Inspiration: Buffy Sainte-Marie

We all need people who inspire us, whether heroes, models, mentors or friends. During the WordCount Blogathon Speed River Journal will present a special Saturday feature profiling people I admire. These are all living people whose work relates directly or indirectly to the environment. Whether by courageous action or quiet passion, they encourage me to believe in making the world a better place.

Buffy Sainte Marie by Sean Richardson
Buffy Sainte-Marie at Guelph’s Hillside Festival 2009, photo by my friend Sean Richardson

The summer of 1990 I was working as a cub reporter for a small town newspaper. One weekend I covered a powwow at the nearby Saugeen Indian Reserve. In my sheltered existence I had never heard of Buffy Sainte-Marie (maybe I had, but not absorbed it). That evening in a community centre with an audience of some four hundred people I found myself standing a stone’s throw from a woman with powerful presence and even more powerful voice. Some of the songs were familiar, but the words had never sunk it. “Starwalker” in particular has stayed with me ever since (live performance on Youtube).

Lightning Woman, Thunderchild
Star soldiers one and all oh
Sisters, Brothers all together
Aim straight, Stand tall

The Academy Award-winning singer-songwriter has called tirelessly for justice for North America’s indigenous people. Not long after my first encounter she released Coincidence and Likely Stories, her first studio album in 16 years. It includes some of her hardest-hitting, political statements, like “The Priests of the Golden Bull.” However, my favourite of all her songs is “I’m Going Home“:

See up there, it’s not the same
They know your name
And I’m not ashamed to need it
I’m going home

Community has sometimes eluded me as a gay man. We cannot solve the world’s problems as long as there are people who belong nowhere. We cannot heal the Earth without taking responsibility for one another and the lands where we each live. At the root of every environmental problem lies social injustice. In contrast, Native North American culture seeks intimacy with the land. We all need this kind of relationship to save our species and planetary home.

Here is an hour-long special Democracy Now! recorded for Columbus Day 2009. Amy Goodman talks to Sainte-Marie about her career.

Early popularity gave her a remarkable opportunity. She says that by the age of 24 she knew she would always have three meals a day. Due to political climate in the late ’60s and ’70s, sales plummeted, but by then she had already begun to focus on other kinds of social action. She used her wealth to set up scholarships. For five years she appeared regularly on Sesame Street, and breast fed her infant son on one episode, explaining what she was doing to a curious Big Bird.

She told Goodman, “My happiness is found in connecting people.”

Recently Sainte-Marie committed her energy to the Cradleboard Teaching Project, a foundation for Native American education. From her most recent 2008 album, Running For the Drum, here is a music video with a clear environmental message, “No No Keshagesh”:

Another thing I admire is her gift for metaphor. In the Democracy Now! interview she speaks to me as a writer: “As an artist sometimes you can artfully say something in a three-minute song that it would take somebody else a 400-page book to write. And as a songwriter I just really admire the art of the three-minute song. It’s almost like good journalism.”

Next week’s inspiration: Pulitzer prize-winning author Annie Dillard.



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