A Conversation with Buffy Sainte-Marie – HuffPost 12.28.11

Mike Ragogna: Hello, Buffy.

Buffy Sainte-Marie: Hi, Mike.

MR: Thank you so much for your time.

BSM: Oh, my pleasure.

MR: The last time we spoke, we talked about your Running For The Drum album.

BSM: It was just coming out then.

MR: It was just coming out, and there was a DVD component that I actually had never seen at the time. Could you talk about how that DVD married with the album?

BSM: I had completed the album and we had completed the DVD, and I had been asked in the past by lots of the usual suspects to do a film or TV biography, but I was never turned on by it because it always seemed to be just from the point of view of the past according to what people knew about me in the West. Of course, I was kind of taken out of the game in the US, but continued on in Asia and Europe and Canada to have a real active career, which I have still today. So, when a Canadian company who really understood a lot more about me than just “Buffy from the sixties” showed an interest in giving people a portrait of myself, not just a as songwriter but also as an educator and a digital artist and a person who’s still in love with the world and traveling and interested in both learning and teaching, I said “yes,” and so the bio-documentary is called Buffy Sainte Marie: A Multi Media Life, and it was done in Canada by CineFocus.

MR: Did you find yourself looking at some of that information and going, “Wow, what a trip this has been.”

BSM: It really has been, but I’m a lucky person, as I said then. I’ve been traveling since the sixties–lots and lots of airplanes, lots of countries–so what that does for me is it gives me a lot of reflection time. As a writer, traveling often alone, I appreciate both the outside world and my own head for the reinterpreting of the outside world into the little movies that become my songs and also the non-fiction part that turns into multi-media curriculum. So, it was really nice to able to work with a team who were appreciated of that. It wasn’t a great surprise, suddenly you turn around and you look back on your life and you see it all laid out, because as a traveling person, I think I’m just kind of a note-taker. But it was wonderful to be able to put it all together in a documentary that really reflected my personal life in Canada and in Hawaii and all the professional things too.

MR: Now, I guess before we go all retro and ask you some questions about the past, I would love to know what you’ve been up to since the release of the CD/DVD because you’re a very busy woman.

BSM: I travel with three other musicians and a road manager. Our whole band–we’re all Canadian, Aboriginal Canadian, and the guys in my band are Ojibwe, and Lakota, and Soto, but they’re all from reservations around Manitoba, Canada–so, traveling with this kind of band, guys in their late thirties who have experienced the stuff that my songs are about is really, really nourishing for me. It makes the show that much richer. They’re all rockers, but of course, my show covers lots of different styles of music. But to be traveling with other aboriginal performers from a generation behind me, it is really an eye-opener, I think, for the audience. It gives the show a lot of both perspective and energy and it’s real contemporary. The live show we did all over Europe…oh gosh, we did lots and lots of concerts in England, lots in Germany. We were in France, Belgium, Holland, Scotland, and just traveling around in Europe with a young aboriginal band was just… I’m glad you mentioned the future because as a songwriter, I’m not looking behind very much since I get to include all my favorite songs in the concert, but I’m always writing new things, and to have them tied in via concerts with the stuff I’ve always done, it just makes a very rich package for me to continually experience. The life of the artist is such an incredible privilege, and it’s just so rich and dense with content and information that keeps happening.

MR: Speaking of your being a songwriter, you had such big hits with “Universal Soldier,” “Until It’s Time For You To Go,” and “Up Where We Belong,” that you co-wrote that with Will Jennings and Jack Nitzsche in the eighties. That’s a huge credit, what’s the story behind the song?

BSM: I had already written that melody, and I had never presented it to anybody, but Jack Nitzsche was looking for a main theme for An Officer And A Gentleman and he hadn’t come up with something, so I played him the melody “da da da da da da,” and he loved it and presented it to Taylor Hackford who was the director and it became not only the main theme but, of course, a huge hit for Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes.

MR: And it won the Oscar.

BSM: Uh-huh, it did for “Best Song.” We also won the Golden Globe for that, and a British Academy Award. Boy that song went everywhere. Other times you write a song that hardly anyone hears and it’s still your favorite, you know? A lot of puppies in the litter.

MR: (laughs) Buffy are you constantly working on songs? Also, I’ve never asked you this question before, what’s your creative process, like how do these songs come to you as a writer?

BSM: They’re really kind of like dreams. Anybody would have a dream. You know you have something new appear in your head and you say, “Oh wow, that’s interesting,” and you know, if I like it, I’ll remember it. If I don’t care that much about it, I’ll forget it. And so many songs just kind of show up almost finished, like “Until It’s Time For You To Go,” which was a big hit for a lot of people. I wrote that right away, I just had to write it down. But other things, like “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee” or “No No Keshagesh,” it takes a lot of crafting, because what you’re trying to do in that case is almost like be a journalist. You’re trying to stick to accurate facts but make them exciting enough so that you engage an audience that probably doesn’t even want to know about that issue. So, there are different kinds of writing, and the more technical kinds of writing…it’s almost like being a college girl writing a thesis and I think that that kind of song really profited by my four years at the University of Massachusetts.

But other songs just happen very naturally, the same way they did when I was a little kid. I’m a totally natural writer. I’ve never been able to learn how to read music. As a matter of fact, I found out a couple years ago that I’m actually dyslexic in music and I had never heard of such a thing, but it does explain why I can write for an orchestra but then I can’t read it back the next day. It’s like trying to write with my left hand. It can be done but it doesn’t make any sense for me, so I’m totally by ear and I record into anything–a tape recorder, a computer–rather than write things down that I can’t read back.

MR: The last time we did an interview, we talked about your wonderful song “No No Keshagesh,” but let’s discuss your version of “America the Beautiful,” which you didn’t write, but you explored further.

BSM: Again I expanded on it, as many other songwriters have done. I mean, the melody is so beautiful and the sentiment is so beautiful; lots and lots of people have contributed additional verses. But what I did, I wrote like an introduction and a middle section to it that’s truly Native American in feel. I did lobbying on the song; I think a lot of people would like to see that be the National Anthem, but so far, it’s not. But in contributing new verses and combing through the various contributions which have been made over the years by other writers, it turns out to have a real Native American feel to it, just the gentleness of it, and the reverence for, not America as nation-state “USA!” but more as “mother country,” you know, just the idea of loving America.

MR: You’ve been representing Native American issues for the longest time. Your love of America and Canada and all things Native America is just amazing. And you have really spent your life fighting for a lot of causes. Are there a couple you’ve been…

BSM: …if I can interrupt, Mike? It’s not as though I’ve been fighting for causes. What I’ve really been trying to do is spotlight things that I think people want to know about. I never really understood the concept of “fighting for peace.” I don’t do that. I keep it a lot more positive. So, I think that what I’m trying to say is I’m spotlighting the work of local areas and communities that’s ongoing all the time, so sometimes, I think I get a little too much credit for that. But I am a fan of the realities of bringing to public awareness the incredible work that’s being done in the grassroots Native American community and how much need there is to continue that development on the local level.

MR: Buffy, can you spotlight what’s been happening lately that we should be aware of?

BSM: Oh gosh, I would like your listeners and readers to understand some of the organizations that Native American people have been working under for a long time like NARF and Native American Rights Fund, which essentially is dedicated to tribal existence. Every now and then, you’ll have somebody come and say, “Well, Indian tribes ought to just be disbanded. They’re old-fashioned and blah blah blah,” which is totally unknowledgeable, right? Tribal existence and Native rights and natural resources and Native American human rights is sometimes ignored at the local level, and this is all over the country. We’re also trying to educate the public all the time through every way. I mean, I do it through songs and writing curriculum. Somebody else does it through some kind of local organization, somebody else is involved nationally and also in the development of Indian law, bringing lawyers to understand what treaty rights are about and what Indian law is about, and how treaty rights are the first law of the land. And in dealing with Native American tribes, the US needs to be cognoscente that this is the same as making a treaty with Russia over bombs. The treaties are in existence and aren’t going anywhere. They are the first law of the land. NCAI–which is the National Congress of American Indians–they’ve been working very hard on tribal law enforcement, because in many cases, tribal policemen, people who are working in the area of tribal law, they don’t have the right to see the same information as a non-Indian tribal police would have. You know, it’s really old-fashioned and unnecessary, so NCAI is at the moment focusing on that. I’m on the board of another organization which is called “Native Arts and Culture Foundation,” and this is a ten-million dollar foundation helped by grants from The Ford Foundation and others, focusing on support to Indian art, Indian culture, Indian artists, craftspeople, sculptors, painters, dancers, and musicians, because there are so many artists in Native America who really don’t have any kind of entry either into the business world–like show business, the gallery business, or to the art world, colleges and all–so there’s a lot of work to be done there. And it’s being done, but you know, there are also a lot of people who deserve the credit for spotlighting the issues and making things better, and the work is ongoing, although it doesn’t seem to be a visible priority in the US.

MR: Buffy, who are some of the people out there spotlighting causes like yourself?

BSM: Oh gosh, I can’t tell you in the US. I would have to give you a Canadian answer. I don’t know whether you could use that. In general, it’s not like you would have seen in the seventies when the American Indian Movement was so visible, when you could point to people like John Trudell and other people in the American Indian Movement. Dennis Banks and Russell Means were big names then. It’s not so much like that now. I think the real brains of Native America are working within foundations, people like Dr. Valorie Johnson, who’s a program officer, working in the area of very young children. She works with the Kellogg Foundation, and was really, really important in establishing grants with the Kellogg Foundation having to do with the American Indian Higher Education Consortium and the American Indian College Fund, which support all the tribal colleges within the confines of the US and a couple in Canada. Winona LaDuke, with Seventh Harvest in the Great Lakes area, continues to amaze me. She’s a lawyer, Ojibwe background, and continues to really encompass a lot of different areas having to do with foods, sustainability, Native rights, and education. So, she works on a local level, but she does it in a global way too. The internet has changed things so much and has brought so many people together in networking and given others the ability to have a repository for the ongoing work they do, which continues to develop.

So, there are a lot of people. John Trudell is still out doing concerts, teaches. He’s an incredible Lakota orator and poet, and a lot of people recognize his name from the American Indian Movement days. He’s continued on despite the fact that his family was burned alive in their home during the FBI and other government agency conflicts with the American Indian Movement in which so many people died. But I think most American people aren’t aware either of our history or of our ongoing works the way they are in Canada. It’s quite different, Mike. The real point is the farther south you go in the western hemisphere, the worse it gets for Native people. And in Canada, we’re everywhere, we’re in all the processions. The general public is pretty much aware of Native issues, Native culture, Native artists, and people and law, but in the US, it’s still very much under the blanket. But that does not daunt the highly qualified organizations who are working on many fronts, and I’m so proud of the work that goes on, even though it’s kind of not visible to the general public because of other issues. They are a very small minority you know.

MR: I think you laid this information out in such a wonderfully linear way that it’s more digestible than when it’s presented by most others.

BSM: Oh, thank you for saying so because I feel like I’m kind of going on and on, and I hope you’re not just being polite.

MR: No, no, no, this is beautiful and inspiring, and I think a lot of listeners and readers will go resource some of the stuff you called out just now even further.

BSM: Oh good, good, yeah, please, in the online version, highlight NARF, Native American Rights Fund. Their website is beautiful. NCAI also has some very in depth things to say, and thank you, Mike.

MR: Of course. Please can we go into “No No Keshagesh” again, even though we spoke about it in your last interview?

BSM: Well, really in sentiment, it’s kind of a combination between what I was saying in “Universal Soldier,” and the attack on greed that’s really at the heart of my song “Little Wheel Spin and Spin.” So, it’s really about environmental greed, and the word “Keshagesh” is a Cree word, and it literally means “greedy guts.” But it’s playful and the song is playful even though it’s about a serious subject. So, “No No Keshagesh” means…it refers to environmental greed, so it’s about the “greedy guts” that are just gobbling up everything and making a war over it. It’s a serious subject, but it’s a way to put it right in front of the people and let them dance, and yell, and sing along with it, and people are just loving it, not only in the US, but also in Europe, Canada, Asia.

MR: Buffy, there’s a student from a local college who I invited to the studio here now. His name is Luke Hillis and he has a question for you.

Luke Hillis: Hi Buffy! I was listening to your song “Now That The Buffalo’s All Gone,” and there’s the line: “Has a change come about dear man, or are you still taking our lands?” There’s a current issue in the Black Hills. There’s a mining company that’s moving in trying to make a uranium mine in the southern part of the Black Hills, which could demolish the water tables, potentially poison the water, and completely desecrate such a sacred land. I was wondering if perhaps you were aware of this issue.

BSM: You know, I’m generally aware of it, and I keep hearing about it. I’m not into the details, Luke, but I’m glad you’ve just spelled it out like that. I couldn’t have done better. It’s not only there and it’s not only in the western hemisphere. The grab for fancy minerals–like lithium in Afghanistan, uranium in the Americas, and also uranium in Sami country in Scandinavia, where the Sami indigenous people in Lapland–it’s very similar and the same thing apparently is going on in Australia where people have discovered uranium on the lands of indigenous people there. So, you know, it doesn’t surprise me because greed is greed, and companies involved in natural resources have been extremely aggressive since the early days of Standard Oil. And the Navajo, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs was the “War Department,” it suddenly became quite different in description, but it never changed that much. It does seem that certain people in the world, whatever country they come from, don’t want Indians or anybody else interfering with their complete control of all available lands and natural resources, and unavailable lands and natural resources. So, it’s exactly the same thing as The Gold Rush, which, of course, was done by robber barons and corporations who have become very successful or blue chip companies sometimes were involved in just terrible exploitation and it’s something that affects us all. You mentioned one area, but this is generally considered “it’s just business,” so it’s something very big. It’s something that affects us all, and just like the song “Universal Soldier” is about individual responsibilities for war, we all are responsible, I think, if we allow greedy guys, whoever they are, wherever they come from, to dis-empower the future by controlling everything, especially something like uranium, which is so volatile and so involved in bombs and war and cancer. We need to have very smart, heartful, intelligent people sitting on boards instead of people who are just having their bottoms stuck on the bottom line. This kind of stuff is not just about money. It’s not. It’s too important.

MR: Thanks, Luke. Do you actually have another question?

LH: I just had another bit to say about that. There’s a lady on Pine Ridge Reservation and she’s single-handedly defending the Black Hills against this, and she’s raising money to raise awareness and create a documentary to help save the Black Hills. She has a website, it’sBringBackTheWay.com.

BSMBringBackTheWay.com. Okay, I’m going to look at it.

MR: Thank you for taking the questions, Buffy.

BSM: You know, Mike, while we have a minute, I don’t know whether we mentioned this last time, but something that is very important to me. I sing “Universal Soldier” almost every night, and everybody says, “Yeah that really, really makes sense.” But as proud as I am of my generation for having helped to stop the Vietnam War–I mean, you have to remember that they were saying there was no war at the time that I wrote “Universal Soldier.” They said, “Oh, you hippies are all crazy.” But even though we brought that war to an end, all these years later, we still don’t have colleges of the caliber of West Point, and Annapolis and the Army College of War and the Air Force Academy…you know, we don’t have colleges of this caliber dedicated to alternative conflict resolution. So where’s that at? That’s a perfect place for young people and experienced people to be putting our energy in developing ways for young people to actually understand how alternative conflict resolution is done. And we do have little classes, little courses, and small departments dedicated to this, but you know, where is our Annapolis for peace? Where’s our West Point for alternative conflict resolution? Where do we put our brains if we’re dedicated to this?

MR: That’s a very good point and great way of looking at it, and we haven’t really taken care of business in this respect.

BSM: Eh, no problem, we can still do this. There’s still a lot of good work left to be done in the world, so let’s not cry about what we haven’t done, let’s just do it.

MR: Buffy, we’ve already discussed a couple of songs from your Running For The Drumalbum, but let’s close that out with your thoughts about your song “Working For The Government.”

BSM: Listen to the words, it’s all about mercenaries, and G.I. Joes, and James Bond types that we put up on a pedestal in our movies and things. Really listen to the words in this song. This is a funny song.

MR: Absolutely. Buffy, we’ve gotten so much information and we’ve also talked about your album. Is there something else we should discuss?

BSM: I’ve got a whole lot of material at my website. We keep it up to date. There’s lots to listen to, lots to learn from, and just thank you for the support, even though I’ve been, you know, made absent by two political administrations in the past, so I kind of lost a whole lot of momentum in the US. There’s still a core of supporters who think this way and I really look forward to next year spending more time with American audiences as I’ve continually done in other parts of the world.

MR: Buffy, what advice would you have for new artists?

BSM: Oh my gosh. Just play. Don’t wait for some kind of mythological businessman to come along and recognize you. You’re already great. If you’re writing songs and playing music, play for your friends, then play for some more friends. Then play for their friends. Play every place that you can and write and don’t worry about the music business. I mean, it’s almost nonexistent right now. Now is the time to create your works and put them on the internet. It’s almost like the sixties. It used to be a very welcoming place for musicians and artists and songwriters in the sixties, and then it closed up and you couldn’t get into a gallery, you couldn’t get a concert, you couldn’t get a record company. All of that is falling away, and it’s back in the hands of the people. So, look at each other’s music, enjoy each other, put yours out there too. It’s a free world.

MR: Beautiful. Buffy, you’ll come back again someday?

BSM: I hope so! Thank you.

MR: Buffy, really, it’s been a pleasure, thank you so much.

BSM: Thank you too, Mike.

Transcribed by Luke Hillis

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