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It's her way

Iconic musician Buffy Sainte-Marie on art, activism and reasons for hope

Buffy Sainte-Marie, the Canadian-American songwriter and social activist, will perform at Stanford University on Sept. 22.

Sainte-Marie, who was born on a Cree reservation in Saskatchewan, rose to fame during the 1960s folk scene (although her music transcends genre, involving elements of rock, electronica and more) and is responsible for beloved songs including "Universal Soldier" and "Up Where We Belong." She's worked with everyone from the Muppets of "Sesame Street" to Pete Seeger, survived being blacklisted by American radio, earned a doctorate in fine art, and has long been an advocate for education and justice for indigenous people. She's been sampled by Kanye West, sang at Kennedy Space Center, and won Oscar, Golden Globe, BAFTA, Polaris and Juno awards, among other honors. Despite a career spanning five decades, she's nowhere close to retiring. In a Q&A with the Weekly, Sainte-Marie discussed her work, why she doesn't want to be labeled a "warrior," and the power of the three-minute song to change the world.

(The interview has been lightly edited for space and style).

You've had a long career as both an artist and an activist. Does it surprise you, the current political climate? What gives you the strength and inspiration to keep going?

It doesn't surprise me, but I travel a lot. In a 50-year career going around the world -- much of it filled with marginalized people who don't talk like television anchormen -- an artist is in the privileged position of seeing how things really are compared to what we're being told and sold. I talk with strangers in airports, stores, schools, and I know that not everybody thinks like I do, and it takes all kinds. In that way, I think like Michael Moore, one of my heroes.

How do you think artists today can best get their messages across? In particular, do you have any advice for women (especially women of color)?

I know only one way: Write it, refine it and give it to as many people as you can. Build from within your own niche and your own truths, and stay real flexible, as things are always growing and changing around us and within us.

Do you have a particular songwriting process or do you work as the inspiration hits you?

Yeah, I'm definitely the latter. Songs show up in my head the same like dreams, usually words and music at the same time, though not always. You can't force it. I've been writing songs like a little kid since I was about 3, and it's always come very easy to me. But I can't read. (I tried music lessons three times and found out through Berklee College of Music that I'm actually dyslexic in music, which is why I can write for an orchestra, but I can't read it back the next day.) But some songs start as inspiration, then I work on them same as I would work on a college thesis for some professor who didn't like me or my subject matter, and I still want to get an A. I know the difference between the initial gift of inspiration and the hard work of editing so that people who don't think like me can get it too, and I love both; just not at the same time.

Your album "It's My Way!" was recently included on NPR's "150 greatest albums made by women" list. How does that make you feel? As a female musician, I have mixed feelings about gender-segregated lists, although I can understand the value.

Ha ha -- I hear you. You know, I didn't know 'til you mentioned it that it had a "made by women" suffix! Eeep. Anyway, "It's My Way!" was and is still pretty unique, and I'm glad when any art makes it through the narrow window of same ol', same 'ol. It was the first of 21 very diverse albums I've made, crossing genres that weren't even invented at the time. And although the album is not nearly as good as my recent ones, which continue to be heretically diverse, I'm glad people still find it interesting.

Many children first got to know you thanks to your work on "Sesame Street." What was that experience like?

Wonderful all around. I was on for over five years (until Reagan cut the budget for the arts). We took Big Bird to Taos Pueblo, did multicultural programming in my backyard in Hawaii, and lots in New York. They never stereotyped me, always listened to my script ideas, and stayed truly child-centered. I was breastfeeding my baby in 1976 and suggested we do a segment on it, and we did and it was perfect. (We) also did sibling rivalry, and I taught the Count to count in Cree. As a songwriter who really believes in the power of the three-minute song to change the world for short-attention-span audiences, "Sesame Street" was right up my alley, and I'm grateful for every minute of it.

Can you please tell me a bit about the new documentary "Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World"?

Hmmm ... I participated in that kinda under duress, and much of what I had to say was left out because it did not support the filmmakers' premise. They were basing the narrative of their film on the great influence Native American people have had on rock music, and my observation is that except for a lucky few, Native American musicians haven't had much of a chance to be heard or participate in the music business. Certain stars claim to be a sixteenth Cherokee etc., or part this or that, but the road from the reservation into the music business didn't and doesn't exist, even today. We're not black, we're not white, we don't know where the door is, we don't know anybody and nobody knows us; and in a competitive world that chases money and fame in an effort to change social status, it's even more uphill for Native American artists than you might expect.

What projects do you have coming up -- any future dreams or goals you'd like to share?

I'm touring all summer and fall, but studying all the time. I'm an incurable student and a biblioholic, even audio books, and I don't mind hard research. Right now, besides all the really fun and positive things I have going on -- like 53 concerts and bringing TV people to my favorite cat-rescue shelter in Toronto -- I'm studying the history of Native American enslavement, which has been going on for over 500 years, even before African people were brought to the Americas. And even after African-American slavery became illegal, Indian slavery kept on. Even abolitionists continued to have Native American slaves in the U.S. and Canada for generations. And indigenous women and girls make up the majority of people victimized by human trafficking in Canada today -- I'm not sure about figures in the U.S. So I'm trying to get the facts under my belt, in an effort to spread accurate public awareness and help people to bring it to an end. People used to say that negro slavery would never end, and females would never get the vote, and guys would never give up cigarettes, but we did, so I have hope and determination every day.

Are there any misconceptions about you or your work that you'd like to correct?

Yes, thanks for asking. I get all pissy when people say, as a compliment, that "Buffy, you're such a warrior for peace" -- I hear it all the time. I reserve the word warrior for our veterans and actual soldiers who are willing to risk their lives and kill other people for nation-states, politicians and merchants. I won't do that. Instead, what I promote is alternative conflict resolution, which can be taught but seldom is. Remember Mahatma Gandhi? Remember Martin Luther King? Remember Jesus?

And, since you mentioned my album/song "It's My Way!," I'd like to put the emphasis on "Way" instead of "My." The Frank Sinatra/Paul Anka song about, "I did it myyyyyy way" is a different song, ha ha. My own song is about my path, and encouraging followers not to follow mine, but to cut their own out of this beautiful wilderness we call life.

What: Buffy Sainte-Marie.

Where: Bing Concert Hall, 327 Lasuen St., Stanford.

When: Friday, Sept. 22, 7:30 p.m.

Cost: $15-$65.

Info: Go to Stanford Live.

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