“Carry it On” documentary features singer/songwriter Buffy St Marie

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Released in 2022, “Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On” looks at the life of the Native American singer/songwriter Buffy St, Marie, using archival material never seen before, with present-day footage of Buffy’s performances and interviews.

By Winona LaDuke

I was that little five-year-old girl who sat and listened to every song of Buffy Sainte Marie’s first album. It was an LP, full of songs like Little Wheel, Spin and Spin, Universal Soldier and Now that the Buffalo’s Gone. I would stare at the cover, look at her skin and my own, and smile. Buffy Sainte Marie was my role model, and her amazing career, commitment to art and to community is well told in the just released documentary film, Carry it On.
Buffy Sainte Marie, now  80, records, tours, and makes magic, still. That’s a long performing history. In 1983, she became the first Indigenous person to win an Oscar. Her song, “Up Where We Belong,”­­­ won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, also winning the Golden Globe award the same year.

I listened to those songs repeatedly as a child, and they formed not only my identity but also my sense of history. Now that the Buffalo’s Gone is a searing testimony of America’s genocide against Native people, but it also calls upon all of us to step up, calling out directly to those “who have Indian Blood”.

Put it this way, there are so many people who want to talk about how they are part Indian, but don’t really want to do a darn thing to honor that blood, whether protecting Mother Earth, writing a letter to support their tribal community to a state senator, or sending a donation to a Native organization. Too many people just brag about being part Native, and not really act like it means something.

There were many more songs which deserved attention, but in the spirit of exclusionary America, Native American people are often and largely erased from history. Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On, the PBS documenatry brings to light what erasure looked like in the l970s. In Buffy’s case, it meant that her songs had no airtime on the radio. That was because of calls made by government officials who did not want the Native “plight” brought to the American people. That’s how you can make an artist disappear, except if they are Buffy Sainte Marie.

Sainte-Marie found out about the government’s interference in her career decades later. “They don’t tell you, ‘Hey, you’re under surveillance,’” the singer told a reporter at The Guardian. “I found out about it on a radio show in the 80s.”

Sainte-Marie makes clear, however, that the US government didn’t blacklist her directly. “It’s much worse than that,” she said. “A blacklisting would take an act of Congress. Instead, a couple of sleazy employees…make nasty phone calls to whomever the administration says they should make nasty phone calls to. It’s done on a social level. It’s not even politics. President Johnson was a Democrat and President Nixon was a Republican but neither one of them wanted to hear about what I was singing about. They were deathly afraid of the whole Indigenous law situation because they were highly invested in energy companies and, when it comes to Indigenous rights, that’s the motivating factor.”

The program which intended to burn up Buffy’s career was called COINTELPRO. Created by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, COINTELPRO targeted Native, Black, Latino and progressive activists to reduce their ability to talk to the American people, and perhaps change consciousness. This meant, for instance, the Black Panthers were highly targeted, as was the American Indian Movement. COINTELPRO resulted in assassinations (Black Panther Fred Hampton) and Anishinaabe American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier’s conviction for Oglala deaths of the two FBI Agents who had been on the Pine Ridge Reservation as a part of the program. Peltier is still in jail, but the “reign of terror” as it was called on Pine Ridge, fueled by COINTELPRO resulted in the deaths of many Native activists.

Despite COINTELPRO, Buffy was unstoppable and a chameleon. She moved to Sesame Street, where she was able to talk to millions of children in dozens of countries worldwide, leaving a clear impression that Native people were not in the past, but were very present in the world of today. And she continued to perform.

I met Buffy finally one day in Nebraska, where we had both come to an event honoring Chief Standing Bear, a Ponca Leader who was the first Native person to be recognized as a human by the US court system! I was fifty years old. I sat in the front row and lip-synched ten songs. She was as big as my child imagination. However, when she greeted me backstage, I towered over her, by about a foot. I have had the opportunity to thank her a couple of times for her gifts, but this film, Carry it On, is a way for us all to begin to understand what an artist like Buffy can do, and how, despite all those attempts to sideline her, she’s still here and she’s as strong and beautiful as ever.

Buffy Sainte Marie is full of life and love. That’s to say, that there’s a lot of bitterness in America, a lot of messed up history, but Buffy shows that it’s possible to carry on, and six decades following the release of After the Buffalo’s Gone, the story and moral call for action remain.

I still want to grow up and be like Buffy.