Buffy Sainte-Marie can be hard to reach.
She’s often out tending her goats, said the singer/songwriter’s agent Todd Jordan.
But Thursday afternoon — Hawaii time — she answered the phone.
It was like calling an old friend.
“Hi, how are ya,” she said, before asking about the aurora, snow levels and whether the light is coming back.
When Sainte-Marie heard there hadn’t been that much aurora activity, she was only mildly disappointed — “Oh phooey, I’m coming anyway.”
Sainte-Marie played Whitehorse before, but couldn’t remember when.
“I was going to ask you,” she said with a laugh.
The aboriginal singer, who exploded into prominence in the ‘60s, continues to play big shows, including a concert for more than a million people for the Smithsonian’s 150th birthday.
But she doesn’t care about the size of the crowd.
“I’d play the same way if I was singing to one person,” she said, citing small Indian reserves she’s visited.
“I always sing for each person.”
Sainte-Marie, born to Cree parents in Saskatchewan, was adopted and grew up in Maine.
“Even when I was three I would sit down at the piano and you couldn’t get me away,” she said.
But the young virtuoso didn’t plan to be a singer.
After earning a degree in Oriental philosophy, Sainte-Marie was heading to a college in India on scholarship.
The school was founded by Gandhi and combined religion with the arts.
“It was right up my alley,” said Sainte-Marie.
But she never got there.
While she was singing in small coffeehouses, a part of the rising student movement in the US, Sainte-Marie’s popularity grew.
“I didn’t think I was going to last as a singer more than a year or so, so I just went for broke and did anything I wanted,” she said.
“I figured I’d go (to India) next year, but by the time I started travelling around I was really enjoying it.”
In the early ‘60s, when Sainte-Marie was starting out, there weren’t many singer songwriters around.
“I began before Bob Dylan,” she said.
“It was after the beatniks, but before the hippies.”
Sainte-Marie got billed as a folk singer because of the long hair and guitar, but she differentiates herself from contemporaries like Joan Baez.
“Baez was singing real folk songs, but mine I was writing myself; I just didn’t tell anybody I wrote them,” she said.
But Elvis Presley figured it out.
And he recorded one of Sainte-Marie’s love songs.
The Vietnam War was also coming to a head around this time, and Sainte-Marie’s song Universal Soldier shot up on the charts.
“All of a sudden, I was on network TV and all over the place,” she said.
But her fame was short-lived.
Sainte-Marie’s music was suddenly pulled off the airwaves.
Blacklisted by the White House, the native singer was “kicked out of the US.”
“They just managed to make sure I didn’t get airplay anymore on the radio,” she said. “My record shipments never made it to the stores, and they wrote letters on White House stationary to broadcasters, thanking them for suppressing my music.”
Sainte-Marie didn’t find out what had happened for 10 years.
“I just went on my merry way and continued to discover the rest of the world, and stopped performing in the US for the most part,” she said.
The travelling suited Sainte-Marie, who’s always been in the business for the airplane tickets.
“ I love to sing,” she said.
“I’ll sing around a campfire or at a big fancy hall or whatever, that’s just part of my nature, it’s what I like to do.
“But for the professional stuff, what makes it all worthwhile is to go places and travel and meet people — oh, what a treat.”
During her travels, Sainte-Marie ended up in Hawaii, and decided not to leave.
She bought land on a tiny, remote island. Her farm is nestled against a mountain and abuts a forest reserve.
It was the perfect place to remain anonymous, and Sainte-Marie lived under an assumed name for years with her two “kitties,” two horses and 24 goats.
But after Sesame Street started filming in her backyard, it blew her cover.
When the popular kids show first approached Sainte-Marie, it hoped she’d recite the alphabet and count to 10.
“But I said, ‘Nah, I don’t want to do that,’” she said.
“I asked if they’d ever done any aboriginal programming and they hadn’t, so that’s the way we started.”
When Sainte-Marie became pregnant with her son Dakota Starblanket Wolfchild, she imagined she’d have to leave the show, but then realized Sesame Street had never done episodes on babies and families.
“So we continued and always did surprising things in my episodes,” she said.
“It was the first time a kids show did any Native American stuff and it was the first time that anybody did breast feeding on television.”
Sainte-Marie has been championing aboriginal education for decades and is the founder of the Cradleboard teaching project, a web-based venture aimed at Native education.
A First Nations advocate, Sainte-Marie has witnessed a number of positive changes over the years.
“When I first started out, you couldn’t find an Indian lawyer, you couldn’t find an Indian doctor, you couldn’t find very many Indian people who’d been to college let alone had PhDs, and now we’re all over the place,” she said.
“When you think about it in one way, you think things are a million times better, but when you think about it another way, you think things have to get a million times better — there’s no end to the good work left to be done.”
Sainte-Marie’s virtual school was cutting edge for its time, in keeping with her approach to technology.
“I never had that attitude that a lot of people had about computers, that they are for business and pie charts,” she said.
“I always had a lot of fun with them and didn’t know enough to be intimidated.”
Sainte-Marie started toying around with computers in the early ‘80s, when they were still hulking behemoths. And she was the first recording artist to deliver an album via modem, from Hawaii to her record company in England.
Applying her doctorate in fine arts, Sainte-Marie also uses computers to generate works of art, often mixing paint with digital imagery.
“Sometimes I start something in my wet studio, then put it in the computer and play with it — turn it upside down and inside out and add stuff to it, incorporate a photo, or change the colour all the way around,” she said.
“It’s still the artist calling the shots, except with a computer it’s a lot easier to clean up and you can save lots of versions.”
Over her lengthy career, Sainte-Marie has received many honours, including a medal from Queen Elizabeth II, the Order of Canada, won an academy award, received an honourary PhD and has had her songs recorded by Janis Joplin, Chet Atkins, Tracy Chapman and Neil Diamond, to name a few.
“When I first started out, I was singing like a songwriter would sing demos, hoping somebody else would sing them,” she said.
“I would just concentrate on what the song was about and that would get me through the shyness, so it’s not as though I was trying to be Jessica Simpson.”
It’s an incredible privilege to be an artist, said Sainte-Marie.
“And be able to hold your wits together and show up on time and do a great show for people, especially for people where the nights are long and dark.”