Buffy's New Gigabyte
Interview with Buffy Sainte-Marie
by Ophira Edut


There's a low, mysterious hum rising from the corner of Buffy Sainte-Marie's hotel room. I hear it, like faint singing, as she directs me to a table draped in hand-stitched Native American fabric, on which there are musical instruments neatly arranged around a long white box. It looks ceremonial, like an altar. The humming falters. I glance around the room nervously--what is that noise?--then I see it. My breath quickens. I can't stop staring.

It's a Macintosh PowerBook G3 laptop. Latest edition. The kind I lust after in computer showrooms and catalogs. The expensive, large-screen model with turbo-charged processing that makes Mac lovers toy with the notion of bank robbery. It's powered on, buzzing as it loads the special software that's stored in the white box. And for Sainte-Marie--artist, composer, singer, actor, activist, and educator--it's the instrument she can't live without. When I told people I was interviewing Buffy Sainte-Marie, reactions varied according to age. Older women fondly recalled a fierce Native American protest singer of the 1960s, famous for antiwar and cultural-resistance anthems like "Universal Soldier" and "Now That the Buffalo's Gone." Gen Xers vaguely remembered a Sesame Street guest star who appeared with her son and her acoustic guitar during the late 1970s to tell kids "Indians exist." And everyone knew "Up Where We Belong," the 1982 Oscar-winning song that she cowrote for the sound track of An Officer and a Gentleman.

But it's Sainte-Marie's less-well-known life as a computer geek--and an adjunct professor of digital art, Native American studies, and philosophy at several universities--that brings her to midtown Manhattan today. Sainte-Marie has lived what she calls a "digital lifestyle" for the last 30 years, using computers to paint, teach, record music, and reeducate the masses about Native American history. She's flown in from her Hawaiian home base to promote her Cradleboard Teaching Project, a multimedia, Native American-centered curriculum for third grade through college. Sponsored by Sainte-Marie's nonprofit Nihewan Foundation for American Indian Education, Cradleboard aims to "put Native American educators in the driver's seat of delivering their cultures" to students and teachers.

Using cutting-edge video and computer technology, the project places mainstream schools in yearlong distance-learning partnerships with indigenous schools nationwide. Classes exchange "goody" boxes of local information and "self-identity videos" (kids gets 30 seconds each to introduce themselves), then begin corresponding through e-mail, phone calls, and Internet chats. Meanwhile, everyone studies Cradleboard's geography and science packets, a collection of materials written by Native educators and edited by Sainte-Marie. Cradleboard counters the typical approach to Indian studies, which treats Native people as a monolithic unit rather than as a network of diverse tribes, languages, and traditions. "Instead of studying dead text, handed down by generations of non-Indian educators," explains Sainte-Marie on the Cradleboard Web site (www., "mainstream kids can now partner with a distant Native class, and both study Indian culture together."

A large W. K. Kellogg Foundation grant funded Cradleboard's 1996 pilot, which set up ten schools with compatible technology. Sainte-Marie also used funds to design and produce an elaborate companion CD-ROM, Science: Through Native American Eyes, targeting grades five and up. Non-Indian participants came from public, independent, and parochial schools; Native American students were from Mohawk, Apache, Navajo, Coeur d'Alene, Cree, Quinault, Lakota, Hawaiian, and Ojibwe community-based schools. Eighteen classes from 13 states were on board this past school year, and three groups even traveled cross-country to meet their partners. Sandra Tedder, Cradleboard's site coordinator, says she's received applications from teachers as far away as Egypt and New Zealand. For now, the modest staff of four has its hands full, but sells the CD-ROM worldwide and directs online visitors to other indigenous resources.

"Shall we look at the CD?" Sainte-Marie asks, as she hands me her laptop, sweeping her long black hair off the shoulders of her tailored blazer. We surf through video clips (narrated by Sainte-Marie and other Native American educators), music, an extensive image library, a glossary, interactive games, and quizzes. The software runs smoothly, and it's easy to follow. The colorful menu and navigation buttons are elaborate Indian bead compositions, which Sainte-Marie scanned onto her computer and arranged using graphics software. I take an entry quiz and cringe at my own ignorance. "People usually flunk, then do well on the exit quiz," Sainte-Marie kindly reassures me. Sure enough, she's right. The CD is the kind of "edutainment" that pleases a short-attention-span learner like me--it's easy to follow, and too interactive to evoke memories of boring old school.

I'm also impressed by Cradleboard's user-friendly teacher's edition. The software automatically evaluates student performances and downloads a report to a floppy disk. Teachers can then mail the disk to Cradleboard for feedback on how the program is working for their students. "Pretty cool, huh?" says Sainte-Marie.

At close to 60 years old, Sainte-Marie is actualizing a dream she first had as a young adoptee in Maine. At her all-white school, she felt alienated and invisible as the lone Native American student. In her teens, Sainte-Marie was reunited with her biological family on Saskatchewan's Piapat Reservation. Later, as a college student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, she became a political activist. When music executives spotted Sainte-Marie's spirited performances at a Greenwich Village coffeehouse in 1963, her recording career took off, and she used her international tours to connect with indigenous people as far away as Australia and Lapland. She has since recorded some 17 albums, earned a teaching certificate and a Ph.D. in fine arts, scored and acted in films, established a career as a visual artist, published widely on Native issues, and founded several Native American arts, education, and women's groups. The Cradleboard Project's roots extend back 15 years, to when Sainte-Marie's son, Dakota Wolfchild, was in fifth grade in Hawaii. His teacher asked Sainte-Marie to help rewrite the school's Indian studies unit. "I looked at the available materials and was appalled that they weren't any better than when I was getting my teaching degree 15 years before," recalls Sainte-Marie. She continued adding to the curriculum each year, and after a decade, she struck on the idea of arranging a pen-pal program with the Starblanket Reserve School in Saskatchewan, where Sainte-Marie's cousin was a teacher. In 1991, the two classes began using e-mail and live chat to correspond, and "the entire curriculum came alive," says Sainte-Marie. Five years later, Kellogg's funding helped make Cradleboard official.

Meanwhile, Sainte-Marie was experimenting with technology in her personal and artistic ventures. "I got my Mac before they really came on the scene," she says proudly. "It was wonderful, because all of a sudden, as an artist, I had a little machine that would remember my artwork and my writing. Since that time, I've created a digital studio in my home." As a pioneer in projects that combined technology and the arts, Sainte-Marie made the first quadrophonic (surround-sound) vocal album in the 1960s, long before electronic music became a widely used format. In 1992, she recorded her album Coincidence and Likely Stories in her home, wowing producers by sending the tunes to them in London via modem. She's also recorded a live album in a tepee, broadcast worldwide by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation television. An internationally recognized visual artist, Sainte-Marie exhibits her "digital paintings"--two- to seven-foot-tall computer images printed on giant sheets of photo paper--in the U.S. and Europe. And she designed the Cradleboard CD-ROM in her home studio, using state-of-the-art software to animate graphics, edit sound, and digitize video.

"It used to be that Mr. Man and his brother and his cousin owned everything—the publishing houses, the recording companies, the political scene," says Sainte-Marie. "In order to do something as an artist, or as an outsider, you had to go stand in that line until you got the stamp of approval. Technology is changing that. Mr. Man doesn't control it anymore. The cat's out of the bag--and having kittens! You can publish online, you can have digital paintings that you can work on forever. Artists, creative people, people with new ideas--individuals are much more empowered now." And the surprise to many is that Native Americans, often assumed to be left out of the high-speed, high-tech culture, have been at the forefront of the Internet's evolution. "We are not all dead and stuffed in some museum with the dinosaurs," Sainte-Marie quips in "Cyberskins," her eloquent online manifesto ( "We are Here in this digital age."

(appeared in Aug/Sept 1999 issue of Ms. Published while Ophira Edut was a Ms. Associate Editor)