Canadian Musician and Indigenous Icon is Actually a White Woman from Massachusetts

(AP Photo/Wally Fong, File)

We had this in the headlines when the story broke three weeks ago and, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, a bunch of new stories about it today. A famous Canadian singer and Indigenous icon named Buffy Sainte-Marie turns out to be a white woman “pretendian” whose entire backstory is a lie. She’s the George Santos of Canadian music.

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Known for co-writing the Oscar-winning “Up Where We Belong,” writing the much-covered 1960s protest standard “Universal Soldier” and the years she appeared on “Sesame Street” — wearing traditional dress, she taught the Count to count in Cree, and in 1977 breastfed her baby on camera — Sainte-Marie has long been one of Canada’s most prominent Indigenous icons.

She’s been commemorated on Canadian postage stamps and performed for Queen Elizabeth II. “A one-name phenomenon, akin to Madonna, Cher, Elvis,” as a Globe and Mail column put it…

Asked about her early years in a 2018 NPR interview, Sainte-Marie spoke of the Sixties Scoop, a program through which the government took Indigenous children from their families and put them up for adoption by non-Indigenous parents to assimilate them into Canada’s dominant non-Indigenous society. The program began a decade after her 1941 birth.

I’m not that familiar with her music but it’s clear her fame went well beyond that. She was a regular on Sesame Street in the 1970s where she presented herself as a member of the Cree tribe. But a recent investigation by CBC News found none of it was true.

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 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.

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There’s an image of her birth certificate at the CBC link above. She was not adopted but was born in the US. The birth certificate specifies that she and her parents are “white.” Hew own niece (daughter of Buffy’s older brother Alan) says her father spoke to a Sesame Street producer about the fact that the family was white. This happened after a chance encounter. Alan was a commercial pilot and one day in 1975 he was greeting passengers getting off the plane when he realized his sister Buffy was on board. She was traveling with a PBS producer. A few weeks later the producer called Alan and asked if he was really Buffy’s brother.

Alan told the producer he and Sainte-Marie were white and shared the same parents. St. Marie said her dad didn’t think much more about that call until Nov. 7, 1975, when a letter from a Los Angeles law firm arrived in his mailbox.

“This firm represents Buffy Sainte-Marie,” said the letter from a lawyer who had represented the likes of the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys.

“We have been advised that you have without provocation disparaged and perhaps defamed Buffy and maliciously interfered with her employment opportunities,” the letter said. It said if he continued, Buffy would “spare no expense in pursuing any and all of her legal remedies.”

Inside the law firm’s letter was an envelope addressed to Alan — a handwritten letter from Sainte-Marie.

“Alan, you no doubt remember your continued sexual abuses to me throughout my childhood,” she wrote. “According to my memories and my childhood diaries, you are nothing but a child molester and a sadist.”

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In other words, she threatened her own brother if he dared to reveal her secret. The letter still exists and was turned over to the CBC who had the handwriting analyzed. It was a match for Buffy Sainte-Marie. The investigation also turned up a 1982 marriage certificate in which Sainte-Marie herself said she was born in Massachusetts and identified her actual parents as her parents.

I don’t get why people keep doing this or how they get away with it for so long. Frankly it’s a little surprising that this is still considered wrong in an age when being trans and denying your own birth certificate is considered acceptable by a lot of people.

Here’s a full special on the investigation which is about 40 minutes long.

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John Stossel 5:30 PM | July 13, 2024
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