Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carrying the medicine, sharing a message

Jerry Reynolds / Indian Country Today
3/31/08

WASHINGTON - Another honor now gathers to the name of Buffy Sainte-Marie. As she related at the National Museum of the American Indian;s Rasmuson Theater March 19, the Cree singer, composer, musician and educator joins folk song legend Pete Seeger and others among the performers and artists blacklisted by the federal government in the 1950s and '60s.

Seeger, other artists and numerous film screenwriters are well-known for standing on principle in the 1950s. At great cost to themselves, they defied the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in its witch hunt for Communists and everyone knew it. Eventually, in a kind of backdoor acknowledgment of a national psychosis, later generations embraced them.

In the 1960s, blacklisted performers were fewer and their fates less known than in the McCarthyist '50s, perhaps in part because ''students ruled.'' (The government could harass ex-Beatle John Lennon no end, for instance, but blacklisting him to prevent his performing never would have worked - too many fans.) But quietly, the late President Lyndon Baines Johnson, still staking his reputation on the Vietnam War, marked down a few names from the peace movement, as well as a few from the civil rights movement who apparently sassed him too much, for career setbacks.

Sainte-Marie, just emerging in the 1960s, was one of them (she also mentions country bluesman Taj Mahal and actress-singer Eartha Kitt). She found her natural audiences in Canada and Native communities anyway, and took her time finding out.

''It hadn't bothered me not to know. And when I'd have a concert and there'd be, you know, several thousand people at the concert, and they'd all say, 'Well, how come we can't get your records?' - I'd be blaming it on the record company. But the record company always said that they would ship the record, but they wouldn't get to the town. And when I'd be invited on the Tonight Show or any of the late shows, the host would be very nice to me. But the producers, gradually when I would appear, they'd say, 'Look, you know, we want you to sing 'Until It's Time for You to Go' [a Sainte-Marie composition] because ... Barbara Streisand recorded it. But don't do - don't, you know, Indian rights and you know, any kind of social awareness, protest movement - don't talk about that because that's, you know, boring now.' ... I didn't think much of it. But when I found out the CIA had truly been involved in it - it was something that Indian Country Today printed last year, when that CIA agent came out and mentioned that he had been in on the suppression of my music and other artists' from that time.

''Finally there was some evidence anywhere, at least some corroboration, to what I'd been told by broadcasters. It was weird, you know, what it did to me. ... I suppose if I were a business person I'd say, 'Yeah, it hurt my career.' But what really bugged me about it is that my voice was silenced, and I think the things that I was saying and singing in those days was a medicine to help and support ideas, people, healings that could have been happening. ... When you carry the medicine, sometimes you have to carry it a long way.''

Irony abounds: in ''Universal Soldier,'' she penned an anthem of the peace movement; and ''Indianness,'' with all it implies of social justice, must have recommended her for the civil rights movement, too. But outside her art she was hardly a part of them. And despite composing a succession of pop standards for others, she was never going to be a star of nation-threatening status.

''Civil rights movement? I wasn't there. ... That's where all the photo-ops were. So a lot of the folk singers were there. And most everybody knew each other. But I was from so out of town I didn't know anybody. And I didn't drink, so I missed all the parties where business is done. ... I was from so out of town, I was so green, I was on the rez. ... They think I was there, but I wasn't.''

Not then, anyway. But the medicine had kept for a long time and carried far by March 19, fifth anniversary of the U.S. war on Iraq and its attendant demons, rated by some as the stuff of another national psychosis in the making.

And after an hour of insight on creativity, a passage or two of a cappella singing, and regular showings of sheer intelligent liveliness from one whose good health sets her apart from some of her peers, Sainte-Marie's inner protester came out in lines of a longer poem she read aloud, ''The War Racket'':

''And that's how it's done.

About every 30 years

the rich fill their coffers.

The poor fill with tears.

The young fill the coffins.

The old will hang a wreath.

The politicians will get photographed

with their names underneath.''

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