Buffy Saint Marie-CP-Dec 2023
Buffy Sainte-Marie, an award-winning singer/songwriter whose work has been honoured across Indigenous cultures. (Photograph courtesy of the Canadian Press)

Topics: Ethical Living | Indigenous

The unsettling conversation around Buffy Sainte-Marie’s pretendian controversy

Though the popular musician and trailblazer was adopted into a Cree family, she took up space where she didn't belong, Mike Alexander writes

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Revelations about famed singer-songwriter and musician Buffy Sainte-Marie advanced by the CBC’s Fifth Estate has caused a deep shock within Indigenous communities as we learn about her dubious claims of Indigeneity. It’s not the first time we have been here. Any time an Indigenous icon is accused of non-Indigeneity there are reverberations that must be confronted. For those of us who have wrestled with our own identity at any point in our lives, the issue hits too close to home. Issues of betrayal, erasure and untruthfulness are very real for many of us. In the case of aunty Buffy, it’s not an easy conversation in part because the reaction is far from homogenous. 

For decades, Sainte-Marie has been arguably the most well-known Indigenous musician, an award-winning singer/songwriter whose work since the 1960s has been a central fixture within the diverse cultures across Turtle Island. Her mainstream success as a storyteller has opened doors within the entertainment industry for generations of talent. It’s hard to overstate how she has blazed trails and broken new ground for Indigenous artists. She is admired and respected because she has been an advocate for us since anyone can remember.


The CBC has now left a huge mess for us to sift through as Sainte-Marie’s origin story has come under question. Much of the evidence provided has left more questions than answers. George Littlechild is an acclaimed Cree visual artist living on Vancouver Island. He is a Sixties Scoop survivor and as a proud fan of Sainte-Marie’s. He wants to believe that Sainte-Marie is Indigenous. Littlechild himself spent years looking for his biological family after growing up in foster care. Long before the internet and DNA tests, he was able to find his relations. He believes that a DNA test would help clear a lot of confusion and uncertainty.

“People say they can’t find their birth records, which could possibly be true, but I searched and searched and eventually did come up with records. I did not give up. If I had listened to the first person who said there were no records, I would never have found the information I did.”

The Piapots claim her as a member of their family, and no one is arguing with them. According to their customs, a person can be adopted into a Cree family and become a part of a Cree Nation. Does this respected and traditional process make a person Indigenous? 

Like so many others, Deanna Vernelli, a Vancouver-based Ojibway textile artist, and student at Langara College, is shocked and saddened by the revelations.

“She hasn’t been honest about her history as a Sixties Scoop survivor,” she says. “She was not born into an Indigenous family and didn’t experience the same barriers that Indigenous women do. She grew up an American settler until her twenties.” 

Adopted as an adult, Sainte-Marie wasn’t socialized in an Indigenous community from a young age; therefore, it did not shape her identity. 


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Vernelli is a member of Thessalon First Nation. She is an example of many of the voices trampled under the feet of “pretendians” —  a person who falsely claims Indigenous heritage — all clamouring for fame, grant money and opportunities reserved for Indigenous people. Vernelli describes her Indigenous identity as complicated. While she is Anishinaabe, she finds herself very small on the continuum of Indigeneity. She says Sainte-Marie’s claims are an important issue because she struggles with her own identity as an Indigenous woman.

Their stories and my own story as a Sixties Scoop survivor both mirror this painful disconnect. This hurt is made worse by knowing that the racism, trauma and injustice I know from being raised away from my family and community cannot be Sainte-Marie’s truth. She used her adoption to gain status by making up stories that have changed over time. Sainte-Marie took up space where she didn’t belong. It’s already hard enough for Indigenous people to find space in the art world or beyond. The awards she won could have gone to an actual Indigenous artist.

The Indigenous Women’s Collective and musicians are asking for her Junos to be returned. Growing voices are asking for her Order of Canada status to be revoked. For many, identity fraud is an extension of colonization through the ongoing erasure of Indigenous voices.

For Vernelli, she has experienced shame and a feeling of disconnect for not knowing anything about her family history. She is starting to see it as the inherent colonial effort to kill the Indian in the child.

“My own grandmother was from nowhere. She wouldn’t admit she was First Nations and she never offered up any other ancestry. She kept all her stories to herself.”

Last year, Vernelli started learning about ribbon applique and began volunteering with Sweetgrass Sisters in Vancouver, sewing skirts with Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in mind. Today, she is creating her own ribbon shawls intended to provide care, pride and protection to the wearer.

“Textiles are a way to celebrate culture. I am connecting with my grandmother and great-grandmother. It’s a way for me to know my family and to bring us all together. Textile art gives me space to process grief and loss in a way that can be transformed into something beautiful and comforting.”


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Vernelli acknowledges that Sainte-Marie claimed an Indigenous identity at a time when being so could get an artist blacklisted, but that was always a choice. Vernelli is just now trying to reconnect with her Anishinaabe roots after a lifetime of never feeling that her Indigeneity was “enough”. She is frustrated that people in Sainte-Marie’s position are allowed to roam freely in spaces set for Indigenous voices. Vernelli believes that the Fifth Estate program offers some measure of accountability. When claims of Indigeneity are tested, there are means to determine who is and isn’t one of us. I believe that the Sainte-Marie story was exhaustively checked and re-checked to ensure that the facts presented would stand up against any challenge. To date, the CBC has not retracted a word, nor apologized for any errors in their reporting. That is important.

There are ethical standards of journalistic conduct that if not followed, could open the CBC up to legal action in the case of defamation. In 2021, identity fraudster Michelle Latimer attempted to punish the CBC for a public investigation into her false assertions of Indigenous ancestry, but the defamation suit fizzled out as quickly as her lies did. There are laws protecting people from defamation and while I do not hold much of Canadian law in high regard as it pertains to Indigenous people, Sainte-Marie is free to pursue legal remedies if the claims against her are indeed defamatory. At the time of writing, this has not occurred.

Sainte-Marie’s positive impact on the Indigenous community is one of the lines of defence her supporters use. As I stated, I think the measure of her reach and work has been incredible for Indigenous people. Using that logic, we can also say that Joseph Boyden was adopted into an Indigenous family. We can also talk about how Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond’s achievements were of great institutional benefit to Indigenous people. When their identity fraud was exposed, none of these achievements stood up to the fact that we had been lied to. 

I find it hard to justify standing up for one pretendian but not all of them. Picking and choosing who is one of us and who isn’t doesn’t feel right to me. Our heritage is not the result of a popularity contest or years of emotional manipulation. I understand that Sainte-Marie means a lot to us, and I believe that her work has come from a place of love in her soul. I don’t think our communities will reach a consensus on her like we have with other identity tricksters, but we will continue this conversation – and for that I am grateful. I suppose my own sorrow here is that I find it hard to take comfort in how the world is better off knowing about Sainte-Marie. I know my truth as well. In the end, whether I like it or not, I must believe that the truth matters most.

***

Mike Alexander is an Anishinaabe writer and artist from Swan Lake First Nation in Manitoba, now living in Vancouver.


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  • says:

    Thank you for this. I am a non indigenous Australian. Long time Sainte-Marie fan and feeling, in a small way, your pain. But mostly, just disappointment and confusion. So many unanswered questions in the case of Sainte-Marie and many others it seems. In Australia pretendism not a thing as far as I know.

  • says:

    I listened to the CBC radio program Unreserved Dec 2
    which discussed this from many Indigenous perspectives.
    One thought expressed was that CBC was wrong in what
    what and how it did it. At the very least, they should
    have consulted with some Indigenous people/groups
    which apparently they did not. Blind belief
    in the CBC is unwarranted

    I do think universities and corps should be more thorough in their vetting, checking Indigenous references, not just white ones. The fact is even though doctors' references are checked, some frauds still get through.

    To say the reaction is far from homogeneous implies Indigenous people have a 'problem' because they aren't! Rarely in white society/groups are reactions homogeneous. Furthermore, the experiences of all 'lost/separated'
    Indigenous people are not homogeneous, neither are their feelings about their situations! Nor, for that matter, would all 'pretendians' be the same!

    However -
    This is a 'decision' Indigenous peoples themselves should get to make. From the very beginning WE decided who was Indian or not, what the criteria was, etc. We never understood (or even tried to) their group/family relationships etc. In fact, we did everything possible to break up such relationships - separating children from parents and sending them for adoption far away so they never knew their parents, where they came from or their connections and heritage. AND we certainly didn't keep accurate records because - well - we wanted rid of them and any evidence of them.

    So WE have no right to make such determination any more.
    That's an extension of colonialism.
    It's up to Indigenous peoples.
    And it certainly needn't be done via sensational media.
    What I find most tragic about this, is how it has pitted Indigenous peoples against each other.
    Great colonial tactic - divide and conquer.