and discovery: her own declaration of independence.

Enter 1964’s It’s My Way! — one of the most appropriately titled debut albums ever made, right down to that insubordinate exclamation mark. From the opening moments of “Now that the Buffalo’s Gone,” a searing, clear-eyed indictment of an American government that continued to desecrate centuries-old treaties and pillage Native lands left and right, what immediately slaps you across the face is that voice. Charged by her famous vibrato, Sainte-Marie’s voice is a live wire without insulation: sparking, surging, suddenly dangerous — when she utters a line with even the slightest flick of irony (as she does the name “Uncle Sam” in “Buffalo,” or even more chillingly, the opening bars of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in a later song, “My Country Tis of Thy People You’re Dying”) it sounds like she is setting its syllables ablaze. Sainte-Marie’s protest songs were as focused as they were fiery, communicating complex ideas in clean, sparse strokes. The genius of “Universal Soldier,” for example, a song that would earn her a spot in the Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, lies not just in the clean unity of its poetic conceit (“He’s a Catholic, a Hindu, an atheist, Jain”) but also in the tinier details of the composition. Like how it leaves you hanging, unsettled: ending a little too soon — like a life needlessly cut short — with the echoes of an unresolved chord.

Sainte-Marie’s songwriting chops extended far beyond protest songs; she could write a hell of a love song, too. (Stonechild speculates that the royalties alone that she earned from her big pop hits “Until It’s Time for You to Go” and the Oscar-winning Officer & A Gentleman theme “Up Where We Belong” — yep, she wrote that — were enough to fund an entire lifetime’s worth of more subversive art-making.) Though a dedicated activist and high profile advocate for Native rights, Buffy was adamant about expressing an entire spectrum of emotion in her music — and she saw this as a political move in its own right. As America’s most visible Native American musician, the fact that there was more to Buffy Sainte-Marie’s oeuvre than protest songs was an assertion that there was more to Native life than just turmoil — that even amidst tremendous struggle, there could be love, humor, and joy. Her music, she felt, must be an affirmation of Native life in the present tense. Sainte-Marie traces this revelation all the way back to a formative third grade class trip to a museum in Boston, where she saw the artifacts of her culture inert and behind glass. It was disillusioning “to see Native American people alongside the dinosaurs dead and not existing, and my teacher and my classmates all believ[ing] that there was no such thing anymore,” she says. “I knew I existed. I wanted to exist.”


“A problem shared by all [Native entertainers],” the scholar, activist, and Oneida tribesman Norbert Hill wrote in 1976, “is that the legacy of media stereotyping forces them to always respond. Either they must conscientiously avoid reference to their Indian-ness, or devote their careers to serving as artistic debunkers of white imposed myths.” At the time of his writing, the utopian hope of the 1960s counterculture had evaporated, and Native communities were left dealing with a grave reality: disproportionately high suicide and infant mortality rates, widespread poverty and unemployment, and ongoing government-sanctioned evictions and displacements. In “Media Stereotyping and Native Response,” a collaborative article by Hill, Ward Churchill, and Mary Ann Hill, the writers posited that, coming onto the national stage in the midst of these sobering realities, the 20th century Native artist had to make a choice: either “assume a stance of militant advocacy” and risk alienating the mainstream audience (like Sioux musician Floyd Westerman) or assimilate and downplay your heritage (like Cherokee-descended Will Rogers). “There is no middle ground,” they write.

And yet, for one hopeful moment in the mid-1960s, it seemed like Buffy Sainte-Marie had eked out a third path, on which mainstream superstardom and Native rights advocacy didn’t have to be mutually exclusive. “To get a voice onto the popular radio airwaves and have songs sung that speak about ‘now that the buffalo is gone, what will you do my friend, what will you do for these ones?’ was great,” recalls Westerman. Though Sainte-Marie’s sudden popularity initially caught her off guard (she “always felt that she wouldn’t last,” Stonechild writes, “that her presence in show business was accidental”), she quickly learned how to leverage her charisma and visibility into something slyly subversive, a tool for social change. Hill describes her quick evolution: “She first became the best possible Buffy Sainte-Marie in terms of craft and personal vision […] and then began to turn her position, knowledge and artistic ability against those who would caricaturize and oppress her people.” One example of many: When the director Leo Penn (Sean’s dad) asked Sainte-Marie to do a guest spot on the popular NBC Western The Virginian, she made two demands. First, she insisted that the studio cast Native actors for all the Indian parts (“No Indians, no Buffy”). She also advocated that the writers bring complexity to her own role. She told them, “[I’m] not interested in playing Pocahontas.”

Sainte-Marie also worked closely with the American Indian Movement (AIM) to raise awareness about some particularly egregious assaults on Native rights. She spoke out against the Kennedy-sanctioned creation of the Kinzua Dam, which displaced a third of the Seneca Reservation in upstate New York (the unexpected radio hit “Now that the Buffalo’s Gone” asks the listener directly to confront the Seneca’s plight: “A treaty forever George Washington signed/Consider dear lady, consider dear man/And the treaty’s been broken by the Kinzua Dam/And what will you do for these ones?”), and she advocated for Native American occupation and reclamation of Alcatraz Island when the government announced it would be abandoned but not returned to Native tribes, as it had been promised in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. When playing colleges and benefit shows or speaking to the press, she sometimes drew parallels between the American government’s continued strong-arming of Native populations and it’s role in Vietnam. From the stage, she’d sometimes tell her audience, “I hope you’re offended.” Unsurprisingly, some pretty powerful people were.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Sainte-Marie’s record sales declined in the U.S. At the time, she chalked it up to the fickle tastes of the American mainstream — and anyway, beginning with 1969’s Illuminations, her music had taken an experimental turn — but it wasn’t until years later that she learned the whole truth. As Stonechild tells it, after a radio interview in the 1980s, a DJ apologized for not being able to play Buffy’s songs in the 1960s and 1970s. When she looked perplexed, he explained what had been a hushed but widely circulated fact in the industry: the Johnson and Nixon administrations had created a short blacklist of performers whose music was considered dangerous and “determined to encourage widespread citizen protest” — and Sainte-Marie’s name was on it. “He had a letter on White House stationary,” she recalls with the appropriate degree of astonishment, “Commending him for suppressing [my] music.” The odd disparity between her popularity at home and abroad suddenly made sense to her. “The part that hurt was really that we had been denied an audience in the U.S. I still had huge audiences in Asia and Down Under and Canada and Europe, but [in the U.S.] you couldn’t even get my records all of a sudden."

In 1999, ex-CIA agent Charles Schlund III went public with the information about the government’s Vietnam-era radio blacklists “to suppress rock music because of its role in the Vietnam War.” It was also around this time that Sainte-Marie learned that the government had tapped her phone and that the FBI had accrued a 31-page file on her. Stonechild scrupulously pieces together the facts of this injustice, and it's sure to stir up some fresh countercultural rage in every Sainte-Marie fan who comes across a copy of It's My Way. But is it too little too late; is his book preaching to an unfortunately small choir? As she muses in the 2006 documentary Buffy Sainte-Marie: A Multimedia Life, “They only have to hold you underwater for about four minutes and you’re dead for a long time, when it comes to radio airplay.”


Illuminating and thoughtful as his book is, I feel like I need to break it to you that Stonechild’s no music scribe. At one point, he casually mentions that time at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when audiences booed Dylan “for expanding into electronic music” (if hecklers cried “Judas!” at a Fender Strat, imagine what sort of unprintables they would have lobbed at a Moog). He falters a bit when describing the intricacies and poeticisms of Sainte-Marie’s songs, though he also doesn’t waste much time trying: he devotes between a paragraph and a page to each of her records. Stonechild’s more interested in his subject’s life than her art, preferring to paint a prismatic portrait and devote a chapter to each of her many sides. As it happens, this is how Sainte-Marie wanted it.

Sainte-Marie turned down several music writers who approached her about doing a book; she said wasn’t interested in a traditional “rock ‘n’ roll biography” that zeroed in on her musical career at the exclusion of her other pursuits — her activism, her family life, her role as an educator (she had a teaching certificate in case things didn’t work out in Greenwich Village, and she created an interactive, Native-friendly teaching curriculum called the Cradleboard Teaching Project later in her career). “I knew that Blair would get it right,” she told the CBC. “I knew that he could interview people in Cree. I knew that he cared and I knew that no other writers would get that part.”

Stonechild is a thorough yet unobtrusive biographer. Buffy’s voice lively, pithy, optimistic comes through loud and clear, in block quotes that go on for paragraphs and are uninterrupted by analysis; in its best moments it reads like a memoir, in its less-than-stellar moments, a book-length press release. Rare is the authorized biography that paints a less-than-glowing picture of its subject, of course, but It’s My Way feels particularly rosy. What we have here, to lift a phrase from Norbert Hill, is “the best possible Buffy Sainte-Marie.”

It frustrates me that I want something else from this book. I hate that I do, actually. Because at least half a dozen times while reading it, I found myself wishing that it focused more closely on Sainte-Marie’s music, that it was more forceful in arguing for her spot alongside Dylan and Cohen and Mitchell in the now-calcified countercultural canon that Sainte-Marie so rightfully deserves. So basically, I wanted it to do exactly what Buffy was consciously avoiding: I wanted it to speak the language of the traditional rock ‘n’ roll biography. I was often moved by its passages about her activism and passion for education reform, but I also wanted a book I could thrust into the hands of my music critic friends and say, This explains in the words you understand why Buffy Sainte-Marie is one of the best songwriters of the past fifty years. Having these thoughts, I could almost feel the book glaring at me. As though I’d forgotten what I’d just read about, all the times in her life that Sainte-Marie’s voice had been silenced, misinterpreted blotted out of her own narrative, cut from her own majorette team, so to speak. As though I’d forgotten that the thing I was holding said in big block letters across its cover “It’s My Way.”

So, while we’re here, why don’t I just tell you now: I think Buffy Sainte-Marie is one of the best songwriters of the past fifty years. I think this with more conviction after reading It’s My Way, but not necessarily because of anything it says outright. No, it’s more because of this voice that emerges between the lines, asking us — with the warbling strength and subversive precision of Buffy’s vibrato — to challenge, to question, to consider (dear lady, consider dear man) why and how certain stories get told and who gets to do the telling. Come to think of it, actually, this voice between the lines sounds a lot like Sainte-Marie’s mother, Winifred, who first sat her daughter down at a piano and later sent her on her way with these words: We shouldn’t necessarily believe everything we read in books.


LARB Contributor

Lindsay Zoladz is a writer living in Brooklyn. She is a contributing editor at Pitchfork, and her work has been published by The Believer, Salon, Slate, Bitch, and the Washington City Paper.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!