Monday, October 12, 2009

Something Special for Indigenous Peoples Day

I have something very special to share this evening to mark Indigenous Peoples Day (an alternative celebration to Columbus Day). It’s legendary Canadian First Nations singer-songwriter and activist Buffy Sainte-Marie’s appearance on today’s broadcast of Democracy Now!

I’ve long admired Buffy Sainte-Marie and enjoyed her music. I find her to be a very inspiring figure. I particularly appreciate and am inspired by her passion and purposefulness – and by the way she blends her art and social activism. I’ve seen her twice in concert, and even had the privilege of meeting and talking with her once. She’s creative, articulate, warm, and funny – a very human human being, in other words.

In introducing Buffy, Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman, notes:

[Buffy Sainte-Marie] was among the earliest if not the first celebrity to challenge the idea that “American history really began when Columbus set sail out of Europe.” Today is supposed to commemorate the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the so-called “new world” in 1492. But the holiday has long caused anger among Native Americans who object to the official celebration of a man who opened the door to European colonization and the exploitation of native peoples in North America. Observance of this holiday is far from uniform across the country. South Dakota marks the occasion as “Native American Day.” Meanwhile in Denver, Colorado’s annual Columbus Day parade is met by protesters decrying the genocide of indigenous peoples.

Well, the award-winning folk icon Buffy Sainte-Marie has been writing and singing out about the struggles of Native American and First Nations people for well over four decades. In the turbulent ’60s, she was just out of college but already famous for her beautiful voice and moving lyrics and songs like “Universal Soldier,” “Now that the Buffalo’s Gone,” and “Until It’s Time for You to Go.” She was Billboard’s Best New Artist following the release of her first record.

. . . Over the years, Buffy Sainte-Marie has worked with the American Indian Movement, but also with Sesame Street, and even Hollywood, winning an Academy Award for the song “Up Where We Belong” in 1982. She’s won international recognition for her music, has a PhD in fine arts, and began a foundation for American Indian education that she remains closely involved with. We speak with the folk icon about her life, her music, censorship, and her singing and speaking out about the struggles of Native American peoples for the past four decades.

So, without further ado, here’s Buffy Sainte-Marie on Democracy Now! Enjoy!

Following is the transcript of that part of the interview in which Buffy discusses her 1965 song “My Country ’Tis of Thy People You’re Dying.”

Amy Goodman: Talk about “My Country ’Tis of Thy People You’re Dying.”

Buffy Sainte-Marie: Oh, aren’t you something? It’s a song I very seldom sing. It’s so sad.

Amy Goodman: Do you want to sing it now?

Buffy Sainte-Marie: No, I don’t. No.

Amy Goodman: Well, we’ll play it.

Buffy Sainte Marie: You can see it on YouTube [laughs]. “My Country ’Tis of Thy People You’re Dying” was my—I wanted to give people Indian 101 in six minutes. It’s a long song. But Indian 101 has never been presented to the North American public, let alone anywhere else.

Now that the longhouses breed superstition
You force us to send our toddlers away
To your schools where they’re taught
to despise their traditions.
Forbid them their languages, then further say
That American history really began
When Columbus set sail out of Europe, and stress
That the nation of leeches that conquered this land
Are the biggest and bravest and boldest and best.
And yet where in your history books is the tale
Of the genocide basic to this country’s birth…

My country ’tis of thy people you’re dying.

. . . Now that the pride of the sires receives charity,
Now that we’re harmless and safe behind laws,
Now that my life’s to be known as your “heritage,”
Now that even the graves have been robbed,
Now that our own chosen way is a novelty –
Hands on our hearts we salute you your victory,
Choke on your blue white and scarlet hypocrisy
Pitying the blindness that you’ve never seen
That the eagles of war whose wings lent you glory
They were never no more than carrion crows,
Pushed the wrens from their nest, stole their eggs,
changed their story;
The mockingbird sings it, it’s all that he knows.
“Ah, what can I do?” say a powerless few
With a lump in your throat and a tear in your eye --
Can’t you see that their poverty’s profiting you.

My country ’tis of thy people you’re dying.

Buffy Sainte-Marie: Native American people, we know about it, you know, the US, Canada, etc. But the public doesn’t know what really happened. They’re not aware of the genocide that happened in the Americas. They’re not aware of how these things can happen without their knowledge. And see, I think—I don’t know. I think that there’s a core of people in the Americas who are real good people who want to do the right thing, only they just don’t get the information that would help them to become knowledgeable enough to truly be of support and value to people who are trying to spotlight individual issues from here to here.

. . . As an artist, sometimes you can artfully say something in a three-minute song that it would take somebody else a 400-page book to write. And as a songwriter, I just really admire the art of the three-minute song. It’s almost like good journalism, if you think it out. It’s very hard sometimes to just talk right off the cuff and say something in one sentence, but if you work on it, which is opposed to writing a love song, which is all emotion and inspiration, if the emotion and inspiration—if you put your head to editing it and working on it, sometimes you can come up with something that really there’s no argument against it, you know, like “Universal Soldier” or “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” And I wrote those songs kind of like I was writing for a professor who didn’t want me to get an A, and I was determined, yeah, so I worked on them real hard. But then, another kind of song, like “Until It’s Time for You to Go” or some of the songs on the new album are just right from the heart and real spontaneous and love songs. So there’s many different ways that a songwriter writes.

One last thing: On Buffy’s latest album there’s a reference to St. Paul – my American home – in her version of “America the Beautiful.”

Amy Goodman: Buffy, you’re going to have to go soon, and I wanted to talk about one of the songs on Running for the Drum, and it’s “America the Beautiful.”

Buffy Sainte-Marie: Well, “America the Beautiful” has been recorded by so many different people, and it’s also had verses added by many, many people. You go on the internet, and you’ll see there’s all kinds of verses from all kinds of perspectives. I mean, some of them are really kind of racist, and others are just kind of natural and beautiful.

But my friend John Herrington, Commander John Herrington, was the first Native American astronaut. And when he was going to get his ride, NASA invited me to sing and invited a whole lot people to come from his reservation, Chickasaw reservation in Oklahoma. And I had been thinking about “America the Beautiful,” so I wrote new verses for it, and I also wrote an introduction for it. It says, [singing] “There were Choctaws in Alabama, Chippewas in Saint Paul. Mississippi mud runs like a river in me. America, ooh, she’s like a mother to me.” So it’s—and the verses continue from there, with small changes, and then there’s a middle section, too.

But it really reflects kind of a different approach to America than you usually see in the headlines. It’s about America the country, not America the nation state. It’s about the real America that so many people, regardless of their political associations, really feel in their hearts—you know, this beautiful, beautiful place. So, it’s yet another take on “America the Beautiful.” People seem to enjoy it.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Big Ones Get Away
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Singing It and Praying It; Living It and Saying It
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Still Singing with Spirit, Joy, and Passion

Recommended Off-site Links:
A Columbus Day Meditation - Thom Hartmann (, October 12, 2009).
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Mouthbows to Cyberskins
Buffy Sainte-Marie UK
Buffy Sainte-Marie Tribute Site
Buffy Sainte-Marie on a Roller Coaster Career that Even the FBI Kept an Eye On
- Colin Irwin (The Guardian, July 31, 2009).
Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Official Website
Buffy on Sesame Street
Beyond Images of Women and Indians: Straight-talk from a Cree Icon
- Brenda Norrell (Censored News, 1999/2008).
A Review of Running for the Drum

1 comment:

Richard Demma said...

Wonderful! I've always felt she was a very special person with a unique gift and vocation. Great to see her still going at it!