Buffy Sainte-Marie virtually invented the role of Native American international activist pop star. Her concern for protecting indigenous intellectual property, and her distaste for the exploitation of Indigenous artists and performers has kept her at the forefront of activism in the arts for fifty years. Investing her own singing money, since 1968 she has operated the Nihewan Foundation for Native American Education. The Nihewan Foundation Scholarship recipients have excelled, including two who have become tribal college founders and presidents.
At the same time as founding her charity, Buffy also worked in Hollywood to ensure that, for the first time ever, Indigenous acting roles be filled by Indigenous actors, as a condition for her to appear in their movie, television’s two-hour drama series The Virginian.
In the 1980s, when her son was in grade 5, Buffy was asked by his teacher to help deliver a teaching unit about Native Americans. Over the next several years, she worked to develop an entirely new way of teaching core school subjects like science, geography and government through Indigenous perspectives. In the 1990s, with the help of support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Herb Alpert Foundation and the Global Fund for Children, her team created the Cradleboard Teaching Project. This put Indigenous communities, teachers and students into the driver’s seat of delivering their own accurate enriching teaching materials to their non-Indigenous partner classes across the continent, while engaged in the new indigenized core studies. The Cradleboard Teaching Project served children and teachers worldwide for 15 years – free, live, and online – connecting Indigenous and non-Indigenous classes through the new core curriculum.
The ideas developed through the Cradleboard Teaching Project have since been shared with teacher education departments, colleges and universities across Canada, fulfilling Buffy’s gut instinct to embed and improve education from within; without succumbing to the temptation to build a business, create an endowment, or otherwise divert from Nihewan’s mission to help children of all backgrounds through improved education. She continually extends the Nihewan mission into her artistic, educational, and personal life, has never taken a salary, and always kept the foundation operating costs under 15%.
These important efforts have not gone unnoticed. The American Indian College Fund presented Buffy with their Lifetime Achievement Award. She was named Native American Philanthropist of the Year and received the Louis J. Delgato Award for her work in giving. (more awards HERE)
She also served with former astronaut and U.S. senator John Glenn on his Service Learning Commission; and on Hillary Clinton’s Save America’s Treasures initiative. She presently serves on the Board of the Downie-Wenjack Fund and on their Education committee.