Last week, the CBC's The Fifth Estate released an in-depth exposé on acclaimed singer-songwriter and activist Buffy Sainte-Marie, revealing strong evidence that her long standing claim to being an Indigenous woman who was adopted from the infamous Sixties Scoop was actually a fabrication.
Ahead of the episode's release, Buffy Sainte-Marie, who is considered the first Indigenous person to ever win an Oscar, issued a statement and a video shared directly to social media, preemptively addressing the claims.
“It is with great sadness, and a heavy heart, that I am forced to respond to deeply hurtful allegations that I expect will be reported in the media soon,” the statement read, entitled The Truth As I Know It. “Last month, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation contacted me to question my identity and the sexual assault I experienced as a child. To relive those times, and revisit questions I made peace with decades ago, has been beyond traumatic.”
“I am proud of my Indigenous-American identity, and the deep ties I have to Canada and my Piapot family.”
Buffy, who has also received the Order of Canada, went on to call the CBC’s investigation into her background “appalling,” saying she has “always been honest” about her confusion over her background, and that the CBC was forcing her to “painfully” “relive and defend” her experience.
The Fifth Estate's investigative report aired on October 27, 2023 along with an in-depth web version of the story. The investigative team spoke to family members, scoured through microfiched and archival newspaper reports going back 60 years, and even traveled to Massachusetts to dig through public records, to report that Buffy Sainte-Marie’s claim to being an Indigenous woman is quite possibly false. The report found that Sainte-Marie may very likely have Italian and English heritage.
At present, Buffy claims to have been born in Saskatchewan to an Indigenous family in the Piapot First Nation, and then taken from her parents as part of the Sixties Scoop (where young First Nations were taken forcibly from their parents and given to white families). She says she was adopted by a Massachusetts family, Albert and Winifred Santamaria, who were Italian and English respectively (they eventually changed their last name to Sainte-Marie to avoid anti-Italian sentiments post-war).
During their report, the CBC found old newspaper coverage from the early 1960s, where Buffy described herself as “Algonquin,” later changing that to “Mi’kMaq” and then changing that again to “Cree.” She was also quoted early in her career as claiming her birth mother in Saskatchewan died, prompting her adoption, but later changed that to saying her mother couldn’t care for her, triggering the adoption. Then she made the claim her adoption was part of the Sixties Scoop, however, the CBC notes that the Scoop is known to have begun in 1951, and Buffy was born in 1941.
The daughter of Sainte-Marie's brother Alan provided letters to the editor her father wrote in the 1970s claiming Buffy was born to Caucasian parents.
“Buffy St. Marie was not born on a reservation…. She was born of Caucasian parents in Stoneham, Mass.,” he wrote to the Denver Post in May 1972. “To associate her with the Indian and to accept her as his spokesman is wrong.”
In their dig through public records, they found Buffy’s marriage certificate from 1982 saw her confirming she was born in Massachusetts, not Saskatchewan, but the biggest public record to contradict her First Nations claim was her birth certificate. For years, she has claimed she has no birth certificate due to her adoption and that those records were lost or burned in a fire. CBC found her birth certificate in a Massachusetts small town hall, which lists her as “white” and born Beverly Jean Santamaria to her parents Alfred and Winifred. The certificate was certified by the doctor that administered her birth.
Since then, the fallout from the report has been conflicted and tentative. The acting chief of Piapot First Nation, Ira Lavallee, told the CBC that they will not turn their back on Buffy because, according to their customs, she was adopted by them in the 1960s into their family, and that is just as valid as whether or not she was born into the culture.
"I can relate and understand to a lot of our people who feel betrayed and in a sense lied to by her claiming Indigenous ancestry, when in fact she may not be Indigenous," Lavallee said.
"When it comes to Buffy specifically we can't pick and choose which part of our culture we decide to adhere to.… We do have one of our families in our community that did adopt her. Regardless of her ancestry, that adoption in our culture to us is legitimate."
However, not all First Nations communities feel that way.
The Indigenous Women's Collective released a statement asserting they believe Buffy engaged in a great deception over her heritage, saying, “the false origin story and the appropriation of Indigenous intergenerational trauma is intolerable and an act of colonial violence.”
Most notably, they call on the Junos to rescind Buffy’s 2018 award in the Indigenous Album of the Year category, noting that other Indigenous artists, such as Kelly Fraser, were nominated in that category and shouldn’t have had that opportunity taken away by an interloper. They note that Fraser died the following year and invite the Junos to “right the wrong” of awarding the award to Buffy.
On social media, the debate rages on, with some saying that CBC’s reporting doesn’t include all of the altruistic and philanthropic work Buffy has done for the Indigenous community over the years.
Others say that they find her alleged actions extremely harmful.
APTN has since published its own investigative report on how Buffy was able to acquire Canadian citizenship in the '80s. Apparently she relied on oral histories and disputed her birth certificate’s veracity. And she had and has the support of her adoptive family’s nation.
You can watch the entire CBC Fifth Estate report here.