Buffy Sainte Marie

“Everybody’s creative. We create our songs, our paintings, our families and our children. Every one of us is on the cutting edge of the future.”

Buffy Sainte-Marie, Canadian Cree singer-songwriter and visual artist, 1941-present

Buffy Sainte-Marie is known for her song “Up Where We Belong,” composed for An Officer and a Gentleman. It won Best Original Song at the 1983 Academy Awards and she became the first Aboriginal person ever to win an Oscar. Her protest song, “Universal Soldier,” about the Vietnam War, is considered the peace anthem of the 20th Century.

Sainte-Marie has had a wide-ranging career encompassing singing, song writing, activism and digital art. Her songs have been sung by the likes of Elvis Presley, Neil Diamond and Janis Joplin, and she continues to tour to this day. Her distinctive “tremolo” vocal technique is often attributed to traditional powwow singing, and she plays a Native American mouth bow. Always innovating, she was one of the first artists ever to play electronic music in the 1960s.

Born Beverly Sainte-Marie on the Papiot reserve in Saskatchewan to the Plains Cree First Nation, she was orphaned as an infant when her mother died in a car accident. Sainte-Marie was adopted by an American couple of Mik’Maq ancestry and grew up in Massachusetts and Maine. She played piano and guitar as a teen, and sang in local coffee shops during university. Sainte-Marie studied philosophy and education, then moved to New York City to be part of the bohemian folk music scene in Greenwich Village. In 1963 she was discovered by the music critic of the New York Times and her debut album, It’s My Way!, followed.

Sainte-Marie released eight albums in quick succession, covering controversial topics such as the colonization of Native Americans and issues such as substance abuse (she had been addicted to codeine following treatment for pneumonia). Despite her popularity, she felt she was censored by the conservative American regime and did not receive her fair share of radio play. 

Sainte-Marie then  took a break from music for 15 years, focussing on motherhood and activism. She was the first woman to breastfeed on national television (during her five-year run on Sesame Street). She joined the American Indian Movement and advocated for Indigenous education, developing culturally sensitive curricula for schools. 

Sainte-Marie made a comeback in the 1980s, this time focussing on computer generated digital art, which she both taught and exhibited. Most recently, she has returned to music, with 2015s Power in the Blood winning the Polaris Music Prize for Canadian Album of the Year. She turned her attention to climate and Indigenous issues with her latest album, Medicine Music returning to her activist roots.


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