Magazine article Herizons

Up Where She Belongs

Magazine article Herizons

Up Where She Belongs

Article excerpt

When she first showed up on the American East Coast folk scene in the early 1960s, Buffy Sainte-Marie was an anomaly-a First Nations, university-educated woman who favoured open guitar tunings and political themes in her songs. She flexed her political muscle on her first album, It's My Way!, which included the anti-war anthem "Universal Soldier." Sainte-Marie wrote the song in the basement at The Purple Onion coffee house in Toronto and a year later, in 1964, It's My Way! was released and "Universal Soldier" made the Billboard charts after being recorded by Scottish folk singer Donovan.

Sainte-Marie went on to become the first Indigenous female artist to win an Academy Award, which she received for "Up Where We Belong," the theme song from the 1982 movie An Officer and a Gentleman-which she wrote with collaborators Jack Nitzsche and Will Jennings. A feminist and a woman of uncommon good sense, Sainte-Marie was also the first woman to break TV's breast-feeding taboo when she nursed her son, Dakota, on the children's TV show Sesame Street. At the time, baby formula companies in North America had convinced most mothers to bottle feed. In the episode, Sainte-Marie explains to Big Bird (and millions of viewers) that breast-feeding is natural and good for the baby. It was one of many ground-breaking moments during the songwriter's six years of guest appearances on the PBS series. Sainte-Marie was one of few entertainers speaking out about Indigenous rights from the stage and from the front lines. In 1974, her activism took her to Gresham, Wisconsin, to support the Mennonite occupation of an abandoned Catholic abbey. She and her friend, Mi'kmaq activist Annie Mae Pictou Aquash, found themselves dodging protestor bullets.

Burning through the pages of the new Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography by Andrea Warner, readers may find themselves wondering, "Why hasn't more been written about this amazing Canadian artist?"

It was the same thought Warner had when she had her first interview with SainteMarie in 2015, when the Cree artist, originally from Saskatchewan, released her JunoAward-winning album Power in the Blood. That interview, Warner recalls, left her feeling like she "didn't want to hang up the phone." She went away from that experience knowing she wanted to write a biography about the fascinating singer-songwriter who has been an activist and peace advocate throughout a career that has spanned more than five decades and 21 albums.

In 2015, Warner's We Oughta Know, a collection of essays about the four Canadian female artists who owned the stage in the '90s-Alanis Morissette, Shania Twain, Céline Dion and Sarah McLachlan-had just come out and she was looking for another project. In 2016, Warner pitched an idea to her editor at Greystone Books. She wanted to write what she described as an "anti-Canada 150 book" that would coincide with celebrations marking Canada's 150 years of confederation. Warner's idea was to feature 150 Canadian artists who were "not white, straight men." While Greystone wasn't interested in doing a list book, Warner's editor was intrigued by the idea of a biography of one of the women at the top of Warner's list: Buffy Sainte-Marie.

Before she knew it, Warner was engaged in a process that would result in 60 hours of taped interviews and a stint on the road with SainteMarie and her band. It was a journey that yielded some surprises and confirmed some assumptions for the Vancouver-based music writer.

"I didn't know she'd been shot at. I didn't now enough about the politics of Indigenous rights and activism in the States. I didn't know much or anything about her marriages, or the extent of the trauma she has lived through that has informed her work and her life," recalls Warner.

"I also didn't know how funny she is. She is so funny. She has such a joy. It's not that she doesn't have anger or frustration-she does. She's not interested in anyone kissing her ass and shoots that down really fast. …

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