Best-known for her searing protest songs of the 1960s, Buffy Sainte-Marie, a Cree Indian, was born on February 20 in either 1941 or 1942 on the Piapot Reserve in Saskatchewan, Canada. While still an infant, she was orphaned and later adopted by Albert and Winifred Sainte-Marie of Wakefield, Massachusetts. Though her given name was Beverly, she soon was known to her parents by the nickname “Buffy.” By four, Buffy had taught herself to play her family’s secondhand piano and started setting her own poems to music. In her teens, she similarly mastered the guitar. Through her experimentation with the instrument, she developed her own unique playing techniques as well as discovering 32 ways of tuning a guitar, each of which created a different type of sound.
After graduating with honors from the University of Massachusetts, Sainte-Marie moved to New York City and began playing her music at folk clubs in Greenwich Village. An early performance attracted the attention of singer Bob Dylan, who helped arrange for her debut at the Gaslight Cafe on August 17, 1963. Enthusiastic reviews won her a contract with Vanguard Records, the premier recording company in the burgeoning folk music scene. Her first album, It’s My Way (1964), was a huge popular and critical success, earning her the title “Best New Artist of the Year” from Billboard magazine. In performance, Sainte-Marie was hailed for her dynamism. A reviewer in the New York News described her power onstage, writing, “She sings in a clear, husky-timbered voice that can be sweet, lowdown, bitter, compassionate, sprightly, sexy, or wryly humorous. She can purr or belt, warm you into a smile or near chill you with a trembling intensity.” She was equally admired as a songwriter. In the public mind, Sainte-Marie became most closely associated with her protest songs, especially those that exposed the United States’ s mistreatment of Native Americans, including “Native American Child,” “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone,” and “My Country ’Tis of Thy People You’re Dying.” She also showed her commitment to Indian issues by lecturing and performing in benefit concerts on reservations throughout the country.
In addition to protest songs, Sainte-Marie also penned a number of works in a wide array of styles that were hits for other performers. One of the best known was “Universal Soldier,” which, when recorded by Donovan, became an unofficial anthem of the 1960s antiwar movement. She also found great commercial success with two love ballads: “Until It’s Time for You to Go” (1965), which has been covered by hundreds of performers, and “Up Where We Belong,” which as the theme for the film An Officer and A Gentleman earned her an Academy Award in 1982.
Although the popularity of folk music in the United States was fading by the late 1960s, Sainte Marie continued to find an audience overseas. After the birth of her son Dakota, however, she gave up her recording career in 1975 to explore working in television and film. From 1976 to 1981, Sainte Marie was a cast member on the children’s television series Sesame Street. She also scored two films, Harold of Orange (1986) and Where the Spirit Lives (1989), and narrated Broken Rainbow (1985), an Academy Award–winning documentary about land disputes between the Hopi and Navajo Indians. In the 1980s, Sainte-Marie returned to school, earning a Ph.D. in fine arts from the University of Massachusetts. She also taught herself about the latest advances in computer technology and used her knowledge to create a recording studio at her home in Kauai, Hawaii. There, she created Coincidence and Likely Stories (1992), her first new album in more than a decade.
Sainte-Marie’s interest in computers has also carried her in other new directions. Using the computers to manipulate 19th-century photographs of Indians, she has created a series of digital paintings that were featured in a one-woman exhibit at Santa Fe’s Institute of American Indian Arts Museum in 1996. In the same year, SainteMarie also established the Cradleboard Foundation, one of many charitable organizations benefiting American Indians with which she has been involved. To promote tolerance, the Cradleboard Foundation allows Indian students and nonIndian students to learn about one another through communication over the Internet.
Sainte-Marie, Buffy. The Buffy Sainte-Marie Songbook. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1971.
Sonneborn, Liz. “Buffy Sainte-Marie.” In Performers. American Indian Lives series. New York: Facts On File, 1995.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
The Best of Buffy Sainte-Marie (1970). Vanguard, CD, 1987.