Buffy Sainte-Marie, 45, singer, Academy Award-winning songwriter and champion of Indian rights, recently completed her first book, ‘Nokosis and the Magic Hat,’ a children’s adventure set on a reservation. With her husband, composer Jack Nitzsche, she wrote the score for the documentary film ‘Stripper’
Q: You’re a Cree? A: Yes. I was born on the Piapot Cree reservation near Craven, Saskatchewan. Q: Is there a Cree Nation in the United States? A: There’s one reservation in the U.S. It’s called Rocky Boy Reservation, in Montana. We’re a huge tribe in Canada. When I say that I’m a Cree, most people will say, “Oh, a Creek?” One out of 10 people will come up with the standard American line, “My grandmother was a full-blooded,” quote, “Cherokee Indian princess.” I just laugh. I know thousands of Cherokees, and I’ve never met one whose grandmother was an Indian princess. But it’s a shame, because it indicates people do have an interest, a pride in even the possibility that they may be part Indian. Q: Do you believe that progress has been made in understanding Indian problems? A: I don’t think there’s been any progress in the average American’s understanding of what’s going on with Indians today. (American) Indian problems are very familiar to every country except the United States. Canada, France, Scandinavia, Russia--even (Soviet leader Mikhail S.) Gorbachev mentioned (the case of ) Leonard Peltier, a major political prisoner in the U.S. (Peltier, an Indian activist, is serving a life term for the shooting deaths of two FBI agents in South Dakota in 1975.) Q: How should government help Indians to improve their lives? A: You have to realize, Indian people have a problem with government. The average Indian person is so used to being denied rights and existing in a situation of unspoken denial of the system that he or she doesn’t know what to do if their rights are denied. Q: The Miskito Indians in Nicaragua are being oppressed by the Sandinistas, according to some reports. Why is this? A: It beats me. I just don’t know. Do you know? I’ve been out of the movement, out of circulation, for the last four years, living on Kauai, taking care of my husband and his health problems. I have not been in contact with any of my friends in AIM (the American Indian Movement); in fact, now that I’m getting unmarried, I intend to become more involved. I’m very careful about not pretending to know about something when I don’t. Q: What do you think about Russell Means of AIM going to Nicaragua to support the Miskito Indians? A: I’m sure Russell Means has his own feelings and concerns about what is going on with Indian people in Central and South America. I’m sure it comes from a place of concern and human brotherhood. American Indians for the last 15 years have been aware of people of our race in the Western Hemisphere who have been victimized by colonialism. There are wonderful things about colonialism--indoor plumbing, for instance--but we don’t want the wonderful things about our own culture flushed down the colonial tubes. It is not only a racial bond; having been colonized ourselves, we want to know about their plight. Q: Do you find that the experience of native Hawaiians has parallels to that of American Indians? A: What’s interesting specifically about Hawaiian people to me as a native person is that Hawaiians have been screwed, manipulated, their governments belittled, devalued, changed, lied to, stolen from. They have our same respect for the land, bonding with nature. Native natural cultures throughout the world seem to share those things. Aboriginal people in Australia are in a situation similar to American Indian people and Hawaiian people. I’ve spent a lot of time in Scandinavia with Lapps--specifically the Samer in Northern Norway--and the Ainu people in Japan. Our colonization seems to result in the same thing over and over again, when colonial culture comes upon native natural culture. Q: When you were a regular on “Sesame Street” several years ago, did you use it as an opportunity to shatter some myths about Indians? A: Not even shatter the myths; provide the truths before the myth comes up. That’s the thing. You’ve got to provide the reality before the fantasy is even mentioned. I wanted to let (viewers) know that Indian people are here, that we exist, that we’re not dead and stuffed in museums; that we’re not stiff, up-tight, hard, as portrayed over recent television. I think what Indian people have to say is such a contribution to the world. It’s so beautiful, it’s so much fun, it’s not all heavy. There’s a kind of lightness that Indian people have. It’s down home, it’s funky, and it’s been portrayed as so heavy and stiff in the movies, except for Dan George, God bless him, in, “Little Big Man.” Q: Let’s talk about your book. What made you decide to write it? A: It’s called “Nokosis and the Magic Hat.” Nokosis is a Cree word that corresponds to Sonny, my boy; it’s fantasy, like “Winnie the Pooh” or anything else that has magical characters. It does take place on a reservation. It’s the story of a little boy who takes off on adventures, and his grandmother gives him a magic hat. He finds out that the true magic of the magic hat is the magic of friendship of the little animals who live on the land. It’s written for 7-, 8-, 9-year-olds, with just enough Cree words. Q: How did you get involved with “Stripper”? A: My husband was asked to score it and was working on “Starman” at the time and knew he couldn’t take it on. So he asked director Jerome Gary if we could do it 50-50. As it turned out, I wound up doing 80% of it. Q: One got the feeling from the film that stripping in Canada is somehow more natural than it is in the U.S. A: (The film) isn’t real raunchy, it’s dancers. I don’t think it’s exploitive. All the women I’ve talked to who’ve seen it have loved it. The women who were involved in it enjoyed it. Q: Women sometimes seem to be torn between wanting to be modern feminists and wanting to be “real women"--to be a little bit exhibitionist. I see two streams of womanliness. A: (Laughs). Spoken like a man, buddy! I think there are so many different streams of womanliness in the world, women are taking it into their own hands to just do what they want to do and not worry about those things any more than men do. Some dancers are making their living as strippers and enjoying it. Good! Some people aren’t interested in that at all. That’s OK. A lot of women just can’t dance a lick. Q: You seem like a happy person. A: I feel good. My husband and I, who have decided not to be married, are on better terms than ever. We’re in the process of becoming unmarried. I invested four years of my life in my husband’s health, his finances, his career, his stability, and now I want to be a channel for my own best energies and direct them toward a return to performing. I’ve always felt it was possible to have great creative medicine within yourself as an artist. When I walk into any place in the world, knowing I can give people a touch of Indian culture, I feel like Santa Claus.