Buffy Sainte-Marie was arguably the most important and influential indigenous Canadian musical performer in North American history. As a folk musician, she was on the cutting edge of the folk revival in the early ’60s, performing in Greenwich Village, and collaborating with folk icons such as Pete Seeger. She was a contemporary of Canadian artists such as Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell.
In country music, Sainte-Marie was influential and important as well, writing the song “Cod’ine” in 1964 that went on to be covered by Gram Parsons and others. Glen Campbell recorded her song “Take My Hand for a While.” She appeared on The Johnny Cash Show as a featured guest, and in 1968 released the album I’m Gonna Be a Country Girl Again recorded in Nashville with country legends such as Grady Martin and Floyd Cramer.
Buffy Sainte-Marie also stirred controversy in country music during her career. She was banned from the airwaves after FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover sent memos to radio stations encouraging them to not play her songs. Famous country music DJ Ralph Emery notoriously complied with that request. Sainte-Marie wrote a song about the blacklisting of her music called “Disinformation.”
Buffy Sainte-Marie also saw success in popular music, co-writing the hit “Up Where We Belong” famously featured in the film An Officer and a Gentleman. For five years she was a regular on Sesame Street, representing the indigenous experience to young audiences. She was also one of the most prominent activists for Indigenous and Native American rights in North American history.
The reason Buffy Sainte-Marie’s contributions as an Indigenous artist and activist are being referred to in the past tense is not because she has passed away. It’s due to the revelations from an in-depth investigation by Canadian news organization CBC into the 82-year-old’s claims of Indigenous origin that by all verifiable accounts now appear to be false and part of a ruse that the singer perpetrated for some 60 years.
The details are stunning, striking, and rather conclusive. Instead of Buffy Sainte-Marie being an indigenous member of the Piapot Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, Canada, birth records confirm that she is White and was born to English and Italian ancestry in the suburb of Stoneham, Massachusetts.
Sainte-Marie has always been open that she was raised by White parents in Stoneham, and that she was unclear about portions of her origin story, giving herself and those asking questions plausible deniability whenever anyone pried for specifics.
However, Sainte-Marie insisted that her parents were Cree, and she was taken from them when she was 2 or 3 as part of what became known as the “Sixties Scoop,” where Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their parents and relocated with White families. But Sainte-Marie was born in 1941 before this practice was implemented.
The CBC investigation not only turned up Buffy Sainte-Marie’s birth certificate that she previously said did not exist, it corroborated her ancestry numerous other ways. Interviews were conducted with her family who verified how Sainte-Marie’s back story was a hoax. It is believed that when Sainte-Marie attended a pow-wow in the early ’60s, she fell in love with Indigenous culture. Then in 1964 she traveled to the Piapot Cree reserve in Canada, and was adopted in by the son of Chief Piapot named Emile Piapot, and considered part of their family henceforth.
Though the revelations about Buffy Sainte-Marie’s origin story are concerning enough, the CBC documentary/investigation also delves into how so many Indigenous and Native American organizations, the media, the music industry, Academia, and other entities turned a blind eye to the inconsistencies in her origin story, wanting to buy into the idea of an Indigenous woman using music as a vehicle for her activism.
In the mid ’70s, Buffy Sainte-Marie’s brother Alan began writing to scores of media outlets who were reporting on his sister, explaining how she was in fact Caucasian. Those correspondences were ignored wholesale by the media. As her brother and others came forward to question Sainte-Marie’s ancestry, Buffy Sainte-Marie became quite litigious, using a high-powered law firm in Los Angeles to send threatening cease-and-desist letters to her brother and others. It ultimately was effective in silencing those who spoke up.
The CBC documentary even goes further to claim that Buffy Sainte-Marie potentially levied false claims that her brother molested her as a child to compel his silence. Sainte-Marie has said publicly in the past that she was sexually assaulted as a child, though those claims aren’t directly refuted or corroborated in the CBC report. The CBC was also served threatening letters from legal representatives as the media organization attempted to verify and refute elements of their investigation through Buffy Sainte-Marie herself.
These secondary actions beyond the original fabrication of the origin story, and the complicity by the media and others makes the revelations about Buffy Sainte-Marie that much more disturbing. This wasn’t just a situation of someone lying about their heritage. Sainte-Marie was also using that heritage claim and other potential fabrications as a shield and a cudgel against anyone who would question her legitimacy.
Buffy Sainte-Marie received awards specifically meant for Indigenous artists, including the Juno Award for Indigenous Music Album of the Year in 2018, and the Indigenous Music Awards Best Folk Album in 2018. She received the Polaris Heritage Prize in 2020 for It’s My Way!, and the Americana Music Association’s Spirit of Americana Free Speech award in 2015.
Buffy Sainte-Marie has received Honorary Doctorates from the University of Toronto, Ontario College, and Carleton University. She’s an Officer in the prestigious Order of Canada. PBS released an in-depth documentary on her in 2022 that mentioned nothing of the identity concerns and didn’t look into them in any siginificant manner.
It can’t be overstated how significant Buffy Sainte-Marie has been to Indigenous and Native American communities in the United States and Canada, and to Canadian society at large, especially as Canada works to reconcile with its past treatment of Indigenous peoples.
For her part, Buffy Sainte-Marie continues to claim her Indigenous roots, though admitting she doesn’t know who her parents are. The Piapot Cree Nation also continues to claim her as a family member. She is forcefully pushing back on the claims made in the CBC investigation, while also saying that the investigation has brought up painful memories about previous allegations involving her identity, as well as her alleged sexual assault.
You can read Buffy Sainte-Marie full statement that she released right before the investigation and documentary below.
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This situation brings up deeper concerns about the emphasis on identity present in both American and Canadian culture. Though many are now questioning the legitimacy of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s ancestry, it is difficult to impossible to under-emphasize or outright erase the landmark and critical work she has done throughout her career to bring awareness to Indigenous and Native American causes.
Sainte-Marie’s activism has been foundational to the reconciliation with the tragedies and unfair treatment Native peoples have experienced in North America. At times, that work has been detrimental to Sainte-Marie’s career, and selfless in its aims as she faced discrimination for her claimed ancestry. This makes attempting to reconcile with the revelations about her identity, and how to feel about her legacy overall a very difficult task.
One of the questions is if Buffy Sainte-Marie’s work would have been as effective if she was known to be Caucasian. It’s also not just the mischaracterizations of her past that are so troubling. It’s the way she has then weaponized those mischaracterizations to attack those who’ve attempted to come forward to refute her claims. This speaks to a moral depravity that is hard to square with Sainte-Marie’s very real and important activism.
In the CBC documentary, a Metis lawyer named Jean Tellet who wrote a paper for the University of Saskatchewan on Indigenous identity fraud says of the practice, “It is intentional. It is deception. I’s a lie. They’re taking that opportunity from a real Indigenous person. They get a benefit from it, and for some of them, it’s a huge benefit. It’s prestige, it’s money, it’s grants, and awards, and positions, and work that they have never have gotten otherwise.”
This was certainly the case for Buffy Sainte-Marie. There is also a question if she altered her appearance in any way to appear more Indigenous, which would be another layer of deception. Another expert claims in the documentary, “I would not be surprised if 20-25% of people checking the Native American box are not.”
With the way identity has become such an emphasis in society, there is a perverse incentive for some to claim identities other than their own for attention, prestige, or to further their careers. For example, over the last few years we’ve seen a dramatic rise in the percentage of musical performers claiming LGBT identities to curry favor with the media, the music industry, awards, and other organizations.
Sometimes similar to Buffy Sainte-Marie, individuals use that LGBT identity as a shield and a cudgel, and when it is questioned, those questions can be weaponized against accusers even further. Meanwhile, legitimate LGBT individuals who may be facing real discrimination by society at large are losing opportunities to individuals co-opting that identity in a way that is harder to verify than race. Sometimes, just like with Buffy Sainte-Marie, the work of these individuals towards LGBT rights is still legitimate and worthwhile itself.
Ultimately, the importance of the integrity behind people’s claims of marginalized status is something that must be preserved. However, the obsession with identity also runs the risk of undermining important work by people who happen to not be of the same identity they’re advocating for.
Buffy Sainte-Marie’s music and advocacy have resulted in unquestionable benefits to the culture and society of the United States and Canada. It’s unfortunate that the questions surrounding her identity have significantly tainted those contributions, and forevermore.
Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Statement Ahead of the Investigation/Documentary
“My Truth as I Know It
It is with great sadness, and a heavy heart, that I am forced to respond to deeply hurtful allegations that I expect will be reported in the media soon. Last month, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, contacted me to question my identity and the sexual assault I experienced as a child.
To relive those truths, and revisit questions I made peace with decades ago, has been beyond traumatic. But I know I owe it to those I love, and those who support me, to respond.
I am proud of my Indigenous-American identity, and the deep ties I have to Canada and my Piapot family.
What I know about my Indigenous ancestry I learned from my growing up mother, who was part Mi’kmaq, and my own research later in life. My mother told me many things, including that I was adopted and that I was Native, but there was no documentation as was common for Indigenous children born in the 1940’s. Later in my life, as an adult, she told me some things I have never shared out of respect for her that I hate sharing now, including that I may have been born on “the wrong side of the blanket”. This was her story to tell, not mine.
As a young adult, I was adopted by Emile Piapot (son of Chief Piapot, Treaty 4 Adhesion signatory), and Clara Starblanket Piapot (daughter of Chief Starblanket, Treaty 4 signatory), in accordance with Cree law and customs. They were kind, loving, and proud to claim me as their own. I love my Piapot family and am so lucky to have them in my life.
I have always struggled to answer questions about who I am. For a long time, I tried to discover information about my background. Through that research what became clear, and what I’ve always been honest about, is that I don’t know where I’m from or who my birth parents were, and I will never know. Which is why, to be questioned in this way today is painful, both for me, and for my two families I love so dearly.
My Indigenous identity is rooted in a deep connection to a community which has had a profound role in shaping my life and my work. For my entire life, I have championed Indigenous, and Native American causes when nobody else would, or had the platform to do so. I am proud to have been able to speak up for Indigenous issues. I have always tried to bridge gaps between communities and educate people to live in love and kindness.
This is my truth. And while there are many things I do not know; I have been proud to honestly share my story throughout my life.
Painfully, the CBC has also forced me to relive and defend my experience as a survivor of sexual abuse which I endured at the hands of my brother, as well as another family member — whom I have never publicly named.
I could never forget these violations. It is something I have lived with all my life. Speaking about my experience is difficult, and although I have shared privately, I have rarely done so publicly. I’ve spoken up because I know others cannot, and to have this questioned and sensationalized by Canada’s public broadcaster is appalling.
While these questions have hurt me, I know they will also hurt hose I love. My family. My friends. And all those who have seen themselves in my story. All I can say is what I know to be true: I know who I love, I know who loves me. And I know who claims me.
I may not know where I was born, but I know who I am.