Woman Chief:

The Integrity of Buffy Sainte-Marie

Buffy Sainte Marie ~ Detail from CD, Coincidence and Likely Stories

What a pleasure it was, to discover Buffy Sainte-Marie on Sesame Street. She joined Sesame Street, she was to explain elsewhere, so children could see that there are still real Indians. That work done, now she teaches at Santa Fe's Institute of American Indian Art.

She has drifted into and out of the public spotlight for nearly forty years, and through it all remained herself: a person of integrity and substance, Native American by birth, Canadian, advocate of the First Nations people for all her adult life. Her albums, over the years, reflect a growing and evolving aesthetic that culminates in the extraordinary fusion of Coincidence and Likely Stories. Her hippy/beatnik folk sound of the Sixties and the anti-war movement matured into an eclectic mixture of country, rock, and American Indian music. Singlehandedly, while New Age flutists and "Indian-aware" grunge artists struggled to appropriate the American Indian musical tradition, she integrated the sound into the mainstream of popular music as successfully as Paul Simon brought us the music and musicians of Brazil and South Africa.

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And the politics of her music remain as consistent, relentless, and uncompromised as they were when she wrote "The Universal Soldier" thirty years past. When I listened to Coincidence and Likely Stories, the vehemence of the perspective took my breath away. Two years later, hearing the lustreless Indigo Girls' cover of "Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee," I was reminded again how personal the music is, to what degree it is completely her own. No one like her, no mistaking her for someone else.

Buffy Sainte-Marie is one of those women like Barbara Streisand and Tina Turner, whose attractiveness is in spite of what a judging eye would call flaws. She has never been "pretty," in the years her face has aged. And yet, there is something in that face, some ferocity of regard, the confident joy of the woman, that catches the eye. And she has aged well. Approaching sixty, the intangibles that draw one in are still there.

The powerful, vital personalities of the popular music scene of the sixties, with the exception of Bob Dylan, have turned out to be the women. Joni Mitchell, Janis Ian, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Joan Baez: other than Dylan, what male artist can claim such seriousness of purpose, aesthetic, and accomplishment?

A fan letter? No, an expression of a valued, if one-sided, friendship. The world will be a smaller, less interesting place when, someday, she is gone. May it be a day much distant from now.

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