Buffy Sainte-Marie shares what keeps her singing

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When Indigenous songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie wrote the 1964 anti-war song “Universal Soldier,” she imagined how a college student might write an essay to sway a professor who thought differently. That anthem became a folk-rock standard.

But two other songs she wrote that year, “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone” and “My Country ’Tis of Thy People You’re Dying,” weren’t wholly embraced. Many people weren’t yet receptive to messages about the mistreatment of North America’s Indigenous people. Still, the songwriter remains undaunted about how she tackles difficult subjects.

Why We Wrote This

For Indigenous musician Buffy Sainte-Marie, the path forward has always been paved with patience, understanding, and a creative intuition that has kept her one step ahead of her peers.

“I do it with a good heart,” she says during a Zoom conversation. “You’re not there to scold someone for not knowing.”

That approach has served her well over a storied career that’s being celebrated in a new documentary, “Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On,” airing Nov. 22 on PBS. The film chronicles her work as a musician and an advocate for Indigenous people. To paraphrase the Academy Award-winning song she co-wrote for “An Officer and a Gentleman,” the documentary lifts her up where she belongs.

To her, progress is a process that sometimes spans generations. “What I learned on five years of ‘Sesame Street’ was that there’s always a new crop of 5-year-olds,” she muses. “If you really understand that, you don’t give up hope.” 

Buffy Sainte-Marie believes that successful persuasion requires two ingredients: love and patience. 

When the Indigenous songwriter wrote the 1964 anti-war song “Universal Soldier,” she imagined how a college student might write an essay to sway a professor who thought differently. That anthem became a folk-rock standard. But two other songs she wrote that year, “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone” and “My Country ’Tis of Thy People You’re Dying,” weren’t wholly embraced. Many people weren’t yet receptive to messages about the mistreatment of North America’s Indigenous people. Despite that experience, the songwriter remains undaunted about how she tackles difficult subjects.

“I do it with a good heart,” she says during a conversation via Zoom. “You’re not there to scold someone for not knowing.”

Why We Wrote This

For Indigenous musician Buffy Sainte-Marie, the path forward has always been paved with patience, understanding, and a creative intuition that has kept her one step ahead of her peers.

That approach has served Ms. Sainte- Marie well over a storied career that’s being celebrated in a new documentary on PBS, “Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On,” which airs Tuesday, Nov. 22.

The Cree musician, born on an Indigenous reserve in Saskatchewan, Canada, and raised by adoptive parents in the United States, is a pathfinder. The new film chronicles how she’s often had to wait for the stragglers to catch up to the trails she’s forged by composing genre-defying music, trying out cutting-edge musical technology, and advocating on behalf of Indigenous people. To paraphrase the Academy Award-winning song Ms. Sainte-Marie co-wrote for “An Officer and a Gentleman,” the documentary lifts her up where she belongs.



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