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An original rebel with a resonating voice

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Buffy St. Marie

Singer, songwriter, educator, activist, artist and pacifist, Buffy St. Marie performs at the Napa Valley Opera House on Oct. 6. Annie Leibovitz photo

Over the phone line, Buffy St. Marie’s voice sparkles with energy,  ideas and laughter. It’s a voice the world first heard in the early 1960s when she began singing her songs about peace and love and her Native American roots. It’s a voice two U.S. presidents did their best to silence, and one that resurfaced on Sesame Street. It’s one that all these years later is still singing.

A singer, songwriter, educator, activist, artist and pacifist, St. Marie said, “What people think I am depends on which decade they first heard me.”

She’ll draw from all these decades, when she performs next week at the Napa Valley Opera House on Oct. 6, along with group of young musicians from Manitoba. “We’re all Native Americans,” she said. “And they’re great.” 

St. Marie was talking to the Register from her home in Kauai, where she lives when she is not touring the world. Her Hawaiian “hillside with goats” is some distance from the Cree reservation where she was born in Saskatchewan, Canada. An orphan, she was adopted and raised in Maine, and went on to study at the University of Massachusetts. 

A self-taught pianist and guitarist, she began performing at festivals, universities and on Native American reservations after she graduated from college. Her songs caught attention as did St. Marie, as her intense and soaring voice seemed to sweep down from lost and hidden places, mountain tops and prairies. “People saw me as a kind of Pocahontas with a guitar,” she said. 

Her music was far-ranging, from love songs like “Until It’s Time for You to Go” to ones drawn from her heritage — “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone” was one she wrote while still in college.

 In 1963, as she tells the story, she was sitting in the San Francisco airport when she saw wounded soldiers returning from Vietnam — at a time when the government was downplaying any involvement there. This inspired her to write “Universal Soldier,” which became an anthem for the peace movement. “I just started wondering who was responsible for war,” she said. “The soldiers? The generals send them to fight. The generals? They do what politicians tell them to do. The politicians? We elect them.”

Her music caught more than the attention of fans. “I was blacklisted,” she said, “although I didn’t know it at the time.”

According to her website, St. Marie “disappeared suddenly from the mainstream American airwaves during the Lyndon Johnson years. Unknown to her, as part of a blacklist that affected Eartha Kitt, Taj Mahal and a host of other outspoken performers, her name was included on White House stationery as among those whose music ‘deserved to be suppressed.’ 

Her radio airplay disappeared. When she was invited onto television talk shows to discuss her hit, “Until It’s Time for You to Go,” she was told that Native American issues “and the peace movement had become unfashionable, and to limit her comments to celebrity chat” the web reads.

The Nixon administration also was riled by St. Marie. “It was the time of Wounded Knee,” she said, referring to the 1973 siege, when Native Americans seized and occupied the town of Wounded Knee, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the site of a massacre of men, women and children by the U.S. cavalry and which, according to some reports, was the burial site of the great Oglala Lakota Chief Crazy Horse.

Another of St. Marie’s most haunting songs, “Soldier Blue”  was written for the eponymous 1970 film, which “disappeared after only a few days in theaters,” St. Marie said. “I don’t blame the government. It just shows what a few people can do, what power they can have.”

“Soldier Blue,” combined the deep instinctive love for the land, a growing sense of stewardship of it, with a question for “Soldier Blue” — “Can’t you see that there’s a better way to love her?’

“It was really popular in Europe,” St. Marie said. With her albums nearly impossible to obtain in the U.S., she continued to tour in Europe and perform on Native American reservations.

Then from 1976 to 1981, she was back in front of the American viewers when she made a series of appearances on “Sesame Street” with her son, Dakota “Cody” Starblanket Wolfchild. She wanted to make the case, she said, that “there are still Indians.”

After the release of “Sweet American” she went on hiatus to raise her son. She returned in recording and touring 1992. Meanwhile, she has continued with her work as an educator and founder of the Cradleboard Teaching Project to improve education and opportunities for Native Americans.

She returned in 1992 with “Coincidence and Likely Stories,” followed by “Up Where We Belong” (which won a Golden Globe, Bafta, and Academy Award for the title song), “Running for the Drum,” and her newest album “The Pathfinder — Buried Treasures.”

Her concert at the Opera House, she said, will combine her early classics with new works. “It will be fun,” she said.

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