In honour of International Women’s Day 2019, JFK members are highlighting the contributions of a number of Indigenous women.
Up Where We Belong
Buffy Sainte-Marie was born in 1941 on the Piapot Reserve in Saskatchewan’s Qu’Appelle River Valley. She was raised by an adoptive family in Wakefield, Massachusetts, but stayed connected with her Cree community in Saskatchewan.
I discovered Buffy in 1996 through the release of her Album “Up Where We Belong”, although the songs on that album had been released before. From then on, I was hooked on Buffy.
Her album led me to asking critical questions about the gaps in Indigenous’ peoples and women’s rights. Those reflections were inspired by songs like Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee and Universal Solider.
Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee exposed me to what had been previously-unknown history: a brutal episode of violence by the US government against Indigenous Americans, occurring in 1890 on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Her song, although released in 1992, speaks to the greed that forces Indigenous peoples from their land, and it resonates today:
Indian legislation on the desk of a do-right Congressman
Now, he don’t know much about the issue
so he picks up the phone and he asks advice from the
Senator out in Indian country
A darling of the energy companies who are
ripping off what’s left of the reservations. Huh.
I learned a safety rule
I don’t know who to thank
Don’t stand between the reservation and the
They send in federal tanks
It isn’t nice but it’s reality
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee
Deep in the Earth
Cover me with pretty lies
bury my heart at Wounded Knee. Huh.
Universal Soldier was originally released in 1964 during the Vietnam war. And the song became the anthem of the anti-war movement, although it was banned on U.S. radio. The song is now in the Canadian Songwriting Hall of Fame. Buffy is quoted as saying the song is about the personal responsibility of us all in war: “…we can’t blame just the soldier for the war, or just the career military officer, or just the politician. We have to blame ourselves too since we are living in an era where we actually elect our politicians.”
Buffy has spent most of her career educating and advocating through her music. For five years she took that project to the screen of Sesame Street, where she became the first woman to breastfeed on national TV in 1977. She has made, and with the recent release of her album Medicine Songs she continues to make, a tremendous contribution to the Indigenous’ rights and women’s movements. Notably, she was one of the first public figures to use the word “genocide” to refer to the treatment of Indigenous people by the State. That label appeared in her 1966 song, “My Country ’Tis of Thy People You’re Dying.” It took Canada five more decades to come to that recognition.
Buffy has been the recipient of numerous honorary doctorates, Junos and Grammys. She won an Academy Award for Best Original Song – Up Where We Belong – making her the first Indigenous person to win an Oscar. She is set to be inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame on April 1, 2019.
Buffy’s music had a huge impact on me. Her music has played a role in how I see the world, what inquiries I make about the world, and how I am inspired to contribute to the world. As we move toward gender equality – I take inspiration in her words from Up Where we Belong:
The road is long
There are mountains in our way
But we climb a step every day
Love, lift us up where we belong