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Buffy Sainte-Marie
Buffy Sainte-Marie, born Beverly Jean Santamaria. Photo: Festival of Friends
Canadian documentary focuses on ‘Icon’ who based career on Native identity
Wednesday, October 25, 2023

A Canadian news documentary airing at the end of the week focuses on the Native identity claims of one of the most celebrated performers in entertainment history.

Titled “Making an Icon,” the description for the upcoming episode of The Fifth Estate on CBC News does not mention the name of the subject. But multiple Native people who took part in the documentary process told Indianz.Com that it’s about Buffy Sainte-Marie, whose decades-long career in music, television and education rests on her claim of being Cree from the Piapot Cree Nation, one of the First Nations in the province of Saskatchewan.

“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,” the description for the October 27 episode reads.

The documentary comes at a defining time for a performer whose life has been filled with groundbreaking moments. On August 3, Sainte-Marie, who turned 82 earlier this year, surprised her followers by declaring her “retirement from live performance. The announcement cited “travel-induced health concerns and performance-inhibiting physical challenges” facing the aging musician.

“I have made the difficult decision to pull out of all scheduled performances in the foreseeable future,” Sainte-Marie said as part of the announcement, which resulted in the cancellation of a slew of previously scheduled shows.

“Arthritic hands and a recent shoulder injury have made it no longer possible to perform to my standards,” added Sainte-Marie, whose storied legacy includes winning an Academy Award for the “Up Where We Belong” song from the film “An Officer and a Gentleman.”

“Sincere regrets to all my fans and family, my band and the support teams that make it all possible,” Sainte-Marie concluded.

But the Native people who participated in CBC’s documentary process believe Sainte-Marie’s decision to step away from the spotlight is directly connected to the questions about her First Nations identity. According to the sources, work on the hour-long episode began more than a year ago and it grew to include interviews with individuals in the United States, where the performer was raised following claims to have been born in Canada and adopted out of Piapot.

Due to the lengthy production time associated with the CBC project, Sainte-Marie would have been well aware of the nature of the documentary — especially of its potential to unravel a career that began in the 1960s, the people said. The award-winning singer and songwriter has largely remained silent about her retirement decision, with no significant interviews appearing in mainstream media since her announcement more than two months ago.

But on October 14, Sainte-Marie appeared on a podcast in which she undermined her own long-running claims about her Native heritage. In an interview with Terry David Mulligan, a Canadian actor and radio and television personality who described the singer as one of his “good friends,” she said she wasn’t adopted out of the Piapot Cree Nation as she has often asserted.

“I’m always trying to clarify the urban legend stories because some of them are just not true and others are confusing,” Sainte-Marie said on the podcast, seemingly indicating that it’s the public that has not understood her Native claims.

“I think there’s been confusion regarding my Piapot adoption, for instance,” Sainte-Marie said of her connection to an elderly Cree couple that welcomed her into their family after she rose to prominence as a folk singer. “I was adopted into the Piapot family — not I was adopted out of Piapot Reserve.”

“And that makes a big difference,” she said.

Terry David Mulligan: EP 277 | Buffy Sainte-Marie & Tom Wilson

According to Sainte-Marie, the media projects in which she willingly participated have not told the whole story about her past either. On the podcast, she said even the recent Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On documentary, which is up for an International Emmy award, omits key information despite being promoted as an “in-depth look” at her life.

“We had to leave so much out,” Sainte-Marie said of the 2022 project — except for “one terrible incident” that took place during her childhood.

“You don’t really get a picture of who I was because I didn’t really have any identity,” Sainte-Marie said on the podcast. “I didn’t know whether I was Indigenous or not, or mixed or I was adopted.”

Still, the lack of clarity about Sainte-Marie’s upbringing can be traced to her own words. In her first biography, published in 2012 and written by a Native author, she claims not to know whether she was born in Canada or the U.S.

“I may have been born in Saskatchewan to parents I never knew,” she told author Blair Stonechild in Buffy Sainte-Marie: It’s My Way. “I was told I was adopted and I didn’t like it and I always felt insecure as a kid.”

“I may have been orphaned or maybe not but I was brought up by a family who are part Micmac and part non-Indian in Massachusetts and in Maine,” Sainte-Marie continued, referring to the Mi’kmaq people whose present-day tribes are located in Maine in the U.S. and in the Atlantic provinces in Canada.

Her “authorized” biography, this one penned by a non-Native and published in 2018, doubles down on the vague origin story. The book says Sainte-Marie was “probably” born on the Piapot Reserve in Saskatchewan, “most likely” in 1941 and “on or around” February 20 of that year.

“There’s no official record of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s birth, not really, at least not a satisfactory and decisive one,” author Andrea Warner — who also served as co-writer and associate producer of last year’s documentary, states in the first sentence of the opening chapter of Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography.

A Day To Listen – Buffy Sainte-Marie: Indigenous Identity & the Impacts of Colonial Systems

The supposed erasure of Sainte-Marie’s birth has allowed the performer to fill in the blanks with her own narrative. She frequently associates herself with the genocidal Sixties Scoop era in Canada, during which Native children were taken from their communities and placed with White families in order to disconnect them from their First Nations.

According to Native survivors who secured a settlement against the Canadian government, the Sixties Scoop began in 1951 — a decade after the year Sainte-Marie accepts as her birth. It lasted until 1991, resulting in the removal of more than 20,000 children from their Native families, cultures and heritages.

On a recent radio program, Sainte-Marie equated the uncertainty about her childhood to the mass pain caused by the Sixties Scoop. The show coincided with National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on September 30, which was declared a government holiday in honor of the victims and survivors of Native residential schools, yet another genocidal period in Canada’s history.

“We who have been adopted away, scooped away, some of us who have been born on the wrong side of the blanket, you know, some of us who are really — I shouldn’t say insecure, but I should say unknowledgeable — about our backgrounds, our heritage backgrounds,” Sainte-Marie said on the radio show dubbed A Day to Listen. Her “blanket” reference is one she made in the official biography, alluding to the idea that one of her parents could have been someone else.

“Because we don’t know, because nobody would tell us, we grow up with a kind of insecurity,” Sainte-Marie told ShoShona Kish, an Anishinaabe artist from the Batchewana First Nation in Ontario who served as host of the program.

Later in the show, Sainte-Marie claims a fire at an unspecified hospital in Saskatchewan resulted in the loss of records from precisely the same time period that she accepts as her birth — “on or around” February 20, 1941, according to Warner’s biography.

“In my own case, birth and adoption records concerning Indigenous people, they were very low priority in the 40s, you know,” Sainte-Marie said.

“Thinking I may have originated in Saskatchewan? Well, the hospital there had had a fire, that had burned up six or seven years worth of records, so anybody born around there at that time doesn’t have any paper trail,” Sainte-Marie added.

In the months since the The Fifth Estate began its investigation for CBC, additional information has cast doubt on Sainte-Marie’s narrative. As referenced in the show description, “family members” appear to have been the source of some of the unraveling of the icon’s past.

Sainte-Marie’s son from her marriage to Sheldon Peters Wolfchild, a Dakota actor, activist and filmmaker from Minnesota, has repeatedly stated on social media that his biological mother attained her Native identity through “naturalization” — not by birth to Native parents. He has affirmed her admission that she was adopted into a Cree family, contradicting her association with the era of forced removals and adoptions, a story she repeated on a CBC program in 1994.

Her son further stated that Sainte-Marie and her family have long claimed descent from Indigenous people in New England, echoing the “part Micmac” quote from the biography published over a decade ago. He himself has asserted on social media that he has “East Coast Native DNA / blood / ancestry” — the source of which would be his biological mother.

In an effort to confirm the “part Micmac” lore, another family member — Sainte-Marie’s younger sister — shared online that she took a commercial DNA test through Ancestry.Com, the largest for-profit genealogy company in the world. In discussing the results, she said she is biologically “related” to Wolfchild’s son, a scenario that would be impossible if her famous sibling’s “Big Scoop” narrative were factual.

The sister revealed that she uploaded the DNA data files from her Ancestry.Com test to GEDMatch, a popular website used for genetic genealogy and family tree research. In one of her posts on social media, she even shared the unique identifier associated with her “kit” — as the results are known on the site.

Using the unique identifier, the sister’s DNA kit was viewed by Indianz.Com. They results show almost no American Indian component in the Sainte-Marie family’s genetic makeup, undercutting the claim of being “part Micmac” that appeared in the 2012 biography and in early news stories about the singer known around the world as “Buffy.”

The opening sentence of the more recent “authorized” biography also has been cast into doubt by the discovery of an official record of Sainte-Marie’s birth. The document, a copy of which was viewed by Indianz.Com, shows a female child named “Beverley Jean Santamaria” having been born to father Albert Santamaria and mother Winifred Irene Kenrick on February 20, 1941 — the birthdate that Buffy has accepted as her own.

According to the official record of Sainte-Marie’s birth, Beverley Jean Santamaria was born at the New England Sanitarium and Hospital in Stoneham, Massachusetts. The facility, which shut down in 1999, was only about 10 miles from the family’s home at the time in North Reading.

The defunct hospital was recorded to be the same place of birth as a male child whom Albert and Winifred lost as an infant at just four months of age, a tragic detail included in the 2012 biography. These two Santamaria children and their years of birth — 1940 for Wayne and 1941 for Beverley — are listed in the Massachusetts birth index, a book based on official records from the state government.

Likewise, the family’s use of the “Sainte-Marie” name is contradicted by information that wasn’t contained in either of the biographies. According to the 2012 biography, the Santamarias became “St. Marie” in an effort to avoid “anti-Italian prejudice” following World War II. The claim is attributed in the book to Buffy’s younger sister, the one who took the DNA test.

However, the U.S. Census from 1950, which only became publicly available on April 1, 2022, shows the family was still officially using the “Santamaria” surname — some five years after the end of the world conflict. Buffy’s younger sister was reported to be one year of age at the time of the national count. By this time, the Santamarias, including an older male child born in 1936, had moved to Wakefield, not far from North Reading, where they were living in 1940.

The 2012 book further claims that Buffy starting using the “French spelling, Sainte-Marie,” in order to protect her family when she became “famous and controversial” as a folk singer known for speaking her mind on political and cultural issues. But one of the earliest news reports featuring the name “Buffy Sainte-Marie” dates to 1960 — when she was part of the “Operetta Guild” as a student at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, located in the western part of the state. A 1961 story reported “Buffy Sainte-Marie” being a student who took part in a theater production at a nearby college.

Beverley J. Sainte-Marie
A graduation yearbook entry for Beverley J. Sainte-Marie at the University of Massachusetts in 1962.

In 1962, when Buffy graduated, she was identified by the name “Beverley J. Sainte-Marie.” The address in the University of Massachusetts yearbook is the same as the one that appeared on the 1950 Census and the same one listed in the 2012 biography: 24-A Prospect Street in Wakefield. Her interests included the “Operetta Guild” and the “Student Christian Association.”

Not long after her graduation, Buffy was taking her talents on the road. A November 8, 1962, newspaper ad in The Philadelphia Inquirer promoted her as an “American Indian Girl” with “Songs, Stories, Arts & Crafts.” Admission was only $1.50.

The year 1962 is a critical one, at least according to the first biography. The book states that Buffy visited at least two First Nations in Canada that year, and that she met an elderly man from the Piapot Cree Nation at a powwow on a reserve in Ontario. Emile Piapot and his wife, the elderly Clara Marie Starblanket Piapot, eventually took her into their family following a subsequent visit to the Piapot Reserve in Saskatchewan.

Clara, a granddaughter of Cree Chief Starblanket, passed away on March 1, 1982, on her 81st birthday, according to the obituary, which identified Buffy as her “adopted daughter.” Emile, whose father was Cree-Assiniboine Chief Payepot, passed on in January 1995 at the age of 91.

Just last year, Buffy told CBC News that her connection to the Piapot family was intended to be private, expressing surprise when a Canadian reporter supposedly showed up to the reserve and found her there. Yet by the start of 1963, a transformation became readily apparent. Media reports began describing her as a “Cree Indian” — even assigning her various degrees of blood quantum, from “mixed-blood Cree” to “full-blooded Cree Indian.”

Still, Buffy couldn’t avoid her very recent past. An October 1963 news story called her a “Micmac Indian” who was supposedly born in Maine and was raised by a “part Micmac family” in Maine and in Massachusetts, where she said they maintained two homes. The Detroit Free Press even claimed she had a “Micmac name” — Tsankapasa, which was translated in the report as “dark fawn.”

It would take more than than a decade for Buffy to officially adopt a different name. In 1976, she changed her name from “Beverley Jean St. Marie” to “Beverley Jean Sainte-Marie Wolfchild.” The petition was approved at the time of her residence in the state of Hawaii, where she currently lives.

Beverly St. Marie
A high school graduation yearbook entry for Beverly St. Marie at Wakefield High School in Wakefield, Massachusetts, in 1958

CBC News has kept details of the The Fifth Estate documentary mostly under wraps despite the significant amount of work invested in the project. The show description didn’t appear online until the last couple of days.

And viewers who aren’t in Canada won’t be able to watch Friday evening’s episode as it airs. A public relations spokesperson for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s news division told Indianz.Com that “CBC TV and the CBC Gem streaming platform are geolocked to Canada” — meaning that the U.S. audience can’t tune in live.

However, the spokesperson said that episodes of The Fifth Estate are usually posted on the program’s YouTube channel at Once the show is posted there, anyone will be able to watch it.

The Fifth Estate, an award-winning program, is in its 49th season. The first episode of the season — titled “Lessons Not Learned” — is available on YouTube. It looks at the ways in which the Canadian government and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have cooperated with the government of China on law enforcement matters.

CBC News itself has reported extensively on prominent figures who have based careers on claims of belonging to First Nations in Canada. Recent stories have looked at filmmaker Michelle Latimer, professor Carrie Bourassa, legal expert Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond and former university administrator Vianne Timmons.

Last year, CBC premiered a documentary called, simply, “The Pretendians.”

CBC Music: Buffy Sainte-Marie on Adoption (1994)

Buffy Sainte-Marie – In her own words
A clip from CBC’s Adrienne Clarkson Presents. Aired March 15, 1994.
“I was apparently born in Saskatchewan, adopted away. I was raised in Maine, in Massachusetts, and as much as I’ve been able to put together, I do come from this area.

I’m not positive of how I’m genetically related to the family who has since become my family. But there’s a tradition in Cree culture, which is quite different from the European tradition, and adoption is taken really seriously, probably even more seriously than marriage.

And if if a family loses a child, if a child dies, then those parents are always leave that space in their hearts open to be filled by another life, by another child.”

Piapot, Saskatchewan
Piapot, Saskatchewan. Photo: Mitchell Hopkins