Arts and Entertainment

Canada’s most prominent Indigenous icon might not be Indigenous

TORONTO - Michelle Good still has the ticket stub, a memento of the last concert she attended with her mother. It was April 29, 1996. Onstage at the Vogue Theater in Vancouver that night: Buffy Sainte-Marie.

Known for co-writing the Oscar-winning “Up Where We Belong,” writing the much-covered 1960s protest standard “Universal Soldier” and the years she appeared on “Sesame Street” - wearing traditional dress, she taught the Count to count in Cree, and in 1977 breastfed her baby on camera - Sainte-Marie has long been one of Canada’s most prominent Indigenous icons.

She’s been commemorated on Canadian postage stamps and performed for Queen Elizabeth II. “A one-name phenomenon, akin to Madonna, Cher, Elvis,” as a Globe and Mail column put it.

“Buffy did these extraordinary things that gave us a sense of encouragement and pride,” said Good, a Cree writer and lawyer whose family gathered to watch her appearances on late-night American television. “A sense that our Indigeneity doesn’t necessarily stand in the way of great accomplishment.”

But a new report has cast doubt on her claim to Indigenous ancestry, unleashing waves of emotions - shock, denial, grief, anger - among Indigenous people here and reviving fraught conversations about what it means to identify as Indigenous in Canada.

“It’s a little bit like an earthquake ripped through the Indigenous community,” said Jean Teillet, an Indigenous rights lawyer in British Columbia and the author of an 86-page report commissioned by the University of Saskatchewan on Indigenous identity fraud and how to detect and deter it.

Good said she’d heard whispers last year that Sainte-Marie might not actually be Indigenous but dismissed the idea as incredible. Then she saw the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. investigation.


“So many people are going to just feel so destroyed,” she thought.

The allegations about Sainte-Marie are the latest in a series in Canada and the United States in which prominent figures - in media, academia, law and beyond - have been accused of falsely claiming and appropriating Indigenous ancestry.

Sainte-Marie, 82, has said she was born on the Piapot First Nation in Saskatchewan and adopted as an infant by a White family in Massachusetts. She has claimed she was reunited with members of her Piapot family as an adult and adopted into their community in accordance with Cree law.

Asked about her early years in a 2018 NPR interview, Sainte-Marie spoke of the Sixties Scoop, a program through which the government took Indigenous children from their families and put them up for adoption by non-Indigenous parents to assimilate them into Canada’s dominant non-Indigenous society. The program began a decade after her 1941 birth.

The CBC based its investigation on public records and interviews, including with estranged family members. A Massachusetts birth certificate says she was born Beverly Jean Santamaria to Albert and Winifred Santamaria - the parents she said adopted her. They had Italian and English ancestry.

The investigation documented shifting statements that Sainte-Marie has provided on her origins, including articles from early in her career in which she was described variously as American Indian, then Algonquin, then Mi’kmaq and then Cree - a sign, analysts said, that a person might be faking their identity.

In a statement before the investigation aired, Sainte-Marie said her “growing up mother,” who was part Mi’kmaq, told her she was adopted and was Indigenous, “but there was no documentation as was common” for Indigenous children born in the 1940s - a claim some analysts have disputed.

“All I can say is what I know to be true: I know who I love, I know who loves me,” Sainte-Marie said. “And I know who claims me. I may not know where I was born, but I know who I am.”

Delia Opekokew, a former lawyer for Sainte-Marie, said in a signed affidavit last month that she had “no doubt Buffy Sainte-Marie is an Indigenous woman with community accountability through her Piapot family in Saskatchewan.” The affidavit was not included in the CBC investigation.

Opekokew, who is Cree, said she conducted interviews decades ago with knowledge keepers, elders and Sainte-Marie’s adopted kin, to help her assess the folk singer’s “rights to Indian status and Canadian citizenship.” She said she did not believe the U.S. birth certificate represented Sainte-Marie’s “identity and origins.”

Sainte-Marie herself has spoken critically of people who have embellished or lied about their Indigenous identity. She told the Los Angeles Times in 1986 of the reaction she got when she told people she was Cree.

“One out of 10 people will come up with the standard American line, ‘My grandmother was a full-blooded,’ quote, ‘Cherokee Indian princess,’” she said. “I just laugh. I know thousands of Cherokees, and I’ve never met one whose grandmother was an Indian princess. But it’s a shame, because it indicates people do have an interest, a pride in even the possibility that they may be part Indian.”

Debra Piapot and Ntawnis Piapot, descendants of Sainte-Marie’s adopted Cree parents, said in a statement that she is their family: “We chose her and she chose us.”

“To us, that holds far more weight than any paper documentation or colonial record-keeping ever could,” they said. “We are a sovereign nation, a sovereign people - Canada does not get to determine who we claim as family, and neither does the media.”

Some draw a distinction between being adopted into a Cree family under tribal law and customs, being granted citizenship to a First Nation and having Indigenous ancestry. The rules for obtaining citizenship vary depending on the Nation.

Indigenous people say that falsely claiming and appropriating their identity siphons away resources and opportunities from Indigenous people and fuels harmful stereotypes in a country where the real trauma Indigenous people have experienced has often been dismissed.

People claiming Indigenous identity falsely are “taking up a lot of space where actual Native people should be,” said writer January Rogers, a member of the Mohawk/Tuscarosa from Six Nations of the Grand River. “And that’s not even mentioning the funds and the career opportunities that are targeted for Native people.”


Rogers recently published “Blood Sport,” a play in which people are made to prove their Indigenous identity in a game show. She started work on it more than a year ago. She found much to draw on, she said, from cases in the headlines and in her personal life.

Good sees false claims “as another tool to assimilate and terminate us.”

“What it does is say that there is no meaning to Indigenous identity,” she said. “It’s a real colonial violence in that it articulates an attitude where people think it’s okay to take everything from us: land, resources, spiritual practices and now our very souls through identity. There’s a tremendous harm.”

The Indigenous Women’s Collective said that Sainte-Marie had “engaged in a great deception” and called on the Juno Awards, Canada’s Grammys, to rescind her 2018 award for Indigenous music album of the year.

Kim TallBear, a professor of Native studies at the University of Alberta, said that “what has hurt a lot of people is that she would steal the particular story of some of the most vulnerable,” such as survivors of the Sixties Scoop.

After the investigation was published, 15 survivors from across Canada gathered on a Zoom call to support one another. Colleen Hele-Cardinal, co-founder of the Sixties Scoop Network, said no one defended Sainte-Marie.

Many survivors seek as adults to reconnect with their home communities - a process that can be difficult and emotionally taxing. Sainte-Marie, she said, seemed to have it easy.

“It’s the betrayal of having somebody use the very thing that was taken from us - our culture and our communities - and to use it to benefit themselves in their career,” Hele-Cardinal said. “That was the biggest thing - the betrayal and how long it went on for.”


For many, grappling with the revelations is complicated.

Eden Fineday, publisher of IndigiNews, wrote in a column that it’s “always the Indigenous community that carries the burden of these revelations.” She asked what is accomplished when a woman of Sainte-Marie’s age “is accused of lying to us for decades.”

“Who benefits?” she wrote. “Perhaps it is too soon to tell. For me, there is no freedom in these implied revelations, no greater truth that brings light to the darkness of the world. There are only more questions and the grief of betrayal.”

Good had a suggestion for Sainte-Marie.

“What I think she could do to ameliorate some of the harm is to just come forward with the truth,” she said. “And to apologize.”