March is Women’s History Month (in the US).
I am doing a series of posts about women who have inspired me.
I remember exactly where and when I first encountered this woman. It was 1977, and I was at Granny’s house watching Sesame Street. I lived in “northern” Saskatchewan, right up the street from the Student Residence (which was operated by the federal government and which ostensibly offered housing for northern students while they attended school in the city). There were many First Nations students with whom I attended school, and most of them lived at the Student Residence.
When I saw this woman on Sesame Street, I was a little surprised. Because even as a small child, I had encountered racism against Aboriginal people. It made as little sense to me then as it does now. My white friends’ parents would say things like ‘it’s such a shame that you live so close to the Student Residence. With all that crime and drunkenness.’ And I would be all, “I don’t know what you’re talking about”. Some of my white friends were told by their parents not to play with the brown girls. I went home to my mum when I heard about that, and I asked her why so-and-so’s mum wouldn’t let her play with such-and-such. And that conversation is one I have remembered all my life. It is seared into my memory. That post is for another day.
Buffy Sainte-Marie was the first Indian woman I had ever seen on television.
She had a baby, and she was nursing the baby, and talking about how mothers feed their babies. She talked about Indian people. She talked about how Indian people weren’t some romanticized people from history; that they were still very real and very alive and very important. Later in the program she sang. Her voice sent chills down my spine.
Later yet, she performed on The Muppet Show (you’re probably noticing a theme here with my entertainment preferences…) and again I was struck by the fact that “they let an Indian woman on teevee”. In all of the Westerns I’d seen, in all of the programs I’d watched, I had never seen anyone who looked like the people with whom I lived. She spoke a language I heard often at the knee of an Elder whose home on the Student Residence I spent time at.
Buffy Sainte-Marie was also the first Canadian performer I ever became aware of having made a successful career out of her art. I didn’t know anything about Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot. I knew about Buffy Sainte-Marie. Years later, I would meet her cousins and tell them how much she meant to me. How she had given me hope that a Canadian artist could “make it big”. And her cousins told me that all of that success hadn’t changed her. That that iconic smile was as genuine as the music she wrote. That made me inordinately happy.
Her music is iconic, and her visual art is …well I’ve always found it a little unsettling, which I think is at least part of what art is supposed to do. I’ve heard her speak, and what she has to say about affecting positive change and personal development is right on the mark. The world has seen few souls as old and deep as Buffy Sainte-Marie, and I dearly hope she will continue to make a mark for many, many years to come. If I ever had the chance to meet her in person, I suspect I would just start bawling like a baby and whimpering “thank you” over and over.
Also, SHE NURSED HER BABY ON NATIONAL TEEVEE AND HUNG OUT WITH MUPPETS. Dudes. There is no one cooler.