Singer says material was removed to protect those who defended her in wake of CBC investigation
CBC Indigenous: The biography of Buffy Sainte-Marie on her official website no longer claims she is a Cree woman “likely” born on the Piapot First Nation in Saskatchewan.
The changes were made on Buffysainte-marie.com days after CBC released its Oct. 27 investigation that questioned the famous singer’s decades-long claim to Cree ancestry.
In her first statement to CBC News since the investigation published, Sainte-Marie wrote that she removed material from her website in order to limit the “criticism, threats and abuse” supporters who have defended her in public have faced since the investigation was published.
“I have an obligation to protect them,” her emailed statement said. “And it is for that reason alone that I have limited my public engagement and removed facts from my website that you are now trying to use to build more controversy.”
CBC uncovered her birth certificate, which says she was born on Feb. 20, 1941, to Albert and Winifred Santamaria in Stoneham, Mass. That is the American family that Sainte-Marie has claimed adopted her from Piapot when she was a baby.
According to the Wayback Machine, a digital archive of web pages, as recently as Nov. 7, Sainte-Marie’s biography on her website twice described her as a “Cree singer-songwriter.” It also said she “is believed to have been born in 1941 on the Piapot First Nation reserve in Saskatchewan and taken from her biological parents when she was an infant.”
What’s been removed from Buffy Sainte-Marie’s website:
Those claims have been deleted.
The biography also described her as “the first Indigenous person ever to win an Oscar for writing the hit song, Up Where We Belong from An Officer and a Gentleman,” and it noted that in 1998, she “received the Native Americans in Philanthropy’s Louis T. Delgado Award for Native American Philanthropist of the Year.”
Both of those claims have also been removed.
This sentence has also been deleted: “In today’s climate of damaging #fakenews and toxic hubris, Buffy Sainte-Marie’s incisive honesty, clarity and intelligent compassion stand out in sharp relief.”
Acting chief of Piapot calls for DNA test
Michelle Good, an author, retired lawyer and member of the Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, recently wrote a column in the Toronto Star about the controversy surrounding CBC’s investigation. “She has likely been advised to remove these [references to Indigeneity] as the controversy brews,” Good said. “She’s likely trying to avoid a confrontation about having received awards that she was not entitled to.”
Ira Lavallee, acting chief of Piapot, says he finds Sainte-Marie’s changing stories confusing. “That’s clearly disappointing that she has removed any reference to Piapot and her Indigenous heritage,” he said. “It seems she’s rewriting … her entire narrative.”
For decades, Sainte-Marie said she was Cree and was born on the Piapot First Nation. But in a recent public statement responding to CBC’s investigation, she wrote: “What I’ve always been honest about is that I don’t know where I’m from or who my birth parents are and I will never know.”
Lavallee said it’s puzzling to hear Sainte-Marie say that because he grew up believing she was born in his community. “For the longest time, me as an individual was very proud of the fact that the only Indigenous person to win an Oscar, it was Buffy Sainte-Marie and she’s from where we were from,” he said. “We believed in that and had no reason to doubt that.”
He said he wishes that she would clear things up and that there’s a simple way to do that: take a DNA test to determine whether she’s related to the Piapots or the Santamarias. “That’s something that anyone in my community can do and would not have fear of doing because we know who we are and what we are, and it’s easily provable through a DNA test,” he said.
“If Buffy did that, that’s one thing that could clear all this up.”
In an email, CBC asked Sainte-Marie for her views on the acting chief’s request.
She didn’t respond to that question. “In truth, I don’t need to answer to you,” she said in her email to CBC Wednesday. “Those who love me, know who I am.”
Sainte-Marie reiterated her claim that she has “never lied” about her identity and called CBC’s investigation a “reckless and ignorant” attack on her character that “weaponized” her estranged family and the abuse she suffered as a child. “I’m proud of the work I’ve done to raise consciousness in the mainstream about Indigenous and non-Indigenous justice issues, and to lift up others beyond myself,” she said in her emailed statement.
Lawyer’s affidavit withheld from CBC
The changes to Sainte-Marie’s website are just the latest in a series of shifting stories about her ancestry. Another set of claims emerged in an affidavit that was signed by one of her lawyers, Delia Opekokew, on Oct. 25, two days before CBC published its investigation.
Opekokew is Cree and a longtime friend of Sainte-Marie. The Toronto lawyer from the Canoe Lake First Nation was, through this affidavit, defending her in advance of CBC’s investigation.
However, Sainte-Marie and her legal team did not provide the affidavit to CBC. Instead, they gave it to the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, which published a story based on the document on Oct. 26, the day before CBC’s investigation was published.
CBC had been trying for weeks to get this information. In a Sept. 18 letter, Sainte-Marie’s lawyer, Josephine de Whytell, told CBC about the research that underpinned Opekokew’s affidavit. That letter said that in the 1970s, Sainte-Marie hired Opekokew to investigate “her Indigenous ancestry and genealogy for legal purposes.”
In addition to having been Sainte-Marie’s legal counsel, both Opekokew and de Whytell are board members of the Nihewan Foundation, which is Sainte-Marie’s charitable organization and provides scholarships for Indigenous studies and students.
At that time, CBC asked for a copy of the documentation and requested an interview with Opekokew. We did not receive a response to those requests. CBC later received a copy of the affidavit from a source not connected to Sainte-Marie.
Buffy’s mother gave her up for adoption: lawyer
In the affidavit, Opekokew said in the 1970s and 1980s, people on the Piapot First Nation told her that Sainte-Marie’s Piapot mother voluntarily gave her daughter up for adoption. “Buffy Sainte-Marie was born north of Piapot to a single woman who could not care for her,” she wrote. “She gave Buffy as a baby to an American family who happened to be in the Piapot area.”
Opekokew said the people who told her that have died. She also said that most of her documentation from that time has been destroyed “in keeping with legal business practices.”
Her account suggests that Albert and Winifred Santamaria would have travelled from Massachusetts to Saskatchewan in the early 1940s. Then, at some point during their time in the province, Sainte-Marie’s biological mother would have asked the couple to adopt her.
Good says the account from Opekokew makes little sense.
Albert and Winifred St. Marie are described in one of Sainte-Marie’s biographies as a “lower middle class” family. According to the U.S. census, the median annual income of a family of four in 1940 was $1,634. The 1941 census says the St. Maries’ total salary that year was $680. Good said it’s “ridiculous” to believe this Massachusetts-based couple would have travelled all the way to Saskatchewan in the early 1940s.
“What the heck [were they] doing in Saskatchewan?” she said. “If somebody’s going on a vacation, would they choose Saskatchewan? Especially in 1941.”
Oral history silent on birth, says acting chief
Sainte-Marie has said she returned to the Piapot First Nation in her early 20s to seek family connections but was unable to figure out who her parents were. Good said if Sainte-Marie had really been born on Piapot 20 years earlier, many people on that small, tightly knit First Nation would have known about her and her mother.
“That Indigenous woman didn’t exist in isolation,” said Good. “Buffy would have been able to track down her family simply through oral tradition.”
Acting chief Lavallee agrees. “We would expect … some type of oral history or oral memory of that passed down. ‘Oh yeah, I remember her. I remember that,'” he said. “But that does not exist.” “It could have been our people more so believing the false narrative because of her celebrity and her success,” he said. “We have to be prepared to accept that.” Lavallee said that “Buffy is not on our band membership list as a registered Indian.”
He said her only verifiable connection to the First Nation is that she was adopted through traditional Cree practices by Emile and Clara Piapot in the 1960s. “We do have a family that did adopt her according to our customs and we will support that family any way they need,” he said.
CBC reached out to Ntawnis and Debra Piapot, spokespeople for the family who adopted Sainte-Marie in the 1960s, to ask for their comments regarding this story. They haven’t replied.
Controversy leads to soul-searching
In her recent public statement, Sainte-Marie said this community acceptance makes her Indigenous. “Being an ‘Indian’ has little to do with sperm tracking and colonial record keeping: It has to do with community, culture, knowledge, teachings, who claims you, who you love, who loves you, and who’s your family,” she wrote.
Making an Icon
WATCH | The Fifth Estate investigated Sainte-Marie’s ancestry claims: Duration 44:51
An icon’s claims to Indigenous ancestry are being called into question by family members and an investigation that included genealogical documentation, historical research and personal accounts. Host: Geoff Leo
Click on the following link to view the video:
Good said while the Cree tradition of adoption is beautiful, powerful and forms a genuine bond, it doesn’t turn a non-Indigenous person into an Indigenous person. “We begin to get sort of a popular notion that defining Indigenous is up to anybody — you feel like it. So you are,” she said. “This is like me going to Japan and saying I’m Japanese because I love Eastern religions. How absurd is that?”
Lavallee told CBC that the controversy about Sainte-Marie has caused him and others in the community to do some soul-searching. “I’m not holding anything against Buffy but it has made us take a closer look at who does have legitimate ancestral ties to our community,” he said. “This whole issue has brought this to light — Who are we? Where do we belong? What is our place?”
Lavallee said by asking those questions, he’s become more clear about his own ancestral connections, noting the controversy has “drawn me closer to my community because I can clearly define and prove who I am and where I belong.”
He said belonging to Piapot also means he inherited a legacy of suffering from his grandparents and others in his community who experienced residential school, the Sixties Scoop and smallpox. “There was racism we had to endure,” he said. “We weren’t even looked at as citizens of this country,” he said.
He said it’s wrong for someone who doesn’t share that history to claim biological connection to his community. “Someone trying to capitalize on that without being able to prove Indigenous ancestry — like that is offensive to me honestly,” he said. “That is essentially like you’re picking and choosing the things that are convenient to you now because they’re beneficial.”
Sainte-Marie is not a ‘registered Canadian citizen’
Throughout her career, Sainte-Marie has not only claimed a close connection to Piapot but also to Canada. Canada has also claimed her.
Over the years, she has been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame and Canada’s Walk of Fame. In 1997, she was appointed an officer of the Order of Canada and in 2019, she was promoted to a companion of the Order of Canada, which is the country’s highest civilian honour. In 2021, she was featured on a Canadian stamp.
Buffy Sainte-Marie starred in CBC TV special
WATCH | Sainte-Marie performs in her 1980 CBC special: Duration 2:56
In 1980, CBC producer Paddy Sampson directed a Buffy Sainte-Marie TV special that featured performances of the musician’s songs, including Starwalker.
Click on the following link to view the video:
However, in an email to CBC Wednesday, Sainte-Marie’s lawyer, Josephine de Whytell, wrote that her client “has never claimed to be a registered Canadian citizen, and has never applied.” “Similarly, when considered for any awards or recognition in Canada, her representatives have been proactive in sharing this information,” the email said.
Yet Opekokew’s affidavit shows that in 1980, Sainte-Marie was considering pursuing Canadian citizenship. Attached to her affidavit was a May 1980 letter she wrote to CBC specials producer Paddy Sampson in order to update him on her efforts to help Sainte-Marie gain Canadian citizenship.
The letter doesn’t make clear why Sampson would have had an interest in her citizenship status but documents obtained by CBC show that Sampson and Sainte-Marie were, at that very time, in the midst of developing the script for a TV “superspecial” that was to be called Buffy Sainte-Marie, Love and would feature her performing her songs.
In that letter, Opekokew said the simplest way for Sainte-Marie to become a Canadian was through a Canadian birth certificate. But she said that after more than two years of searching, she had concluded the hunt was futile. “It is my opinion that there are no written records of Ms. Sainte-Marie’s birth,” she wrote in that 1980 letter to Sampson. “Proving her birth would create a special and unusual hardship.”
While they didn’t have a Canadian birth certificate, Opekokew acknowledges in her affidavit that she did know about Sainte-Marie’s United States birth certificate. “At no point during my investigation did I form any knowledge or belief that Buffy Sainte-Marie’s birth certificate from the United States was a representation of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s identity and origins.”
After CBC published its investigation, Sainte-Marie released a public statement saying she has had her birth certificate for years. “I have never known if my birth certificate was real. I have used it because it was the only document I’ve had my whole life,” she wrote. She also said the certificate she has is different from what CBC reported on but she doesn’t say how and she didn’t provide a copy of it to CBC when asked.
‘That’s OK. You’re one of us’
Opekokew said because there was no Canadian birth certificate, Sainte-Marie had just one path to Canadian citizenship. She had to convince the federal cabinet to grant it to her as a reward for her “exceptional service” to Canada – in particular for her role “instilling pride in Indian people.”
In a statement to CBC, Sainte-Marie’s lawyer said Sainte-Marie never did make that application. According to a 2017 interview with the Rogue Folk website, Sainte-Marie travelled on her U.S. passport. “I’m a U.S. citizen, so when I enter Canada I do so with a U.S. passport,” she is quoted as saying.
She is quoted as telling the interviewer the lack of a Canadian passport has led to some questions.
“Every time I’ve had something like the Governor General’s Award or Pierre Trudeau invited me to do that command performance for the Queen [in 1977] or when I was named an officer in the Order of Canada, I explained every time that I don’t even have a Canadian passport.”
“And everybody said: ‘That’s OK. You’re one of us.’ So that’s the way I’ve always felt.”
While the Order of Canada is primarily awarded to Canadians, it is sometimes awarded to living non-Canadians “if their contributions have brought benefit or honour to Canadians or Canada,” according to the Governor General’s website. In that case, they are given the designation “honorary.”
Sainte-Marie’s appointments as officer and then companion of the Order of Canada are not designated as honorary.
In its 1997 citation installing Sainte-Marie as an officer, the Governor General’s office described Sainte-Marie this way:
“Born of Cree parents on the Piapot Reserve in Saskatchewan, she is a musician of international stature, a Native rights activist and a pacifist whose music has sensitized people to political and social issues.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Geoff Leo, Senior Investigative Journalist
Geoff Leo is a Michener Award nominated investigative journalist and a Canadian Screen Award winning documentary producer and director. He has been covering Saskatchewan stories since 2001. Email Geoff at firstname.lastname@example.org.