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Buffy Sainte-Marie On The 'North American Holocaust' And Why Canada Needs To Decolonize

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Buffy Sainte-Marie first burst onto the international music scene in the 1960s, and since then the iconic Cree folk singer has worked tirelessly to spotlight, protect and inspire indigenous people.

"Medicine Songs," the 76-year-old's upcoming album, features familiar protest tunes alongside new works like her Tanya Tagaq collaboration "War Racket," as well as a Canadian version of her Native American history lesson, "My Country 'Tis Of Thy People You're Dying."

As the children were herded and raped and converted / And when do we rescue the missing and murdered?"
— Buffy Sainte-Marie, singer and activist

First performed at the Truth and Reconciliation closing ceremony, the song tackles "the genocide basic to this country's birth" while her inimitable voice sings residential school-inspired lyrics like, "when will we tell of the starvation hell / as the children were herded and raped and converted / and when do we rescue the missing and murdered?"

The Saskatchewan-born singer sat down with HuffPost Canada to dissect our country's indigenous past, present and future before this weekend's Junos where she's being honoured with the Allan Slaight Humanitarian Award for her decades of political activism and philanthropy.

buffy saintemarie

I've interviewed indigenous people who don't consider Canada 150 something worth celebrating. I know that you're participating in anniversary events in Vancouver. What's your take?

Well, my motto is stay calm and decolonize.

For me, the celebration of 150 is the perfect opportunity to continue to decolonize. Decolonizing doesn't hurt anybody. It's exactly what everybody needs to do.

What is decolonization?

People are still under the impression that, and put this in quotes, "our Indians" belong to the colonial administration and that's the way life has been for us. To decolonize you have to get rid of the basic assumption that indigenous people are somehow to be classed with the flora and the fauna.

That was actually the case in Australia, and even though we don't say that in Canada, that is sometimes how we have been treated.

"Well, my motto is stay calm and decolonize ."

So you know there's a lot of day-by-day education that people are doing. They are doing it in Idle No More. People are doing it as songwriters like myself. People are doing it when they talk on the phone. Decolonization is not only acts of parliament, it's not only acts of government.

Is Canada a racist country?

Those words are just too encompassing. Some people in Canada are racists. Some people in the world are racists. Almost everybody in Canada is under-educated, or miseducated, when it comes to aboriginal things, I will say that.

And the consequences of that are quite unnecessarily limiting. We don't have to be ignorant anymore.

buffy saintemarieIn 1971 Buffy Sainte-Marie was touring Europe and using the proceeds from her concerts and records to put indigenous students through college. (Getty)

You've been fighting for indigenous rights for a long time. How has the situation changed?

The good news about the bad news is that more people know now. I don't think anybody was using the word genocide in terms of Native America — North, South, Central America — in the '60s. But I was using it in a song called "My Country 'Tis Of Thy People You're Dying," which is about the North American holocaust.

And people didn't get it in those days. They thought maybe I was making this up and all it is is a list of facts, all of which are provable. But now I'm coming out with a Canadian version.


Now people can understand it, now people have a reference for it now because of the work of a lot of other people, including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It's been a lot of day-by-day, song-by-song and article-by-article work on the part of a lot of people that has resulted in the fact that more people know now.

How do we speed up progress on issues like education, housing, suicide and drinking water?

You have to keep reminding yourself of the successes. If you are in the grassroots Indian community and you hang out with your relatives and people are laughing at the birth of a new baby and having fun and being nice to each other — or just hanging out and making dinner together — you see a lot of bright spots in individual family life.

We've got a long way to go but we mustn't ever, ever forget how far we have come."

But so far as actually solving the big dilemmas of colonialism? We've got a long way to go but we mustn't ever, ever forget how far we have come. We've come a long way. There was a time when we weren't citizens, when we didn't have freedom of religion. We have made a lot of progress. So let's be happy about it and continue to make progress and not get discouraged.

Europeans were exploiting indigenous people since they first came across them, and things have improved. It's no longer as bad as it was. But there are residuals of all of that stuff that most Canadians don't even know.

buffy sainte marie

Do you have any advice for the new generation of young people who are trying to make a difference and take a stand?

You don't help anybody when you burn out. So get to know when it's time to have a bath and a nap and a good night's sleep. Don't burn out. That's always my first recommendation.

Secondly, there are many, many ways to get a message across. And we need all of the big ways and all of the small ways. You could write a 400-page book or you can write a three-minute song.

Another thing that I would offer is you have to be brief and you have to be engaging. The only thing that's important is being effective. You don't necessarily bludgeon people with the information. You make it palatable.

"Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" is a rock 'n' roll track for a very good reason. That's because the information is so new and disturbing to most people who have never heard of it before. You want them to be dancing, you want them to be feeling good before they realize they're listening to a protest song.

So there are ways to do it and there are ways that are just going to turn your audience off.

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