Interview: Buffy Sainte-Marie on the current state of the world

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There are but a few musicians who have contributed to the global fabric as significantly as Buffy Sainte-Marie has. The Cree singer-songwriter, born in Saskatchewan’s Qu’Appelle Valley and raised in Massachusetts, left the comforts of home more than half a century ago to join the folk music revolution happening in Toronto’s Yorkville and New York’s Greenwich Village. She proceeded to command the stages of the Tonight Show, American Bandstand, and Soul Train, crumbling First Nations stereotypes with fiercely passionate songs like “Mister Can’t You See” and “Now That The Buffalo’s Gone,” and using her voice as a powerful tool of poetic justice while earning respect from peers like Bob Dylan and Neil Young.

Sainte-Marie’s commitment to social and political integrity, however, reaches beyond what one might expect from someone who rose to prominence during the 1960s peace movement. She is deeply dedicated to the human rights of First Nations, helming a non-profit organization that both helps to encourage and financially support their pursuit of education, devising a plan to address the housing crisis, and confronting the mistreatment of her people through songs like 1964’s “My Country ’Tis of Thy People You’re Dying.” She’s vehemently against political injustice and war, protesting against them in songs like 2008’s “Working For The Government” and 1964’s “Universal Soldier,” the latter of which became an anthem for condemners of the Vietnam War and subsequently led Sainte-Marie to be blacklisted by American radio for anti-war sentiments.

For her contributions to both social activism and music, Sainte-Marie has received countless accolades. She’s been inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame and the JUNO Hall of Fame, is the recipient of a Gemini Award, multiple JUNO Awards, a Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, and is an Officer of the Order of Canada. Most recently, she received the 2015 Polaris Music Prize for her latest album, Power in the Blood and was also honoured with The Americana Music Association’s Spirit of Americana Free Speech Award.

Earlier this month, as political leaders gathered in Paris at the United Nation’s Summit on Climate Change, Sainte-Marie shared “Carry It On,” a track from Power in the Blood, freely across social networks to raise awareness about climate change. Vancity Buzz had the pleasure of speaking with the iconic singer-songwriter about the song, its message, and her thoughts on the current state of the world.

Power in the Blood continues your discussion about human rights, Indigenous identity, war, protecting the Earth — things that, especially in regards to the fragile state of our world right now, are extremely important to address. How can music help create both awareness and change in regards to such global issues? 

A three minute song can impact more people than a 400 page textbook. Music can cut to the chase. Music reaches people immediately. Music happens right now but lyrics that ride on music connect deeply, and are easily remembered — you can take the idea home with you for further thought later on. Music can raise public awareness about an issue. Music can provide an atmosphere conducive to alternative thought and action. Music can artfully connect the dots between the cold facts of an issue and the more emotional real human concerns. Music can create companionships and solidarity among people across vastly differing cultures.

Music can really turn the lights on, encourage people, stimulate conversation and considered thought, strengthen understanding and the courage to “Take heart and take care of your link with life.”

You have been a significant social and environmental activist for over 50 years. Do you feel there has been any positive progression?

Tremendous progress. The good news about the bad news is that now many more people can see what’s happening. The bad news (war profiteering, banker-thieves, payola politicians, the wholesale destruction of people’s, lands and natural resources) is not new. For the present generation, the internet pulls back the blankets for all to see, similar to what outspoken artists, journalists, students, and scientists did in the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s etc. about the same issues; but with the internet, more people experience more information and can act on their conclusions on their own and in new kinds of groups, both virtual and face to face.

The issues of war and greed and inequality have been around since before the Old Testament, and racketeers tend to get the upper hand when citizens get lazy. However, we have solved these problems before and can solve them again (and again) when they arise. My own view is that the human species is young, immature. We’re ripening one by one, minute by minute, (yes, even the bozos) and looking ahead it never seems fast enough; but looking back we’ve come far. “There will never be an end to slavery; women will never get the vote; people will never condemn smoking”… etc. We can do this, and we will… if we want to.

You shared your song, “Carry It On,” freely over social networks in support of those helping to raise awareness about climate change. Tell us more about the song’s message.

Regardless of the blisters of any one moment, we shouldn’t despair. Regardless of being “only here by the skin of our teeth” at any moment, we need to hang on to our link with Life and apply positive action every way we can.

Life is beautiful if you’ve got the sense to take care of your source of perfection. Mother Nature: She’s the daughter of God and the source of all protection. Look right now and you can see She’s only here by the skin of Her teeth as it is, so take heart and take care of your link with life.

What are your thoughts on the pledges put forth at the Paris Climate Change Conference to reduce domestic emissions?

Don’t let this current crop of bozos get away with their banking scams and the political misdirection that keeps big exploiters in power. Just because a group of bullies wants to own all available natural resources doesn’t mean they should. Their conclusions are self-serving and ridiculous. We need to act as a counter-balance every day. Non-violent action and alternative conflict resolution are more important than ever as we take to the streets, the media and the Internet.

What can we, as individuals, do to help promote a sustainable environment?

Everything. Engage your brain. Do what has always been right: respect nature and common sense. Look for opportunities. Recycling, reducing waste, reusing stuff is really important and kinda fun if you get over thinking it’s a chore.

Operate solo and in groups. Support however you can. If you can’t go, support somebody who can. Learn and teach and learn and teach.

Don’t wait for administrators to give you a stamp of approval and don’t wait for somebody to fund you. Do what you can whenever you can whether or not the funding ever comes along.

Most of all, we need to be raising children who don’t hate anybody, and who understand the rackets for what they are: bullying. We need to put an end to the war in the human heart.

There’s an emphasis on taking care of the world around us, and one another, in “Carry It On.” What added impact does the song’s message have in light of the recent tragic events in Paris and the ongoing crisis in Syria?

“Carry It On” is about something bigger than any one or any series of incidents. It’s a snapshot of a few obvious, contemporary (and longstanding traditional) facts, currently playing out in the aftermath of recent tragic events in Paris and the ongoing crisis in Syria. Racketeers in power typically hurry to cover their own asses and wallets, and limit the power of the people they pretend to ‘represent’ in their decision making. But it ain’t money that makes the world go round — that’s only temporary confusion. It ain’t governments that make the people strong; it’s the opposite illusion. Look right now and you see they’re only here by the skin of their teeth as it is so take heart and take care of your link with life.

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Yasmine Shemesh is a freelance writer who was born in Vancouver and raised on The Rolling Stones.
@yasmineshemesh

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