Indigenous people are grappling with doubts over singer Buffy Sainte-Marie’s First Nations bona fides after a CBC story Friday raised questions about her Indigenous ancestry and renewed debate about who gets to speak for whom.
“It’s like telling people Santa Claus doesn’t exist,” said Tracy Robinson, member of the Indigenous Women’s Collective.
“Who does that?”
Sainte-Marie said Thursday ahead of the CBC report that she doesn’t know who her birth parents are and she considers herself “a proud member of the Native community with deep roots in Canada.”
Many defend the much-loved musician, saying she’s never used Indigenous heritage to get ahead and has long and strong ties with a Saskatchewan Cree community.
But others say if Sainte-Marie is lying about her past, it silences those who did suffer wrongs.
“It takes away our authentic voice and takes away spaces from Indigenous people who really need that,” said Crystal Semaganis, a survivor of the ’60s Scoop, which refers to the thousands of Indigenous children who were adopted into families far from their original culture.
Controversies over so-called “pretendians” have erupted in recent years, with critics saying they take opportunities and resources away from those for whom they were meant.
Sainte-Marie’s case is different, said Eleanore Sunchild, an Indigenous lawyer and professor.
READ MORE FROM CBC: Who is the real Buffy Sainte-Marie?
“There’s a big difference between people who know they’re not Indigenous but continue the false narrative and people like Buffy who honestly don’t know where they originate.”
Far from benefiting, Sainte-Marie has taken risks because of what she believed to be her identity, Sunchild said.
“She was advocating when it was dangerous to be an advocate. She put herself on the front lines.”
As well, Sainte-Marie has long and intimate ties with what she calls her home community of Piapot First Nation, northeast of Regina.
“She’s always going to be our auntie and there’s nothing anyone can do about it,” said niece Ntawnis Piapot.
Piapot said her family supports Sainte-Marie and she dismissed CBC’s presentation of the singer’s American birth certificate as “colonial record-keeping.”
Sunchild also questioned the document, saying many such records from that era were falsified.
“I’ve seen adoptees with birth certificates with names and locations that match the locations of the adoptive parents,” she said. “I know that the records aren’t accurate.”
But being adopted into a family isn’t the same as being appointed to speak on behalf of anyone, said Indigenous writer and journalist Drew Hayden Taylor.
“That’s their right,” he said. “But can that member of my family speak for the entire Indigenous nation? That’s another discussion.”
Still, he argued that Indigenous communities get to decide on their membership.
“It used to be the dominant culture got to decide everything. That’s changing now.”
Something may be amiss with Sainte-Marie’s account of her past, he added.
“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. A good chunk of the Canadian Indigenous community are Buffy fans and this is casting a big dark cloud over that community.”
The story, if true, is painful, he said.
“It does do harm. I think there’s just as much done if the truth isn’t exposed.”
The singer’s social media feed was dozens deep Friday with posts expressing support, and Hayden Taylor said Sainte-Marie is more than loved by many Indigenous people.
“She’s spent so many years in the hearts of North American Indigenous people, I don’t think this will affect her (stature) at all.”
The Indigenous Women’s Collective has exposed other cases of dubious identity, but Robinson called the CBC story an “uninvited truth” that comes from outside the Indigenous community. She fears debate over its conclusions could divide Indigenous people.
“This is traumatizing people because it’s uninvited truth. Indigenous people are feeling attacked.
“The only thing we can really learn from this is about ourselves and our propensity to divide ourselves.”
Semaganis said Sainte-Marie can continue to be a beacon of creativity and human rights, but the picture may have to change.
“Everybody loves Buffy Sainte-Marie. I love Buffy Sainte-Marie. The songs that she wrote did come from a spiritual place, and I honour her Piapot family that adopted her.
“I know it’s going to take a while for my people to come to terms with it, but I hope that people make space in their lives for the truth, and we can still continue to love Sainte-Marie.”
Jamin Mike and Bob Weber, The Canadian Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Oct. 27, 2023.