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Illustration by Lauren Tamaki

Say, who did you think you are to have a chance?

— Buffy Sainte-Marie’s You Got to Run (Spirit of the Wind)

In 1968, when Harry Belafonte famously guest-hosted The Tonight Show for one week, Canadian singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie performed Now That the Buffalo’s Gone, a protest song about cultural genocide. It went over well – when regular host Johnny Carson returned, Sainte-Marie was invited back.

But the ask came with conditions: Play a nice song, they said, don’t sing your anti-war anthem Universal Soldier, and we’d prefer you stay clear of Native American issues. Sainte-Marie declined the primo gig.

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Sainte-Marie turns 80 on Feb. 20 – and for the past eight decades, she’s done what people told her she couldn’t do, and not done what people wanted her to do. Born on the Piapot 75 reserve in Saskatchewan, Sainte-Marie was adopted by a couple from New England. As a child, she was told she couldn’t be a musician because she couldn’t read music. But after school each day she would go home and play fake Tchaikovsky on the piano by ear.

“When I was in my 40s, I learned that I’m dyslexic in music,” Sainte-Marie says. “Who ever heard of that?”

Opinion: For decades, Buffy Sainte-Marie has had to navigate systemic barriers to cultivate her art

“I was perceived as the little Indian girl with a guitar who would make you cry,” Sainte-Marie says. “But that was only part of what I was doing.”

JEFF WASSERMAN/The Globe and Mail

The iconic singer-songwriter is speaking from Hawaii, where she’s lived since the mid-1960s. Even though she’s not visible, every time she uses the term “folk singer,” it’s easy to imagine her using the air-quotes gesture as she utters the words.

“I was perceived as the little Indian girl with a guitar who would make you cry,” she says. “But that was only part of what I was doing.”

A true maverick, Sainte-Marie has been defying expectations and resisting being pigeonholed over the past eight decades, while also overcoming the obstacles and discouragement she’s encountered along the way. As she puts it, “I kept my nose to the joy trail.”

In high school, she was in the “out” crowd. She liked rock ‘n’ roll. “My favorite car is still the 1954 Thunderbird,” she says, sighing.

Not for nothing was her 1964 debut album called It’s My Way!

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Sainte-Marie spent five years on Sesame Street. “It was wonderful,” she says.

Handout

In the mid-1970s, when the Sesame Street people asked her to do the standard cameo alphabet segment, she said no thanks, but asked if they’d ever thought of doing any Native American programming. They liked the idea so much that Sainte-Marie went on to spend five years with the Big Bird crowd – writing, acting, singing and famously even taking care of her infant son Cody on air. “We did shows on sibling rivalry, reservation stuff, even breastfeeding,” Sainte-Marie recalls. “It was wonderful.”

Though she was happy with the music she was making, it wasn’t getting airplay in certain markets in the 1960s and seventies.

Jack Dobson/The Globe and Mail

Sometimes it wasn’t – though she was happy with the music she was making, it wasn’t getting airplay in certain markets in the 1960s and seventies. “I learned later about the FBI surveillance and blacklisting from airplay at the end of the sixties,” Sainte-Marie says. “It was basically a handful of guys and their cronies who go in a backroom and make nasty phone calls to the networks.”

Asked about her indomitability, she dismisses any suggestion that she’s particularly special. “It’s hard to say,” she explains. “It just seemed as if the rain wasn’t as wet for me as it may have been for somebody else.”

Her publicist had mentioned an upcoming operation she was facing. According to Sainte-Marie, it’s up in the air. “We’ll find out soon,” she says simply.

Quickly changing the subject, she describes the scene around her, explaining she was lying on the couch in her living room, looking at the fire in front of her. It was a nice day, even with a few clouds in the sky. She didn’t seem worried – let it rain.

In her words

1940s: A tribe of one

Growing up in Maine and Massachusetts, I was surrounded by people whose ancestors had come over on the Mayflower. If you were Indian, you were something less. My mom’s family was part Mi’kmaq, but nobody knew anything about it. Like the comedian Charlie Hill used to say, “We’re Indian, but we don’t practice it.”

1950s: The teenage rock ‘n’ roll years

I was supposed to be downstairs ironing my school clothes, but I had discovered rock ‘n’ roll radio. I wasn’t in the in-group, but I didn’t care – the music was more important than any peer group. I took the train to the Alan Freed shows in New York, saw Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers and Jo Ann Campbell. It wasn’t rebellion to me – that was just a marketing tool. The only thing it rebelled against was boredom.

1960s: Always a solo act

I was accepted at the University of Massachusetts, where I thought maybe I’d become a veterinarian. I wrote songs and sang them at an off-campus coffee house. I had my own dorm room on campus. I’ve always been a solo act – my strength has always come from that. When I graduated, I got on a bus for New York, stayed at the YWCA, sang my homemade songs in Greenwich Village open-mic coffee houses. Billboard voted me best new artist in 1964. I bought a farm for myself in Hawaii.

"Being off the road wasn’t good for business, but it was good for my head and heart," she says of her time on Sesame Street.

Handout

1970s: The Sesame Street years

I was on Sesame Street as a semi-regular for five years. Being off the road wasn’t good for business, but it was good for my head and heart. I was representing an Indigenous reality on the show, not a Halloween costume.

1980s: A good song and a bad marriage

The great film composer Jack Nitzsche needed a song for the 1982 movie An Officer and a Gentleman. I played him the melody for Up Where We Belong. It won a number of awards, but I wasn’t able to capitalize on it. I was under the thumb of a bad marriage with Jack. He was a controlling guy, super insecure. I wasn’t allowed to be famous.

1990s: Buffy goes digital

I kinda lived in my Apple Macintosh. I would work on songs and huge digital paintings at home, save them on a disk, then fly to Regina or Toronto and continue working there. The Macs were for artists – it was my favourite toy. It was a continuation of my kindergarten love for music and art.

2000s: Rocking the reserves

I needed a band to tour with me for my album Running for the Drum. So I chose three young Indigenous rockers from Manitoba. We went everywhere: Big fancy concerts in Europe and Australia, little concerts on reservations all over Canada. The songs were rockabilly blues and powwow rock, about environmental greed and hot sexy love. The world saw me as a girl with a guitar, but I never was that kind of Woody Guthrie person. Touring with that band was a liberation.

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Sainte-Marie performing at the 2017 Juno Awards.

2010s: The power was in her blood

A record company in England tried to grab 33 of my recorded songs they didn’t know I owned. But I had the paperwork, and put out The Pathfinder–Buried Treasures myself. It had some smash rockers unknown to most people. I was encouraged that the world might like this side of my music, so I made Power in the Blood in 2015. It won the Polaris Music Prize. I didn’t think I had a chance – I was up against Drake! The public thought I was doing something new. But the thing is, they were finally able to hear what I was all about.

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