Indigenous female musician and political icon to perform in Camrose

Buffy Sainte-Marie, who has had a successful career linking her music with activism, will perform at the Bailey Theatre on Thursday night.

Tia Lalani - 23 May 2018

By Erin Sutherland and Megan Caldwell

Buffy Sainte-Marie is a remarkable and impressive artist. Her music and activism-which are intricately linked-have inspired generations of listeners. Her global stature stems not only from her long career, amazing voice and bold fashion sense but also from her important role as a political and Indigenous icon.

As an Indigenous female musician in the 60s and 70s, Buffy Sainte-Marie was a trailblazer in many ways. A political figure who protested the Vietnam war and brought awareness and voice to the struggles of Indigenous peoples, Sainte-Marie and her music have played an important role in Indigenous activist movements from the 1960s to the present day. As a supporter of social change initiatives led by organizations such as the American Indian Movement and Idle No More, Buffy Sainte-Marie used her music and position to provide these movements with a platform and a voice.

Many of her songs, from "My Country 'Tis of Thy People You're Dying" (1964) to "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" (1992), address the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples by colonial governments and demonstrate that Sainte-Marie does not shy away from addressing difficult issues. Since the 1960s, her music has raised awareness of the Indigenous experience, a topic not widely discussed in North American society, and especially not at the time her early songs were first recorded. These same songs remain relevant, especially in this era of so-called reconciliation, where many of the concerns of Indigenous people remain unaddressed.

Sainte-Marie's political voice addressed not only the situations of Indigenous peoples but other issues of the day as well. One of her best-known songs, "Universal Soldier" (1964) became an anthem in the fight against the Vietnam War and continues to be relevant to anti-war movements today. More recently, in "No No Keshagesh" (2008), Sainte-Marie speaks to the impact of capitalism and resource extraction on our environment, a topic that remains timely and contentious a decade later.

Beyond the political sphere, Sainte-Marie also brought Indigenous voices to the mainstream by including Indigenous languages and cultures in her music, at a time when they were thought to be dead or dying as a result of the assimilation of Indigenous peoples. Beyond including Indigenous languages, many of her songs draw on Indigenous musical practice, including forms of drumming and vocables.

Her influence continues in her more recent releases, as she mentors and leads the way for other Indigenous artists. Groups such as A Tribe Called Read and Tanya Tagaq build on her work and continue to push the boundaries of Indigenous music and increase its mainstream presence.

Sainte-Marie's most recent Juno-winning album, Medicine Songs, a compilation of some of her classic hits along with new creations, is intended to effect change. As Sainte-Marie writes on her website, "This is a collection of front-line songs about unity and resistance […] and I want to put them to work". Reflecting the title of her album, Sainte-Marie hopes these songs will "be like medicine, to be of some help or encouragement, to maybe do some good."

Buffy Sainte-Marie's work is as important as ever, to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. At a time where communities struggle to create connections and build relationships, hers is a voice that continues to bring awareness to important social issues affecting us all. Listen to her impressive catalogue of music, or even better, catch her live at the Bailey Theatre on Thursday, May 24 for a rare and unique experience. You won't be disappointed.

Erin Sutherland, Cultural Studies, and Megan Caldwell, Indigenous Student Services Coordinator, Augustana Campus, University of Alberta. This column originally appeared in the Camrose Booster on May 8, 2018.