2015’s Power In The Blood catapulted Buffy Sainte-Marie back into public consciousness and active activist duty.
In 1964, when Bill McNeil introduced Buffy Sainte-Marie to CBC Radio listeners as “an Indian Girl”, he instructed audience members to “remember [her] name because you’ll hear a great deal about this young lady in years to come.” Sainte-Marie was on the leading edge of the folk music scene blossoming in Toronto’s Yorkville district and Greenwich Village in New York, but I imagine that few who followed her career at that time would have predicted that half a century later, in her seventy-fifth year, Sainte-Marie would introduce herself to a new generation of listeners through a re-recording of “It’s My Way”, the title track of her ’64 debut album.
Children of the ’70s and ’80s like me knew Sainte-Marie from her groundbreaking work on Sesame Street, dispelling Native American stereotypes and being the first woman to breastfeed on television. While she continued to record and perform through the 80s and the 90s, 2015’s Power In The Blood catapulted the artist and activist back into the public consciousness. For her fifteenth studio album, Buffy Sainte-Marie reached deep into her musical past and planted her feet firmly in the present, tying the two ends together to kick off a career-celebrating record that would go on to win her the Polaris Music Prize. Power In The Blood is equal parts retrospection and future-building, mixing reinterpretations of songs from her canon with new compositions, collaborations, and covers (the title song is Sainte-Marie’s take on an Alabama 3 song that loops in elements of the original).
Power In The Blood’s stand-out moment comes in the album’s opening third with “We Are Circling”, a rhythmic, rocking anthem celebrating every earthly thing from “creature to creation,” first recorded with The Sadies for their 2013 album, Internal Sounds. According to Sainte-Marie, the song originates with the Rainbow Family in Northern California, when it had just one verse. She added more for this version, spreading its message in ever-widening circles with each verse, her trademark vibrato punctuating the lines “This is harmony / This is community / This is celebration / This is sacred.” It is the album’s spiritual heart, its pulse, its power, its blood.
Fearless and forthright as ever, Sainte-Marie tackled politics and social justice causes with aplomb. A cover of UB40’s anti-apartheid anthem “Sing Our Own Song” re-contextualizes the song and adds new lyrics referencing Idle No More. She dedicates “Ke Sakihitin Awasis” to all generations of indigenous peoples of North America, those who keep their culture alive and refuse to let the struggle and oppression be quietly forgotten or dismissed. With the vigor and gusto of someone half her age, Sainte-Marie rallies a new generation on Power In The Blood’s closing song, “Carry It On” to keep her legacy alive: “Look right now / and you will see / we are only here by the skin of our teeth / as it is, so take heart / and take care of your link with life / and carry it on.”
Those who first heard her plainspoken folk music in 1964 and those who grew up with her on Sesame Street never forgot the indelible impression this fiercely independent “Indian Girl” first made on them. The same is true for new fans who found a connection in Sainte-Marie’s spiritual conviction on Power In The Blood, and found their way to a new generation of indigenous artists like Iskwé and Jeremy Dutcher who carry on Sainte-Marie’s message.