True To Herself

M.C. Escher wrote, in the year of my birth, his words maybe meant for me specifically, or maybe not, but wise words for us all to live by. “A person who is lucidly aware of the miracles that surround him, who has learned to bear up under the loneliness, has made quite a bit of progress on the road to wisdom,” wrote Maurits Cornelis Escher in 1955. I can see why he was known as MC Escher. Escher was a Dutch graphic artist, not a poet of words but certainly his art spoke of a deeper understanding few of us have achieved. I know of someone keenly aware of the miracles that surrounded her despite the hardships of her childhood. She was named Beverly at birth, born perhaps in February of 1941, adopted as an infant from somewhere in Saskatchewan, likely Piapot in the Qu’Appelle Valley, taken to a white family in Massachusetts. The truths of her identity aren’t available to her in documented form despite such being a fundamental right for each of us, the right to know who we are and where we came from. Too many children have had their birth stories erased. Now she is called Buffy and we lay claim to her roots in Canada and herald her as one of our creative souls, but she belongs to herself.

Buffy Sainte-Marie had an instant attachment to the piano in her childhood. She played by ear, starting scoring nursery rhymes in her head as a very young child. She never took a single music lesson but music dwells in every cell in her body. Buffy is eighty-three, her wonderful laugh intact, her curious nature and her creative soul still educating and challenging us to view the past with greater clarity. She has made significant “progress on the road to wisdom” and I am inspired by her. I am reading her authorized biography published in 2018 by Greystone Books, written by Andrea Warner. I am only able to scratch the surface of her life in this space, but I urge you to pick up the book, to come closer to understanding a soul who isn’t interested in celebrity or wealth, who uses her creativity for protest, to educate, in understanding and in the pursuit of truth, and simply for her love of music in all its forms. She has forged her own path, listened to the whisperings inside her to find direction. Her adoptive mother encouraged her to be curious about the world. She listened. She was told in school that “Indians” didn’t exist. She knew better. She turned inward and “found a sense of peace with her music, with nature and her relationship with the Creator, keeping her spirit safe with generosity and warmth,” writes Warner.

Buffy’s debut album was It’s My Way released in 1964. Warner describes all of Buffy’s music as a “soundtrack to some revelation”. Before the release of this album, Buffy spent time playing in coffee houses – a place for conversations to happen, for awareness to develop, for discussion about what mattered to those drinking coffee. There was no booze or drugs, says Buffy; it was all about connecting and searching for answers. She is grateful for those days and misses them, a time when young people ached for meaning and purpose to their lives.

Buffy was not at Woodstock though she is often thought of as being there. She laughs about the mistake. Despite having written what Warner calls “one of the most provocative and relevant protest anthems of the 20th century, Universal Soldier, Buffy was not invited. And despite having never broken the law and never making her activism about violence or harm, she has been blacklisted twice in the United States by the administrations of two presidents. I watched an interview with Buffy where she explains the source of Universal Soldier. She was stranded in the San Francisco airport and saw soldiers entering who had been seriously wounded. Americans were being told there was no war in Viet Nam, but here was the evidence. Who is responsible for war, she thought. Is it the soldiers? They follow the orders of generals. Are the generals responsible? They are instructed by politicians. Are the politicians responsible? We elect the politicians. We are responsible, says Buffy.

Buffy wasn’t afraid to stretch the boundaries of her music, to do thinks differently. She has won many awards – Academy Award, Juno, Gemini, Juno Humanitarian and more. She was a regular on Sesame Street from 1976 to 1981, a time she thoroughly enjoyed. She breastfed her young infant son on the program in 1977, a first for television. She is and always has been unapologetically loyal to her own dreams, her own ideas, and her own heritage. She is one of those precious few who treated the world better than she was treated.