Buffy Sainte-Marie Celebrates Music, Indigenous Peoples and Activism in TIFF Documentary

When Buffy Sainte-Marie was approached to be the subject of an autobiographical documentary, the Indigenous singer-songwriter knew she didn’t want the film to be like anything she had done before.

After all, she is already the subject of a 2006 documentary by Toronto filmmaker Joan Prowse, a 2012 biography by Regina historian Blair Stonechild is named after her; and Vancouver music writer Andrea Warner published a book on Sainte-Marie in 2018.

“I think a lot of documentaries are just talking heads and that’s just boring, right?” Saint-Marie told CBC’s Eli Glasner. “When they first came up to me and asked me, I explained that I was really not interested in doing this. If I were to participate, I would like it to be creative for me.”

“I had some ideas about filmmaking – about how a movie can be moody, textured and emotional – and that’s what interested me the most.”

In 2022 Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry on.which had its world premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the 81-year-old musician’s life is revisited through archival footage, photographs, performances and interviews with the woman herself.

WATCH | Buffy Sainte-Marie the subject of a new TIFF doc:

Buffy Sainte-Marie discusses a new TIFF documentary about her life

The Indigenous music icon chats with CBC’s Eli Glasner about Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On and how she used her songs to raise awareness of Indigenous issues for six decades.

Winnipeg filmmaker Madison Thomas, of Ojibwa/Saulteaux, Russian and Ukrainian descent, directed the documentary with a screenplay written by Warner.

“I gave them a lot of choices,” said Sainte-Marie, who went through her personal collection of photographs and scrapbooks to help compile material for the film. “Writings, newspaper clippings, real racist stereotypes… some of them really awful and silly… I was scanning my little head.”

Born to a Plains Cree mother and later adopted by a white man and a Mi’kmaq woman, Sainte-Marie said the only other Indigenous person in her town was a Narragansett Indian Nation mail carrier who designed aboriginal badges for movies.

Her ability to be a professional musician and her identity as an Aboriginal—”No, you can’t be Indian, there aren’t any more here”—were denied at school, the first because she didn’t couldn’t read European Notations, she said.

“As an adult, I discovered that I was dyslexic in music in exactly the same way Einstein was dyslexic in certain types of math. If you like it and feel like it, you get there by a different path. So, like a horrible lot of natural musicians in this world, I play by ear.”

WATCH | Sainte-Marie remembers meeting Queen Elizabeth in 1977:

Buffy Sainte-Marie remembers the first time she met Queen Elizabeth

The singer-songwriter tells the story of a performance for Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau at the National Arts Center in 1977.

Among Sainte-Marie’s greatest successes as a singer-songwriter include universal soldierthe pacifist anthem popularized by folk singer Donovan; Until it’s time for you to leave which was re-recorded by Elvis in 1972; and Now that the Buffalo is gonea protest song about the cultural genocide of indigenous peoples in Europe.

“In the 60s, they didn’t buy it when I was writing Now that the Buffalo is gone Where My country: it is of your people that you die. There was neither truth nor reconciliation. And the attitude was, ‘little Indian girl must be wrong,'” she said.

“Fifty years later, [with] truth and reconciliation now, at least in Canada… people know about it. So I had an idea. I moved forward in my time, because I knew it was right.”