Few artists can boast the creative or political longevity and impact of Buffy Sainte-Marie. The Indigenous singer-songwriter, who turns 78 today (February 20), established an international reputation for truth-to-power art and advocacy, with a particular focus on Native American and First Nations communities.
Consider these five career highlights from the Cree artist’s tremendous body of work:
Sainte-Marie, who was born on Cree lands in Canada and raised in New England, exploded into the the ’60s folk scene with her 1964 debut. The album opens with “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone,” a scathing indictment of governments’ ongoing damage to Indigenous land rights and self-determination:
Has a change come about my dear man
Or are you still taking our lands
A treaty forever your senators sign
They do dear lady, they do dear man
And the treaties are broken again and again
And what will you do for these ones
As her growing popularity reportedly made her a target of the U.S. government, Sainte-Marie launched the Nihewan Foundation in 1969. With a mission to advance Indigenous children’s educational outcomes, the foundation has supported scholarships for university students and developed then-radical Indigenous studies models. The best-known of the foundation’s initiatives is the Cradleboard Teaching Project, which facilitated cultural exchange and nuanced curricula about Native American communities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous classrooms.
Sainte-Marie carried her passion for children’s education into a five-season stint on the popular kids program during the l970s. Many of her segments involved teaching puppet residents about Native American culture. Here’s Sainte-Marie explaining the mouthbow:
Sainte-Marie co-wrote this song for the 1982 film, “An Officer and a Gentleman.” The ballad earned her an Oscar for best Original Song—the only one ever won by a Native American artist.
Outside of music, Sainte-Marie was an early adapter of Apple computers as vehicles for visual art. Her recurring exhibition, “16 Million Colours,” features large portraits of Indigenous people and characters (including herself) that trace 30 years of Macintosh art software’s evolution.