Geoff Leo et al., CBC, October 27, 2023
When Buffy Sainte-Marie strolled onto Sesame Street in 1975, she was making history.
The Dec. 9 episode was the launch of the program’s efforts to present Indigenous culture to millions of viewers.
Sainte-Marie opened her backpack and showed off an array of Indigenous jewelry and beadwork to an eager group of children and adults.
“This is Cree Indian,” Sainte-Marie said, holding out a pair of beaded moccasins. “Cree Indians are my tribe, and we live in Canada.”
One little boy piped up. “My sister read me a story about Indians.”
“Was it a real story about Indians or was it a fairy tale?” Sainte-Marie asked, noting “some are just pretend and some are real.”
“I’m real,” she said with a grin.
From the early days of her career, Sainte-Marie has claimed to be a Cree woman, born in Canada. She has also allowed herself to be celebrated as an Indigenous icon and success story.
In 2022, CBC broadcast a concert that was held in her honour at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, where Anishinabe musician ShoShona Kish told the audience: “Buffy Sainte-Marie has led the way for Indigenous music on this beautiful land since her first album.”
However, almost 50 years after stepping onto Sesame Street, the iconic singer-songwriter’s claims to Indigenous ancestry are being contradicted by members of her own family and an extensive CBC investigation.
Late last year, CBC received a tip that Sainte-Marie is not of Cree ancestry but, in fact, has European roots. She is the latest high-profile public figure whose ancestry story has been contradicted by genealogical documentation, including her own birth certificate, historical research and personal accounts — the latest chapter in the complex and growing debate around Indigenous identity in Canada.
Indigenous scholars like Kim TallBear, a professor of Native studies at the University of Alberta in Edmonton and a member of Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, say it’s unacceptable for non-Indigenous people to speak for Indigenous people and take honours set aside for them.
“It’s theft of opportunities, resources. It’s theft of our stories,” she said.
For many years, Sainte-Marie claimed she was born on the Piapot First Nation near Regina.
For example, in the 1971 Buffy Sainte-Marie Songbook, which she wrote and illustrated, Sainte-Marie said: “When I go home to the Cree reserve in Canada where I was born, I usually spend a few hours of every day teaching the Cree language.”
In a 1986 interview with the Los Angeles Times Magazine, she said: “I was born on the Piapot Cree reservation near Craven, Sask.”
Then, her story goes, she was adopted by a Massachusetts couple, Albert and Winifred Santamaria, who raised her near Boston.
She has said later in life, she was reunited with her Piapot relatives and adopted into the community.
Sainte-Marie, whose music career took off in New York City’s Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, even wrote a song about her Saskatchewan connection.
“Take me back to where my heart belongs — Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan,” the lyrics say.
But some members of Sainte-Marie’s family believe her story is built on an elaborate fabrication.
“She wasn’t born in Canada.… She’s clearly born in the United States,” said Heidi St. Marie, daughter of Sainte-Marie’s older brother, Alan. “She’s clearly not Indigenous or Native American.”
That claim is supported by documents obtained by CBC, including Sainte-Marie’s Stoneham, Mass., birth certificate. The investigation also shows that her account of her ancestry has been a shifting narrative, full of inconsistencies and inaccuracies.
In a Sept. 18 email to CBC, Sainte-Marie’s Ontario-based lawyer, Josephine de Whytell, said: “At no point has Buffy Sainte-Marie personally misrepresented her ancestry or any details about her personal history to the public.”
Any perceived inconsistencies CBC has found in Sainte-Marie’s story, de Whytell said, “can be explained by the truth.”
Sainte-Marie declined CBC’s requests for an interview.
But in a video statement posted to Facebook Thursday, she reiterated that she is “a proud member of the Native community with deep roots in Canada” and said there are many things she doesn’t know about her ancestry.
However, CBC’s investigation found many instances over the years of contradictory statements from the singer regarding that personal history.
Sainte-Marie rose to fame in the early 1960s. She launched her career alongside folk artists like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell.
Her songs were covered by Elvis, Barbra Streisand and Glen Campbell, to name a few.
A New York Times article from 1963 described Sainte-Marie as “an Indian girl” who was “one of the most promising new talents on the folk scene today.”
The following year, she was named Billboard Magazine’s best new artist of the year. The Brantford Expositor quoted her as saying: “My main aim is some day to be the world’s best Indian girl singer.”
She is considered the first Indigenous person to win an Oscar, which she was awarded in 1983, for co-writing Up Where We Belong for the movie An Officer and a Gentleman. She’s also the recipient of numerous Indigenous music awards, including four Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards, two Aboriginal Peoples’ Choice Music Awards, four Junos designated for Indigenous people and four Indigenous lifetime achievement awards.
Sainte-Marie has been named a companion of the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honour. In addition, her website says she has been awarded honorary doctorates from at least a dozen universities.
Recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in Sainte-Marie. In 2021, she appeared on a Canadian stamp.
Last year, she was the subject of a travelling exhibit featured at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre. She was also the focus of a five-part CBC podcast about her life and legacy and a one-hour concert televised on CBC that celebrated her leadership in Indigenous music.
Also in 2022, American broadcaster PBS and Canadian streaming service Crave aired Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On, a documentary examining her influence as a champion for Indigenous people and their rights. It is the only Canadian production to have been nominated for a 2023 International Emmy.
Earlier this year, Sainte-Marie, 82, announced she was retiring from public performances because of health concerns, including arthritic hands and a recent shoulder injury.
A birth certificate comes to light
A simple Google search shows that virtually every available source says Sainte-Marie was born on the Piapot First Nation in Saskatchewan.
But that was contradicted late last year when a tipster provided CBC with a copy of what appeared to be Sainte-Marie’s birth certificate, obtained from a small town hall in Massachusetts.
That record said Beverly Jean Santamaria, who started going by the name Buffy Sainte-Marie early in her music career, was born in 1941 in Stoneham, Mass., north of Boston, to Albert and Winifred Santamaria — the couple Sainte-Marie claimed adopted her.
Mother, father and baby were all listed as white.
Sainte-Marie’s story fits an all-too-familiar pattern, said Métis lawyer Jean Teillet of Vancouver.
She said that for decades, non-Indigenous people have been falsely claiming Indigenous ancestry and using those claims to take opportunities and honours for themselves that were created for genuine First Nations, Métis and Inuit people.
“They’ve all become stars in their field,” said Teillet, who in 2022 completed a comprehensive study called Indigenous Identity Fraud for the University of Saskatchewan.
“They’re taking that opportunity from a real Indigenous person…. It’s prestige, it’s money, it’s grants and awards and positions and work that they would never have gotten otherwise,” she said.
Given the doubt cast upon her ancestry by the birth certificate, CBC decided to investigate Sainte-Marie’s ancestry claims.
That review, examining genealogical records and media stories along with interviews with some members of her family, confirmed the facts presented in Sainte-Marie’s birth certificate.
It also uncovered a letter that some family members believe shows the lengths to which Sainte-Marie would go to silence those questioning her story.
Heidi St. Marie remembers the moment her father, Sainte-Marie’s older brother, received a threatening letter from his sister and her high-powered Los Angeles attorney.
“It blew up my whole world,” St. Marie told CBC.
‘She didn’t know who she was’
Sainte-Marie was raised by Albert and Winifred Santamaria in the town of Wakefield, Mass., along with her elder brother, Alan, and a younger sister, Lainey.
Albert’s parents were born in Italy, while Winifred’s mother and father were of mostly English ancestry.
The family changed its name from Santamaria to St. Marie “because of anti-Italian prejudice that developed during the Second World War,” according to a 2012 biography — Buffy Sainte-Marie: It’s My Way, written by Blair Stonechild.
Mentions of her in the local newspaper show that from an early age, Sainte-Marie was active in the arts, performing in dance and piano recitals and choirs.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: An Authorized Biography, written by CBC Music associate producer Andrea Warner in collaboration with Sainte-Marie in 2018, outlines a variety of stories Sainte-Marie says she heard as a child.
“She didn’t know who she was or where she came from,” the biography says.
“I was told that I was adopted. I was told that I was just born ‘on the wrong side of the blanket.’ In other words, one of my parents was my parent and one wasn’t. I was told that we were part-Indian, but nobody knew anything about it,” she is quoted as saying.
In the biography, she goes on to suggest that sort of uncertainty is common among Indigenous people.
“So many of us were either taken away to residential schools, or some other school, or we were adopted out or we got lost in the system, or we were otherwise ‘bleached,’” she said.
Sainte-Marie’s 2012 biography suggests she was put up for adoption after her biological mother died shortly after giving birth to her near the Piapot First Nation.
The Britannica website says her Cree mom was killed in a car accident.
In 2022, PBS reported that “she was taken from her family against their will” as a result of the “cruel and racist” practice in Canada known as the Sixties Scoop.
This is a claim Sainte-Marie also made in a 2018 interview with National Public Radio in the United States, when she was asked to describe her own adoption.
“In Canada, we had something that, sometimes, a little bit later referred to as the ‘Big Scoop’ where Native children were removed from the home,” she said. “They’re assigned a birthday. They’re assigned kind of a biography. So, in many cases, adoptive people don’t really know what the true story is.”
The Sixties Scoop is widely recognized to have started in 1951. Sainte-Marie was born in 1941.
While Sainte-Marie has claimed she’s Cree, born on the Piapot First Nation, CBC hasn’t found any reference where she has directly identified her biological parents.
In a report in the Ottawa Citizen in 1966, she was quoted as saying: “My real mother wasn’t in a position to keep me, but I always knew who she was and that I could go back to the place of my birth when I wished.”
Yet the very next year, the Montreal Gazette quoted her as saying: “I don’t know who my real mother was.”
Teillet finds this shifting narrative suspicious. While it’s not uncommon for people to get some facts about their early life confused, Teillet said “the whole story is not usually completely inconsistent, like ‘I knew my parents,’ ‘I never knew my parents.’ Right?
“That’s two things that can’t live together.”
In a phone conversation in September with Sainte-Marie’s younger sister, Lainey, 75, CBC asked if she recalled her parents ever suggesting that her sister was adopted. She said no, adding that the first time she heard that claim was when Sainte-Marie was in her early 20s.
CBC has found no indication that either Albert or Winifred St. Marie, who are both deceased, ever publicly commented on Sainte-Marie’s ancestry claims.
‘No Indian blood in her’
The first published mention of Sainte-Marie’s claim of Indigenous ancestry that CBC could locate came in the March 19, 1961, edition of the Springfield Republican, a newspaper in Springfield, Mass. It mentioned an upcoming concert involving “Miss Buffy Sainte-Marie, an American Indian girl.”
In November 1963, Sainte-Marie was quoted in the Wakefield Daily Item, saying that she was “half-Micmac by birth.” That’s the earliest reference CBC discovered in which she has been directly quoted claiming Indigenous ancestry.
A profile in Look Magazine in December 1964 said Sainte-Marie was “born of Cree Indian parents” and adopted by Albert and Winifred Santamaria.
That reference caught the eye of Arthur Santamaria, Sainte-Marie’s paternal uncle.
“After reading the story,” he told the Wakefield Daily Item in a Dec. 4, 1964, story, “I thought I should come down and tell you the truth about Buffy. She doesn’t sound in this magazine story like the girl who grew up here.”
He told the paper that, contrary to the Look article, Sainte-Marie “has no Indian blood in her” and “not a bit” of Cree heritage.
In an interview with CBC earlier this year in her Phoenix, Ariz., home, Heidi St. Marie said the rest of the family did not believe she was Indigenous.
“Nobody except for Buffy ever talked about Buffy being adopted,” St. Marie, 58, said.
Bruce Santamaria said his family told him Sainte-Marie’s claim that she was adopted was incorrect.
“We were told flat out that she was my Uncle Albert’s child,” he said.
Despite the family’s concerns, his aunts and uncles followed Sainte-Marie’s career with passion and were proud of her, Bruce Santamaria, 61, said.
“She was a really talented musician,” he said. “And she was also authentic in her support for the Native Americans. She really cared about them. She was a voice for them.”
He said the family believed her claim to Indigenous ancestry was some sort of publicity stunt.
Whispers began to swirl that Sainte-Marie had threatened family members, including her own brother, with legal action or worse if they publicly questioned her ancestry claims.
“I remember those stories growing up … ‘Don’t talk about it. We don’t want any trouble…. Let her do what she wants to do because we don’t want to lose our house. We don’t want lawyers coming and suing us for defamation,’” Santamaria said.
A shifting world view
Sainte-Marie’s career began just as the hippie movement was emerging across North America. It was characterized by a rejection of Eurocentric culture and an embrace of Indigenous spirituality, according to Teillet.
“The hippies are in the process of throwing out the traditional churches and adopting spiritualism, and they reach out to Indigenous people to adopt some of their ways.”
In a 1967 interview with the Berkeley Barb, an underground newspaper in Berkeley, Calif., Sainte-Marie is reported to have expressed annoyance with this trend.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me — these kids, trying to be Indians,” she is quoted as saying. “They’ll never become Indians.”
According to Sainte-Marie’s 2018 biography, her studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst led to a paradigm shift in her world view.
“Studying philosophy and world religions reinforced her church-less spirituality as well as the connection she’d always felt between herself and something that is bigger: the earth, animals, ancestors and life itself,” the biography says.
She began spending time with members of the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC), an organization made up primarily of Indigenous law students.
“The group offered her a chance to meet people who were a lot like her: young, college educated, politically charged and ready to make a change,” the 2018 biography says.
In the early 1960s, Sainte-Marie travelled to Oklahoma with members of the NIYC. She said she witnessed racism.
“There were signs in windows: ‘Help wanted, Indians need not apply,’” she told her biographer.
Over the decades, she used her fame to fight for Indigenous rights.
In the late 1960s, she established a foundation that offered scholarships to Indigenous students. In the early 1970s, she reportedly paid hundreds of dollars every week to supply water to Indigenous protesters who had taken over Alcatraz Island. In the 1990s, her Cradleboard Teaching Project developed Indigenous curricula for schools.
“Do you really think you can save the Cree culture?” a Los Angeles Free Press reporter asked her in 1967.
“I can save the culture,” she is quoted in reply.