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Singer/activist/educator Buffy Sainte-Marie finds balance between life on and off stage

Singer/activist Buffy Sainte-Marie will headline the One Heart Native Arts and Film Festival. (Christie Goodwin)
Singer/activist Buffy Sainte-Marie will headline the One Heart Native Arts and Film Festival. (Christie Goodwin)

Buffy Sainte-Marie has always been ahead of the game.

Early in her career, the singer-songwriter, composer, artist, activist and educator (the list goes on) began incorporating electronic elements in her folk music, especially 1969’s “Illuminations.”

She scored the movie “Spirit of the Wind” a decade later, and in 1983 won the Academy Award, Golden Globe and BAFTA for best original song for “Up Where We Belong” from “An Officer and a Gentleman.”

To date, she is the only Native American to win an Oscar. She was also an early adopter of using computers to record music and create art. And she’ll be at the Bing Crosby Theater on Friday, performing as part of the One Heart Native Arts and Film Festival.

According to Sainte-Marie, it all goes back to when she was a curious 3-year-old and discovered the sounds she could make on the piano or banging on pots and pans.

Sainte-Marie is a natural musician and only found out a few years ago that she is dyslexic when it comes to music, meaning that though she can compose for an orchestra, she can’t read the music back.

“Because of that, for the good and the bad, I have not followed the path of most musicians,” she said.

That natural curiosity hasn’t waned as she’s progressed through her career.

She plays mouth bow, and tunes her guitar “inside, out and upside down” because when she got her first guitar she didn’t know there was one standard tuning, instead tuning her guitar differently for each song.

“Today, I’m the same person I was when I was 3 and found out that a piano would make that noise,” she said. “When I was in my early 20s, I came across all different kinds of ethnic instruments and early electronic instruments, and it was no big deal. Nobody else was interested, but I was like a 3-year-old having fun.”

Sainte-Marie has released 18 albums, most recently 2017’s “Medicine Songs,” a collection of both new and reworked material.

When selecting the older material to rework for “Medicine Songs,” Sainte-Marie said she chose the songs she thought people would find most empowering today.

“When you write about classic human themes that recur across generations. you sometimes find that a song is more applicable to now than it was when you first wrote it,” she said. “ ‘Universal Soldier’ (1962) and ‘The War Racket’ (2017) are each in its own way about everyone everywhere in this big world we share. Definitely protest songs.”

But Sainte-Marie wants to make it clear that “Medicine Songs” is not only about protesting. It’s also about empowerment and balancing the things we hate with positive action.

“ ‘You’ve Got to Run’ can be about running a marathon for some local cause, or maybe it’s about running for election if you think you can do better than the current politicians, or just running your own life,” she said. “Do something wonderful no matter what.”

Through her years of activism, Sainte-Marie has noticed that citizen awareness and protests come and go in waves as more people exercise citizenship for the first time.

She likens bad leadership to termites chewing away at a wooden house.

“If you live in a wood house and don’t maintain it, the termites will chew away until you do away with them and then maybe 20, 30 years later, another new crops of termites will come in,” she said.

But Sainte-Marie adopts a better-late-than-never attitude when thinking about those just coming into awareness, saying the need to re-evaluate and re-balance is all part of being human.

“No matter what issue we’re talking about, I say the good news about the bad news is that more people know about it now,” she said. “That’s cold comfort if you just found out about it, but if you’ve been watching it happen all the time, and now more people know about it than used to, that’s progress.”

Also an accomplished screen and voice actor (She regularly appeared as herself on “Sesame Street” for five years), Sainte-Marie has been calling for inclusion riders long before Frances McDormand did at the Oscars this year.

“I had to insist in order to get other Native American people into the movies,” she said. “If they wanted me, they had to have all the other Indian roles played by Native American actors or I wouldn’t accept the part. It not only created jobs; it made better movies.”

Sainte-Marie also spearheaded Native American education through her Nihewan Foundation, which helps Native students navigate the path to college.

About a decade ago, Sainte-Marie found that two of her early scholarship recipients, Lionel Bordeaux and Francis Becenti, became presidents of tribal colleges, with the former helping to found the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

“Some little thing that you do, somebody else will come along and maximize it beyond your wildest dreams,” she said. “That’s the kind of thing that really means a lot to me in my life.”

In 1997, Sainte-Marie continued this mission by creating the Cradleboard Teaching Project, a curriculum that provided students with accurate, enriching information about Native American cultures.

The program ran for 12 years, and Sainte-Marie hopes to get the program back up and running in the near future.

Looking back over her career, Sainte-Marie is proud of the balance she’s created between the life of an artist and life at home.

“I deal with a lot of jet lag, and I finally have figured out that nobody ever died of lack of sleep,” she said with a laugh. “So that being my attitude, it helps.”

Yes, Sainte-Marie travels a lot, usually for three weeks at a time performing around the world, but she also makes time to relax at home in Hawaii, reading, writing and tending to her garden and animals, and appreciates both sides of the life she’s created for herself.

“I’ve had such a blessedly long career in and out of show business,” she said. “I really have done it the right way.”

The One Heart Native Arts and Film Festival will also feature the One Heart Art Gallery, an artist workshop with J.NiCole Hatfield, One Heart Short Film, a screening of “Drunktown’s Finest” followed by a talk-back with director Sydney Freeland, and a closing night party featuring a performance from Daisy Chain.

Visit www.oneheartfestival.org for more information.

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