Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography by Andrea Warner, foreword by Joni Mitchell (Greystone Books $36)

Review by Jo-Anne Fiske, 2018

Written in 1962 and released in 1964, "Universal Soldier" condemned America's war in Vietnam and became one of two protest anthems that defined Sainte-Marie's musical and political agendas in the 1960s and 70s.

On the same album, "Now that the Buffalo's Gone" was compelling in its indictment of injustices perpetrated against Indigenous people. The song was motivated by a treaty violation to build Kinzua Dam in Seneca territory. As new injustices arise in the 21st century, she has updated her lyrics.

In the 1970s, Buffy Sainte-Marie surfaced from the urban folk scene she shared with the likes of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. She has since merged genres and styles -- funk, soul rock, torch ballads, love songs, pow-wow music, the vibrato of Edith Piaf and electronic technologies.

The heady successes of the 1970s were followed by an Oscar in 1983 for "Up Where We Belong," for the movie An Officer and a Gentleman, co-written by her then husband Jack Nitzsche. The marriage soon became abusive, and after seven years Sainte-Marie fled with her young son, Cody Wolfchild.

In the biography, Sainte-Marie warns women who remain with abusive partners that "It was not worth it. Please do not go through it." Warner posits the abusive relationship that ended in 1989 was one reason for a sixteen-year break between recording her 1976 album Sweet America and her 1992 comeback album Coincidence and Likely Stories, which Warner praises for its political provocation and sonic experimentation.

Albums were released in 1996 and 1998, with the latter including new protest songs that won her a Juno for Best Indigenous Album. In 2015 she released Power in the Blood, which brought her international acclaim. Here she is as intensely political and vibrant as she was in 1964.

She has since been awarded a Juno and the Polaris Music Prize for Power in the Blood and another Juno for her 2017 release Medicine Songs, a collection of her protest anthems that spans her five-decade career and amplifies her commitment to Indigenous resistance. She has more than a dozen honorary degrees, she was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, and she is an Officer of the Order of Canada.

Ever the pathbreaker, Sainte-Marie has also earned accolades for her visual art, where once again she led in the digital world, being among the first to display large-scale digital paintings in museums across North America.

Sainte-Marie has remained steadfast in her political conviction and has never flinched from challenging colonization. She founded a charity, the Nihewan Foundation, to fund Indigenous post secondary students, and created digital Indigenized curricula, "The Cradleboard Project," for elementary children.

While embracing the tenets of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, this year she toured First Nations communities of Saskatchewan with members of the Regina Symphony Orchestra. She now melds classical music with her own intense pow-wow-inspired electronic genres, paying tribute to Tchaikovsky, whose music first influenced her as a very young child.

Andrea Warner traces personal experiences to motivations for particular lyrics and technological innovations from Sainte-Marie's birth on the Cree Piapot reserve in Saskatchewan in 1941, to her adoption by Albert and Winnifred (of Mi'kmaq descent) Saint-Marie -- who raised her in Maine and Massachusetts -- through her studies in Oriental philosophy and education, to her home life in Hawaii with a herd of goats.

"The Universal Soldier" was inspired when -- on a flight from Mexico to Toronto -- Saint-Marie met wounded American soldiers returning from Vietnam.

"Cod'ine" speaks to her personal negative experience with opiates, but also stands as a critique of shifting music culture from coffee houses to bars, which she views as undermining the student culture that supported political change.

Warner addresses the blacklisting of Sainte-Marie by two American presidents, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, when the FBI kept files on her close ties with the American Indian Movement, and considers the impact that political advocacy had on her career, notably in the 1980s when her popularity waned.

Two chapters introduce Sainte-Marie, covering her childhood and youth. Another fifteen chapters cover the content and techniques of selected recordings, and the origins of songs.

"Interludes" is a chapter of excerpts from Warner's interviews with Sainte-Marie. Through it all, Sainte-Marie's creativity and optimism shine. "But I love the world and I love people, I really do…" Sainte-Marie says toward the close. "After all, I've seen the almost impossible become possible in really big ways."

Some sixty hours of interviews occurred face-to-face, over the phone and via the internet. Additionally, Warner joined Sainte-Marie on two tours, one on the east coast and one on the west. Journalistic accounts and reviews from the past fifty years supplement her interviews, along with citations from Sainte-Marie's colleagues, peers and childhood friends.

In an afterword, Warner glowingly describes her "lovely little friendship" with Buffy Sainte-Marie and acknowledges that "together we've made a book." We are told, "Buffy has combed every inch of this book, every page bears her fingerprints, and I can hear her voice at every turn."

Warner praises and empathizes, and she does not challenge her subject's perspectives. Where Sainte-Marie is reticent to delve into her relationships with members of the American Indian Movement, and two of her three marriages, Warner treads softly. Similarly, Warner does not explore in detail any of the contentious relations Sainte-Marie had with the music industry, notably Vanguard Records, with whom she released her first works.

But Warner does capture her subject's spirit and energy. She never lets us forget that Sainte-Marie was and is forever an innovator. Concisely and clearly, Warner reviews her selected tracks bringing to the page the musical compositions that thunder and whisper, circling back through fifty years to remind us that the issues Sainte-Marie contested in the 1960s are the social and political challenges we face today.


Jo-Anne Fiske of Fraser Lake has worked extensively with First Nations in central B.C. since the 1970s. With Betty Patrick she co-wrote Cis dideen kat -- When the Plumes Rise: The Way of the Lake Babine Nation (2000).