Activism to Sesame Street: Buffy Sainte-Marie

Buffy Sainte-Marie

By Brooks Robards - August 9, 2007

Peace activist and Oscar-winning songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie will be on the Island, Tuesday, August 14, to attend the Martha's Vineyard Film Society screening of the documentary, "Buffy Sainte-Marie: A Multimedia Life." The creation of independent filmmaker Joan Prowse, the film follows Ms. St.-Marie's life from her debut as a folk singer in the early '60s through her years as a political activist to her current life as a digital artist and educator. The movie is a testament to the dynamic creativity of Buffy Sainte-Marie's life and a reminder of the impact one dedicated individual can have in the world. The film will be shown at 8 pm at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs. Immediately following the screening, Ms. St.-Marie will talk with the audience and take questions.

Ms. St.-Marie was born on a Cree reservation in Saskatchewan, and adopted and raised in Maine and Massachusetts. After she graduated from the University of Massachusetts, she hit the folk music scene. Her "Universal Soldier" became a '60s peace movement anthem and she was so outspoken against the war in Vietnam and for Native American rights that the Johnson White House put her on a list of artists whose work "deserved to be suppressed." Nevertheless, her fame grew internationally as she appeared at concerts and activist benefits around the world. Her songs were performed and recorded by Elvis, Cher, Barbra Streisand, Janis Joplin, and Roberta Flack, among others, and she won an Academy Award for "Up Where We Belong."

Ms. St.-Marie has a fascinating life outside music circles as well. In 1976, after giving birth to her first son, she began a five-year stint on "Sesame Street." Her aim, she said, was to teach American children that "Indians still exist." After "Sesame Street," her interest in digital art grew. She was an early user of the Macintosh computer and a pioneer in digital art. She earned a Ph.D. in fine arts at the University of Massachusetts and her works have been shown at numerous Canadian and American museums and galleries.

She is equally active as an educator: In 1996, Ms. Sainte-Marie founded the Cradleboard Teaching Project, which worked through numbers of native communities and non-Indian schoolrooms to create a multimedia curriculum CD, "Science: Through Native American Eyes."

Singer, songwriter, activist; mother, artist, and educator: Ms. Prowse's film captures every turn in the long and varied journey. While filming, the director had unprecedented access to Ms. St.-Marie's life backstage, on the reserves, and at her home in Hawaii and the resulting film beautifully combines recent performance footage and archival clips, including a 1964 Newport Folk Festival performance. Interviews with friends and contemporaries like Joni Mitchell, Bill Cosby, and Taj Mahal add additional insights.

"Buffy Sainte-Marie: A Multimedia Life" is the story of how one shy but talented young singer became not just an internationally known performer and artist but also a forceful voice for peace and human rights. Vineyard artists, musicians, activists, and educators will all find something from this film, and Ms. St.-Marie's life, to inspire them.

"Buffy Sainte-Marie: A Multimedia Life," Tuesday, August 14, 8 pm, Tabernacle, Campground, Oak Bluffs. Sponsored by the Martha's Vineyard Film Society. Tickets go on sale at 7:30 pm, $8 or $5 for society members. For additional information on Ms. St.-Marie and the upcoming film screening, visit the artist's web site, creative-native. com or

Richard Paradise organizes the Martha's Vineyard Film Society.