The 1960s singer-songwriter and passionate advocate of indigenous rights, gives us a lesson in eating lobster at her favourite restaurant in Vancouver.
“I was adopted as a child and the government didn’t give me any information about my family. The idea was to be assimilated and to forget anything else. I don’t even have a birthday: I had one assigned by the courts. Adopted kids don’t have a horoscope.
I’m told I was about three when I started playing music. That’s when we got a piano. And that was it: I sat down and didn’t get up until I knew how to play. I never played dolls, I never played sport.
My mum worked as a proofreader and editor for book companies later in her life. She was a stay-at-home mum when I was little. She believed she was part Mi’kmaq [indigenous people] but she wasn’t connected to any knowledgeable sources. My dad was a refrigeration mechanic. We lived in Maine so we had lobster and pheasant. Back then they were considered poor people’s foods and now nobody can afford them. I think it’s kind of funny.
If it was lobster for dinner, my dad cooked. When I eat them there is nothing left; I can eat two or three real easy. Those little feelers? Gone. Every bit of them. And you have to eat a lobster in order: you eat the mildest part first; the strongest part is the insides, which people call the tomalley. It’s full of toxic stuff so restaurants don’t serve it these days. Just the thought of it is making me hungry. I could do a job on it with nutcrackers and a fork.
Food at home was nice because it was so simple. There would be corn on the cob and strawberries. My mother was a brilliant baker. I’ve still never tasted as delicate a flaky pie crust as she would make. She was an artist with taste. She didn’t fuss with table settings and things like that but the food was always delicious. My dad’s family was second-generation Italian so I grew up around those kinds of flavours too. It was very lush but nobody knew how rare or expensive that lushness would become.
I was totally naïve when I went to Greenwich Village and was starting out in music. I had just graduated with a degree in oriental philosophy and a minor in education, so I thought I was on the way to India. When I went into Vanguard Records they said, ‘We want to sign you, who’s your lawyer?’ I said, ‘I don’t have one.’ They said, ‘That’s OK, you can use ours.’ So I signed up for a seven-year contract. It was a clear conflict of interest. I wasn’t raised in a business family and had never met a businessman. Most indigenous people had never met a lawyer or businessman; everybody else was knowledgeable but us.
But I survived – and made some real mistakes. I don’t drink, my family didn’t drink and I don’t associate drinking with fun because I’ve never been around it. I’d be in Paris in the 1960s and they’d be having a big reception; you know, very wealthy and accomplished people providing a reception for me because I was the hot thing of the week. And somebody would offer me some wine and I’d say, ‘No, I don’t drink.’ You don’t do that but I didn’t know.
There is no indigenous music industry or film industry. There are great artists and people but it just isn’t together like the white, black or Latino music industries. We’re still in a position of being tokenised. There are hundreds of thousands of people involved in indigenous music and we still don’t even know where the door is. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, on which I served as a special witness into abuses by the church and the institutions against indigenous children, has gone a long way to righting the wrongs of the past. Not entirely but we’re still working on it.
The good news about the bad news is that more people know about it. That’s a very big thing. But it doesn’t satisfy everybody because they are always wanting perfection. We’re getting there little by little. It doesn’t have to be a fight. Some people are real fighters and God bless them, but I’m not going to claim that fame. I try to do it in a different way.
The Canadian-American singer-songwriter was born on the Piapot Cree First Nation reserve in the Qu’Appelle Valley of Saskatchewan in 1941; she was adopted as a baby and relocated to Maine. She found success with “Universal Soldier”, her protest song about an individual’s responsibility for war on her 1964 debut album It’s My Way! She wrote the melody for the 1982 hit “Up Where We Belong”, from the film An Officer and a Gentleman; it won her an Oscar, making her the only indigenous Canadian artist to secure one. Having been awarded the Order of Canada for her contribution to music and indigenous rights, her win at the 2015 Polaris Music prize – Canada’s best-regarded annual music award – for album Power in the Blood has brought her new admirers. She has lived in Hawaii since the mid-1960s.
The Teahouse in Stanley Park has been a Vancouver institution for more than 40 years. It was originally a mess hall during the Second World War and a summer teahouse in the 1950s but owner Brent Davies revamped the property as a restaurant in 1978. Perched on Ferguson Point by the water in Stanley Park, it boasts unparalleled views of the British Columbia coastline – a landscape that has woven its way through Sainte-Marie’s music and activism.
7501 Stanley Park Drivevancouverdine.com/teahouse
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