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Buffy Sainte-Marie talks about her storied career and the current reckoning on residential schools ahead of her show at Massey Hall

Buffy Sainte-Marie talks about her storied career and the current reckoning on residential schools ahead of her show at Massey Hall
Entertainment
Finally, we can let the cat out of the bag: trail-blazing singer and songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie has been living with Anderson Cooper … for two-and-a-half years!

Thrilled as the Star is to scoop TMZ on some import of social significance, we should be quick to point out that we’re not talking about the CNN broadcast journalist, but “an extreme Siamese cat” who bears a striking resemblance to the much-admired television host.

“He looks like Anderson Cooper — he really does,” Sainte-Marie chuckles from her remote Hawaiian farm, which she shares with a menagerie of goats, sheep, wild pigs and chickens, and other rescued animals including AC’s brother Penuche.

“All my animals are shelter or otherwise and have some kinda hard luck story,” said Sainte-Marie, 80, a Companion of the Order of Canada who performs at Massey Hall on Nov. 30 with special guests The Sadies.

“I’ve never had a pedigreed cat and these two (Siamese) are real different from my usual tabbies: super smart, entertain themselves and each other and very loving. Their eyes are sapphire blue in bright light but when their pupils dilate they look almost black.”

While Sainte-Marie, a multi-hyphenate talent whose numerous aptitudes range from actress and activist to educator, philanthropist and visual artist, enjoys living in isolation (“where I live, you would think you’re in Alberta,” she said), she’s the cat’s meow when it comes to the gifts she’s bestowed upon the world, especially as a catalyst for promoting Indigenous issues. She has been a pioneer on many fronts.

Mainly known as a musician — she wrote the Donovan protest hit “Universal Soldier” and said she was blacklisted by radio for it, and also penned the evergreen love song “Until It’s Time For You To Go” and co-wrote the 1983 Academy-Award-winning “Up Where We Belong” — Sainte-Marie, born on the Piapot Reserve in Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan and raised in Massachusetts, first came to public prominence through the ‘60s Greenwich Village folk scene in New York City.

Named “Billboard’s” Best New Artist, Sainte-Marie appeared as a guest in several variety shows and in 1968, she was cast in a two-hour episode of “The Virginian” on NBC as a Shoshone woman. But she wouldn’t accept the role unless certain conditions were met.

“I said I will take the part as long as all the Indian parts are played by Indigenous people,” Sainte-Marie recalls. “They said, ‘don’t worry about that — we have Armenians, we have Koreans, we have Jews. We have Italians. We have makeup artists that can turn a dog into a cat.’

“And I said, ‘no, what we’re doing here is more important than just trying to fool white people.’”

To Sainte-Marie’s relief, NBC agreed to her terms.

“All these Indigenous actors got work from that point on,” she proudly states. “Up until that day, Hollywood didn’t know what they had right in their own community.”

The same year, Sainte-Marie founded the Nihewan Foundation for American Indian Education.

“Probably the nicest thing that ever happened to me was that two of my early scholarships went on to become founders and presidents of tribal colleges,” Sainte-Marie states.

In 1976, the Children’s Television Network came calling and hired Sainte-Marie to appear on “Sesame Street” to help introduce Native American culture to young audiences, appearing as a regular through 1981, airing in 72 countries and famously breastfeeding her son Dakota in one groundbreaking episode.

Further on the educational front, Sainte-Marie founded the Cradleboard Teaching Project in 1997, which, through computer interaction, paired Indigenous school classes with non-Indigenous classes to help raise self-identity and self-esteem in Native American children by introducing them to accomplishments of Native American peoples and cultures.

In this era of reconciliation and the haunting and tragic wake of Canadian residential schools and murdered innocents, Sainte-Marie said education is one of the solutions to help people heal.

“It’s just so hard,” said Sainte-Marie, who is on the board of the Downie-Wenjack Fund. “It’s especially hard on children. The base that I’m trying to really cover is the children, because it’s just so horrifying for everybody. What do we tell our children, you know?

“We all need to know what happened, why it happened and how it will never happen to anybody ever again. So, our part of it is creating child-friendly versions of facts. But if that’s paddling on one side of the canoe, the other side is providing kids with information that is just plain spectacular — that no one else tells anybody else about Indigneous people.”

Sainte-Marie said that, for example, that team sports were originally invented by Indigenous people.

“When you’re playing baseball, football, basketball, lacrosse, all of the team sports, you should be letting people know that the Mayans not only invented team sports, but they invented the rubber ball — and stadiums with bleachers on both sides, and goalposts at either end, and protective equipment like hip pads and shoulder pads and knee pads and helmets with animal logos on them,” she explained. “Why not let them know about some of the scientific inventions that Indigenous people have come up with, like the copper bulb syringe, like cranial surgery, like anaesthetic, like the world’s most accurate calendar — astronomy stuff that people are still trying to figure out.”

Sainte-Marie said “paddling on both sides of the canoe” is how progress is made.

“You take in the realities that hurt, but you offset them with just-as-real realities that enable you to feel proud and get through the day. It’s really a big deal.”

As far as providing an assessment of how reconciliation is progressing, Sainte-Marie said it’s mixed.

“The Downie-Wenjack website has a list of the all the reconciliatory actions, things that are being done in schools — legacy schools — and there are a lot of good things going on,” she said. “But there’s an awful lot of foot-dragging; there’s a lot of tearful inaction — a lot of people don’t know just what the heck to do with it. We’ve got to figure this out together.

“So, I’m both satisfied and dissatisfied. I’m thrilled when I see people coming up with ways to share the information, and at the same time, not let it mow them down. But it is terrible and it is so tragic and it’s not over yet.”

Sainte-Marie said that there’s a tradition to honour the souls victimized by the residential schools tragedy.

“There are a lot of families and communities that are welcoming our little loved ones back,” she explains. “And this is a big deal for us, it’s hospitality — these remains are being returned into a community and the relatives are there. People come from far away. We have to house them. We put them up. We feed them. We include them. And sometimes this goes on and on. This is our tradition — it’s not just a check mark and it’s over.”

Addressing Pope Francis’ pending visit to Canada in the context of reconciliation, Sainte-Marie echoed calls by other Indigenous leaders for the Pope to rescind the so-called doctrine of “discovery,” which started with Pope Nicholas V in 1455 and was used by New World explorers to lay divine right over land for European Christian societies.

“In the 1400s and 1500s there were a number of Popes who wrote up Papal bulls which declared that any territory ‘discovered by European explorer’ — if you found them to be inhabited, you were either to enslave and convert the people or rub them out and commit genocide upon them, including what they call ethnic cleansing,” Sainte-Marie explained.

She said that this declaration allowed royalty and religious figures to be manipulated and commit sexual assault against women, and also justified a slave trade of Indigenous people that were transported from the Americas and sold to the Philippines, the Middle East and numerous European cities.

And of course there’s the continuing issue of clean drinking water as more than 100 reserves across the country are under water advisories.

“Things really have to improve, they really do,” said Sainte-Marie, who was honoured last week by Canada Post with the unveiling of her own postage stamp and is currently the subject of a documentary by director Madison Thomas.

“It makes it my personal philosophy — don’t give up on anybody. Everybody is maturing. And when you look at that in terms of nations, too, you just want to hold up and celebrate the people you think are good examples, at least for yourself. So, I see good things going on, but obviously not fast enough — not in time for all those little kids that died in residential schools; water and water quality. I’ve been on the road for 55 years except for when I was raising my son (Dakota Starblanket Wolfchild) so I visited a lot of small reserves and this information isn’t new.

“In a way, that’s what makes me smile and that’s what makes me cry, because the explanation is not new. Bad leadership isn’t new. Solutions are not new. So, on one hand I feel, we can do this, and on the other hand I’m always saying, ‘Please, do a little better, a little faster.’”

Although she hasn’t released an album since 2017’s “Medicine Songs,” the Canadian Music Hall of Famer said she’s been writing constantly and also drawing.

“I have an art show in Penticton, and then another one coming up in Winnipeg and then Calgary,” notes Sainte-Marie. “But I’m always writing songs — they just tend to stay in the back of my head until I need them. At the moment, it’s all just kind of living in my head and in my studio.”

Sainte-Marie said her energy is a result of “taking good care of myself” and said her upcoming concert will be “really diverse.”

“I’ve always mixed it up — so the Massey Hall show is going to be, you know, the favourites and classics that everybody always asks for, some that they probably have not heard before, and things like ‘Universal Soldier.’ I may do a song that I seldom do: ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying’ that I call ‘Indian 101’ — it’s six minutes — and I sang it as a witness for reconciliation.

“I seldom sing the song, but it is timely, about what happened and how we got to be in this situation that we’re in now with poverty and ill health and all the problems that we have.”
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