For all that Canadians claim moral superiority over Americans, our history when it comes to dealing with issues of race is no better than anybody else's. We have been the master of discreet and covert discrimination from almost the moment we became a country in 1867.
Just look at the nearly successful campaign of cultural genocide that we carried out against Native Canadians with the Residential School system. Children were stolen away from their parents, some transported thousands of miles from home, in order to make them useful citizens. This included stripping them of their identities by changing their names, forbidding them to speak anything but English (or French if they were in Quebec), and being taught that their parent's beliefs were superstitions that was going to send them all to hell.
In spite of their best efforts, the combined efforts of the government and the Anglican and Catholic Churches weren't quite successful. Enough people held on to their nation's culture and preserved it for the lost generations. Lost because not only didn't they fit into the white world, they didn't fit into the world of their parents either.
Unlike others her age Buffy Sainte-Marie avoided Residential school, but was "adapted" by a predominantly white family (her adopted mother was part Mik'maq) in New England, miles away from her family in Saskatchewan, Canada. Her mother did tell her that there was a world of difference between what she saw in the movies and the reality of being Native American, but she could find out about that stuff when she was an adult if she wanted.
As anyone who is familiar with Buffy Sainte-Marie's music, activism, or art knows she most definitely found out the truth about the circumstances of Native Americans in contemporary society. Her latest release, Running For The Drum, not only once again confirms her talents as singer and songwriter, but reaffirms her commitment to the culture of her people. However, as the DVD documentary, Buffy Sainte-Marie: A Multimedia Life, included as a bonus, shows she's not interested in merely preserving the culture like a museum piece, but keeping it a living breathing entity that isn't afraid to be part of the modern world.
One doesn't need to look any further than the music on Running For The Drum for examples of that as she draws just as heavily upon modern musical influences as traditional native ones when writing her material. In A Multimedia Life she says that her musical influences included everything from R&B, early rock and roll, Miles Davis, to the French singer Edith Piaf, and you can hear traces of just about all of them, on the new disc. Right from the first cut you know this isn't going to be the type of "Native" music they sell in New Age emporiums. There's nothing ethereal about the strident challenge of the lyrics, the dance club beat that pulses underneath it, and the sound effects that surround "No No Keshagesh".
While I've become used to Buffy Sainte-Marie's use of technology in her material, "No No Keshagesh" (Greedy Guts) still took me by surprise with its sound and the amount of technology she used on it. Yet once I adjusted to what she was doing I could hear how this music was working to make the lyrics attacking how businesses have "Got Mother Nature on a luncheon plate/The carve her up and call it real estate" that much more powerful. This isn't some whining, tree hugger song about being nice to the flowers, this a call to arms to fight back: "Mister Greed I think your time has come/I'm gonna/Sing it and pray it and/live it and say it singing/No No Keshagesh you can't do it nor more."
I watched the documentary before I listened to the CD which is where I found out about her being taken from her family as a child and not knowing whether she was born in 1940, 41, or 42. In 1964, as her career was starting to take off, she made a trip up to the Wikwemikong pow-wow on Manitoulin Island (largest fresh water island in the world) in Northern Ontario, and began the process of trying to find her family.
Unfortunately all of the records pertaining to her adoption had been destroyed, so finding out who her birth parents were was impossible. However she was readopted by a Native family from her home reserve who she had met at the pow-wow. Her new grandfather was the son of one of signatories to Treaty 4, the treaty in which the Cree Indians of Western Canada recognized Queen Victoria as their ruler, and he was her link in the chain that reconnected her to being a member of the Cree nation.
The documentary does a really good job of telling Sainte-Marie's story from her earliest days as a folk singer in Greenwich Village in New York City, combining archival footage of some of her earliest performances with present day interviews with people like Taj Mahal, Robbie Robertson, and other contemporaries from the time. We find out that her career in the States came to an abrupt halt in the late sixties when she was blacklisted by the Johnson administration for her activism in both the anti-war movement and Native rights.
By the end of the sixties she was making her primary focus Native rights, using every public appearance she made to try and educate people on the reality of being Native in the twentieth century. As a result of this her air time became more and more limited as people like The Tonight Show started applying conditions to her appearances - no talking about civil rights and only singing certain songs - and she would say, thanks, but no thanks. This didn't stop her from winning an Oscar for co-writing "Up Where We Belong" for the movie An Officer And A Gentleman.
The documentary takes us up into the present day and she talks about the things that motivate her now. In the early eighties she started to experiment with digital art and continues to create in a variety of styles and mediums to this day. Her other major focus has been on creating educational programming for Native and non-native children using the Internet. The Cradleboard Teaching Project is a multi media interactive curriculum for students from grade three to twelve while the Nihewan Foundation for Native American Education is dedicated to helping Native American students receive an education and also educating people of all backgrounds about Native American culture.
Needless to say with all this going on her music output isn't quite as prolific as it used to be, but that doesn't mean the quality of her work has suffered any either as the material on Running For The Drum makes perfectly clear. Whether she's doing a tribute to the early music of Elvis Presley on the rockabilly like "Blue Sunday", or a hauntingly beautiful song like "Easy Like The Snow Falls Down" which she dedicates to hospice caregivers who help families care for loved ones who are dying, her music remains as potent as it was when she wrote "Universal Soldier".
She pretty much covers all her musical influences on this disc, including a New Orleans blues tune, "I Bet My Heart On You" that features a piano duet with her and Taj Mahal. Yet, at least in my opinion, it's when she taps into her own heritage for inspiration that her material begins to transcend the boundaries of ordinary pop music. Listen to a piece like the previously mentioned "No No Keshagesh" or "Working For The Government" where she has sampled pow-wow drums and sings in the high falsetto of the pow-wow singer and, if you let it, her voice will lift you out of yourself, and send you travelling in ways you wouldn't think possible with popular music.
More then forty years after starting her career as a professional musician Buffy Sainte-Marie is still continuing to look for new ways to express herself and isn't afraid of taking chances with her music. Running For The Drum is a great example of just how powerful and diverse a musician she is. The DVD documentary, Buffy Sainte-Marie: A Multimedia Life, included in the package as a wonderful bonus shows you the steps she's taken to get to where she is today. Great music, a fascinating artist, and a well told story - what more could you ask for from a two disc CD/DVD set.
(Originally posted November 2008)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.