Written by Theresa Peters (Photo by Matt Barnes)
Buffy Sainte-Marie has always been a woman ahead of her time, but time catches up with all of us, even those who are larger than life.
Singer, songwriter and lifelong advocate for Indigenous rights, Sainte-Marie never minced words and is no stranger to political backlash. She has been loved, hated, acclaimed and banned, but she has never stopped sharing her message of change, healing and empowerment for Indigenous Peoples, and women, everywhere.
Believed to have been born into Piapot First Nation in the Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan, Sainte-Marie was apprehended in the “Sixties Scoop,” and raised in Maine and Massachusetts. She overcame so many obstacles throughout her life, using each one as a springboard to become the powerhouse she is. Her music and activism are critical and profound, spanning her seven decade career.
Just recently the Cree singer-songwriter made a public statement, reminding us all that she is, after all, human. “I have made the difficult decision to pull out of all scheduled performances in the foreseeable future,” announced Sainte-Marie. “Arthritic hands and a recent shoulder injury have made it no longer possible to perform to my standards. Sincere regrets to all my fans and family, my band and the support teams that make it all possible.”
At 82 years old, Sainte-Marie has accomplished what others could only dream of achieving over two lifetimes. It was her groundbreaking debut album in 1964—It’s My Way!—that propelled her career, establishing her among other musical greats. It was this album that was recently recognized for its cultural relevance decades after its release and awarded the Slaight Family Polaris Heritage Prize.
A multi-JUNO award winning artist, Sainte-Marie has won numerous awards for her musical talent and unwavering commitment to Indigenous Peoples’ rights and education, including the Polaris Music Prize, the Allan Waters Humanitarian Award, and the Native Americans in Philanthropy’s Louis T. Delgado Award for Native American Philanthropist of the Year.
Sainte-Marie has always valued education and learning, and established the Nihewan Foundation for Native American Education, which provides scholarships for Indigenous studies and students. Throughout her career she found ways to combine her work in education with her busy music career and work as a visual artist. In addition to her undergraduate degrees, Sainte-Marie is the recipient of 15 honorary degrees from universities across Turtle Island.
Recently, Canada Post unveiled a commemorative stamp featuring Sainte-Marie, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences acknowledged Sainte-Marie as the first Indigenous person ever to win an Oscar for writing the hit song “Up Where We Belong” from An Officer and a Gentleman.
Sainte-Marie is nothing short of a living legend, and although fans are saddened to hear of cancelled live performances, there are so many ways we can continue to support her, by allowing her the rest she deserves and by connecting with her music, admiring the brilliance of her digital artwork and learning from her life’s work.