Women’s History Month Spotlight: 5 Essential Songs from Buffy Sainte-Marie
Buffy Sainte-Marie (born Beverly Sainte-Marie) was born in February 1941 to Cree parents on the Piapot 75 reserve in Saskatchewan, Canada. She was adopted when she was three by Albert and Winifred Sainte-Marie, who claimed Mi’kmaq ancestry, and she grew up in Maine and Massachusetts. Sainte-Marie’s love of music started early: she taught herself to play piano when she was three or four. By the time she was a teenager she was teaching herself to play guitar, and she was starting to write songs.
Soon after she graduated from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst—where she majored in Oriental philosophy and education—she started performing at folk music festivals and coffeehouses and on First Nations reserves in the United States and Canada. By the mid-‘60s she was performing in folk clubs in Greenwich Village, honing her songwriting and her political activism and playing with folk artists such as fellow Canadians Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen.
In 1963, in response to the escalation of the war in Vietnam and the stream of wounded soldiers returning from the war, she wrote “Universal Soldier,” which appeared in 1964 on her debut album It’s My Way. The album also included “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone,” a song protesting the treatment of Native Americans, and “Cripple Creek,” which featured the sounds of Native American instruments. In 1968 she released Illuminations, the first completely electronic vocal album.
In 1976, Sainte-Marie became a cast member on Sesame Street, appearing regularly on the show for the next five years, from 1976-1981. The 1977 episode in which she breastfeeds her son Dakota “Cody” Starblanket Wolfchild is thought to be the first ever representation of breastfeeding on television. Between 1964 and 1976, Saint-Marie released 12 albums; she took a short break in 1976 before returning to music in 1982. That’s when the song she co-wrote with Will Jennings and Jack Nitzsche, “Up Where We Belong,” performed by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes in the film An Officer and a Gentleman, won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. Sainte-Marie recorded her own version of the song on her 1996 album of the same title.
Sainte-Marie returned to the recording studio in 1992, releasing Coincidence and Likely Stories. Between 1992 and 2017, she would release five albums, all the while working tirelessly as an activist in Native American movements and in education movements. In 1968, she founded the Nihewan Foundation for American Indian Education (later called the Nihewan Foundation for Native American Education), providing scholarships for Native American students. In the mid-1990s she started the Cradleboard Teaching Project, which assisted in educational partnerships between non-Native and Native American communities in developing curricula. Sainte-Marie has also written three children’s books: Hey Little Rockabye: A Lullaby for Pet Adoption (2020); Still This Love Goes On (2022); Tâpwê and the Magic Hat (2022).
Extensively recognized for her music and her activism, Sainte-Marie has received numerous awards including, among others, the Spirit of Americana/Free Speech in Music Award at the 2015 Americana Association Awards and the Allan Waters Humanitarian Award in 2017. She has been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, and in 2019 was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in recognition of her merit to Canada and humanity.
Buffy Sainte-Marie’s contributions to folk music and political activism cut deeply into our culture, and her instantly recognizable vocals echo with a ringing power and poignant calls for social justice.
“We Are Circling”
“Better to Find Out for Yourself”
“Up Where We Belong”