Buffy Sainte-Marie — It’s My Way
by Blair Stonechild
Review by Tim Mammel
Buffy Sainte-Marie is well known for her fine achievements as a songwriter and musician. Her accomplishments in the music business alone are worthy of a book. From her enduring hit songs from the 1960’s to the pioneering of electronic music to her developing a unique Native American “Pow-wow rock”, she has attained rock star status. But even those who are very familiar with Buffy’s career will discover, in Blair Stonechild’s intriguing biography, that her show-biz stardom as a musician and her familiar appearances as part of the cast of Sesame Street are only a small part who this woman is and what she has accomplished, so far.
Dr. Blair Stonechild is a historian and tells the story of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s life that is not the routine biography. What he uncovers is a story about a creative life that is well worth telling. He uses his mastery of history telling to give concise historical backgrounds of her birthplace, and the place where she grew up. We also get a clear picture of historical events relating to the Vietnam War and the political struggles of Native American activist groups during the 1960’s through the present. With historical backdrops and the story of her childhood, we discover where this highly creative woman came from and what drives her to live such an extraordinary life that has touched so many people with her message, music and art. The writer creates a fine balance of telling about her public life and her private life. Buffy is generous about sharing events in her private life (such as being abused as a child, and a destructive relationship with Jack Nitzsche) that show influences on her artistic development and that can offer consolation and encouragement to others who go through similar circumstances.
Stonechild gives fascinating accounts of the beginning of her singing career in the coffee houses in Greenwich Village, New York City. There was a lot of creative exchange in the coffee houses, and Buffy recalls the excitement that was happening during that time with the musicians, poets and comedians offering new messages in their performances. Buffy’s story also reveals that not everything was peace, love and understanding in the folk music scene. During her first year performing in Greenwich Village, a music manager deceived Buffy into selling the publishing rights of “Universal Soldier” for one dollar. She bought back the rights ten years later, for $25,000. In contrast, there are fascinating accounts of the well-known players of that time, such as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Harry Belefonte and Bill Cosby, collaborating and helping each other navigate the challenges of show business.
Then, Blair Stonechild’s book reveals what is inside a musician becoming famous and politically active in the 1960’s. Buffy was motivated to perform her songs because she had something to say about life in general as well as protesting the atrocities of war and the oppression and inhumane treatment of Native Americans. Her story tells of a woman who spent a lot of time out of the show-biz spotlight, working behind the scenes helping Native Americans in legal battles regarding land rights and the coopting of their lands’ resources. All through her career, that has now spanned over fifty years, Buffy has spent a lot of time performing on Indian reservations and other remote areas of the world where people were cut off from much of the performing arts that happen in the cities. She helped bring attention to musicians and artists from Indian reservations. She explains: “I wanted to bring Indians up, not White people down.”
She has an unwavering devotion to sharing her delight in being creative, not only by showcasing her own talents, but also encouraging others to be creative. She uses her music and every other part of her life to educate people around her and to encourage creativity and learning. We learn about how she created the Nihawan Foundation that offers scholarships for Native Americans to go to
College. And in the 1980’s and 1990’s she developed a unique education program, The Cradleboard Teaching Project, that is a Native-based curriculum that connects students in reservation schools with students in non-reservation schools, all over North America. It was one of the earliest education programs to make use of the internet. It was ground-breaking in its teaching methods using multimedia to deliver the material and support interaction.
Blair Stonechild weaves into the biography how Buffy Sainte-Marie has been a pioneer in digital technology. She has a unique ability to use technology to support the expression of ancient traditions, whether it is Native American traditional music or art, or if it is just a simple, universal love song.
In 1969, Buffy released the first quadraphonic electronic vocal recording, her legendary Illuminations. She went on to be one of the first to own a Macintosh computer, and one of the first to create large digital paintings that are shown in museums and galleries.
Dr. Blair Stonechild offers an inspiring book that goes outside just an account of an Academy Award-winning music legend. In 259 pages, he reveals the multifaceted, complex, talented and compassionate woman who is devoted to addressing the challenges of Native American communities and the rest of the world with beauty and art, and nurturing the human spirit. We get to be inside Buffy’s mind to get a unique view of how this artist embraces the creative process in writing songs and making music and paintings. Stonechild offers more than an inventory of outstanding accomplishments. We see that what drives Buffy is not just achievements and end products. The telling of her story reveals her devotion to living life as a creative process, to connect to others, touch others’ lives, and to be touched and inspired by other people’s lives. Perhaps this book will allow Buffy Sainte-Marie to touch even more human hearts around the world and inspire more beauty and creativity.