One-on-One with Folk Artist Buffy Sainte-Marie

Illustration by Oriana Fenwick

by Yasmine Shemesh

Published in the March 2018 print issue of enRoute Magazine

Hometowns Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan, and Wakefield, Massachusetts

Home Base Kauai, Hawaii

Claim to Fame Polaris Music Prize- and Juno Award-winning singer/songwriter, and indigenous rights activist

Current Projects Promoting her latest album, Medicine Songs, which is up for two Junos this month

Dream Destination Peru. “I want to explore pre-Columbian places.”

For Medicine Songs, you re-recorded some of your older tracks. Why now?

People are better informed. I first put out “My Country ’Tis of Thy People You’re Dying” in the 1960s and people thought, the little Indian girl must be mistaken. Now, because of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and more public awareness, a lot of people finally understand what I was singing about then.

You’ve said the songs are about empowerment and oppression. Why is music a powerful form of expression for you?

A three-minute song with information and emotion can reach far more people than a 400-page textbook can. A song is replicable; it’s memorable. You can sing it in different languages. You can travel with it.

How are the new recordings different from the originals?

Some songs are identical in instrumentation to the original recordings. I play “Universal Soldier” every single night on my guitar, and I’d never use a band with it. I left it and some others alone because they were right in the first place. But for some songs, I was happy to have a second chance. As a musician you improve over time, so I think all of the tracks on Medicine Songsare better than their originals.

You’ve lived in Hawaii for over 50 years. What do you enjoy about the islands?

I love animals and nature and that’s what I have here: a garden and a bunch of goats and a cat. When I’m out on the road, I’m like a sponge that’s squeezing all that goodness out to the audience, and home is my place to refill.