She’s a legendary Cree singer, songwriter and activist who has won many awards over her six-decade career — and if that wasn’t enough, Buffy-Sainte Marie is also the author of three books for children.
Her latest picture book, Tâpwê and the Magic Hat, illustrated by Michelle Alynn Clement, tells the story of a little boy longing for a summer adventure. After he receives a mysterious magic hat from his kokhom (grandmother), he gets more than he bargained for — and learns some lessons along the way.
Sainte-Marie spoke with Shelagh Rogers about the long path from first envisioning the story that eventually became Tâpwê and the Magic Hat to publishing the book in both English and Cree.
What do you think it is about summer that holds such possibility, especially when you’re young?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: For me, it was always a release from the constraints of schools that were telling me that I couldn’t be a musician and I couldn’t be an Indian. I couldn’t be a musician because I couldn’t read European notation, being dyslexic; and I couldn’t be an Indian because there weren’t any more — not around here, anyway.
So I was told two things that weren’t true, and in my time off — whether it was after school or in the summertime — it was time to be myself without the constraints of school. And there was just a sense of freedom and the time to do whatever it was — whether it was a walk in the woods or to sit down with some crayons, or make some music. It was a creative release time.
How did the story of Tâpwê and the Magic Hat come to you?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: When my son was born in 1976, I stepped back from Sesame Street and touring and everything. And basically for the next six years, I was a mom. I was still an artist. I was still creating, but I wasn’t touring nearly as much. And a lot of people know that I was adopted when I was tiny and I was kind of re-adopted in my late teens to a family in Saskatchewan.
Just spending time among the realities of our life on the reserve raising my son, I would have little stories pop into my head. And so little by little, I started writing this story that has turned into Tâpwê and the Magic Hat.
Tell me about Tâpwê — what’s he like?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: At first, we see a real innocent side of him, curious and excited to have this gift that his grandmother has given him — this weird-looking hat wrapped in a cloth. He opens it, and he doesn’t know what it is. He’s curious because there are these little animals on the top of the hat, and his grandmother tells him, “Be good to them and they’ll help you on your adventure.”
And he’s so surprised when he realizes that the animals on the magic hat are actually alive. He travels with his grandmother on a ride across the valley to another reserve where they have relatives, and he goes to a powwow for the first time and runs into the trickster, who’s a magic character.
Tâpwê really does go through a character development — kind of like what I went through when I was a little kid finding out who I was.
As the days go on, we find out that this little kid isn’t that innocent. He really does go through a character development — kind of like what I went through when I was a little kid finding out who I was. He finds out who he is, and that’s kind of what his journey is about.
There’s another lovely aspect to this story in that it’s available in English and in Cree, a collaboration with Saskatchewan translator Solomon Ratt.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Oh, it was so nice. It was just my dream. I mean, I just begged Greystone Books, “Can we please translate this into Cree?” Solomon will read it beautifully.” And he wanted to. And sure enough, they said yes.
A lot of people mistakenly believe that Cree is just different words for the same thing, but it’s not. It functions very, very differently — a different part of the brain, a different philosophy, a different way of saying things. The metaphor I like to use is, if you look at your fingers, they are lot alike and they pretty much do the same thing. That’s like the European languages — they’re related to each other; but a totally different language from another part of the human experience, from different parts of history and geography is like a thumb.
Hopefully those of us who know many different ways to express ourselves will be able to make a better world because of our ability to say things in ways that make a new kind of common sense.
People think differently, and the function of the language is different. So hopefully those of us who know many different ways to express ourselves will be able to make a better world because of our ability to reach one another and to say things in ways that make a new kind of common sense.
The Sunday Magazine30:41Buffy Sainte-Marie at 80
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.