Current Problems

Education (6-12)

What’s the Point of “Pretendian” Investigations?

November 8, 2023

The latest revelation, about Buffy Sainte-Marie, is convincing, damning, and strikingly incomplete

A 2015 photo of Buffy Sainte-Marie performing at the Interstellar Rodeo in Edmonton, AB.(Levi Manchak / Flickr)

The Tyee: The Walrus – ON OCTOBER 27, the CBC’s investigative documentary program, The Fifth Estatereleased an episode probing the background of singer, activist, and Canadian icon Buffy Sainte-Marie. Sainte-Marie, now eighty-two, has long claimed that she was born on the Piapot First Nation in Saskatchewan and adopted by a white American family. But the CBC investigation convincingly concludes that she was born in Massachusetts to Italian American parents and, as her career blossomed and then flourished through the 1970s and onward, went to great lengths to conceal these origins in order to become one of the world’s most famous and beloved Indigenous icons.

Sainte-Marie’s accomplishments are long. She was the first Indigenous person to win an Academy Award, in 1983; she has received fourteen honorary doctorates, six Juno Awards, a Golden Globe, and a Governor General’s Award; and she is an officer of the Order of Canada. Perhaps most broadly impactful were her appearances on Sesame Street, beginning in 1975, in which she shared and celebrated Cree culture in front of North American audiences. 

Before all that, in her early twenties, Sainte-Marie was adopted by Emile Piapot and Clara Starblanket Piapot and has called them her family ever since. Her story of abduction and displacement, of reclamation and reconnection, echoed the events of the Sixties Scoop, in which some 20,000 Indigenous children were adopted out of their communities between the 1950s and 1980s. The day before the CBC published their investigation, she issued a statement, alluding to family secrets and hinting that she may have been born out of wedlock—“on the wrong side of the blanket.” She refuted the reporting. “All I can say is that what I know to be true,” she said in her statement, “I know who I love, and I know who loves me. And I know who claims me.”

What the CBC decided to include in their investigation makes a case that is compelling; what they left out is puzzling. Journalists are not impartial transcribers of facts; they choose what to include and what to omit. This process is dynamic, like a spotlight tracking the truth, illuminating selected details while leaving others in shadow. It is the journalist’s duty to stand behind not only the stories they tell but how they have chosen to tell them. The CBC’s decisions in this regard deserve scrutiny.

In his editor’s blog, the CBC’s Brodie Fenlon described the high bar that the organization sets for such stories, writing, “Reporting on stories of false Indigeneity is very much in the public interest. Experts in the field have said time and again that failing to challenge false narratives is contrary to the principles of truth and reconciliation.” Each subsequent takedown has set its sights on a larger and more ambitious target, and in their heightened drama, they have acquired the salacious tone of a true crime podcast rather than a dispassionate investigation. On the CBC podcast Commotion, Anishinaabekwe artist ShoShona Kish expressed her surprise with the framing of the episode. “I would have expected Fifth Estate to not treat it like tabloid television,” she said. “I felt like I was watching TMZ.”

The Sainte-Marie story raises an important question: Are “pretendian” investigations about entertainment or justice?

BEGINNING IN 2016, when APTN revealed that celebrated and acclaimed Canadian author Joseph Boyden had fabricated his claims of Indigenous ancestry, investigations into the spurious claims of prominent Indigenous figures have appeared frequently in Canadian media. There was director Michelle Latimer; there was activist Sacheen Littlefeather; there was Alberta premier Danielle Smith. I wrote one myself, last year, about the artist Gina Adams. 

From the moment rumours about The Fifth Estate’s episode began swirling, the revelations about Sainte-Marie have felt different. The atmosphere of dread hung heavier than before as Indigenous people braced themselves for uninvited and painful truths. Despite knowing how carefully these stories are reported and fact-checked, and despite knowing from my own reporting how common Indigenous identity fraud is, part of me wanted to believe that this time the allegations were false. Then I sat down to watch the episode. 

In the questions that the CBC chose to pursue, they are thorough. They travel to Stoneham, Massachusetts, to view an original birth certificate and question the town clerk about its authenticity, anticipating the skepticism of viewers. Sainte-Marie’s own shifting claims are detailed chronologically, plainly revealing the evolution of her origin story—early in her career, articles described her as Algonquin, then Mi’kmaq, before settling on Cree—as well as her inconsistent statements on the details of her birth, documentation, and purported adoption. 

The investigation cites Sainte-Marie’s claim, in a 2017 interview, that a “friend who’s a Cree lawyer” concluded that her birth records were likely destroyed. Sainte-Marie’s presumably referring to Delia Opekokew, whom she hired to investigate her eligibility for Canadian citizenship and Indian status in the late 1970s, according to a sworn affidavit Opekokew submitted to APTN on October 25. In it, Opekokew also notes that she did not believe that Sainte-Marie’s American birth certificate “was a representation of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s identity and origins.” Opekokew stated in an interview with the Guardian that the CBC did not speak with her “as witness to the oral history.” It seems like a significant oversight not to include her perspective in the episode and not to try to understand why she found the birth certificate so much less compelling than the CBC did.

According to her affidavit, Opekokew recalls conducting interviews in both English and Cree with Piapot Elders, knowledge keepers, and Sainte-Marie’s adopted kin—none of whom appear directly in the CBC investigation. (The Piapot family did provide a letter referred to in the documentary affirming their position that Buffy is a member of their family.) The interviews offered consistent testimony and oral history evidence for the claim that Sainte-Marie was born “north of Piapot to a single mother who could not care for her, and that she gave Buffy to an American family who happened to be in the Piapot area.” This is perplexing—why would a couple from Massachusetts happen to be near a reserve in Saskatchewan, more than 3,400 kilometres away, and why would an incidental visit result in a secretive adoption? But the enormous discrepancy between Opekokew’s conclusions and those of the CBC reveals a crucial element missing from their investigation.

By all accounts, Saint-Marie has been an adopted member of the Piapot family, and recognized by the Piapot First Nation, for sixty years. But her Cree family and community are absent from the documentary. (In the episode, the CBC mentions only that the acting chief of the Piapot First Nation declined to comment.) Instead, two members of Sainte-Marie’s American family are interviewed: a cousin, who reportedly met her once, and Sainte-Marie’s niece, the daughter of her older brother Alan who Sainte-Marie alleges abused her as a child. Though the CBC investigation includes three Indigenous experts—Kim TallBear, Jacqueline Keeler, and Jean Teillet—none are Cree, and none speak to Cree practices. 

Omitting the Cree perspective leaves the viewer without any context of Cree law, adoption, or kinship. Opekokew, who says in her affidavit that she spent two years on her investigation, has significant knowledge of the circumstances surrounding Sainte-Marie’s history. Why wasn’t she consulted or her investigation cited? There is no discussion in the episode of how the adoption of Indigenous children worked, how they were documented, and how their origins were obscured. Many Indigenous adoptees and adopted families have responded to the episode by pointing out the practice of falsifying or amending birth certificates, which has helped fuel speculation among supporters of Sainte-Marie. 

Opekokew, in her affidavit, raises a critical point that the CBC leaves out: “It is my opinion and honest belief that Indigenous children who have been apprehended, adopted, scooped or who have attended Residential School, such as myself, continue to be Indigenous. And, children who are raised by Indigenous peoples without knowledge of where they come from other than their Indigenous family, are as much as members of our Indigenous family and community under our laws, as other immigrants of Canada are Canadian under common law.” She also writes that “whether Buffy Sainte-Marie was adopted or not, she was the daughter of Emile and Clara Piapot of Piapot First Nation without distinction.”

The CBC does not explore the distinctions between Indigenous ancestry and Indigenous citizenship; as to the former, they make the strong case that Buffy does not have the Cree ancestry she has claimed, a very serious and troubling revelation. By all accounts, she appropriated trauma and perpetuated tragic stereotypes about Indigenous people and received numerous awards and honours for it. But the investigation also glosses over the six decades that she has spent as a member of the Piapot family, recognized and embraced by the community. And by failing to take that into account, they make the same harmful and erroneous conflation that pretendians do themselves: acting as though a DNA test or distant ancestor can tell you whether you are Indigenous, omitting entirely the reciprocal recognition of a nation. This omission yields a lopsided investigation, one that effectively scandalizes viewers but fails to educate them about the nuances of Indigenous identity. 

Métis lawyer Jean Teillet, one of the experts consulted by the CBC, has estimated that there are “tens of thousands” of people engaged in Indigenous identity fraud. Since I published my investigation on Gina Adams last year, my inbox has received a steady stream of messages about suspected deceptions in government, academia, publishing, health care, and the arts. It seems likely that the CBC, as Canada’s largest broadcaster, would receive even more tips than I do. Investigating every one of them would be impossible; each one requires the efforts of reporters, editors, fact checkers, and legal experts, an expenditure of resources that must be justified. 

The CBC episode suggests that choosing which leads to pursue is now partly determined by how the investigation will benefit the reporters and the media outlet, and not necessarily by how it will benefit—or harm—the Indigenous people it concerns.

AS A CONTRIBUTOR TO THE GENRE of pretendian investigations—someone whose own career has been advanced by one such investigation—I have become increasingly uncomfortable with how these stories reinforce the idea that justice can be reached by discrediting an individual’s claims rather than by dismantling the systems and cultural mechanisms that reward and reinforce such deceptions at scale. In the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, many institutions sought to “indigenize,” doing so by rewarding self-identified Indigenous people with jobs, grants, awards, honours, and titles. This was often done on the basis of how well those individuals performed to expectations of what an Indigenous person should be, or who offered a non-threatening version of Indigeneity that served the interests of the institution. In short: organizations and institutions incentivized identity fraud. And until they rectify their mistakes and change their processes, the frauds will continue, and investigations—picking off high-profile examples one by one without addressing the root of the problem—can only be seen as journalism closer to the true crime or sensational scam genre rather than journalism that advances reconciliation. 

The CBC’s investigation has caused tremendous pain to many Indigenous people, particularly to Sainte-Marie’s Piapot family, who have reportedly suffered harassment since the investigation. More broadly, it’s possible for some viewers to come away with a renewed belief that Indigenous people who have experienced trauma are exaggerating or outright lying, or that they are trading on a sad story for profit. It is the responsibility of journalists who cover these stories to ensure they are contextualized so that audiences are not just scandalized but informed. We are obligated to go beyond just “public interest,” as the CBC’s Fenlon underscored in his editor’s blog, to consider how and why we conduct these investigations and whether they are leading us to a place of clarity and understanding—or if they are entertainment meant to titillate and scandalize audiences, told by reporters with no stake in the fallout and no obligation to those impacted by the revelations. 

It can be true that Buffy Sainte-Marie is part of the Indigenous community by adoption and not by blood; in fact, recognizing Indigenous sovereignty requires us to learn to distinguish between the two. This does not make her history irrelevant, nor does it negate the painful likelihood that she cultivated a decades-long deception, appropriating a very real and widespread experience of Indigenous trauma to burnish her claims. Instead, the two truths must sit uncomfortably beside each other. We cannot use her impact and relationships to excuse her lies, nor can we say that those lies negate her citizenship in Piapot. 

Michelle Cyca

Michelle Cyca is a contributing writer at The Walrus. She has written for Maclean’s, the Vancouver Sun, and Chatelaine.

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