Buffy Sainte-Marie on Winning the Polaris Prize, Viet Cong, and Indigenous Activism
After winning the biggest prize in Canadian music this week, the long-time activist dispenses advice on how to fight the Man.
It's 5 AM when Buffy Sainte-Marie picks up the phone at her home in Hawaii, but there's no semblance of fatigue in her voice: the 74-year-old folk legend and, as of this week, 2015 Polaris Prize victor dispenses sagely advice between bursts of kind laughter. Sainte-Marie, born on Piapot Cree First Nation in Saskatchewan, came up in the industry during the 60s alongside the likes of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young, releasing her now-legendary It's My Way! in 1964. Since then, she's dropped another 20 albums, been blacklisted by the US government, been sampled by Kanye West (and then Young Thug), and become one of the most renowned First Nations activists in the world.
VICE: You've won many awards in your time. How does it feel to pick up the Polaris Prize?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: It's a big surprise, I'll tell you that! It's wonderful. I'm really thrilled. I have a lot of respect for the Polaris Prize for specific reasons. One of things that makes it so personally nice for me is that I had the time to listen to all of the other artists: I listened to the entire album for everybody. I got to hear some of the lesser cuts that might not get played on the radio. Full respect for all the different kinds of music that people are making in Canada.
Did any of the albums stand out to you most?
I had my own little shortlist: I couldn't narrow it down to one. I had no idea who was going to win: I didn't think it was going to be me. I liked Tobias Jesso Jr., I liked Jennifer Castle's album, I liked Caribou, and I really liked Viet Cong. And God bless them for changing their name, it's the smartest thing they could have done. If the name is distracting from the music, just change it. I had big hugs for them and congratulated them for the decision to change their name.
You were a very early pioneer of using electronics in your music. What's it like to hear artists like Caribou and Drake take these technologies to entirely new levels?
It's a dream come true for me. As you say, I've been into electronic music since the 60s: I made the first-ever totally electronic quadraphonic vocal album ever, called Illuminations. People really, really didn't understand it. But art students did. Electronic musicians did. There were people making electronic music back then: Jon Hassell and Brian Eno and Morton Subotnick. But audiences were not hearing it because the record companies and the market weren't really that interested in it so they weren't bringing it to people.
I think it's real important to acknowledge the role of a good record company. Especially True North in this regard because they got this album to people's ears. That's the biggest difference with this album: it's not as though it's better than Running for the Drum or Coincidence and Likely Stories, but they didn't get heard. They didn't have a record company really making it available to radio stations who then make it available to other people. The internet didn't used to be what it is now. Some people were afraid of electronic music. It's really nice. I'm glad. I think it's a wonderful medium that offers all kinds of avenues for creativity.
The name of the album, Power in the Blood, comes from an Alabama 3 title. Why did you decide to reference that album?
Well I'm a big fan of Alabama 3: they wrote the theme song for The Sopranos! [sings first two lines of song] They were a bunch of guys in Brixton, London. They are a really original, wonderful band: they're friends of mine, they're fans of mine, I'm a fan of them. They had written a song called "Power in the Blood"—"There is power in the blood, justice in the sword / When that call it comes, I will be ready for war." I thought it'd make a great peace song; they were pretty surprised by that. By rewriting it to reflect contemporary issues, the idea was to borrow their idea—it is their song, really—and give it to my audience in a new way. I love the song and how it turned out.
We've witnessed a resurgence of Indigenous peoples in the public eye, from musicians like yourself and Tanya Tagaq, to Idle No More, to Ashley Callingbull (the Cree woman who recently won Mrs. Universe). Why do you think there's been a notable upswing, even in the last two or three years?
I think a lot of it has to do with our ability to get beyond those who would shut us up. It's because of the internet. We're networked. It's not as if we're smarter: we've been smart all along. It's not as though we're suddenly trying to make changes: we've been doing that all along. There's a very broad strength in Indian Country. But it used to be so, so hard to be networked. We have a long way to come and can use all the support we can get in networking, but at least it's starting so those beyond our community can know what's going on. Shoal Lake is going to be a huge issue: it provides water for the city of Winnipeg, and they don't have their own needs covered! There are always going to be improvements that need to be made and issues to talk about, but I really do think we can be part of making positive change. And so can government.
You participated in and wrote songs about the anti-war movement ("Universal Soldier") and American Indian Movement ("Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee"). Do you have any advice for young activists who are depressed by the state of the world?
In the first place, get a bath and a good night's sleep. You don't want to burn out. St. Francis was very smart: he said you have to take care of "brother mule," or your body. So take care of yourself. Don't cave into peer pressure and burn out. There's so much you can do through a song. Here's some specific advice: in your presentation, you need to be brief, clear, and engaging. You don't want to give people the truth in an enema. Hopefully, you want to attract people to your issues and have them want to work alongside what you're trying to accomplish. That kind of brevity that a songwriter has: I also got to explore that on Sesame Street. The world has a very short attention span. If you go in knowing that, and instead of having an axe to grind you have information to give, it's a real different approach. It stays very positive even if you're working with a difficult, painful, tragic issue like genocide or residential schools or war. Don't burn out!
What's next for you? Are you ever going to kick back and retire?
I've had such an interesting career, over 50 years. I retire whenever I feel like it. I took 16 years off to raise my son, and have never let a record deadline keep me from doing what I really need to do, [like] when my mom was passing. I don't have any plans to stop being an artist. Artists just don't stop. I only go on the road when I think I have something to offer people, so I'll probably continue to come and go on the scene and not worry about it very much. Let somebody else do some of the work! Everybody who's got dreams in their hearts and issues that are bothering them: don't be afraid of it. Just keep on keeping on. We're all ripening every day.