CBC newsmagazine The Fifth Estate has aired its Buffy Sainte-Marie exposé.
The hourlong documentary episode, presented by senior investigative reporter Geoff Leo, alleges that the singer-songwriter – considered the first Indigenous winner of an Academy Award – has been fraudulently posing as Native throughout her 60-year career.
While the specifics about Sainte-Marie’s background varied as they appeared in articles and other materials over the years –The Fifth Estate found news clippings referring to her as Algonquin, Mi’kmaq and Cree – eventually her accepted (and authorized) biography was that she was born in 1941 on Cree land in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan and removed from her birth family and adopted by a white American family, the Sainte-Maries, as part of a government policy known as the Sixties Scoop. Later, as a young adult, she reconnected with the Cree people and was adopted by descendants of Chief Piapot according to Cree ways.
But The Fifth Estate unearthed Sainte-Marie’s purported birth certificate, which states that she was born in 1941 in Stoneham, Mass., to Albert and Winifred Santamaria – her supposed adoptive parents, who are listed as white. Although a representative for Sainte-Marie told the program that adopted children in Massachusetts were commonly issued new birth certificates with their adoptive parents’ names, Leo traveled to Stoneham to verify Sainte-Marie’s documentation, which appears to have been filed at the time of her birth and not later.
“It doesn’t appear that she was adopted in any way, shape or form,” Stoneham town clerk Maria Sagarino told Leo.
This potential smoking gun could be a destabilizing and demoralizing blow for many members of the Indigenous community, who in the past 12 months also have seen aspersions cast on the heritage of high-profile figures including Sacheen Littlefeather and independent film producer Heather Rae.
“You’re gonna hear people say, ‘I’ve lost another hero,’” says Native Studies professor Kim TallBear, who appears in the documentary alongside other noted watchdogs of “Pretendianism,” including freelance journalist Jacqueline Keeler and lawyer Jean Teillet. “She’s really important in Indian Country.”
The episode also includes interviews with the musician’s cousin and niece, who say that the family refrained from exposing Sainte-Marie’s true parentage for fear of financial reprisal.
One relative attempted to speak out – Alan St. Marie, Buffy’s older brother, who had been writing letters to newspapers in an attempt to set the record straight. But after he informed PBS – whose Sesame Street introduced Sainte-Marie to a whole new generation of potential listeners – that they were in fact biological siblings, the singer sent him a letter threatening to expose him for molesting her as a child if he did not cease and desist.
“If you tell people that I am Caucasian, I will tell people that you are a pedophile,” says Alan’s daughter, Heidi St. Marie, of her interpretation of her aunt’s letter. Alan died in 2011.
In a statement released one day in advance of the Friday premiere of the Fifth Estate investigation, Sainte-Marie said that the CBC reached out to her in September to ask her about her identity and childhood sexual assault. “Painfully, the CBC has also forced me to relive and defend my experience as a survivor of sexual abuse which I endured at the hands of my brother, as well as another family member – whom I have never publicly named,” she wrote. “All I can says is what I know to be true: I know who I love, I know who loves me. And I know who claims me.”
Those include members of the Piapot family, two of whom emailed The Fifth Estate a statement that was also made available to The Hollywood Reporter: “We are direct descendants of Chief Piapot, and we are just two of the many people of the Piapot First Nation who call Buffy Sainte-Marie our relative,” wrote Debra and Ntwanis Piapot. “No one, including Canada and its governments, the Indian Act, institutions, media or any person anywhere can deny our family’s inherent right to determine who is a member of our family and community.”
Teillet says that Sainte-Marie’s Cree adoption was “a very serious and lovely thing,” but it doesn’t make her actually Indigenous.
“Buffy’s a good musician, and she’s done amazing things. Did she have to do it in redface?” she asks. “I would argue she didn’t have to. She chose to do that.”