By Kris Malone Grossman
In honor of Women’s History Month, we’ll be posting one story each day of March written by local citizen journalists about a revolutionary woman from history or today who has inspired them as women.
“My country ’tis of thy people you’re dying”
Perhaps you recognize this lyric as that of award-winning Cree activist/singer-songwriter/educator/visual artist Buffy Sainte-Marie, whom you may know from her 1970s Sesame Street lactivism or her current album Power in the Blood, nominated for three Juno Awards. However you may know her, Sainte-Marie has been racking up awards (Oscar, Golden Globe, Juno) ever since her debut album, It’s My Way!, rocked the airwaves in 1964, when Billboard Mag voted her Best New Artist—the same year the Beatles hit the U.S.
Born on the Piapot Plains First Nation Reserve in Saskatchewan, Sainte-Marie, adopted in infancy and raised by a part Mi’kmaq couple in Massachusetts, notes there were “pedophiles in the neighborhood and in the house,” and that her life inalterably changed when she discovered the piano at age three. Her mother shared little about their heritage yet urged Sainte-Marie not to believe everything she read or saw in movies.
Or, at school: proliferative in fabrications about Columbus, about the “right way” to compose music (as with her visual art, she’s entirely self-taught), or about Native Americans – her high school’s mascot, a headdressed caricature called the Wakefield Warrior, both intrigued and discomfited her. Sainte-Marie later earned multiple degrees, including a Ph.D.: she wanted to tell the truth, and tell it her way.
And so she has, performing Vietnam War protest anthems, love ballads, and more, reflecting humanitarian-activist truths with which she imbues all her work, from the message that Native Americans exist to the immense power inherent in telling one’s own story – the praxis of rhetorical sovereignty. Her powerful activism and formidable truth-telling lyrics, which bluntly call out genocide and concomitant injustices committed by the nation-state of the U.S., highlight Indigenous experience and Native peoples’ continuing existence. As such, her activism inspired Presidents Johnson and Nixon to name her an “artist to be suppressed,” getting her blacklisted in the 1960s and 1970s. Yes, friends, she was investigated by the FBI and straight-up censored for speaking the truth.
Of course, it’s impossible ever to fully silence artists, and Sainte-Marie’s striking body of work is a testament, garnering innumerable accolades while handily disregarding genre boundaries imposed by music production companies, seamlessly moving among many traditions: folk, rock, Indigenous, among others.
Sainte-Marie’s steadfast refusal to be categorized extends beyond her musical shape-shifting: in addition to artist-activist, she’s also a philanthropist, having founded the Nihewan Foundation for Native American Education and the Cradleboard Teaching Project, which “turns on the lights in public education about Native American culture – past, present, and most important for the children – the Future,” reflecting her core message: “Indians Exist.” Saint-Marie’s commitment to educate students from all backgrounds exemplifies her dedication to cultivating positive change—in everyone.
Kris Malone Grossman earned a B.A. from U.C. Berkeley and an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College, and is currently working toward a Ph.D. in Women’s Spirituality. Her work has been anthologized in “The Maternal Is Political: Women Writers at the Intersection of Motherhood and Social Change” and “Dirt Is Good for You: True Stories of Surviving Parenthood”. She makes her home in California with her partner and three sons.
Featured Image: Buffy Sainte-Marie at Interstellar Rodeo, Edmonton, Canada (Photo by Levi Manchak, licensed under CC BY 2.0)