Buffy Sainte-Marie Urges Artists to Nurture Creative Side

By Shauna Lewis

“Some will tell you what you really want ain’t on the menu.
Don’t believe them. Don’t believe them.
Cook it up yourself and then prepare to serve them, to serve them.
They don’t know. They don’t know what you have in your heart.
They only care what you have in your wallet.
They don’t know what you have to contribute.”
~Buffy Sainte-Marie
Talking Stick Festival, UBC First Nations House of Learning
March 14, 2005

BuffyAt this year’s weeklong Talking Stick Festival in Vancouver, which celebrates Aboriginal arts and artists, Buffy Sainte-Marie took to the University of British Columbia’s First Nations House of learning stage on March 14 to the delight of Elders, students, youth and other members of the public.

Rather than sing, Buffy, whose timeless song Universal Soldier was recently indicted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, spoke to the artists and educators of the 21st century.

“There is trouble in our time,’ said Buffy. “The world of commerce is so unfair to artists that you have to understand it going in. It might not make it any fairer to understand it, but it might keep your heart from getting broken.”

While Buffy says that she is not against commerce, she is very much for the content of which commerce looks to ‘pimp’ or ‘coin.’

“The content is you and me, it’s the arts. We are more than just something to be exploited,” declared the passionate artist. “Medicine is medicine before you ever share it with another person, let alone take it on stage and pimp it for an audience.”

Describing the inherently organic nature of the artistic persona, Buffy accredited her creative spirit to a childlike innocence. “Most of us when we grow up, we continue growing away from who we really are. If you take any children to the beach and they make a sculpture- nobody will call it sculpture, they’ll call it sandcastles. They’ll make dramas- nobody will call it drama because that’s an adult word. The creative mind is given to all of us by the creator,” said Buffy.

Educating a global audience
Recently Buffy has added ‘online educator’ to her long list of roles. Her newest baby – the cradleboard project – is something that excites the Saskatchewan-born Cree. Through her extensive travels around the world, Buffy has come to realize just how uninformed global citizens are in regard to the Indigenous peoples of North American.

“People wanted to know Aboriginal people. People in Paris and Rome and China- they wanted to know about us.”

Born out of a scholarship foundation for Native American education, the cradleboard project is an online teaching tool providing both non-Native and Native students with information in regard to the social history and geography of Indigenous North Americans. Inspired by a fourth grade field trip to the Natural History museum, Buffy recalls how her teacher wanted the class to ‘go see the Indians.’ “There we were, dead and stuffed next to the dinosaurs. That’s what I saw when I was a kid. That’s why I’m an educator,” said Buffy.

Asserting that anger is unproductive and that education, life and art “flow into one another,” Buffy Sainte-Marie’s remedy for cultural ignorance is truthful enlightenment. While Buffy insists that the artistic soul is a direct gift from the creator and not something one can learn in college; she also understands that knowledge is a tool that can help to eradicate historically established stereotypes.

Following her talk at the First Nations House of Learning, First Nations Drum had a chat with the acclaimed artist.

FND: “What advice would you give to the youth and adults pursuing their dream in music, dance, drama, painting and writing? What advice do you give to those artists struggling financially and struggling on their career paths?”

BSM: “Well I can’t tell you how to get rich, but I can tell you how to be happy. Whether you’re being rich or poor, if you’re an artist keep your nose on the joy-trail. Just like a dog, keep your nose sniffing joy-looking for joy- because your gonna need it if your broke. I can’t tell you how to get rich, but for me what I deal with is how to appreciate yourself as an artist and it happens before you try to go commercial. So I would say, ‘don’t quit your day job’, be an artist and don’t expect to pimp the sacredness of art.”

FND: “Let’s talk about that notion of ‘pimping’ your art. I have often wrestled with the notion that I love to write’, but I have always felt like I was selling myself through making a profit from what I love to do. Maybe that’s ridiculous?”

BSM: “Well I don’t feel that way myself. For me the real healing comes to me in many stages- when I first get the idea, when I first hear the song, when I play with it for a couple of days. I mean, it just gets better and better. It’s just like raising a child and every day is different. For God sakes appreciate it every time you know. Enjoy it! I think it’s terrific if other people take a song like Universal Soldier, Until Its Time For You To Go, or Up Where We Belong, and bring it into their own lives and sing it in a different way- oh what an honor! But it’s not the same honor as the honor of first hearing it in your head.”

FND: “What do you do for writer’s block? Do you get it?”

BSM: “No, because I don’t think like that. I write like I dream. I don’t write because somebody gives me a deadline. So the only times when I have been in that position has been in movie scoring. I don’t put myself in the position of total prostitution of somebody else’s demand.”

Artist, visionary, animal lover and forthright earth mother, Buffy’s new projects and ideas prove that she is steadfast in her quest to not only ‘serve up’ some public recognition of the arts, but to encourage everyone to celebrate and nurture the creative spirit that resides in the hearts of artists.