Blair Stonechild is author of Buffy Sainte-Marie: It's My Way, the newly released authorized biography.
Kerry Clare: As a writer, what compelled you to take on Buffy Sainte-Marie as your subject? Of the many dimensions of her talent and story, which interested you the most?
Blair Stonechild: I recall Buffy as a huge inspiration during my university days in the early 1970s. She has had a nearly 50 year career and is known and loved world wide. When I realized she didn’t have a substantial biography, I decided to approach her. I wanted her inspirational story to be fully known. One of the main things I learned is how natural and broad her talent and creativity is and how she triumphed over adversity. She provides a great example to many Aboriginal and other youth who feel desperate about their situation that determination and drive can get you somewhere.
KC: Your previous books were about Canadian First Nations history and educational policy. It seems a big leap from those books to a celebrity biography. But what are the connections between your new book and the other two? What were you able to bring to a biography of Buffy Sainte-Marie that the average biographer couldn’t have offered?
BS: Because Buffy has roots in and links to the First Nations community, my interest in history and in education lent itself well to putting Buffy’s life in context. Particularly important from Buffy’s point of view and mine were that the Aboriginal component be dealt with sensitively with respect to culture and politics. Buffy wanted someone who was sensitive to Aboriginal history and concerns, as she herself became immersed in her culture and became controversially involved with the radical American Indian Movement.
KC: I picked up your book prepared to go through it and make notes for this interview in a business-like manner, and then found myself completely absorbed by Sainte-Marie’s life story. So much about her was unknown to me before, and her story is fascinating. What do you think readers will be most surprised to learn about her life story as they encounter it through It’s My Way? What parts of her story were new to you?
BS: I was not aware of Buffy’s interest in pioneering experimentation with electronic and digital technology. She pioneering efforts in digital art using early Mac computers, for which she earned an honorary doctorate, she was among the first to use electronic effects in her music for example in the Illuminations album, and she was perhaps the first to transmit music files across the globe to be produced. Like many talented people I found that Buffy had complex personal relationships including with individuals prominent in the music industry such as Jack Nitzsche and Norbert Putnam.
KC: What kind of biographical information existed about Sainte-Marie previous to your biography? Did you have a lot to work with in your research? How much of a role did Sainte-Marie herself play in shaping this book, her authorized biography?
BS: There were only biographical sketches mostly on the internet and many of them containing inaccurate information. So there was not a lot of extensive written material to work with. Fortunately I am familiar with oral interviews and gained intimate access to her friends and acquaintances. I also had the opportunity to do research with Toronto documentary company Cinefocus who gathered a substantial archive of information during their research. I was fortunate that Buffy was willing to be so helpful as she was instrumental in filling in many of the gaps. Buffy must have felt that I was the right person at the right time to create her biography as she had turned down others before me.
KC: Were there unexpected challenges in telling Buffy Sainte-Marie’s life story? How did you overcome them?
BS: One of the greatest challenges was to figure out how to organize all of the information of a very busy and creative life into a narrative that would both flow and be engaging. There were so many things going on that instead of just taking a straight chronological approach it was decided to group her activities according to theme. Otherwise readers would have been constantly jumping back and forth between experiences. It was also a challenge to piece together Buffy’s early life. Through a lot of internet detective work I managed to track down friends that even Buffy had lost contact with. I spent an interesting week travelling around New England making contact and doing interviews. Elaine Sainte-Marie was tremendously helpful in shedding light on the Sainte-Marie family’s history.
KC: Near the end of the book, you include a comment from Sainte-Marie’s long-time friend Albert Angus that, “Here is an individual who has had such a high public profile, but who has never as far as I know made a mistake.” He credits her sense of honour. What do you think has allowed her to never waver in the public spotlight, something so many other celebrities seem unable to avoid?
BS: Buffy has had a deep sense of respect for others going back to her childhood. She vowed to never let negativity get in the way of her life efforts. She has had long interest in spirituality, education and culture and is a real believer in the potential of humankind, despite all of its foibles. She takes good care of her physical, emotional and mental health. In other words she is a real idealist in the face of greatest adversities.
KC: What other biographies of First Nations Canadians would you recommend for readers who enjoyed your book?
BS: There have been biographies of Buffy’s ancestor Chief Piapot (Piapot and His People by Abel Watetch) as well as other Cree leaders of that era such as Big Bear (Big Bear: The End of Freedom by High Dempsey) and Poundmaker (Poundmaker by Norman Sluman). These leaders had a strong cultural grounding in spirituality and social justice which was not recognized by Europeans who simply dismissed them as ignorant savages.
KC: If you were creating a 5-track Essential Buffy Sainte-Marie playlist, what songs would you choose to include?
BS: Buffy is competent in a wide range of music genres so some might prefer her love songs or her protest songs or her country or pop songs depending on their taste, However I would include her most successful song "Until It’s Time for You to Go", the Academy Award winning "Up Where We Belong", antiwar anthem "Universal Soldier", experimental music such as "God is Alive", and one of my favorite Native American songs "Star Walker", in which Buffy’s powerful and expressive voice comes out in its fullest.
Blair Stonechild is a member of the Muscowpetung First Nation in Saskatchewan. He obtained his B.A. from McGill, and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Regina, and in 1976 was the first academic hired by the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College (SIFC). Blair is currently Professor of Indigenous Studies and has served as Dean of Academics and Executive Director of Development for the First Nations University of Canada (formerly Saskatchewan Indian Federated College). He co-authored with Dr. Bill Waiser, Loyal Till Death: Indians and the North-West Rebellion, which won the Saskatchewan Book Award and was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award in 1997. Dr. Stonechild’s book on First Nations post-secondary policy, The New Buffalo: Aboriginal Post-secondary Policy in Canada (2006), was a finalist for the Saskatchewan Book Award. Blair was a Trustee of the Canadian Museum of Civilization from 1990 to 1998. He has done extensive consulting on Aboriginal education. Blair is married to Sylvia and is father to Michael, Rachel, and Gabrielle.
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