The Voice of Buffy Sainte-Marie
On Rolling Stone’s much-debated 2023 list of the top 200 singers (ostensibly claiming to rank the best vocalists “of all time”), the omission of one performer and singer-songwriter stands out. Buffy Sainte-Marie with her sixty-year career of genre-defying and trend-setting experimentation, distinctive vocal styles and range, Indigenous justice themes, and global reach across audiences deserved a place on the list. But then again, as Sainte-Marie has long said—including in a 2015 interview with Rolling Stone after winning Canada’s vaunted Polaris Prize at the age of seventy-four—“I’ve been ahead of the curve too many times.” Or as one of her former bandmates, Jesse Green, says in the 2018 authorized biography by Andrea Warner: “There’s only a handful of artists that come along with that kind of feel and impact and repertoire and longevity … She’s got it all. She’s a true musician and artist.”
I first learned about Buffy Sainte-Marie when I was knocked off my feet by her 2008 song, “No No Keshagesh,” which incriminates extractive industry and colonial, capitalist greed by giving it a firm NO!
“Keshagesh” is a Cree nickname that roughly means “greedy guts,” referring to someone who’s taking more than their fair share. In the song, Sainte-Marie calls out not only individual greedy men “in business suits” but also colonial mentalities that “carve up” land “and call it real estate.” Her vocals on this song summon modes of protest music as well as Indigenous tones. Decades ago, Sainte-Marie first incorporated pow-wow audio samples in her songs, both in her own voice and from Indigenous leaders and artists.
In my classes, we listen to “No No Keshagesh,” watch the video, discuss the lyrics, and consider their prescience and resonance with the long histories of Indigenous activism against energy extractive and polluting industries—especially but not only at Standing Rock. (For that day, we also read from Nick Estes’s excellent 2019 book, Our History is the Future.) Students are floored. Most have never heard of Sainte-Marie before.
But since her 1964 first album It’s My Way, Sainte-Marie has put to music, and demonstrated in her life, how Indigenous communities’ experiences are essential to creating a flourishing world—one beyond the tendentious, punitive, short-term, abusive dynamics that endure as cultural legacies of European colonialism and White supremacy. “Colonialism doesn’t just bleed Indigenous people,” she says. “Eventually, it bleeds everybody except the jerks who’re running the racket … It’s a system that goes back to before the Old Testament and needs to evolve from where it is now to something better.”
Sainte-Marie is clear-eyed and poetically diagnostic in interviews, in her biography, and in the excellent documentary Carry It On that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2022.
The biography and documentary ably focus on Sainte-Marie’s remarkable musical career and vibrant energy, while also disclosing elements of her personal history—of being removed from her Cree family of origin and her forced adoption; subsequent isolation and sexual abuse in mostly-white New England; and her work to counter the ongoing invisibility and marginalization of Indigenous girls, women, and lifeways in a system still predicated upon colonialism. For Sainte-Marie, these legacies are directly linked to Christianity’s form of monotheism, as well as the Doctrine of Discovery. These are timely themes today, but Buffy Sainte-Marie has been talking about topics like residential schools and abuse of Indigenous children for decades. Finally, nations and institutions are beginning to catch on.
Accolades for both Sainte-Marie’s insights and her music come from Bob Dylan (yes, he’s on the Rolling Stone list)—who heard her vocals in a Greenwich Village cafe in the early 1960s and helped her get her first steady gig—as well as Leonard Cohen (he’s on the list), Joni Mitchell (ditto), and many more. In fact, as Mitchell writes in the introduction to Andrea Warner’s biography of Sainte-Marie, “when I started out in the sixties there weren’t many women writing music, but Buffy Sainte-Marie was the exception to the rule … Her songs were so smart, so well-crafted, and her performances were stunning.”
For Sainte-Marie, music is not condemnatory consciousness-raising. It’s education; it’s medicine. In her biography, she says: “If you really want to help make the world better, think like Jesus, think like Mohammed—that [level of] generosity. You don’t line white people up against the wall and humiliate them. That does nothing. It’s counter productive.” She also points out, with empathetic historicism, that “before they ever came after us [Indigenous people], look what they were doing to their own people.”
As is everywhere evident, legacies of institutional sexual abuse and theological bullying are matters not just of the past, but of the present. The question is about the shape of the future, and sometimes, that question and vision must be sung.
Buffy Sainte-Marie’s odd exclusion from the Rolling Stone 200 list perpetuates her invisibility from mainstream music histories. But honestly, it doesn’t much matter—probably even to her—whether she is included on a clickbait listicle of fleeting significance. As Andrea Warner writes at the end of her biography on Sainte-Marie:
“With a song catalog like hers—ripe for rediscovery and unrivaled in the sprawling wilderness of its variety—as well as all of her activism and advocacy, Sainte-Marie’s will be a name that echoes far into the future, well beyond seven generations. Hers is a generous, impressive, and positive legacy, and yet she doesn’t take herself too seriously, nor does she spend time thinking about things like her ‘legacy.’”
I recommend heartily that you read the biography, watch the documentary, and put Buffy Sainte-Marie on your own list of the most important vocalists of all time.