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2009-10-12

Democracy Now! Special: An Hour of Music and Conversation with Legendary Native American Singer-Songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie

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In a Democracy Now! special, an hour of conversation and music with Cree Indian singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie. In the turbulent 1960s, she was just out of college but already famous for her beautiful voice and moving lyrics in songs like "Universal Soldier" and "Now that the Buffalo’s Gone." Over the years, Buffy Sainte-Marie has worked with the American Indian Movement, but also with Sesame Street, and even Hollywood, winning an Academy Award for the song "Up Where We Belong" in 1982. She’s won international recognition for her music, has a PhD in fine arts, and began a foundation for American Indian Education that she remains closely involved with. We speak with the folk icon about her life, her music, censorship, and her singing and speaking out about the struggles of Native American peoples for the past four decades. She also performs live in the firehouse studio. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, a Democracy Now! special for Columbus Day, we spend the hour with the Cree Indian singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie. But first we go back with her to 1965. Buffy Sainte-Marie was on Pete Seeger’s show Rainbow Quest.

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: I think that most Americans feel that the Indians lost because of fair fights and superior odds and superior weaponry. That’s because that’s the only side of the story that’s been told. I’ll sing you a song that tells a little of the other side.

    [singing]Now that your big eyes have finally opened
    Now that you’re wondering how must they feel
    Meaning them that you’ve chased across America’s movie screens
    Now that you’re wondering, how can it be real
    That the ones you’ve called colorful, noble and proud
    In your school propaganda
    They starve in their splendor?
    You’ve asked for my comment I simply will render

    My country 'tis of thy people you're dying.

    Now that the longhouses breed superstition
    You force us to send our toddlers away
    To your schools where they’re taught to despise their traditions.
    Forbid them their languages, then further say
    That American history really began
    When Columbus set sail out of Europe, and stress
    That the nation of leeches that conquered this land
    Are the biggest and bravest and boldest and best.
    And yet where in your history books is the tale
    Of the genocide basic to this country’s birth,
    Of the preachers who lied, how the Bill of Rights failed,
    How a nation of patriots returned to their earth?
    And where will it tell of the Liberty Bell
    As it rang with a thud
    Over Kinzua mud
    And of brave Uncle Sam in Alaska this year?

AMY GOODMAN: "My Country ’Tis of Thy People You’re Dying," a 1965 performance by Canadian First Nations singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie. She was among the earliest if not the first celebrity to challenge the idea that, quote, "American history really began when Columbus set sail out of Europe." We’ll hear more about this song later in this special broadcast, this hour of conversation and music with Buffy Sainte-Marie.

Today is supposed to commemorate the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the so-called “new world” in 1492. But the holiday has long caused anger among Native Americans who object to the official celebration of a man who opened the door to European colonization and the exploitation of native peoples in North America. Observance of this holiday is far from uniform across the country. South Dakota marks the occasion as "Native American Day." Meanwhile in Denver, Colorado’s annual Columbus Day parade is met by protesters decrying the genocide of indigenous peoples.

Well, the award-winning folk icon Buffy Sainte-Marie has been writing and singing out about the struggles of Native American and First Nations people for well over four decades. In the turbulent ’60s, she was just out of college but already famous for her beautiful voice and moving lyrics and songs like "Universal Soldier," "Now that the Buffalo’s Gone," and "Until It’s Time for You to Go." She was Billboard’s Best New Artist following the release of her first record.

Appearing on several television talk shows in the early part of the decade, this is how she explained her focus on Native issues.

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: Since I put all my time into Indian rights, and I think this is something I know something about and I think that my time is best spent, insofar as my political views are concerned. And it’s still pretty hard for a Canadian Indian to work the winter through, you know? There’s an awful lot of relief. There’s an awful lot of poverty.

    What I’m trying to do is to use each time that I appear on television or on the radio or in a concert to use just a little of that time to inform the non-Indian population.

    They say, “What Indians? They’re all in Hollywood. They all have oil wells.”

    I think that the non-Indian people must understand why the Indians are in the state of affairs that they’re in. It’s not because they’re lazy, ignorant, inferior, stupid or anything. Chances are that if an Indian kid makes it these days, it happens because of some lucky accident.

AMY GOODMAN: That clip from a documentary titled Buffy Sainte-Marie: A Multimedia Life, just out, along with her latest album, her eighteenth, called Running for the Drum. It’s her first album in thirteen years and won the Canadian Juno Award for Aboriginal Album of the Year.

Over the years, Buffy Sainte-Marie has worked with the American Indian Movement, but also with Sesame Street, and even Hollywood, winning an Academy Award for the song "Up Where We Belong" in 1982. She’s won international recognition for her music, has a PhD in fine arts, and began a foundation for American Indian Education that she remains closely involved with.

I sat down with Buffy Sainte-Marie recently here in our firehouse studio. We’re going to go to break with one of her songs, and then we’ll talk about her life, music, activism and politics. Stay with us.

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: [singing] Can you remember the times
    That you have held your head high
    Told all your friends of your Indian claim
    Proud good lady and proud good man
    Some great-great grandfather from Indian blood sprang
    And you feel in your heart for these ones

    Oh it’s written in books and in songs
    That we’ve been mistreated and wronged
    Well, over and over I hear those same words
    From you good lady and you good man
    Well, listen to me if you care where we stand
    And you feel you’re a part of these ones

AMY GOODMAN: Buffy Sainte-Marie singing “Now that the Buffalo’s Gone. This is Democracy Now!

, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as we bring you this hour special.

While many celebrate Columbus Day, others observe Indigenous Peoples Day. We’re spending the hour with Cree Indian singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie. We speak with her about her life, her music, her censorship and the singing and speaking out about native struggles for the last four decades.

When she came to our firehouse studio a few weeks ago, I sat down with her and, well, asked her to begin where she was began; I asked her where she was born.

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: I’m told I was born in Canada, but I was adopted and I grew up in Maine and Massachusetts.

    AMY GOODMAN: And your family there?

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: My family in Maine and Massachusetts are part Native American and part everything else.

    AMY GOODMAN: And then, where did you go from there? How old were you when you left?

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: Oh, I was an infant when I was born. I mean, I was an infant when I was living in Canada, but when I was adopted, I was a baby, so I grew up in Maine and Massachusetts, and I returned to Saskatchewan as — in my late teens. And from my early twenties on, I spent a lot of time there. I was reunited with people who may or may not be my real relatives, but we’ve made family together, and we’re close.

    AMY GOODMAN: And when did you discover music as a way to express yourself?

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: I think I was about three. I mean, it’s my earliest memory of music. And I saw a piano. And I didn’t play Barbies, and I didn’t play sports. I played art. I made pictures, and I danced, and I listened to music, and I played piano. And I found out two years ago that I’m actually dyslexic in music, so I can write for an orchestra, but I can’t read it back. I learn by ear instead of by eye.

    AMY GOODMAN: Did people in your family play music?

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: A few did. A few did, yeah. But it’s not as though there was any kind of professional musicianship or —-

    AMY GOODMAN: It was just in you?

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: Yeah, it was in me. It was -— and I think that most people are naturally what we call talented, like when you take a bunch of little kids to the beach, they all make music, and they make rhythm, and they dance, and they use their imaginations, and they make drama, and they make sandcastles and architecture. So I think that I’m one of the lucky few who have just managed to hold onto that through school and business. And I still feel like a kindergartner about the arts.

    AMY GOODMAN: When, Buffy, did you start to perform publicly? And were you afraid at the beginning?

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: You know, I was in college. I went to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. And I started playing songs for the girls in my dorm and my housemother Theresa de Kerpely, who was from Europe. She really encouraged me, and she encouraged me to listen to people like Edith Piaf, Carmen Amaya, the flamenco dancer-singer, people from other countries. So, from the start of playing for other people, I was absorbing and reflecting, I think, a very wide world culture. International students at the university were a big influence on me.

    So it was kind of natural to me when the — what they were calling folk music, which also included singer-songwriters, it was very natural for me to fall into that time in the early ’60s when students ruled and the venues were coffeehouses, not beer halls. And coffeehouse — talk, talk, talk, listen, listen, listen. So it just became a way of life for me to have a little, small concert somewhere off campus.

    And then, in the early ’60s, I went to Greenwich Village, although I had just graduated, and I thought I was going to continue my studies in oriental philosophy, which was my major. But I didn’t. I got real lucky, and I got bus tickets and airplane tickets and started traveling around to safe places, which coffeehouses were. It was a quite a different time for a young artist. And you could do that safely and sing for your peers.

    And the songs that I was writing with — that was the only thing that kept me from being unafraid onstage. I didn’t think I was going to last more than, you know, the next month. And the songs that I was writing, I thought people sort of ought to hear, but also deserve to hear, because I knew I was reflecting some points of view that weren’t being verbalized, but they were felt by fellow students, like things about Native American stuff and love songs with more feeling than just, you know, "I’m going to die if I don’t get you in bed tonight," or things like “Universal Soldier.”

    AMY GOODMAN: When did you write "Universal Soldier"? How did you write it?

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: I wrote “Universal Soldier” very early in the ’60s. And it was just — it was both original to me, but it was also an absorption and a reflection of what I was seeing in the streets and on college campuses.

    [singing] He’s five foot two, and he’s six feet four
    He fights with missiles and with spears
    He’s all of thirty-one, and he’s only seventeen
    He’s been a soldier for a thousand years

    He’s a Catholic, a Hindu, an atheist, a Jain
    A Buddhist and a Baptist and a Jew
    And he knows he shouldn’t kill
    And he knows he always will
    Kill you for me, my friend, and me for you

    And he’s fighting for Canada
    He’s fighting for France
    He’s fighting for the USA
    And he’s fighting for the Russians
    And he’s fighting for Japan
    And he thinks we’ll put an end to war this way

    And he’s fighting for democracy
    And fighting for the reds
    He says it’s for the peace of all
    He’s the one who must decide
    who’s to live and who’s to die
    And he never sees the writing on the walls

    But without him
    How would Hitler have condemned him at Dachau?
    Without him Caesar would have stood alone
    He’s the one who gives his body as a weapon to a war
    And without him all this killing can’t go on

    He’s the universal soldier
    And he really is to blame
    But his orders comes from far away no more.
    They come from him and you and me
    And brothers can’t you see
    This is not the way we put an end to war.

    AMY GOODMAN: Did it just explode on the scene as soon as you started to sing it? I mean, we’re talking about now in the ’60s the Vietnam War.

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: Yeah, early ’60s. Yeah, it kind of did. I mean, I got popular and famous right away. And I was very, very fortunate, in that I could travel where my — the other girls who had graduated college with me, they couldn’t travel. I could travel. And I had a Native American background and really interest in knowing what had not been told to me, because when I was growing up, my mother who raised me, she especially told me, you know, what you see in the movies and read in books is not necessarily true, but you can find out someday.

    So I used my show business airplane tickets to — you know, I’d have a concert in Paris, and then I’d go up to the Arctic and spend time with the indigenous people there, or a concert in New York, because I was living in Greenwich Village then, I’d go up to Akwesasne, the Mohawk reservation, you know, at the top of New York on the Canadian border. And it kind of became the paradigm of my life. I wasn’t intentionally trying to become a bridge for anything, but I did see that people in the cities, they wanted to know.

    And you asked, you know, was I was afraid to be onstage. I wasn’t, because of the songs, see? I didn’t think I was much of a singer, but because of the songs, I had the nerve to step out onto a stage and to give the people the songs. So I wasn’t concentrating on myself as a singer. I probably should have been concentrating more. Later on, I learned to sing.

    AMY GOODMAN: Buffy Sainte-Marie, "Now that the Buffalo’s Gone," tell us the story of this song.

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: Oh, wow, that was on my first album, alongside “Universal Soldier.” “Now that the Buffalo’s Gone” is about something that was going on in Jamestown, New York. The Seneca reservation was about to be flooded in order to build Kinzua Dam. And there were alternative sites for Kinzua Dam that would have saved everybody, except a sweet few, a whole lot of money. But it kind of blew the whistle on that.

    But I wrote it not to make anybody mad, but to kind of acknowledge the fact that a lot of people who are part Indian really would like to know and would care, so again and again it says “you, dear lady, and you, dear man.” You know, it’s trying to explain something to people who don’t usually get to know anything about Native American stuff, because you never hear about Indian people. The only time you hear about Indian people, like, for instance, Wounded Knee, you know, when Nixon was president, what you’d see in the media was, you know, some Indian with a gun, you know, who was defending their land against, you know, things that shouldn’t be going on.

AMY GOODMAN: Singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie. After hitting the top of the charts in the early ’60s, the outspoken performer suddenly disappeared from the mainstream airwaves during the Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon years.

    AMY GOODMAN: The ’60s and ’70s, Johnson, Nixon —- what about music and culture at that time? How was it affected?

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: Well, at the time, we didn’t know about it, but a lot of us were being blacklisted. Our music was being suppressed.

    AMY GOODMAN: How?

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: Letters were being sent to radio stations, acknowledging and giving pats on the back for broadcasters who were refusing to play music that ought to be suppressed. And -—

    AMY GOODMAN: How do you know that now?

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: Well, I only found out about it maybe twenty years after the fact, when a broadcaster in Toronto brought it to my attention. He had a letter on White House stationery, you know, commending him for having suppressed music that deserved to be suppressed, and it was about me. Eartha Kitt was affected. Taj Mahal was affected. A lot of people were affected.

    But when I found out about it, I went and got my FBI files, and I was just appalled. I mean, the Freedom of Information Act, at that time, anyway, was just a crock. In the first place, they ask you to come in and be with an FBI agent in the FBI offices. And my lawyer said, “No, no, no. No, you can send somebody to our offices.” So I looked at the files, and they were all crossed out, big fat magic markers.

    And then, a couple years ago, on the internet, a former CIA agent came forward, as well, and talked about the suppression of music in the ’60s. And so, these —-

    AMY GOODMAN: How did you feel it at the time?

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: When I first found out about it, I was just surprised, I was just flabbergasted, because I had never known that there was anything going on like that. I didn’t know that records were not being -— not showing up at their destinations, so there’d be no records in town when I had a big concert. So I was mystified. It had never occurred to me.

    And then later on, you know, a couple years ago, when I found out about the Nixon administration, as well, doing things like that, according to the CIA agent, anyway, you know, it bothers me, but it’s not the kind of thing that I’ve made a career of being mad about, because where are Johnson and Nixon now, anyway? I have a new record and a great life, and I only wish that people at the time had been able to hear the songs that I thought were reflecting their feelings. I think it would have made a difference, because I think music can make a difference.

    AMY GOODMAN: Talk about "My Country ’Tis of Thy People You’re Dying."

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: Oh, aren’t you something? It’s a song I very seldom sing. It’s so sad.

    AMY GOODMAN: Do you want to sing it now?

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: No, I don’t. No.

    AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll play it.

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: You can see it on YouTube. "My Country ’Tis of Thy People You’re Dying" was my — I wanted to give people Indian 101 in six minutes. It’s a long song. But Indian 101 has never been presented to the North American public, let alone anywhere else.

      [singing] My country ‘tis of thy people you’re dying.
      Now that the longhouses breed superstition
      You force us to send our toddlers away
      To your schools where they’re taught to despise their traditions.
      Forbid them their languages, then further say
      That American history really began
      When Columbus set sail out of Europe, and stress
      That the nation of leeches that conquered this land
      Are the biggest and bravest and boldest and best.
      And yet where in your history books is the tale
      Of the genocide basic to this country’s birth...

    Native American people, we know about it, you know, the US, Canada, etc. But the public doesn’t know what really happened. They’re not aware of the genocide that happened in the Americas. They’re not aware of how these things can happen without their knowledge. And see, I think — I don’t know. I think that there’s a core of people in the Americas who are real good people who want to do the right thing, only they just don’t get the information that would help them to become knowledgeable enough to truly be of support and value to people who are trying to spotlight individual issues from here to here, yeah.

    AMY GOODMAN: So, in the 1970s, moving from Nixon on to Johnson and beyond from there, the Vietnam War ends, Leonard Peltier is someone that you have done many benefit concerts for. Talk about the American Indian Movement. Talk about Leonard Peltier.

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: Leonard Peltier is serving two life sentences. The only thing that’s ever been proved in a court of law is that the bullets didn’t match the gun. And it’s been on the Amnesty International list forever. Everybody wants to get Leonard Peltier out of jail, but it’s — you know, Peter Matthiessen wrote an interesting book called In the Spirit of Crazy Horse that kind of sums it up. And there’s a lot online, as well, about Leonard. We’re always hoping that he’s going to be — have another trial or, you know, just be let out. It’s just stupid that he’s in jail.

    AMY GOODMAN: And how did his story touch your heart? How did his story illustrate what’s going on with Native Americans here?

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: Well, I had known Leonard, and, you know, somebody described Leonard as — it’s like somebody’s cousin who comes over to work on your car on the weekend. You know, Leonard was not like a flag-burning, you know — Leonard was just a regular guy. And he represents the kind of person who can just wind up taking the rap because something bad was done by an administration.

    It’s too complicated an issue really not to dedicate really a lot of time to, but the FBI shouldn’t have been there. The people should not have been — opened fire on Indians camping on their own ground. But there was so much going on, locally and then nationally. Leonard got caught in the middle of it.

    And I mentioned Leonard and also my friend Annie Mae Aquash, who died. You know, the FBI, they told us she’d died of exposure, you know, but her head was filled with bullets, and her hands were cut off. You know, they put her hands in a shoebox and pushed them at her family. And, you know, real bad stuff sometimes goes on.

    And 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, if you think it out. It’s very hard sometimes to just talk right off the cuff and say something in one sentence, but if you work on it, which is opposed to writing a love song, which is all emotion and inspiration, if the emotion and inspiration — if you put your head to editing it and working on it, sometimes you can come up with something that really there’s no argument against it, you know, like “Universal Soldier” or “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” And I wrote those songs kind of like I was writing for a professor who didn’t want me to get an A, and I was determined, yeah, so I worked on them real hard. But then, another kind of song, like “Until It’s Time for You to Go” or some of the songs on the new album are just right from the heart and real spontaneous and love songs. So there’s many different ways that a songwriter writes.

    AMY GOODMAN: “Until It’s Time for You to Go,” let’s just play some of you performing it here at Democracy Now!

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: [singing] You’re not a dream
    You’re not an angel
    You’re a man

    And I’m not a queen
    I’m a woman
    Take my hand

    We’ll make a space
    In the lives
    That we’d planned

    And here we’ll stay
    Until it’s time
    For you to go

    Yes, we’re different
    Worlds apart
    We’re not the same

    We laughed and played
    At the start
    Like in a game

    You could’ve stayed
    outside my heart
    but in you came

    And here you’ll stay
    Until it’s time
    For you to go

    Don’t ask why
    Don’t ask how
    Don’t ask forever
    Love me now

    This love of mine
    had no beginning
    It has no end

    I was an oak
    Now I’m a willow
    Now I can bend

    And though I’ll never
    In my life
    See you again

    Still I’ll stay
    Until it’s time
    For you to go

    Don’t ask why of me
    Don’t ask how of me
    Don’t ask forever of me
    Love me, love me now

    You’re not a dream
    You’re not an angel
    You’re a man

    And I’m not a queen
    I’m a woman
    Take my hand

    We’ll make a space
    In the lives
    That we’d planned

    And here we’ll stay
    Until it’s time
    For you to go

    And here we’ll stay
    Until it’s time
    For you to go.


    AMY GOODMAN: “Until It’s Time for You to Go.” Tell us about this song, and then talk about the music industry. I mean, Elvis Presley sang this song and wanted you to give up the rights, is that right?

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: Well, not him personally, his lawyers. Yeah, that was fun. You know, when I was thirteen and Elvis was nineteen, I mean, once he appeared in the world, I was one of the girls who said, “Oh, man, I never seen a boy like that in my town.” And he and all of the whole generation of music — Little Richard and Chuck Berry and all the rockabilly and rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll artists who came up at that time — were just really having fun, and it was a different kind of music. That was the kind of music that I had. I had music that really expressed me, but I really had a good time with it, and it was natural music. It was not like school music. So he was a big influence on me.

    And then I was recording in the ’70s at Quadrafonic Studios in Nashville with Norbert Putnam, a great producer, and we had just finished recording. I covered one of Elvis’s songs that he had done, like a B-side, and it was on his first album. It was called [singing] “My baby left me, never said a word,” yeah? Scotty Moore playing guitar. And so, we finished the take, and the phone rang, and it was this guy who worked with Elvis’s team.

    And they said, “Buffy, Elvis just recorded your song.” Apparently it was Priscilla and Elvis’s love song, I’ve been told. And he said, “We’re going to have to have some of that publishing money, honey.” And I said no, because with "Universal Soldier" in the ’60s, I was a girl in, you know — with a guitar in a coffeehouse, and the Highwaymen had just come off a hit called “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” and they said, “We want to record ‘Universal Soldier.’” And I said, “Sure.” And they said, “Well, who’s the publisher?” And I said, “What’s that?” And a guy at the table said, “Well, I can help you out.” And I gave away the rights to "Universal Soldier" for one dollar. And the good news is that ten years later I had $25,000 to buy it back, which I did, but I never ever gave away the rights to a song again. And I really have always believed that a songwriter — you know, it’s basically the living that we have. That’s it for us. So, unless somebody is actually writing the song with me, then I don’t give up the publishing.

    AMY GOODMAN: Talk about "No No Keshagesh."

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: Oh, “No No Keshagesh” is kind of written in the same spirit of “Universal Soldier,” “Priest of the Golden Bull.” But it’s very playfully done. It’s a real serious song, but it’s very playful. “Keshagesh” is a Cree word, and it means — it’s what you’d call a little puppy who eats all his own and then everybody else’s. You know the kind? Yeah? So it’s a metaphor for environmental greed.

    AMY GOODMAN: And you have it on your new album.

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: It is.

    AMY GOODMAN: So it’s been awhile since you have published an album, since you’ve put out a record. And what made you decide to do it now? It’s been, what, more than a decade.

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: Mm-hmm.

    AMY GOODMAN: More than thirteen years.

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: Mm-hmm.

    AMY GOODMAN: And now Running for the Drum.

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: I put out an album when I feel like going on the road. I’ve never put out an album according to a record company’s schedule, because there’s no sense in making a record if you’re not going to tour with it. So, for a while, I didn’t record. I was raising my son.

    I made an album called Coincidence and Likely Stories, which is a pretty hard-hitting album — I love it — with my co-producer Chris Birkett. And it was the first-ever album to be delivered via the internet. This was in the late ’80s. And I had gotten into computers because of music, so computers were easy for me, because it was music. So we sent MIDI files over — you know, over the internet from my studio in Hawaii to go on tape in London.

    The next album that I made was called Up Where We Belong, and it has my Academy Award song, but it’s a collection of all the songs that people always ask for in concerts.

    And then another ten years — ten, fifteen years go by, and I feel like going on the road again, because in between I’m doing things. In between — I think the public probably thinks that when an artist is touring, that’s when they’re creative. But you don’t have time to be creative. You’re too busy. So, I took all this time off, and I developed my teaching project, which is called the Cradleboard Teaching Project, and basically, we write interactive multimedia curriculum in Native studies, and you can see more about that at Cradleboard.org.

    But this economic time that happened during the Bush years, I knew we weren’t going to get the funding that we needed. So, slowly, we drew the project down a little bit, and I just — my desire was to make it free on the internet. So, two years ago, that dream came true, and I was ready to record again. I’d been writing all this time. So, my co-producer, Chris Birkett, came over to Hawaii five times from France, and we recorded.

    AMY GOODMAN: Why did you move to Hawaii?

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: Oh, gosh, I moved to Hawaii about forty-two years ago, just because I was kind of tired of being so famous, and I wanted to be anonymous. And so, I lived on an island in the Hawaiian chain under an assumed name for many, many years, until Sesame Street.

    All of a sudden, my record sales and record airplay, you know, took a nosedive, just wasn’t there anymore. I had no idea that there was something fishy going on. But I was called by Sesame Street. They said, “Would you come on and say the alphabet, you know, count from one to ten like Stevie Wonder and everybody does?” And I said, “No, I don’t want to do that. But have you ever done any Native American programming?” And they said, “No.” So I said, “Would you like to?” And they said, “We’ll call you back.” And sure enough, they did. They called me right back, and they said, “Yeah, we would.” So, the first show that we did, we went to Taos Pueblo. And it was just great. You know, the —

    AMY GOODMAN: In New Mexico.

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: In New Mexico, yeah, yeah. And we did real Native American programming, but Sesame Street style. And I stayed with Sesame Street for five-and-a-half years. It was just a brilliant experience, the writing just so perfect for little children and their caregivers. They never stereotyped me. Although we did Native American programming, we also did breastfeeding.

    AMY GOODMAN: You breastfed your son on the show?

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: Yeah, but not like some big deal, you know? Just, it was beautiful, you know, the way they wrote it. I was sitting next to Big Bird’s nest, and he looks over, and he says, “What are you doing, Buffy?” And I said, “I’m feeding the baby.” And he said, “That’s a funny way to feed the baby.” And I said, “Well, he gets everything that he needs for now, and I get to cuddle him.” And Big Bird said, “Oh, that’s nice,” and went back to playing, which is what a little kid really would do.

    And we also did sibling rivalry episodes. And I brought Sesame Street to my backyard in Hawaii, when they wanted to do some multicultural programming in the islands.

    AMY GOODMAN: Buffy, you’re going to have to go soon, and I wanted to talk about one of the songs on Running for the Drum, and it’s "America the Beautiful."

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: Mm-hmm. Well, "America the Beautiful" has been recorded by so many different people, and it’s also had verses added by many, many people. You go on the internet, and you’ll see there’s all kinds of verses from all kinds of perspectives. I mean, some of them are really kind of racist, and others are just kind of natural and beautiful.

    But my friend John Herrington, Commander John Herrington, was the first Native American astronaut. And when he was going to get his ride, NASA invited me to sing and invited a whole lot people to come from his reservation, Chickasaw reservation in Oklahoma. And I had been thinking about "America the Beautiful," so I wrote new verses for it, and I also wrote an introduction for it. It says, [singing] “There were Choctaws in Alabama, Chippewas in Saint Paul. Mississippi mud runs like a river in me. America, ooh, she’s like a mother to me.” So it’s — and the verses continue from there, with small changes, and then there’s a middle section, too.

    But it really reflects kind of a different approach to America than you usually see in the headlines. It’s about America the country, not America the nation state. It’s about the real America that so many people, regardless of their political associations, really feel in their hearts — you know, this beautiful, beautiful place. So, it’s yet another take on “America the Beautiful.” People seem to enjoy it.

    AMY GOODMAN: Buffy Sainte-Marie, you mentioned the Cradlboard Teaching Project, but talk more about what you are dedicating your life to.

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: Oh, I’m dedicating my life to having a good time. I believe the Dalai Lama when he says, “Be happy.” My happiness is found in connecting people. I really love the idea of connecting non-Native American people to Native American people, through schools and through children and through teachers, by putting Native American classes into the driver’s seat of delivering our self-identity, whoever our nations are, to anybody who wants to know about it. And I like doing it for free.

    Doing concerts and live shows is a lot of fun. It’s very different from just staying home and writing. But, for me, writing curriculum is the same as writing songs or the same as making paintings. They’re all are the same for me, and, you know, it’s all part of that kindergarten kid that I still feel that I am. I do it because I love it. If I perform, you know I’m glad to be there. And if I’m not on the road, I probably don’t want to be.

    So, I was very fortunate to make a fortune when I was — oh, I was — I knew by the time I was twenty-four that I was probably going to have three meals a day forever. And I’ve been able to use my show business dollars to start a foundation. I mean, I was a young singer with just too much money in the ’60s. So, in about 1968 I started the Nihewan Foundation, which I really was trying to — it was just a scholarship foundation. And because of all these show business airplane tickets, I got to go to places like South Dakota and, you know, reservations all over the place, indigenous communities all over the world. And I knew that Native American people and indigenous people, they didn’t know how to get from where they were to college. So I started this scholarship foundation.

    And the happiest day or my favorite day was when I found out that two of our scholarship recipients from those days had gone on to become college presidents, tribal college presidents. So, you never know. You know, you do some little thing that’s just kind of important to you and makes you feel good, and somebody else takes it and blazes it onward.

    I know we’re having hard times in our — in the world right now, economically, you know, and yet I still so believe in the soul of people, you know, of individual people and our capacity to work together and to elect a great president. I supported President Obama, not because he grew up in Hawaii, where I live, and not because he was half-black, half-white, but just the idea of a professor of constitutional law in the White House, you know, the idea of someone with that kind of background and understanding who had also been a community organizer really, really touched me.

    And when his sister came to my little island in the Pacific — by the way, I have to mention KKCR, which is my local NPR station, you know, our community radio station, and we love Democracy Now!

    AMY GOODMAN: It’s how we’re connected.

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: Yes. Yes, we are. We are. I came a very long way to see you today, and it’s because I listen to you on KKCR all the time.

    So, Maya, she had come to our island to speak, when Barack Obama was running. And there was an opportunity to write a check and volunteer for something. And I wrote my check, and then I volunteered. But I said, “I don’t want to volunteer for this shoe-in state. We’re all going to vote for him anyway, because we know how cool he is.” I said, “I want to go someplace, some rural area, on the issue of voter protection.” And that’s what we did, you know, my local — my local Democratic people and the National Committee.

    AMY GOODMAN: You went back to New Mexico?

    BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: They invited me to go to New Mexico, to rural New Mexico, where, I tell you — I mean, my job was just to sing in people’s houses and restaurants and squares and wherever. And what we were trying to do was to recruit lawyers and volunteers to take training in voter protection.

    And I don’t think people really understand that issue. They don’t know what it’s like to be in a small place like that. You know, car full of brown people, you know, they come up to vote, and somebody in a big puffy jacket and sunglasses, you know, walks over to them and says, “Show your ID.” And so, you know, the people think that this is legitimate. They show their ID. The guy walks back over to his truck and comes back, and he says, “Somebody by your name has outstanding parking tickets. And if you go in there and vote, it’s a felony. And you’ll never get this, and you’ll never get that, and your kids won’t be able to go to school.” Right? It’s total bull. But that kind of intimidation, and worse, was going on at the polls in the two previous elections.

    And we just wanted to make sure that it didn’t happen this time. And I met incredible people, incredible people who were working along the same lines, tirelessly, but with this positivity and this drive. And I still feel it coming from the White House. And I still see it out there when I’m on umpte-nine airplanes and talking to people. And I have a lot of faith in what’s going on today, in spite of — you know, you get dogs, you get fleas.

AMY GOODMAN: Native American singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie. Her new album Running for the Drum is just out. We’ll have the video of her single "No No Keshagesh" on our website at democracynow.org. [Watch the video here]

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