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Indigenous Peoples’ Day: Legendary Singer Buffy Sainte-Marie Calls for Repeal of Doctrine of Discovery

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On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we speak with legendary Indigenous musician and activist Buffy Sainte-Marie, who has written and sung about the struggles of Native American and First Nations peoples for decades. “My take on Indigenous Peoples’ Day is that there’s an awful lot of work yet to be done,” says Sainte-Marie. She discusses the violent legacy of the U.S. Doctrine of Discovery, the derogatory appropriation of Indigenous peoples as mascots in U.S. sports, and the importance of implementing positive representations of Indigenous figures and culture in the education system.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Today is Indigenous Peoples’ Day. We turn to the legendary Indigenous musician and activist Buffy Sainte-Marie, who was born on the Plains Cree First Nation Reserve in Saskatchewan. She has also written and sung about the struggles of Native Americans and First Nations for decades. She worked with the American Indian Movement and began a foundation for American Indian education. Her political activism would lead her to be largely blacklisted from commercial radio in the '70s. On Sunday, Democracy Now! reached Buffy Sainte-Marie in Hawaii, where she lives, and asked her for her message on this Indigenous Peoples' Day.

BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: Indigenous Peoples’ Day, you know, it’s a huge, huge concept. The way I think of it, I think of it in two ways. One is: How do we handle the hard information that we must know about? And the other is: What can we provide to offset that information as we try and fix things?

The most important thing — the most important missing element, I think, in world understanding of Indigenous people has to do with the fact that Indigenous people in this world suffer from a handicap that others don’t have to face. And it has to do with the Doctrine of Discovery, which is a 15th century papal bull. Think of it as a bulletin from the pope saying what God really wants. And what this thing says, the Doctrine of Discovery, it says that explorers coming from inhabited lands were instructed by the pope to invade, capture and subdue the inhabitants and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to appropriate to himself and his successors all of their lands, kingdoms, possessions and goods, and to convert them to his use and profit. And please, don’t say, “Oh, this is over. That’s the 15th century,” because it’s still on the books in U.S. law, Canadian law today. Even Ruth Bader Ginsburg used it to defeat the Oneida Tribe in 2005. So the Doctrine of Discovery is still a real living reality in the lives of Indigenous people throughout the world that has been colonized.

And, you know, the pope recently went to Edmonton, Canada. A lot of my relatives were there to see him. A lot of people turned out. And everybody was, you know, raising fists against the pope and the Catholic Church for the Doctrine of Discovery, but that’s really aiming at the wrong target, because the church has already done away with it. They’re not continuing to do that kind of invasion thing. There aren’t any more countries left, I guess, to invade. But what really needs to be done is people who are interested in this, instead of yelling at the church, we need to expunge it from the legal systems of each and every country where it still exists throughout the colonial world. Yes, the Catholics established it, but it’s up to modern nations to expunge it, to get rid of it, to make it go away.

The other half of what I have to say on Indigenous Peoples’ Day really has to do with coming up with the positivities that nobody knows about Indigenous people, too. And I work — I’m on the board of the Downie Wenjack Foundation in Canada, and I work with — you know, before I was ever a singer, I was a teacher. And so I work with kids a lot. And I feel so sorry for little kids who are hearing about just the horrors of our awful — you know, what has happened to us. They’re hearing about residential schools, you know, exhuming the bodies of children who were just put in mass graves. You know, they weren’t even identified, whether it was a boy or a girl, how old, where they came from, nothing. That and the other missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, you know, thousands and thousands of women turning up missing or murdered every year. This is big stuff. And need to know about it. But we need also to be giving each other, especially children, what they need to know about Indigenous people that’s just plain positive. We made this little video with the Downie Wenjack Foundation about positivity.

BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: Like, did you know that team sports were invented by Indigenous people on this side of the water? And the rubber ball, too, and arenas with goalposts at either end, and bleachers for the spectators, and protective equipment like shoulder pads and helmets with animal logos on them? It sounds like the NFL. So, whether it’s hockey or baseball or lacrosse or football season, tell your friends and celebrate us. If all we think about is one side or the other, we just go in circles. So remember to paddle on both sides of the canoe. That’s how you get somewhere.

BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: So, I mean, when it’s NFL season or, you know, basketball or baseball or lacrosse, please, remember Indigenous people gave us a whole lot of things, including — tada! — team sports.

So, my take on Indigenous Peoples’ Day is that there’s an awful lot of work yet to be done. It is doable. It’s a matter of informing one another, without fists in the air, and doing the work. But, please, let’s be thinking about kids and the kind of stuff that they’re seeing on television and that they’re coming across every day in all parts of their lives, and let’s start providing positive stuff for kids.

AMY GOODMAN: The legendary Indigenous activist and musician Buffy Sainte-Marie, speaking to us from Hawaii.

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