As she’s both the senior artist at this weekend’s SKOOKUM festival and a pioneering activist for Indigenous and women’s rights, festival organizers probably considered asking Buffy Sainte-Marie to introduce the event with the ritual acknowledgment of its location on unceded Coast Salish territory. And if they had, they might have been surprised at her response—as the organizers of the 2017 Junos, in Ottawa, certainly were.
“They asked me to start the Junos off by saying ‘We are here tonight on the unceded territory of the Algonquin people, who have been here for millennia,’ ” the veteran singer-songwriter recalls, sounding freakishly spry for someone who’s just flown 6,000 miles from her home on Kauai to play a festival in Cape Breton, and who’s going to turn around and fly back the next day. “And I wouldn’t read it. The Junos, they handed me the script, and I said, ‘No, no, no. We’ve got to change this.’ ”
The Juno crew bristled, but Sainte-Marie won them over with a simple but powerful argument about the meaning of words. “The word unceded is lawyer talk,” she explains. “I consider it lawyerese, and it trips up the listener or the reader. It stops you for a second, for a crucial second. Unceded. That means you don’t have a chair? Does that mean you’re in a tennis match but you didn’t qualify? And millennia? Who the fuck says ‘millennia’, unless you’re on television and trying to sound important? So I changed it. I said ‘the unsurrendered territory’, and I said ‘who have been taking care of this land for thousands and thousands and thousands of years’. It’s a huge difference, whether you go along with the lawyer talk that comes down from government, or whether you have the fucking guts to stand up for people talking to people.”
Sainte-Marie has been doing just that—with righteous anger but more importantly with boundless compassion, humour, and energy—for more than half a century. At 77, having recently revisited some of her most enduring material for last year’s Medicine Songs album, and on the verge of the release of an authorized biography written by Georgia Straight theatre critic Andrea Warner, you’d think she’d be looking back. And she has been, but the conclusions she’s reached aren’t those of anyone who’s going to retire soon.
“If there’s anything consistent about me, it’s diversity,” she says. “From minute to minute, hour to hour, I just see things through the lens of whatever’s going on that day.…So there’s a certain consistency from when I began to where I am right now. It’s not as though it’s a lot of angles and corners and hallways for me; it’s just kind of a continual spiral that visits the same perspective, but a little bit further along the way each time the spiral comes back to pointing in the same direction.”
A case in point being “The War Racket”, one of Medicine Songs’ two new compositions. A powerful indictment of those who profit from sending young soldiers to die, it addresses some of the same topics as Sainte-Marie’s prescient “Universal Soldier”, a folk anthem of the 1960s, but from a more explicit and less sentimental perspective.
“Sometimes it’s as though you’re looking out different windows of a tower,” Sainte-Marie says, adding that artists are “privileged enough to know that there are lots of windows to look out”.
“It’s the same world out there, and it’s the same person looking out the window,” she continues, “but it looks different depending on which window you’re looking from.”
Buffy Sainte-Marie plays SKOOKUM in Stanley Park on September 9.