Buffy Sainte-Marie Indigenous roots controversy rocks Canada First Nations

<span>Photograph: Jonathan Hayward/AP</span>
Photograph: Jonathan Hayward/AP

Allegations in a documentary that the popular American folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie misrepresented her Indigenous roots have rattled First Nations communities in Canada, where she claims to have been born, highlighting the complex legacy of an artist whose decades-long career is defined by advocating for Indigenous rights.

Sainte-Marie describes herself as a “Cree singer-songwriter” has long traced her identity to the Piapot First Nation reserve in Saskatchewan, where she claims she was born in 1941. Sainte-Marie says she was taken from her biological mother when she was an infant and raised by a white family in the US.

But last week, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation released a documentary calling into question that narrative and her claims to have Indigenous roots.

Its report left communities in disbelief, and threaten to tarnish Sainte-Marie’s reputation as a cultural icon who fought tirelessly for social justice movements during a career in which she won an Oscar, numerous industry accolades and four honorary doctorates 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.

“As an Indigenous woman in the 1960s, I tried to walk proudly, but we faced so much racism and sexism. And so I kept my head down. But when I first heard Buffy sing my heart just erupted with joy. I cried,’” she said. “What she sang was so heartfelt. It showed respect for the dignity of Indigenous people. It gave me dignity. And so I raised my head.”

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.

She also spoke with Noel Starblanket, the former national chief of the National Indian Brotherhood, which later became Assembly of First Nations. She says Starblanket’s account is corroborated by others she has spoken with.

She criticized what she called the CBC’s “voyeuristic journalism” that she said had failed to include the importance of oral history and Cree traditions.

“The CBC did not speak to me as the witness to the oral history. I spoke to the elders and oral history is just as important as written records. And for the purposes of Indigenous history, it’s often more important. They lacked that sense of respect for our way of keeping our history,” she said. “And I just feel awful about that. I feel awful for Buffy and all those in the community that support her.”

In a written statement in response, Sainte-Marie said she had “always struggled to answer questions about who I am” and had in the past instructed her lawyer to discover information about her background. She said her “growing-up mother” had told her 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 1940s.”. She added: “I may not know where I was born, but I know who I am.”

The allegations broadcast by the CBC, including a birth certificate for Sainte-Marie issued by the state of Massachusetts, as well as posts on social media by Sainte-Marie’s son, have unleashed a torrent of vitriol.

“How much ugliness this has brought upon my aunt and our family is shameful,” Ntawnis Piapot, whose grandparents adopted Sainte-Marie under Cree traditions, wrote on Facebook. She says the report has caused “pain and suffering” among her relatives.

Opekokew, who was taken from her family to attend residential school, says the broadcaster should have better considered the immense harms the reporting would have on those also taken from their families and survivors of sexual abuse.

“You don’t do that kind of stories without preparing the possible possibility that you might be triggering many people. And it triggered thousands of people, including myself.

The CBC, which previously outlined its criteria for reporting “pretendian” stories, said it reached out to members of the Piapot family, but received no response. The CBC also says it reached out to the acting chief of Piapot First Nation to arrange a visit to the community, but the chief declined. The broadcaster added it “does not dispute the Piapot family adopted Buffy Sainte-Marie as an adult, nor does it dispute the validity of that traditional adoption”.

Over the weekend, the Indigenous Women’s Collective said in a statement that after weighing the claims against Sainte-Marie, it concluded the singer had engaged in a “great deception” that allowed her to benefit from a “very deliberate and false narrative that misled thousands of Indigenous youth, adults, and most tragically, Indigenous survivors of colonial harm”.

The group singled out Sainte-Marie’s previous statements that she was a survivor of the Sixties Scoop – a notorious period in Canadian history in which Indigenous children were forcibly taken from their homes and sent to live with white families. While the CBC documentary notes the Scoop began a decade after Sainte-Marie was born, adoptions into white families still took place.

The Indigenous Women’s Collective also called for Sainte-Marie to be stripped of her 2018 Indigenous Album of the Year award at the Junos, a prestigious Canadian music award show.

But others say that Sainte-Marie’s history and career highlight the complexity and tangled nature of identity. Kim Wheeler, a Manitoba-based writer who recently worked as a producer on a musical celebration of Sainte-Marie, says the Juno category Indigenous artist of the year largely exists because of the singer’s trailblazing career.

“Buffy inspired so many of the performers at that show. She was their north star. They said without her, they might not have pursued careers in music. Buffy showed them that if she could succeed, so could they,” she said.

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.”

Throughout her career, Sainte-Marie fought to to ensure Indigenous peoples were included in casting decisions and given opportunities they had long been denied, says Wheeler. She questions the broadcaster’s decision to move ahead with the documentary, given the fracturing and polarizing effects it has had on Indigenous communities.

“It’s going take a while for people to decide for themselves whether they’re going to discount her entire legacy or if they’re going to continue to uphold her as a hero,” said Wheeler. “People are talking about the stages of grief. They’re angry. They’re hurt. They’re in denial. Are we all going to come to acceptance? I don’t know. It’s so complicated.”