Folk Songs, Digital Art, and Indian Empowerment

By Howard Rheingold

If you are in your mid-forties, you probably remember Buffy Sainte-Marie's clear voice with its otherworldly tremolo, singing about peace and justice, the voice of a strong Indian woman who stood up and sang out in the early sixties. Today's under-seventeen set probably remembers her five years on Sesame Street. There's more to come, now that she's started to express her art through computer graphics, and has begun to use computer networks to help Indians get their story across to mainstream educational institutions.

I met Buffy Sainte-Marie in Vancouver, British Columbia, at an exhibit of artists who work exclusively in the medium of digital graphics. I recall a haunting self-portrait called "Hands'' that shows the artist reaching out prayerfully, her image digitally blurred, as if at the moment of disintegration in a storm of cosmic rays. We met and talked about virtual communities, digital art, and computer networks as political power tools.

"An artist will satisfy the creative urge by making music on pots and pans or by composing for an orchestra, by making images in the sand with a finger or by manipulating light with a computer,'' she told me: "The real art occurs in the imagination. Then the work begins. The tools are whatever we can get, beads or pixels, hunting bows or an orchestra. I've played the mouth-bow for years, which amounts to making music on a weapon because it evolved from hunting bows.''

Sainte-Marie confessed that she has an ulterior motive for teaching computer art to students, staff, and teachers at the prestigious but financially lean Instutute for American Indian Arts: "Indian people suffer from a lack of self-identity and self-esteem as a direct result of the communication gap which has persisted these past 500 years. When I joined the cast of Sesame Street, I wanted to show that Indians exist. We are not all dead and stuffed in museums like dinosaurs. In fact, some of the things that are fashionable today, like ecology and consensus, we've known about for a long time. The founding fathers of the U.S. borrowed key ideas from Iroquois statecraft when they framed the Constitution."

Buffy Sainte-Marie continues to make music (she has a new CD out, "Coincidence and Likely Stories"), and pursues her passion for digital visual art . She also continues to work for social justice. Her latest vehicle is The Cradleboard Teaching Project in Canada. Cradleboard "puts mainstream schools in touch with First Nations schools, in English, Cree, French, Lakota, Mohawk, or any other language of preference. Non-Indian students get to know Indian culture through Indian people directly, including people their own age. Thousands of First Nations/mainstream kids participate across Canada, from Baffin Island, Red Deer, Vancouver, Quebec, Moose Factory."

Later, in e-mail, she put it this way: "We want to change the image students have of dead Indians in books to live Indian online friends."

Buffy Sainte-Marie and others are catching on to the fact that new communication technologies are making it possible for groups ignored by the mass media to get their own messages across. Information about Cradleboard is available from Jonn Ord, 416 922 7001, or e-mail jonno@web.net. Check out Buffy Sainte-Marie's digital graphics, the NativeNet home page, the Native American Resource Page, and the Oneida Indian Nation page .