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Buffy Sainte-Marie, a trailblazing singer-songwriter, refused to be silent about Indigenous rights

Last Updated Jun 12, 2020 at 11:44 am EDT

Buffy Sainte-Marie (Photo credit: Matt Barnes)

June is National Indigenous History Month. It is a time for all Canadians — Indigenous, non-Indigenous and newcomers — to reflect upon and learn the history, sacrifices, cultures, contributions, and strength of First Nations, Inuit and Metis people. Throughout the month of June, CityNews will profile Indigenous people, and share their stories and voices, so that we can celebrate the difference they have made in their communities and to our country.

June 6: Today, we celebrate Buffy Sainte-Marie.

Buffy Sainte-Marie was born on the Piapot 75 reserve in the Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan, Canada. She was abandoned as in infant and was adopted by Albert and Winifred Sainte-Marie, a U.S couple of Mi’kmaq heritage. Sainte-Marie went to the University of Massachusetts Amherst, earning degrees in teaching and Oriental philosophy. She graduated in the top 10 of her class.

Sainte-Marie has become an iconic figure and role model for Indigenous Canadians. She is a singer-songwriter, musician, Oscar-winning composer, visual artist and activist.

In 1964, she released her debut album, It’s My Way. Since that time, the Cree trailblazer has sung and spoken with honesty, clarity, compassion and authenticity.

In the 1960s and 70s, powerful people in the United States blacklisted Sainte-Marie’s music when she refused to be silent about Indigenous rights. But she always stayed true to herself and to who she is.

In all areas of her career, which has spanned over six decades, her work shines a light on issues facing Indigenous people all over North America. She sings and writes songs about love, war, religion, the environment and Indigenous realities.

She still stands as of one Canada’s most decorated people.

In 1983, Sainte-Marie became the first Indigenous person to win an Oscar for Best Original Song, Up Where We Belong, co-written for the film An Officer and a Gentleman.

She was inducted into the Juno Hall of Fame in 1995 and was named as an Officer in the Order of Canada in 1997.

This year, Buffy Sainte-Marie was honoured with the 2020 Allan Slaight Humanitarian Award for her contributions to social activism and support of humanitarian causes.

Sainte-Marie’s most recent act of activism is the creation of The Creative Native Project, which works to give youth the opportunity to learn more about the creative arts by providing them with professional mentorship.

Sainte Marie’s has previously described her last album release, Medicine Songs, as “a collection of front-line songs about unity and resistance.”

The first song from the album was a collaboration with Tanya Tagaq, a Canadian Inuk throat singer from Cambridge Bay (Iqaluktuuttiaq), Nunavut. It’s called “You Got to Run (Spirit of the Wind).” The song was written about Alaskan dog sled racer George Attla, who came fourth in the inaugural Iditarod in 1973 and can be interpreted as a song about perseverance and determination.

Buffy Sainte-Marie has explained what she wants this album to be: “I really want this collection of songs to be like medicine, to be of some help or encouragement, to maybe do some good.”

“Songs can motivate you and advance your own ideas, encourage and support collaborations and be part of making change globally and at home,” added Sainte-Marie. “They do that for me, and I hope this album can be positive and provide thoughts and remedies that rock your world and inspire new ideas of your own.”

Find out more about Buffy Sainte-Marie’s incredible career on her website.