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Buffy Sainte-Marie
Buffy Ste. Marie - Truth and Reconciliation Commission Concert - Ottawa - 2015 (cropped).JPG
Sainte-Marie in 2015
Background information
Birth name Beverly Jean Santamaria
Born (1941-02-20) February 20, 1941 (age 83)
Stoneham, Massachusetts, U.S.
  • Musician
  • singer-songwriter
  • composer
  • record producer
  • visual artist
  • educator
  • social activist
  • actress
  • humanitarian
  • Vocals, guitar, piano
Years active 1963–2023
  • Vanguard
  • Angel/EMI
  • Capitol/EMI
  • Island
  • MCA
  • Appleseed
  • Ensign/Chrysalis/EMI
Associated acts Pete Seeger, Leonard Cohen, Patrick Sky

Buffy Sainte-Marie, OC (born Beverly Jean Santamaria; February 20, 1941) is an American singer-songwriter, musician, and social activist. While working in these areas, her work has focused on issues facing Indigenous peoples of the United States and Canada. Since the early 1960s, Sainte-Marie has claimed she has Indigenous Canadian ancestry, but a 2023 investigation by CBC News concluded that she was born in the United States and is of Italian and English descent. Some Indigenous musicians and organizations have since called for awards she won while falsely claiming an Indigenous identity to be rescinded, including her 2018 Juno Award for Indigenous Artist or Group of the Year.

Sainte-Marie's singing and writing repertoire includes subjects of love, war, religion, and mysticism. She has won recognition, awards, and honors for her music as well as her work in education and social activism. In 1983, her co-written song "Up Where We Belong", for the film An Officer and a Gentleman, won the Academy Award for Best Original Song at the 55th Academy Awards. The song also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song that same year. In 1997, she founded the Cradleboard Teaching Project, an educational curriculum devoted to better understanding Native Americans.

Early life and education

Sainte-Marie was born at the New England Sanitarium and Hospital in Stoneham, Massachusetts, to parents Albert Santamaria and Winifred Irene Santamaria, née Kendrick. The Santamarias were an American couple from Wakefield, Massachusetts. Her father’s parents were born in Italy while her mother was of English ancestry. Her family changed their surname from Santamaria to the more French-sounding “Sainte-Marie” due to anti-Italian sentiment following the Second World War. Sainte-Marie attended the University of Massachusetts Amherst, earning degrees in teaching and Oriental philosophy, where she says she graduated as one of the top ten students of her class.


1960–1979: Rise to prominence

Grand Gala du Disque in RAI. Canadese zangeres Buffy Sainte-Marie, Bestanddeelnr 921-1411
Sainte-Marie performing in the Netherlands in the Grand Gala du Disque Populaire 1968

Sainte-Marie taught herself to play piano and guitar in her childhood and teen years. In college some of her songs, "Ananias", the Indian lament "Now That the Buffalo's Gone", and "Mayoo Sto Hoon" (a Hindi Bollywood song "Mayus To Hoon Waade Se Tere" originally sung by the Indian singer Mohammed Rafi from the 1960 movie Barsaat Ki Raat) were already in her repertoire. In her early twenties she toured alone, developing her craft and performing in various concert halls, folk music festivals, and First Nations communities across the United States, Canada, and abroad. She spent a considerable amount of time in the coffeehouses of downtown Toronto's old Yorkville district, and New York City's Greenwich Village as part of the early to mid-1960s folk scene, often alongside other emerging artists such as Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell, the latter of whom she introduced to Elliot Roberts, who became her manager.

In 1963, recovering from a throat infection, Sainte-Marie became addicted to codeine and recovering from the experience became the basis of her song "Cod'ine", later recorded by Donovan, Janis Joplin, the Charlatans, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Man, the Litter, the Leaves, Jimmy Gilmer, Gram Parsons, Charles Brutus McClay, the Barracudas (spelled "Codeine"), the Golden Horde, Nicole Atkins and Courtney Love. Also in 1963, she witnessed wounded soldiers returning from the Vietnam War at a time when the U.S. government was denying involvement – which inspired her protest song "Universal Soldier", released on her debut album It's My Way on Vanguard Records in 1964, and later became a hit for both Donovan and Glen Campbell.

She was subsequently named Billboard magazine's Best New Artist. Some of her songs addressing the mistreatment of Native Americans, such as "Now That the Buffalo's Gone" (1964) and "My Country 'Tis of Thy People You're Dying" (1964, included on her 1966 album), created controversy at the time. In 1967, she released Fire & Fleet & Candlelight, which contained her interpretation of the traditional Yorkshire dialect song "Lyke Wake Dirge". In 1968 she released her song "Take My Hand for a While" which was also later recorded by Glen Campbell and at least 13 other artists.

Buffy Sainte-Marie 1970
Sainte-Marie in 1970

Sainte-Marie's other well-known songs include "Mister Can't You See" (a Top 40 U.S. hit in 1972); "He's an Indian Cowboy in the Rodeo"; and the theme song of the movie Soldier Blue. She appeared on Pete Seeger's Rainbow Quest with Pete Seeger in 1965 and several Canadian television productions from the 1960s to the 1990s, and other TV shows such as American Bandstand, Soul Train, The Johnny Cash Show, and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Sainte-Marie sang the opening song, "The Circle Game" (written by Joni Mitchell), in Stuart Hagmann's film The Strawberry Statement (1970); and in the TV show Then Came Bronson episode "Mating Dance for Tender Grass" (1970), she sang and portrayed Tender Grass, the episode's titular character. In 1970 she recorded the album Illuminations, an early quadraphonic vocal album on which she used a Buchla synthesizer.

Sainte-Marie appeared in "The Heritage" episode of The Virginian which first aired on October 30, 1968, in which she played a Shoshone woman who had been sent to be educated at school. Sainte-Marie was hired in 1975 to present Native American programming for children for the first time on Sesame Street. Sainte-Marie wanted to teach the show's young viewers that "Indians still exist". She regularly appeared on Sesame Street over a five-year period from 1976 to 1981. Sainte-Marie breastfed her first son, Dakota "Cody" Starblanket Wolfchild, during a 1977 episode. Sainte-Marie has suggested that this is the first representation of breastfeeding ever aired on television. Sesame Street filmed several shows from her home in Hawaii in 1978.

In 1979, Spirit of the Wind, featuring Sainte-Marie's original musical score, including the song "Spirit of the Wind", was shown at the Cannes Film Festival. The film is a docudrama about George Attla, a "World Champion dog sledder". The American Indian Film Festival, which exhibited the film in 1980, recognizes accurate historical and contemporary portrayals of Native Americans.

1980–1999: Established career

Sainte-Marie began using Apple II and Macintosh computers as early as 1981 to record her music and later some of her visual art. The song "Up Where We Belong" (which Sainte-Marie co-wrote with lyricist Will Jennings and musician Jack Nitzsche) was performed by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes for the film An Officer and a Gentleman. It received the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1982. On January 29, 1983, Jennings, Nitzsche, and Sainte-Marie won the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song. They also won the BAFTA film award for Best Original Song in 1984. On the Songs of the Century list compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America in 2001, the song was listed at number 323. In 2020, it was included on Billboard magazine's list of the "25 Greatest Love Song Duets". In the early 1980s, one of her songs was used as the theme song for the CBC's Native series Spirit Bay. She was cast for the TNT 1993 telefilm The Broken Chain. In 1989, she wrote and performed the music for Where the Spirit Lives, a film about Native children being abducted, forced into residential schools, and expected to give up their Native way of life.

Buffy Sainte-Marie July 2009
Sainte-Marie playing the Peterborough Summer Festival of Lights on June 24, 2009

In 1986, British pop band Red Box covered her song "Qu'Appele Valley, Saskatchewan" (shortened to just "Saskatchewan") on their debut album The Circle & the Square. The song appears on Sainte-Marie's 1976 album Sweet America. Sainte-Marie voiced a Cheyenne character, Kate Bighead, in the 1991 made-for-TV movie Son of the Morning Star, telling the Indian side of the Battle of the Little Bighorn where the Sioux chief, Sitting Bull, defeated Lieutenant Colonel George Custer. In 1992, after a sixteen-year recording hiatus, Sainte-Marie released the album Coincidence and Likely Stories. Recorded in 1990 at home in Hawaii on her computer and transmitted via modem through the Internet to producer Chris Birkett in London, England, the album included the politically charged songs "The Big Ones Get Away" and "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" (which mentions Leonard Peltier), both commenting on the ongoing plight of Native Americans (see also the book and film with the same name). Also in 1992, Sainte-Marie appeared in the television film The Broken Chain with Wes Studi and Pierce Brosnan along with First Nations Bahá'í Phil Lucas.

Her next album followed up in 1996 with Up Where We Belong, an album on which she re-recorded a number of her greatest hits in more unplugged and acoustic versions, including a re-release of "Universal Soldier". Sainte-Marie has exhibited her art at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Emily Carr Gallery in Vancouver and the American Indian Arts Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In 1995, she provided the voice of the spirit in the magic mirror in HBO's Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child, which featured a Native American retelling of the Snow White fairy tale. Also in 1995, the Indigo Girls released two versions of Sainte-Marie's protest song "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" on their live album 1200 Curfews. The song appears toward the end of Disc One in a live format, recorded at the Atwood Concert Hall in the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts in Anchorage, Alaska. "Every word is true", Emily says in the introduction. The second, found at the end of Disc Two, is a studio recording.

In 1996, she started the Nihewan Foundation, a philanthropic non-profit fund for American Indian Education devoted to improving Native American students’ participation in learning. The word nihewan comes from the Cree language and means "talk Cree", which implies "be your culture". Sainte-Marie founded the Cradleboard Teaching Project in October 1996 using funds from her Nihewan Foundation and with a two-year grant from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation of Battle Creek, Michigan, with projects across Mohawk, Cree, Ojibwe, Menominee, Coeur d'Alene, Navajo, Quinault, Hawaiian, and Apache communities in eleven states, partnered with a non-Native class of the same grade level for Elementary, Middle, and High School grades in the disciplines of Geography, History, Social Studies, Music and Science and produced a multimedia curriculum CD, Science: Through Native American Eyes.

2000–2022: Later work and retirement

2013 Buffy St. Marie
Sainte-Marie performing at The Iron Horse in Northampton, Massachusetts, June 2013

In 2000, Sainte-Marie gave the commencement address at Haskell Indian Nations University. In 2002 she sang at the Kennedy Space Center for Commander John Herrington, USN, a Chickasaw and the first Native American astronaut. In 2003 she became a spokesperson for the UNESCO Associated Schools Project Network in Canada. In 2002, a track written and performed by Sainte-Marie, titled "Lazarus", was sampled by Hip Hop producer Kanye West and performed by Cam'Ron and Jim Jones of The Diplomats. The track is called "Dead or Alive". In June 2007, she made a rare U.S. appearance at the Clearwater Festival in Croton-on-Hudson, New York.

In 2008, a two-CD set titled Buffy/Changing Woman/Sweet America: The Mid-1970s Recordings was released, compiling the three studio albums that she recorded for ABC Records and MCA Records between 1974 and 1976 (after departing her long-time label Vanguard Records). This was the first re-release of this material. In September 2008, Sainte-Marie made a comeback onto the music scene in Canada with the release of her studio album Running for the Drum. It was produced by Chris Birkett (producer of her 1992 and 1996 best of albums). Sessions for this project commenced in 2006 in Sainte-Marie's home studio in Hawaii and in part in France. They continued until spring 2007. In 2015, Sainte-Marie released the album Power in the Blood on True North Records. She had a television appearance on May 22, 2015, with Democracy Now! to discuss the record and her musical and activist career. On September 21, 2015, Power in the Blood was named the winner of the 2015 Polaris Music Prize. Also in 2015, A Tribe Called Red released an electronic remix of Sainte-Marie's song, "Working for the Government".

In 2016, Sainte-Marie toured North America with Mark Olexson (bass), Anthony King (guitar), Michel Bruyere (drums), and Kibwe Thomas (keyboards). In 2017, she released the single "You Got to Run (Spirit of the Wind)", a collaboration with fellow Polaris Music Prize laureate, Tanya Tagaq. The song was inspired by George Attla who is a champion dog sled racer from Alaska. On November 29, 2019, a 50th-anniversary edition of Sainte-Marie's 1969 album, Illuminations, was released on vinyl by Concord Records, the company that bought Vanguard Records, the original publisher of the album. Saint-Marie is the subject of Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On, a 2022 documentary film by Madison Thomas. In the same year the National Arts Centre staged Buffy Sainte-Marie: Starwalker, a tribute concert of musicians performing Sainte-Marie's songs. On August 3, 2023, Saint-Marie issued a statement announcing her retirement from live performances, due to health concerns.

False claim of Indigenous identity

Buffy Sainte-Marie's official birth certificate
Copy of Sainte-Marie's birth certificate issued by the town of Stoneham, Massachusetts, U.S.

Sainte-Marie has falsely claimed she was born on the Piapot 75 reserve in the Qu'Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan, Canada, to Cree parents, and she incorrectly claimed that at the age of two or three, she was taken from her parents as part of the Sixties Scoop—a government policy, started in 1951, where Indigenous children were taken from their families, communities, and cultures for placement in non-First Nations families.

In October 2023, an investigation by the CBC's The Fifth Estate disproved Sainte-Marie's career-long claims of Indigenous ancestry. It included interviews with her family and located her birth certificate, which listed her as white and her supposed adopted parents as her birth parents. Sainte-Marie's 2018 authorized biography states she was "probably born" on the Piapot First Nation reserve in Saskatchewan, and throughout her adult life she claimed she was adopted, and does not know where she was born or who her biological parents are. However, there is no known official record of her adoption.

Early in her career, various newspapers referred to her as Algonquin, full-blooded Algonquin, Mi'kmaq, and half-Mi'kmaq. The first reference to Sainte-Marie being Cree that CBC News could locate during its investigation of her identity came in December 1963, when the Vancouver Sun called her a "Cree Indian". Sainte-Marie reiterated that she has community ties with the Piapot First Nation and that she was adopted by Chief Emile Piapot and Clara Starblanket. Emile's great-granddaughter Ntawnis Piapot has corroborated this, saying Sainte-Marie was adopted according to traditional Cree customs over "days and months and years".

Descendants of Piapot and Starblanket also issued a statement defending Sainte-Marie's ties to the Piapot First Nation: "We claim her as a member of our family and all of our family members are from the Piapot First Nation. To us, that holds far more weight than any paper documentation or colonial record keeping ever could." They also criticized the allegations against Sainte-Marie as being "hurtful, ignorant, colonial — and racist."

On October 27, 2023, CBC News published Sainte-Marie's official birth certificate. It indicates that she was born in Stoneham, Massachusetts to her white parents, Albert and Winifred Santamaria. Her son Cody has stated she obtained her claims to Native identity through "naturalization" and not by birth. To verify Sainte-Marie's early Mi'kmaq identity claims, her younger sister took a DNA test that showed she had "almost no" Native American ancestry and she says she is genetically related to Sainte-Marie's son, which would not be possible if Buffy was adopted as she claimed.

The CBC documentary included documentation showing her Sainte-Marie family had attempted to clarify her European ancestry in the 1960s and 1970s and was later threatened with legal action for doing so. In December 1964, Arthur Santamaria, Sainte-Marie’s paternal uncle, wrote to the Wakefield Daily Item, who published his editorial that Sainte-Marie "has no Indian blood in her" and "not a bit" of Cree heritage. Her brother, Alan Sainte-Marie also wrote to newspapers, including the Denver Post in 1972, to clarify that his sister was not born on a reservation, has Caucasian parents, and that "to associate her with the Indian and to accept her as his spokesman is wrong".

Alan's daughter, Heidi Sainte-Marie, has stated that in 1975, Alan met Buffy and a PBS producer for Sesame Street while working as a commercial pilot. She has stated the producer later asked her father if he was Indigenous, because he did not look like it, and her father clarified they were of European ancestry and not Indigenous.

On November 7, 1975, he received a letter from a law firm representing Buffy Sainte-Marie, which said, "We have been advised that you have without provocation disparaged and perhaps defamed Buffy and maliciously interfered with her employment opportunities" and the letter stated no expense would be spared in pursuing legal remedies. ..... He decided to back off from his letter-writing campaign afterward and a month later, on December 9, 1975, Buffy made her first appearance on Sesame Street.

Current Piapot Chief Ira Lavallee responded to the CBC News findings and noted that despite her false claims of being Indigenous, Sainte-Marie remained accepted, saying, "We do have one of our families in our community that did adopt her. Regardless of her ancestry, that adoption in our culture to us is legitimate". However, after Sainte-Marie deleted all claims to being Cree and born on Piapot First Nation in Saskatchewan off her official website in late November 2023, chief Ira Lavallee said Sainte-Marie should take a DNA test to clear up confusions, "That's something that anyone in my community can do and would not have fear of doing because we know who we are and what we are, and it's easily provable through a DNA test. If Buffy did that, that's one thing that could clear all this up". Cree author Darrel J. McLeod said that Sainte-Marie is an honorary member of the Piapot family, but that growing up with a white family allowed her to develop her talent and audience from a young age and should "apologize, come clean, stop gaslighting us and find a way to make amends".

Honors and awards

Some of her honors and awards are:

  • Academy Award for Best Original Song – "Up Where We Belong" (1983)
  • Inducted into the Canadian Juno Awards Hall of Fame (1994)
  • Officer of the Order of Canada (1997)
  • Honorary Doctor of Letters – Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design – (2007)
  • Honorary Doctor of Laws – Carleton University (2008)
  • Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts – Ontario College of Art and Design (2010)
  • Governor General's Performing Arts Award (2010)
  • Polaris Music Prize – Power in the Blood (2015)
  • Juno Award – Indigenous music album of the year (2018) (for Medicine Songs)
  • Indigenous Music Awards – Best Folk Album (2018) (for Medicine Songs)
  • Honorary Doctor of Laws – University of Toronto (2019)
  • Polaris Heritage Prize – It's My Way! (2020)
  • Canada Post stamp of Sainte-Marie in 2021


  • In 1979, the Supersisters trading card set was produced and distributed; one of the cards featured Sainte-Marie's name and picture.

In 2023, Buffy Sainte-Marie's false claims to an Indigenous identity were revealed by The Fifth Estate. Since then, there have been calls to rescind awards given to Sainte-Marie that were meant for Indigenous people. Indigenous musicians who lost to Sainte-Marie have expressed their disappointment. ..... All Indigenous artists in this 2018 category should be reconsidered for this rightful honour." Tim Johnson, the former associate director of the National Museum of the American Indian says her Juno awards should be rescinded and the Indigenous musicians who lost against Sainte-Marie should be considered her victims. Rhonda Head, an award-winning opera singer from the Opaskwayak Cree Nation says, "She won awards that were an accolade, that were meant for Indigenous musicians and that's what really hurts me the most. I would like to see that her awards be taken away forever, for her not being truthful and taking up space."

Personal life

In 1964, while on a trip to the Piapot Cree reserve (in Canada) for a powwow, she was adopted by the youngest son of Chief Piapot, Emile Piapot, and his wife, Clara Starblanket Piapot in accordance with Cree Nation tradition.

In 1968, Sainte-Marie married a Hawaiian surfing instructor, Dewain Bugbee; the couple divorced in 1971. She then married Sheldon Wolfchild, from Minnesota, in 1975; together, they have a son, Dakota "Cody" Starblanket Wolfchild. They later divorced. She then married Jack Nitzsche, her co-writer on "Up Where We Belong", on March 19, 1982; they were married for seven years. Although not a practitioner herself, Sainte-Marie became an active friend of the Bahá'í faith, appearing at concerts for and conferences and conventions surrounding the religion. In 1992, she appeared in the musical event prelude to the Baháʼí World Congress, a double concert, "Live Unity: The Sound of the World" (1992) with video broadcast and documentary. In the video documentary of the event Sainte-Marie is seen on the Dini Petty Show explaining the Bahá'í teaching of progressive revelation. She also appears in the 1985 video Mona With The Children by Douglas John Cameron. However, while she supports a universal sense of religion, she does not subscribe to any particular religion. "I gave a lot of support to Bahá'í people in the '80s and '90s … Bahá'í people, as people of all religions, is something I'm attracted to … I don't belong to any religion. … I have a huge religious faith or spiritual faith but I feel as though religion … is the first thing that racketeers exploit. … But that doesn't turn me against religion …

Sainte-Marie applied for Canadian citizenship through her Cree lawyer, Delia Opekokew, in 1980. In 2017, she stated that she does not have a Canadian passport and is a US citizen.



List of albums, with selected chart positions
Year Album Peak chart positions
1964 It's My Way! N/A
1965 Many a Mile N/A
1966 Little Wheel Spin and Spin N/A 97
1967 Fire & Fleet & Candlelight N/A 126
1968 I'm Gonna Be a Country Girl Again N/A 171
1969 Illuminations
1971 She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina 47 182
1972 Moonshot 134
1973 Quiet Places
1974 Buffy
1975 Changing Woman
1976 Sweet America
1992 Coincidence and Likely Stories 63 39
1996 Up Where We Belong
2008 Running for the Drum
2015 Power in the Blood
2017 Medicine Songs
List of collaboration albums
Year Album
1985 Attla: A Motion Picture Soundtrack Album (with William Ackerman)

Compilation albums

List of compilation albums
Year Album Peak chart positions
1970 The Best of Buffy Sainte-Marie 142
1971 The Best of Buffy Sainte-Marie Vol. 2
1974 Native North American Child: An Odyssey
1976 Indian Girl (European release)
A Golden Hour of the Best Of (UK release)
2003 The Best of the Vanguard Years
2008 Buffy/Changing Woman/Sweet America
2010 The Pathfinder: Buried Treasures – The Mid-70's Recordings


List of singles, with selected chart positions
Year Single Peak chart positions Album
1965 "Until It's Time for You to Go" Many a Mile
1970 "The Circle Game" 76 83 109 Fire & Fleet & Candlelight
1971 "Soldier Blue" 7 She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina
"I'm Gonna Be a Country Girl Again" 86 34 98 I'm Gonna Be a Country Girl Again
1972 "Mister Can't You See" 21 70 38 Moonshot
"He's an Indian Cowboy in the Rodeo" 98
1973 "I Wanna Hold Your Hand Forever" N/A
1974 "Waves" 27 Buffy
1992 "The Big Ones Get Away" 24 14 39 Coincidence & Likely Stories
"Fallen Angels" 50 26 57
1996 "Until It's Time for You to Go" 54 Up Where We Belong
2008 "No No Keshagesh" Running for the Drum
2017 "You Got to Run (Spirit of the Wind)"
(featuring Tanya Tagaq)
Medicine Songs

Soundtrack appearances

Year Song(s) Album
1970 "Dyed, Dead, Red" and "Hashishin" with Ry Cooder Performance

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Buffy Sainte-Marie para niños

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