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It's no easy feat to summarize the influential life of Buffy Sainte-Marie — an award-winning singer and songwriter, Indigenous-rights activist, children's-book author, former Sesame Street star, mother, teacher and mixed-media digital artist. And that's only thus far.
But the Cree icon, now 80 and still creating, performing and speaking out, knows how she'd like people to think of her: as an innovator.
"I've always kind of tried to cover the base that nobody else is covering," Sainte-Marie, Cree First Nation member and the subject of a new documentary feature film that's in production, tells Yahoo Life. "Like, I 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."
That kind of goal, to go where others were not, made Sainte-Marie the first in many areas — the first-ever Indigenous artist to win an Oscar, for her 1982 hit "Up Where We Belong," from An Officer and a Gentleman, as well as the first woman to breastfeed on television. That happened in 1977, when she famously nursed her son Cody while hanging out with Big Bird.
"I know lately [public breastfeeding] is quite inflammatory — there's always somebody who has to sexualize it — but it was quite normal," explains Sainte-Marie, who played herself on Sesame Street for five years in the '70s. Two years in, she she gave birth to her son, breastfeeding off-camera, and eventually suggesting she do so onscreen, too — partly motivated to be an example by her experience in the hospital.
"When I woke up from delivering my baby, there was a big basket of stuff from some formula company," she explains. "I prefer to breastfeed, but … there's no money involved in breastfeeding, therefore this there's nobody making a fortune on it. The formula companies were putting a lot of money into education in medical hospitals. So that's kind of the difference. And sometimes there's not somebody to blame for the things that you wish would change in the world … So why don't I talk about it?" And she did.
"It wasn't a thing. It wasn't controversial," she says. "I suggested it to the producers, who were just wonderful, by the way. They never stereotyped me into being 'the Sesame Street Indian'… We did segments on sibling rivalry, breastfeeding, multiculturalism, travel, all kinds of things besides Indigenous things."
Sainte-Marie, who lives in Hawaii, is uncertain of her origins, though believes she was born in 1941 on the Piapot First Nation reserve in Saskatchewan, taken from her biological parents when she a toddler, and adopted by a couple in Massachusetts. Growing up there, she faced many challenges, including bullying and sexual abuse, she says — and the messages, through school, that she "couldn't be Indigenous, because there aren't any anymore around here," and that she "couldn't be a musician" because she was unable to read European notation.
"What it gave to me was a sense of, you know what? Sometimes the world is wrong," she says. "Sometimes grownups who are highly educated and prominently placed are just wrong. So instead of having that make me mad during my life … I became a teacher, I got a religion and a philosophy degree. I got a teaching degree. And as a teacher, you don't get mad at people because they don't know."
Sainte-Marie went on to teach herself guitar and become a successful folk singer and activist, getting her start in the '60s coffeehouse scene, becoming known for her anti-war anthem "Universal Soldier" and releasing her first of nearly 20 albums, It's My Way!, in 1964, and always speaking out about indigenous issues.
"People didn't know about these things, but I did. So I just went ahead," she explains. "I didn't get mad at the audience for not knowing these things. Instead. I included them in the lyrics."
That's been her philosophy over the decades: making music, educating, speaking out, even when Indigenous issue are brushed aside or misunderstood, despite efforts, such as this month being Native American Heritage Month, at understanding and inclusion — kind of like the "I" in the relatively new acronym BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) often getting lost in the larger conversation.
"That's such a nice way to put it: in BIPOC, sometimes the 'I' gets lost," she says. "You know, we're such a small minority, and throughout my life … I've been with some very fancy and well-heeled people, being a part of councils and foundations and rubbing elbows with the … huge foundations in the world, walking into big rooms for advancement for one group or another. And yes, we do have our Indigenous groups in philanthropy, but we're always tiny compared to everybody else. And when we walk into a room … they just kind of don't see us … They don't know what we are. And so there's always kind of this hole in our hearts where our self-esteem ought to be."
Still, Sainte-Marie has spent her life filling that hole for others. And she shows no sign of stopping or slowing, most passionate these days about speaking out about colonization and genocide of Indigenous people — specifically as it relates to recent horrific news about remains of children being found, in unmarked graves, on the grounds of Canadian boarding schools that abused indigenous youth in Canada, forcing them to assimilate.
"I'm working with little kids right now in Canada, where we're facing all this bad, bad, bad, bad news about the bad, bad, bad, bad residential schools," she says, noting that she's working to also counteract the awful news with some good through her role on the board with the indigenous-awareness Downie & Wenjack Fund in Canada.
"We're making a series of one-minute videos that are some little piece of wisdom. And the part that I wanted to contribute … was to offset [the tragic news] with that of our contributions about what we've given to the world," she says, citing team sports, syringes and more. "You only hear about either our victimization or the problems of white people stealing our land," she stresses. "You only hear those two terrible stories, but there's a lot of good news."
That's true for Sainte-Marie's long artistic career, too: She's still performing — an outdoor summer show in Brooklyn drew 10,000 and an upcoming one is slated for an Ontario venue later this month — while also honing newfound skills.
"I've been drawing and painting and making songs and working out and playing with the goats [on the Hawaii property]," she says, explaining that she was inspired to try drawing after attending the Museum of Modern Art in New York following her Brooklyn show. "I'm one of those people who said, 'Oh, I've never been able to draw. I can't draw a straight line. I'm a painter. I can't draw. That's just like picking up a guitar for the first time and going, 'Oh, I can't play the guitar. I'm putting it away.' No. Drawing is one of those things that you practice, practice, practice, practice. It's just like doing penmanship. Eventually you learn it. So I've been practicing a lot."
Because why stop learning when you still feel young?
"I am 80. And I thought that I'd kind of be like, you know, the little old lady on The Beverly Hillbillies — kind of a comic old-lady thing," she admits. "But no. I don't feel any different than I have all along."
—Video produced by Jacquie Cosgrove.
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