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Belong Forum preview: 5 things you should know about Buffy Sainte‑Marie

- April 4, 2018

Buffy Sainte-Marie's Belong Forum takes place April 17.
Buffy Sainte-Marie's Belong Forum takes place April 17.

Buffy Sainte-Marie’s musical career has brought her to Halifax many times over the years, but she returns to the city this month in a different capacity: as a public speaker.

The legendary songwriter, activist, educator and visual artist visits campus April 17 to share her unique perspective as part of the Belong Forum series happening throughout Dal’s 200th anniversary year.

Inspired by the question “What would it take to create a world where we all feel like we truly belong?” the forums are designed to expand and elevate discussions around diversity and inclusion at Dal and in the broader community.

Though born to parents of Cree heritage on the Piapot First Nation reserve in Saskatchewan in 1941, Sainte-Marie was adopted as an infant by a Massachusetts couple. Raised primarily in Wakefield, just outside of Boston, she had little connection to her origins growing up, even though her adoptive mother was also of Indigenous descent (being part Mi’kmaq).

Sainte-Marie rediscovered her Cree roots as a teen and travelled back to Piapot later, creating strong connections in the community there. She began advocating for Indigenous peoples in Canada and the United States in the early 1960s shortly after finishing her degree in teaching and Oriental philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and around the same time her musical career was taking off.

Her commitment hasn’t wavered since. On record, on stage and on screen, Sainte-Marie has been a trailblazer for generations of artists and educators and a passionate voice for change. A condition for her debut appearance in a Hollywood production — The Virginian — was that every single one of the Indigenous roles be played by Indigenous actors.

She has received many honours and awards over the years, including an Oscar, a Golden Globe, 15 honorary degrees, six Junos and the highly coveted Polaris Music Prize. She’ll add another to the list during her Dal event when she receives an honorary degree from the university at her Belong Forum.

Registration is now open for Sainte-Marie’s forum. Look for additional guest speakers in Dal’s Year of Belonging to be announced in the near future.

Here are some facts to know about Sainte-Marie ahead of her forum in the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium:

She penned one of the most popular anti-war songs of all time.

Sainte-Marie began performing her song “Universal Soldier” in the early 1960s at some of the famed folk hangouts then emerging in Toronto and New York City. She featured the song on her 1964 debut album, It’s My Way!, and it soon become a staple at civil rights and anti-war marches across the United States. Scottish folk giant Donovan covered it in 1965, turning it into a mainstream hit, and at least 15 others have done recorded renditions since. Sainte-Marie later found out her music had been blacklisted and suppressed by the administrations of U.S. presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon because she’d spoken out against the Vietnam War and supported Indigenous rights. This silencing severely stunted her career in the U.S.

She launched a scholarship program for Indigenous youth in her early 20s.

Flush with the cash she made during her early years as a singer-songwriter, Sainte-Marie created the Nihewan Foundation for Native American Education to provide scholarships to Native American youth. “I really set out to address the problem I saw in Indian country where Indian kids would graduate from high school . . . but didn’t know how to negotiate the path to college,” she told Vogue in 2015. “My biggest honor was to find out that two of my early scholarship recipients had gone on to found tribal colleges. Can you imagine that kind of thrill?” Sainte-Marie continues educational work through the foundation, creating online multimedia curriculum based on Indigenous cultural perspectives that is free to teachers and students worldwide.

She was a semi-regular on Sesame Street starting in the late 1970s. 

Sainte-Marie was approached by an associate producer of the children’s TV show in 1975 about doing a one-off appearance to, as Sainte-Marie later put it, “recite the alphabet and stuff or count.” She suggested a bigger opportunity was at hand to help educate kids about different Indigenous cultures in the Americas and was welcomed as a semi-regular on the show from 1976 to 1981. During a 1977 episode, she breastfed her son Dakota “Cody” Starblanket Wolfchild as part of a segment explaining breastfeeding to Big Bird — a scene often cited as the first TV depiction of breastfeeding.

She was the first, and remains the only, Indigenous person to have won an Academy Award.

She wrote the melody for "Up Where We Belong" that became the title song and main theme for the movie An Officer and a Gentleman. Film composer Jack Nitzsche had not been able to come up with a melody and asked Sainte-Marie if she had any songs and she played him the tune. Recorded by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes, it soon debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 list, where it spent three of its 23 weeks’ standing in the number one spot. The following year, Sainte-Marie and co-writers Nitzsche and Will Jennings won the Academy Award for Best Original Song for the tune. Sainte-Marie’s win marked the first — and, to date, only — time an Indigenous person has received an Academy Award.

She was an early adopter of digital technology in her music and visual art.

Though she gained prominence as a folk singer, Sainte-Marie embraced synthesizers as early as 1969 on her sixth record, Illuminations, much to the chagrin of many fans. While it was a commercial flop, the experimental collection of songs — including an opener that sets fellow Canadian Leonard Cohen’s poem “God is Alive Magic is Afoot” to music — has recently gained critical recognition for its many forward-thinking flourishes. Sainte-Marie also applied digital technology to the visual arts, creating digital art on a Macintosh computer as early as 1984. Her work is now in the permanent collections of the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum, First Nations University, and the Tucson Art Museum, and has been exhibited at galleries throughout North America.

(Buffy Sainte-Marie photo: Matt Barnes)


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