06/17/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT
Like her sister in sweet-voiced self-righteousness, Joan Baez, Buffy Sainte-Marie was in the thick of most protest movements of the '60s. She was so visible she was even a frequent guest on Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show.
Now, while far from retired, she prefers staying home in Kauai, Hawaii, where she settled in the '60s. "I never play concerts here," says Sainte-Marie, 55. "I'm just a normal person that nobody knows. The aloha spirit is alive and well on the island where I live. And we have hurricanes and tidal waves and the bluest skies in the world."
Born on a Cree reservation in Canada and raised in New England, Sainte-Marie was an obscure Boston singer until she rose in the antiwar movement on the strength of her pacifist song "Universal Soldier" and the cachet of her heritage. She used the profits from Elvis Presley's cover of her "Until It's Time for You to Go" and Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes's "Up Where We Belong," which she cowrote, to finance her life as an activist. Her outspokenness on the Vietnam War and the treatment of Indians earned her an FBI record. "Most of it was blacked out with magic marker," she says. "I don't know what they ever suspected me of."
Sainte-Marie dropped out in the mid-'70s to raise Dakota Starblanket Wolfchild, now 19, her son with actor Sheldon Wolfchild. She joined the cast of Sesame Street from 1976 to 1981 playing herself, and has since performed mostly overseas. "If I stand for anything, it should be called Indian rights, pacifism and alternative thinking," says Sainte-Marie, who has also become a digital artist, using paint, photography and computers to create images that sell for up to $3,000 in Europe and Canada. In Indian country, she is still a big star. "She's like our Elvis," says Miles Morrisseau, a Canadian who runs Aboriginal Voices magazine. "You can go on reserves and hear 5-year-old girls singing her songs."