Best known for her 1960s protest anthem Universal Soldier, the Oscar-winning song Up Where We Belong and a five-year run on Sesame Street during the late ’70s, the legendary Buffy Sainte-Marie visits Toronto this week for the imagineNATIVE festival. The five-day media arts festival, which focuses on works by indigenous people, hits a peak Friday with a free panel discussion between the CBC’s Wab Kinew and Saint-Marie, who then takes to the stage Saturday night at the Phoenix Concert Theatre.
Born on a Cree reservation in Saskatchewan and raised in Maine, Sainte-Marie is understandably proud of how far aboriginal artists have come.
“Our perception by people outside of our communities is so much more vibrant and accurate today then it used to we used to see reflected in the press and on TV,” she says.
The musician is equally impressed with the staying power and diversity of the imagine-NATIVE festival, which is celebrating its 12th year. “The significance is in it’s impact — it’s so big and inclusive,” she says. “Our cultural backgrounds and nations — whether we’re urban or from the reserve — our various talents [are displayed].”
Sainte-Marie’s three-piece band, all of whom are aboriginal Winnipeggers, will be backing her Saturday on not only the classics, but also tracks from her 2009 album, Running for the Drum. “Some songs we’re doing may surprise you, if you’re thinking about Buffy Sainte-Marie of from the ’60s,” she cautions.
Thus, there are tracks such as Cho Cho Fire and No No Keshagesh, which feature electronica beats blended with powwow vocals. The later of which, if you’re concerned that Sainte-Marie has abandoned her roots from the Greenwich Village days, confronts “environmental greed, including Indian country,” she says.
Still, writing protest songs isn’t as difficult as it used to be.
“We were blacklisted and our music was suppressed from the airwaves during the [Lyndon] Johnson administration,” Sainte-Marie says. “For me it went on also in the [Richard] Nixon administration because of native issues.”
While the American youth of the ’60s had a draft, today’s teenage music fans don’t see the “immediate, obvious threat,” she adds, before relating the mobilization of the student movement of the aforementioned era to our current online-centric culture.
“Coffee houses were everywhere and people were sober and exchanging opinions — it was an amazing time. … Now we have the Internet, so that’s good. But in the in-between time, we had virtually nothing but repression.”
At 70, Sainte-Marie has no plans of packing it in. Not only has her Nihewan Foundation for Native American Education partnered with the Belinda Stronach Foundation in an initiative to deliver laptops to underprivileged children across Canada, but after imagine-NATIVE, the troubadour will head back to the U.S. for a string of shows, before taking her band to Europe and Australia.
“[The airline I fly with] just sent me an email saying I was a million-miler,” she says with a laugh. “They don’t give you a T-shirt or anything.”
The imagineNATIVE festival runs Oct. 19-23 in Toronto. For more information visit, imaginenative.org.
Article By Jason Spencer