By Bruce Weir
with permission from
This year's winner of the National Aboriginal Achievement award for lifetime achievement is no stranger to public accolades. Buffy Sainte-Marie has received a medal from Queen Elizabeth II, a Honorary Doctorate of Laws from the University of Regina, France's "Best International Artist" and won numerous awards, including a Juno, a Gemini and an Oscar for the song "Up Where We Belong." She has even been involved in creating new awards, including the Best Aboriginal Music of Canada Juno, which she won in 1997.
All these acknowledgments stem from her work not just as a musician, but also as a social activist, and the lifetime achievement award acknowledges her contributions to Native education and other social causes as well as her art and music.
Her interests have grown since she first made a name for herself as a singer in the 1960s. She is also a visual artist who paints on her Macintosh computer and the founder and president of the Nhihewan Foundation for American Indian Education. These interests reflect her own educational background, which includes a Ph.D. in fine arts and degrees in Oriental Philosophy and teaching.
The 57-year-old Sainte-Marie was born in Saskatchewan's Qu'Appelle Valley and, after being adopted, was raised in Maine and Massachusetts. Today, she lives in Hawaii where she devotes a great deal of her time to The Cradleboard Teaching Project. In fact, this summer she has a limited touring schedule so that she can dedicate herself to the various tasks of the educational initiative.
The project was started in 1996 and includes lesson plans and a curriculum for use in schools, but it also takes advantage of new technology to link communities separated by both cultural and geographical distance. "It reaches both Indian and non-Indian children with positive realities, while they are young," says the project's web site.
The Cradleboard Teaching Project stems from Sainte-Marie's involvement with Kids from Kanata, a similar organization run in partnership with The Canadian Education Association and the Faculty of Education at York University. Students in Canada and the United States can now chat online and share their different experiences and create a better understanding between Natives and non-Natives.
The Cradleboard Teaching Project is just one of the tools that Sainte-Marie is using to create awareness of contemporary Native cultures. But whether her vehicle is music, art, television (she was a semi-regular on Sesame Street from 1976-1981) or the Internet, her message is the same: "Indians Exist."
"The reality of the situation is that we're not all dead and stuffed in some museum with the dinosaurs; we are here in this digital age," she writes on her home page. She says that Natives have led the way in some aspects of new technology, including digital music and online art.
She adds that there are still many opportunities presented by the computer. In a speech at the Institute for American Indian Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, she said that with "computer technology becoming so affordable and so awesome in the area of graphics and communications, there is a potential for the Native alternative point-of-view to be shared in major and ongoing ways."
Another way of sharing that point of view that Sainte-Marie is involved with is through Creative Native. This organization is dedicated to bringing Native art and entertainment to depressed Native areas and, in the process, celebrating different cultures and achievements.
The lifetime achievement award celebrates Saint-Marie's accomplishments, but the energy and commitment of the woman mean they are far from over. She is acutely aware of the need to keep adapting to the changing world.
In her speech to the Institute for American Indian Arts, she summed up the need by saying "It would be my dream to have color and sound setups like I have at home, in every school, on every reservation. To me, a Macintosh is a natural and easy to learn tool, and it belongs in the hands of our beadworkers and powwow singers, our linguists and our historians."
She also feels that "Indian people are rising to the potential of the technology, in school and out. We were born for this moment and we are solidly behind our pathfinders."
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