Accusations in a film that Buffy Sainte-Marie, a well-known American folk singer, falsely represented her Native American heritage have caused concern among First Nations communities in Canada. This brings attention to the complicated history of an artist who has spent her career advocating for Indigenous rights and was born in Canada.
Sainte-Marie identifies as a “Cree musician and composer” and attributes her heritage to the Piapot First Nation reserve in Saskatchewan, where she states she was born in 1941. She shares that as an infant, she was separated from her biological mother and brought up by a white family in the United States.
However, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation recently published a documentary challenging this story and her assertions of having Indigenous heritage.
The report shocked communities and could damage the image of Sainte-Marie, a cultural figure known for her activism and achievements such as winning an Oscar and receiving multiple industry awards and honorary degrees from Canadian universities.
Delia Opekokew, Sainte-Marie’s former lawyer, who is Cree, has disputed the claims and recently signed an affidavit that concludes Sainte-Marie was probably born in Saskatchewan in a private home and soon after was given up for adoption to an American family visiting the area.
In the 1960s, as an Indigenous woman, I attempted to carry myself confidently. However, we encountered a great deal of discrimination based on our race and gender. Therefore, I often kept my head lowered. But when I was first introduced to Buffy’s music, my heart overflowed with happiness. I was moved to tears. Her lyrics were deeply heartfelt and conveyed a sense of respect for the Indigenous community’s humanity. It also instilled a sense of pride within me, prompting me to hold my head high.
To underpin her research, Opekokew, the first Indigenous woman admitted to the bar in Ontario and Saskatchewan, conducted multiple interviews in Cree and in English more than two decades ago, including with Emile and Clara Piapot, the couple who adopted Sainte-Marie as an adult into their family under Cree traditional law.
In addition, she had a conversation with Noel Starblanket, the former leader of the National Indian Brotherhood, which eventually evolved into the Assembly of First Nations. She confirms that Starblanket’s version of events has been supported by other individuals she has interviewed.
She expressed disapproval of the CBC’s “intrusive reporting” and noted that it had neglected to acknowledge the significance of oral history and Cree customs.
“The witness to the oral history, who was not interviewed by CBC, spoke with elders. In Indigenous history, oral history holds equal importance to written records and is often deemed more significant. The speaker expressed disappointment in CBC’s lack of respect for their cultural method of preserving history. They also expressed sympathy for Buffy and the community members who stand by her.”
Sainte-Marie stated that she has always found it challenging to define her identity. In the past, she had even asked her lawyer to investigate her background. Her “mother figure” had shared details with her, including the fact that she was adopted and from a Native background. However, due to the lack of documentation for Indigenous children born in the 1940s, this information could not be confirmed. Despite not knowing her place of birth, Sainte-Marie is confident in her sense of self.
Accusations made public by the CBC, such as a birth certificate from Massachusetts for Sainte-Marie and statements on social media from her son, have sparked a wave of harsh criticism.
“The impact of this on my aunt and our family is disgraceful,” Ntawnis Piapot wrote on Facebook. Piapot’s grandparents had adopted Sainte-Marie according to Cree traditions. She expressed that the report has caused “anguish and distress” for her loved ones.
Opekokew, who was forcibly removed from her family to attend a residential school, believes that the broadcaster should have taken into account the significant harm that their reporting would cause to others who were also taken from their families and to survivors of sexual abuse.
One must anticipate the potential for triggering many individuals before sharing such stories. This particular story triggered thousands of people, myself included.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) stated their guidelines for reporting on “pretendian” stories and attempted to contact members of the Piapot family, but did not receive a response. The CBC also tried to arrange a visit to the Piapot First Nation community with the acting chief, but the chief declined. The broadcaster acknowledges that the Piapot family did adopt Buffy Sainte-Marie as an adult and recognizes the legitimacy of this traditional adoption.
The Indigenous Women’s Collective released a statement over the weekend stating that after considering the accusations against Sainte-Marie, they determined that the singer had deceived many by promoting a false narrative and benefiting from it. This misled numerous Indigenous individuals, including youth, adults, and most devastatingly, survivors of colonial harm.
The team specifically mentioned Sainte-Marie’s past claims of being a victim of the Sixties Scoop – a well-known time in Canadian history where Indigenous children were forcefully removed from their homes and placed with white families. Although the CBC documentary states that the Scoop began after Sainte-Marie’s birth, there were still cases of Indigenous children being adopted by white families.
The Indigenous Women’s Collective has also demanded that Sainte-Marie be stripped of her 2018 Indigenous Album of the Year award at the Junos, a highly esteemed Canadian music award ceremony.
Some argue that the history and accomplishments of Sainte-Marie demonstrate the intricate and interconnected nature of identity. Kim Wheeler, a writer from Manitoba who contributed to a musical tribute to Sainte-Marie, believes that the Juno award category for Indigenous artist of the year owes its existence to the singer’s groundbreaking career.
She mentioned that at the show, Buffy was a huge inspiration to many of the performers. They looked up to her as a guiding light and credited her for their careers in music. Buffy proved to them that if she could achieve success, they could too.
Wheeler, who is of Anishinaabe and Mohawk descent, says Sainte-Marie’s appearances on Sesame Street were powerful to see as a child. “Just watching her on the show, we knew we could be more than what society told us we were.”
According to Wheeler, Sainte-Marie spent her entire career advocating for the inclusion of Indigenous people in casting choices and providing them with opportunities that had previously been denied. Wheeler also raises concerns about the broadcaster’s choice to proceed with the documentary, citing its divisive impact on Indigenous communities.
Wheeler stated that it may take some time for individuals to determine whether they will disregard the entirety of her legacy or continue to see her as a hero. The concept of the stages of grief has been brought up, with people expressing feelings of anger, pain, and denial. Will we ultimately reach a point of acceptance? The situation is complex and uncertain.