“I couldn’t think. I was shocked and hurt at the same time. It just boils my blood,” Shirley Christmas said of when she first heard the news about Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Indigeneity being called into question. “This lady, she’s an icon, not only to native people but others too, because her songs mean something.”
Indigenous people across Canada are struggling to process information from a recent CBC article, and an episode of “The Fifth Estate,” which point to contradictions in Buffy Sainte-Marie’s claimed Indigenous identity.
Some see the new information as a silver bullet that proves deception, while others find the validity of the claims questionable. Membertou First Nation’s Christmas, who met Sainte-Marie when she visited Membertou in 2013, sees the information as an attempt to smear an icon who she says is undeniably Indigenous.
“This lady, Buffy, is trying to make a life for herself. Now, all of a sudden, somebody decides to smear her. To me, that’s outrageous, that’s uncalled for,” said Christmas. “If you see that woman, you can tell that she is aboriginal, all her features, the whole thing about her.”
CBC’s investigation presented Sainte-Marie’s birth certificate, which lists her and her parents’ skin colour as “white,” among other documents and family testimony. In reaction, some are calling for Sainte-Marie’s 2018 Juno Award to be rescinded. Kathy Denny of Eskasoni First Nation refuses to believe the validity of the documents.
“I believe Buffy was taken from her mother at birth, adopted by people of European descent, and her Birth Certificate was altered,” said Denny of Eskasoni First Nation. “As for Buffy receiving awards, she deserved those awards.”
Denny points to the story of Sekwan Wabasca, a Nēhiyaw and Métis woman who posted a video on social media in response to the news about her own experience as an adopted Indigenous person in Canada. Sekwan’s video says her own birth certificate has her adopted parents listed as birth parents, just as Denny suspects Sainte-Marie’s documents do.
“There are many stories just like hers. Buffy was unfortunate and never got a chance to learn who were her biological parents,” said Denny.
Fraud and deception
Not everyone agrees. Tony L. Sylliboy sees the information released as justice for what he calls a fraud and deception. Sylliboy considers the documents released in the CBC reporting as undeniable. He says you can’t become Indigenous by way of celebrity, and Indigenous people don’t need help representing themselves.
“We don’t need non-Indigenous idols representing us even if it brings a positive light. We aren’t incompetent. We don’t need our hands held. We need real indigenous idols bringing a positive light to indigenous communities,” Sylliboy said. “It takes away our integrity if we’re not representing ourselves and have someone pretending to be us represent us.”
Others point to a history of Indigenous communities adopting unwanted children and treating them as their own. Christmas, an Elder in her community, says it used to happen often in Membertou.
“We see them as native.”
“I know we had some on the reserve here when I was growing up, a few that the native people adopted because the white people didn’t want them,” said Christmas. “They didn’t say “you’re white, you don’t belong here.” They took that child, and they raised that child. It doesn’t make them native (legally), but how we see it, we brought them up, we see them as native.”
Others say that Sainte-Marie’s ancestry and lineage don’t matter at all. Desna Michael Thomas of Eskasoni is a long-time fan of Buffy Sainte-Marie. He says Buffy’s impact on the world has been so positive that it doesn’t matter to him what is on a government document.
“I don’t care what Buffy’s ancestry is. Her music has helped me through the most difficult moments of my life. Her songs tell stories of our people, and the oral tradition is as old as time,” he said. “People are so hurt over a birth certificate that apparently says she’s “white.” My birth certificate doesn’t even have my race on it!”
Thomas says Sainte-Marie has proved herself as an ally and supporter for Indigenous communities, participating in the struggles of Indigenous peoples across the country.
“I grew up knowing my rights and fights as an Indigenous person because of Buffy incorporating political and real Indigenous views in her music,” he said. “She’s an Indigenous woman; she may or may not be able to speak the language, but she’s an elder who fought for our lands, our waters, our people and our rights since her career began.”
The topic is rife with opinions on all sides of the issue. For many, the information revealed has only created more questions and more complex discussions around Indigenous identity. The question of who is and who isn’t Indigenous is a legal and cultural conversation with fingers pointing in every direction. For Christmas, where to place blame is a question easily answered.
“Who’s to blame for all this? The government. They’re the ones that make the laws.”
By Mitchell Ferguson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on Nov 02, 2023 at 10:47