My introduction to Buffy’s art


Just before my sixteenth birthday, during my sophomore year of high school, I went to live with a foster family. Although they had five children of their own, they made space for me along with my few possessions – my clothes, my turntable, and a few vinyl records (Beatles and Rolling Stones).

My foster mom was a Girl Scout leader, and one of her best friends was going to be the camp director at the Girl Scout camp just up the round from their house, so it was arranged that I would spend my summer working in the kitchen at the camp and living in a large tent with three others for the summer. Before camp started, I was introduced to two other Girl Scout leaders who would be working at a Girl Scout camp in another part of the state.

They were in their 20’s, cool, and wore surplus army jackets. One of them asked if I knew of Buffy Sainte-Marie – I didn’t.

A few days later, they came by to visit with my foster mom and gifted me with my first Buffy Sainte-Marie record, “It’s My Way” (released in 1964). I immediately gave the album a listen and became hooked on Buffy!

Exploring activism in art for the first time

Susan's Buffy Sainte Marie t-shirt

Buffy Sainte-Marie T-Shirt. Photo credit: Susan Heske.

It was my first introduction to a songwriter and performer who unabashedly addressed the enormous issues going on in the United States at the time – civil rights, Indigenous rights, and the Vietnam War. “It’s My Way” had a profound impact on me.

I was struggling in my own way as a young person living with a new family and in a high school in a town that was quite conservative. Not knowing how or really wanting to fit in, I spent lots of time listening to and learning from Buffy. In many respects, the title song, “It’s My Way,” hit close to home.

I added to my Buffy collection with money earned from my various jobs during high school, including newspaper delivery person throughout high school, a chambermaid at the local motel, and spent a couple of summers working at a hot dog joint at the local town beach.

My political awakening began with Buffy and with two songs off her “It’s My Way” album; “Now That The Buffalo’s Gone,” which coincided with the rise of the Red Power movement for Indigenous rights; and “Universal Solder” (a hit for Donovan and Glen Campbell) that reflected the growing anti-war movement that opposed the Vietnam War.

In 1966, Buffy released her third album, “Little Wheel Spin, and Spin,” which included “My Country ’Tis of Thy People You’re Dying.”

Buffy Sainte-Marie’s life and career

Buffy Sainte Marie singing passionately

Buffy Sainte-Marie performs at the Calgary Folk Music Festival at Prince’s Island Park in downtown Calgary on Sunday, July 24, 2011. LYLE ASPINALL/CALGARY SUN/QMI AGENCY: Used with permission by True North Records

Buffy was born in 1941 on the Piapot 75 Reserve in Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan, Canada, to Cree parents. At the age of 2 or 3, Buffy was removed from her family as part of the Sixties Scoopa Canadian government policy removing Indigenous children and placing them with non-First Nations families. Buffy was adopted by an American family from Wakefield, Massachusetts, Albert and Winifred Sainte-Marie.

A self-taught musician (piano and guitar), Buffy started playing small venues while a student at the University of Massachusetts. Like so many folk musicians in the 1960s, she started playing small venues in Greenwich Village and in Toronto.

As Buffy started playing larger venues (Newport Folk Festival 1967) and her popularity began to grow, she found herself a target of Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and was blacklisted in the United States.

Radio stations refused to play her music, and venues were reluctant to book her. Buffy would not be silenced even though she suffered personally and financially.

“I wasn’t trying to embarrass white people. I was trying to give them something they had never had a chance to know—what happened to Native-American people. How we got to be in the state that we’re in today. Extreme poverty and bad health and terrible diet. In one generation, we went from a diet of fresh food and buffalo stew to baloney and Jell-O.” – Buffy Sainte-Marie

Now 82, she continues to carry it on, performing when she can and collaborating with other artists.

Although many of us are familiar with her music, Buffy has a long, long list of accomplishments and awards.

I would like to share a few:

  • Buffy used a Buchla synthesizer to record the album Illuminations. It was
    the first totally quadraphonic electronic vocal album [Late 1960s]
  • Buffy regularly appeared on the PBS show Sesame Street for five years [1970s]
    • In one episode, she breastfed her son, a first for television!
  • Academy Award and Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song, Up Where We
    Belong [1983]
  • Created the Cradleboard Teaching Project, an educational curriculum [1997]
  • Won several Juno Awards and the Polaris Heritage Prize [2020]

Where to from here?

There is so much to know about Buffy.

I encourage you to listen to her albums (all 17 of them), read her authorized biography by Andrea Warner, and watch the documentary film “Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On” (2022) by Madison Thomas, and not to pass up an opportunity to see her perform.

I leave you here with the trailer from the documentary; just click on the video to watch.

Let’s all Carry It On.

Want to catch up on the Art in Activism series? Here’s a link to some of the artists Susan has covered in this series:

About the Writer:
Susan Heske


Susan Heske moved to Boulder, CO, in October 2021. She previously worked as Senior Director of Communications for Student Services at The New School in New York City. She has been involved with social justice issues for many years.