My Country ’tis of Thy People You’re Dying: Buffy Sainte-Marie

Photo credit: Michael Yellowwing Kannon, Winnipeg, February 2018.

The legendary Buffy Sainte-Marie wrote this song during the civil rights movement in the 60s. She has called it, “Indian 101 for people who’ve been denied the real history.” It’s an anthem to decolonization, and its razor-sharp words describe an Indigenous reality that has changed remarkably little in over half a century since. This single, powerful song, packs a whole master class in Indigenous Awareness.

Buffy revised the song and re‑recorded it as part of the 2017 album Medicine Songs. The word “genocide,” which she used long before others dared, is still hard for many non-Indigenous people to accept. And while this new version may reflect more on Canada than the original, the “Medicine Line” (as people once called the Canada-US border) is no barrier to the issues of contempt, dispossession and reckless disregard for Indigenous people and people of colour that remain at the foundation of North American society.

Solomon Ratt prepared this y-dialect translation in record time at the suggestion of Buffy herself. We are truly honoured to offer this Plains Cree translation, as she suggested to us: both as a teaching tool for decolonization, and as a language-teaching tool for speakers of nêhiyawêwin.

Over the years, Buffy has assembled annotations and commentary on the song, which she has also allowed us to share (below). (We have numbered the song’s stanzas to help with cross-referencing, and many footnotes are also embedded in the song text.)

You can listen to Buffy’s 2017 recording here. Readers may also enjoy the Village Voice interview she gave around the time of its release.

The audio provided here is Solomon’s Plains Cree (y-dialect) translation. Scroll down to follow the text, and read along.

My country ‘tis of thy people you’re dying.nitaskiy kitayisiyinîmak ôma ohci kâ-nipiyan.
English Lyrics (2017)Plains Cree (2021, y-dialect)
[1] Now that your big eyes are finally opened.
Now that you’re wondering, “How must they feel?”

meaning them that you’ve chased across Canada’s movie screens.
Now that you’re wondering, “How can it be real?”
that the ones you’ve called colorful, noble and proud
in your school propaganda,
They starve in their splendor.
You ask for our comment, I simply will render:
piyisk êkwêyâc kiwâpahtên
kimâmaskâtên “tânisi êtikwê itamahcihowak?”
aniki iyiniwak kâ-nawaswâtacik cikâstêpayihcikanihk.
kimâmaskatên “tânisi ôma tâpwêwin?”
aniki kâ-itacik kâ-miyosicik, kâ-miyohtwâcik, kâ-mamihcisicik
ê-sîkwâhkatosocik omiyosiwiniwahk
kikakwêcimin kîkwây ta-itwêyân piko nititwân:
My country ’tis of thy people you’re dying.

nitaskiy kitayisiyinîmak ôma ohci kâ-nipiyan.
[2] Now that the longhouses "breed superstition"
you force us to send our children away

to your schools where they’re taught to despise their traditions.
Forbid them their languages;
then further say that
Canada’s history really began

when explorers set sail out of Europe
and stress that the nations of leeches who conquered these lands
were the biggest, and bravest, and boldest, and best.
êkwa kinokamikwa “ohpikihtâwa konita tâpwêhtamowin”
kisihkiminân ta-sipwêtisahâyahkik nitawâsimisinânak
kitayamihâwi-kiskinwahamâtowikamikohk isi ita kâ-kiskinwahamawihcik ta-pakwâtahkik otisîhcikêwiniwâwa.
nakinêwak ta-pîkiskwêyit opîkiskwêwiniwâw
êkwa itwêwak
kânata itâcimowin kî-mâcihtâniwan
ispîhk onitawahtâwak kâ-sipwêyâsiscik akâmaskîhk ohci
sôhki-itwêwak ôki nanâtohk oskanêsiwak akâmaskîhk ohci
ê-mâwaci-misikiticik, ê-mâwaci-sôhkitêhêcik, ê-mâwaci-sôhkêyimocik, mîna ê-nîkânîcik.
My country ’tis of thy people you’re dying.

nitaskiy kitayisiyinîmak ôma ohci kâ-nipiyan.
[3] And yet where in your history books is the tale

of the genocide basic to this country’s birth?
Of the preachers who lied?
And the people who died?
How a nation of patriots returned to their earth?
And where does it tell of the starvation hell
as the children were herded,
and raped and converted?
And how do we rescue the missing and murdered?
êkwa tânita kititâcimo-masinahikanihk âtocikâtêwa
mêscihiwêwin ita kâ-ohci-nihtâwikihk ôma askiy?
aniki ayamihikimâwak kâ-kâh-kiyâskicik? êkwa iyiniwak kâ-kî-nipicik?
kâ-isi-sâkihahkik otaskîwâw ayisiyiniwak kâwi askîhk ispayiwak
êkwa tânita âtocikâtêw kakwâtaki-nipahâhkatosowin
itê awâsisak kâ-kî-itisahohcik
êkwa ê-kî-otihtinihcik mîna ê-kî-kwêski-pimâtisihihcik
êkwa tânispîhk ka-paspihâyahkik kâ-wanihâyahkik mîna kâ-nipahihcik?
My country ‘tis of thy people you’re dying.

[4] A few of the conquered have somehow survived
Their blood runs the redder though genes have been paled.
From Arctic Inuvik to Niagara Falls
the wounded, the losers, the robbed sing their tale.
From Vancouver Island to the Labrador Sea
the white nations fattened while others grew lean.
Oh the tricked and evicted they know what I mean:

âtiht aniki kâ-sâkôcihihcik nânitaw isi paspîwak
omihkowâw nawac mihkwâyiw âta otâniski-htâwiniwâwa ê-wâpinâkwaniyiki
kîwêtinohk ayiskîmînâhk ohci isko Niagara kâ-pahkihtihk nipiy
miswâkanak, kâ-wanihocik, kâ-kimotamahcik nikamowak otâcimowiniwâwa
Vancouver ministikohk ohci isko Labrador kihcikamîhk
môniyâw-oskânêsiw tâhcipow êskwa kotakak ê-sîhkacicik
kâ-pahkacihihcik êkwa kâ-wayawîskawihcik kiskêyihtamwak ôma kâ-itwêyân.
My country ‘tis of thy people you’re dying.

nitaskiy kitayisiyinîmak ôma ohci kâ-nipiyan.
[5] The past it just crumbled; the future just threatens
Our life blood is shut up in your papers and banks,

And now here you come, bill of sale in your hand
and surprise in your eyes, that we’re lacking in thanks
for the blessings of civilization you brought us.
The lessons you’ve taught us.
The ruin you’ve wrought us.
Oh see what our trust in O Canada got us.
nâway pîkinipayiw; nîkânihk nimisîwihâw
nipimâtisiwinân kipahikow kimasinahikêwina mîna kisôniyâwikamikwa,
êkwa mîna ki-pê-itohtân ê-miciminaman wiyasiwêwin
ê-koskwâpisiniyan êkâ ê-nanâskomitahk
kâ-pê-sawêyimiyâhk kitisi-pimâtisiniwâw kâ-pêtamawiyâhk
kiskinwahamâkosiwina kâ-kiskinwahamawiyâhk; kâ-misiwanâcihtamawiyâhk;
oh, cîst, wâpahta kâ-mamisîtotamâhk oh kânata kîkway kâ-miyikoyâhk!
My country ‘tis of thy people you’re dying.

nitaskiy kitayisiyinîmak ôma ohci kâ-nipiyan.
[6] Now that the rivers are dumps for your chemicals
Now that the forests are dead like the moon
Now that my life’s to be known as your heritage.
Now that even the graves have been robbed.
Now that our own sacred way is your novelty
Hands on our hearts we salute you your victory:
Choke on your true white and scarlet hypocrisy.
Pity your blindness – how you never see
that the eagles of war whose wings lend you glory
are never no more than buzzards and crows:
Push some wrens from their nest;
steal their eggs; change their story.
The mockingbird sings it: It’s all that she knows.
“Aw what could I do?” say a powerful few
with a lump in your throat and a tear in your eye:
Can’t you see that their poverty’s profiting you?
êkwa sîpiya wêpinikêwinihk piscipowin ohci
êkwa sakâwa nipinwa tâpiskôc tipiskâwi-pîsim
êkwa nipimâtisiwin ta-kiskêyihtâkwahk kiya kipê-itâcihowin.
êkwa yikwahaskâna ê-kimotinâniwiki.
êkwa nikihci-isihcikêwininâna kiya êwakoni kitoski-mêtawâkana
nicihcînâna nitêhinânihk nisâminênân ê-atamiskâtamâhk kipaskiyâkêwin:
atoho kitâpwê-wâpiskisiwin êkwa kimihko-kiyâskiwin.
kitimâkêyihta kipâskâpiwin – nama wîhkâc kiwâpin.
nôtinikêwi-mikisiwak omitahtahkwaniwâwa kâ-awihikoyêk kikistêyimisiwin ohci
namôya êwako ayiwâk ocicâhkwak mîna âhâsiwak
yahkiwêpinêwak opicikîskosîsa owacistoniwahk ohci;
kimotamawêwak wâwa; mêskoc-âcimêwak.
ayisinâkêwi-piyêsîs nikamow: êwako piko kiskêyihtam.
“âh, tânisi mâka takî-itôtamân?” itwêwak âtiht kâ-sôhkisicik
ê-nanîcikanêyan kikohtaskwâhk mîna ê-ohcikawâpiyan:
namôya cî ê-kî-wâpahtaman ê-ati-wêyotisihikoyan okitimâkisiwiniwâw?
My country ‘tis of thy people you’re dying.

nitaskiy kitayisiyinîmak ôma ohci kâ-nipiyan.

For Further Reflection: Buffy’s Commentary and Annotations

Buffy presents her annotations as a challenge:

How would you help somebody else to digest this difficult song? How can we get past white fragility and into a more open discussion of fixing things? All of the races except the white one are quite used to discussing racism from various perspectives. How can we bring conscious white people up to speed without shutting them down? Remember, the idea is to get beyond racism, not to become “better racists” than the other guys. How do we deal with our own racism as well as that of others?

Title and Repeated Refrain:

  • The repeated refrain and the title of the song refer to people who might be able to help, but choose not to. As the horror continues, they look the other way.

Stanza 1:

  • The first stanza expresses appreciation for the attention you are giving this by reading and listening, and acknowledges that you have actually been hoodwinked throughout your education regarding Indigenous people, history and cultures.

Stanza 2:

  • Haudenasaunee people were publicly called “primitive” by the colonials who wanted their lands. The great values taught in their traditional lodges – the longhouses – were said to “foster superstition.” At the very same time, the colonials absorbed and appropriated many of the Haudenasaunee ideas (especially regarding government) and claimed them as “American,” which is true if you’re thinking specifically Native American.
  • In the elementary social studies curriculum of the Cradleboard Teaching Project, we study the Four Great Ideas that came from the Haudenasaunee Confederacy and provide quizzes.
  • Hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children throughout North America were stolen from their families and put into boarding schools run by the military and churches, to “kill the Indian” in them. This is well documented in the reports and findings of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well as the Downie‑Wenjack Foundation, both of which include many, many teaching resources that support these facts.
  • Indigenous children were beaten, raped, tortured and otherwise abused for speaking their own languages.
  • Explorers from Spain, Portugal, Holland, France and England agreed to the Catholic church’s demand that they should enslave, convert or kill indigenous people, unless they had already been Christianized. In any case, their lands became “owned” by the Europeans.
  • The so‑called “Christians” were not Christ‑like; they were racketeers and exploiters in Europe and wherever else they brought colonialism
  • Study this in parallel with Black Lives Matter. Read The Other Slavery by Andrés Reséndez (or look for readings of it on YouTube). Bring up the enslavement of Indigenous people which started a generation earlier and lasted long after African‑American slavery was made illegal. Tie this in with Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (and men and boys).
  • Research what exactly were the pressures on Europeans of the time of contact and colonialism. Why would they want to leave Europe behind, on a journey into unknown lands? (Answer: the pecking order, inequity and rankism which were traditional business ploys in the Middle East and Europe.)

Stanza 3:

  • Until very recently the word genocide was not commonly applied to the American holocaust. This song did use that word, as early as the 1960s. Many non-Indigenous people reacted with shock and denial. Research Cointelpro (the FBI Counterintelligence Program) and the blacklisting of Indigenous activists, orators, philosophers and teachers.
  • The true stories of slavery, deception and deaths of Indigenous resisters have been kept out of school curriculum and history books. So have the stories of friendships and heroism on the part of Indigenous people and colonials.
  • Thousands of independent accounts from adults raised in the boarding schools tell similar stories to those documented by Dr Peter Bryce in 1907 wherein malnourished Indian children were deliberately housed with tuberculosis patients and left alone to die.
  • There are thousands of stories of sexually repressed priests, nuns, clergy and other colonials preying upon Indian children.
  • Discuss sexual repression of Europeans. And the practice of rewarding the soldiers of the popes and kings with the right to rape. Now we call this ethnic cleansing.
  • Contemporary indigenous women and girls have gone missing or turned up murdered, but investigations lag behind and coverups and negligence continue.

Stanza 4:

  • This is not new. Even before Africans were captured as slaves to the Americas, an entire generation of healthy indigenous people had gone missing, into to slave markets of the Philippines, the Middle East and Europe, as well as into the slave business merchants of Canada and the USA.
  • It happened all over the continent, we all know it, and we have been vocal, persistent, literary, clever, and serious about resisting and letting the world know; but still it continues. It’s not as if we were uncertain or unaware: everybody knew.
  • We are not shy in pointing it out, only you might not be hearing us because you prefer your comfortable silence. This is part of traditional colonial racism. Our heritage, our ability to dream needs accountants and lawyers just to protect us from predatory Canadians/Americans.

Stanza 6:

  • Discuss how you feel about the “Indian heritage” myths: Noble savage, warring savage, pitiful savage. Examine NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection Act – USA). Discuss Halloween costumes, mascots, bobbleheads.
  • Consider how someone not of your own racial background might take this whole song, especially this rather mocking summary of “colonial valor.” Imagine you are Spike Lee or Mohamed Ali; or Katy Perry or Madonna; or some other non‑Indigenous person hearing this information for the first time.

About Arden Ogg

Arden Ogg is Director of the Cree Literacy Network, launched in 2010 with the goal of creating Cree language literacy materials suitable for use by learners of all ages.
This entry was posted in Audio (y-dialect), Cree History, Poetry, Rights, Solomon Ratt. Bookmark the permalink.

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