By Jesse Robitaille
Canada Post paid a philatelic tribute to one of the country’s top singer-songwriters on Nov. 18, when it released its second final issue of the year honouring Buffy Sainte-Marie.
Although uncertain of her origins, Sainte-Marie believes she was born in February 1941 on the Piapot Cree First Nation in Qu’Appelle Valley, Sask. According to the 2018 book, Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography, which Sainte-Marie co-authored with Andrea Warner, the future star was taken from her home as a precursor to the “Sixties Scoop,” which from 1951 through the 1960s saw the widespread removal of Indigenous children from their families and communities. Like Sainte-Marie, many Sixties Scoop victims were adopted into “predominantly non-Indigenous, middle-class families across the United States and Canada,” adds the Canadian Encyclopedia.
“It had been going on for generations where native children were removed from the home,” Sainte-Marie told the U.S. National Public Radio (NPR) in 2018. “What happens to children who are kind of lost in the system like that, they’re assigned a birthday, they’re assigned kind of a biography. So in many cases, adopted people don’t really know what the true story is.”
Sainte-Marie was then adopted by a U.S. couple of Mi’kmaq ancestry and raised on the east coast in Massachusetts and Maine, where she “survived an abusive childhood,” according to the 2018 NPR report.
Despite her struggles, Sainte-Marie taught herself to play piano at age three, and a year later, she began setting her poems to music.
“As a little kid when I was three, I discovered a piano and I found out it made noise, and I was fascinated and taught myself how to do what I wanted to do on it,” she told Vogue in 2015. “I could play fake Beethoven and do other things with strange chords that other people didn’t use but that I liked. I banged on pots and pans, I’d play with rubber bands, I’d blow on grass, I played the mouth bow.”
Long known for her musical experimentation and internationally renowned for her distinct vibrato vocals and emotional songs, Sainte-Marie taught herself guitar by age 16.
“I’ve always kind of tried to cover the base that nobody else is covering,” she told Yahoo Life in November, adding she “wasn’t trying to sound like whoever the singer of the moment was ever.”
“So whether it was electronic music or speaking about genocide … or whether it’s talking about looking at love in a different way … or (the 1962 anti-war protest anthem) Universal Soldier … I was always trying to cover the base that nobody else was covering. So, that’s what I hope people remember about me.”
After graduating with honours in Oriental philosophy and education from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the early 1960s, Sainte-Marie made the move to New York City, where she pursued a career using her musical talents. She started by performing at coffee houses, folk festivals and other venues, and from the outset, she used her music as a platform for social and political commentary and a force for change.
In 1963, New York Times critic Robert Shelton lauded Sainte-Marie as “one of the most promising new talents on the folk scene,” leading to a record contract and the 1964 release of her debut album, It’s My Way!
“The songs that I was writing, I thought people sort of ought to hear, but also deserve to hear, because I knew I was reflecting some points of view that weren’t being verbalized,” she told Democracy Now in 2009, referring to her protest anthem and perhaps best-known song, Universal Soldier.
Another song, Now That the Buffalo’s Gone, highlighted Indigenous land rights and intercultural relationships with her “distinctive tremolo vocal technique, which is often attributed to the influence of Native American powwow singing but which may also reflect Sainte-Marie’s acknowledged identification with the French singer Edith Piaf, whose vocal style was marked by a similar warbling quality,” the Encyclopedia Britannica adds.
On the heels of her first album, Billboard magazine named Sainte-Marie the best new artist of 1964.