Buffy Sainte-Marie, a musician known for decades of Indigenous activism, says she’s always been honest that she doesn’t know where she is from or who her birth parents are ahead of a CBC News report that raises questions about her claims to First Nations ancestry.
“I don’t know where I’m from or who my birth parents were, and I will never know. Which is why to be questioned in this way today is painful,” Sainte-Marie said Thursday in a statement.
“To those who question my truth, I say with love, I know who I am.”
Sainte-Marie, who is in her early 80s, said she was contacted last month by CBC and called allegations about her identity “deeply hurtful.”
The CBC’s flagship investigative show, The Fifth Estate, is scheduled to air an episode titled Making an Icon on Friday, about Sainte-Marie. Her claims to Indigenous ancestry are being called into question by family members, and the investigation includes genealogical documentation and historical research.
Sainte-Marie also posted a video on social media addressing the upcoming episode, saying she has shared her story for 60 years. She called herself “a proud member of the Native community with deep roots in Canada.”
“But there are also many things I don’t know, which I’ve always been honest about. I don’t know where I’m from, who my birth parents are or how I ended up a misfit in a typical white Christian New England home,” she said in the video.
“I realized decades ago that I would never have the answers.”
Singer has often spoken of her adoption
Sainte-Marie gained notoriety in the 1960s for her singing and songwriting, and her well-known songs have been covered by Barbra Streisand, Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin. She became renowned for her protest songs and appearances on Sesame Street.
She is credited with being the first Indigenous person to win an Oscar for best original song in 1982 for co-writing Up Where We Belong, the ballad from the movie An Officer and a Gentleman.
Sainte-Marie has repeatedly spoken about her adoption, saying she is First Nations from Canada but was raised by Albert and Winifred Sainte-Marie, the latter who identified as part Mi’kmaq, in Massachusetts.
Her 2018 authorized biography says there’s no official record of her birth. It says she was probably born Cree on Piapot, a First Nation in the Qu’Appelle Valley in Saskatchewan, in about 1940. Named Beverly, she was nicknamed Buffy in high school.
“To be born Cree in the 1940s in Canada was to be a person who was not always counted, at least not in a formal and legal fashion,” the biography said. “Birth records from the time, particularly on reserves, were spotty, and there are countless reports of records being lost or destroyed.”
The biography says Sainte-Marie was adopted for reasons that are unclear.
Delia Opekokew, the musician’s former lawyer, was tasked with delving into Sainte-Marie’s Indigenous identity.
Opekokew said in an affidavit that she conducted interviews with First Nations people of the area at that time, including Noel Starblanket, a former national chief of the National Indian Brotherhood, which is now the Assembly of First Nations.
Adopted Piapot family calls allegations ‘ignorant’
Starblanket shared oral history saying family had explained that Sainte-Marie was born north of Piapot to a single woman “who could not care for her,” and then gave the baby to an American family who happened to be in the area, the affidavit said.
Sainte-Marie said Thursday that her “growing-up mom,” Winifred Sainte-Marie, told her she was adopted and may have been born “on the wrong side of the blanket,” meaning born out of wedlock.
Accounts of her life say Sainte-Marie searched for answers about her birth family early in her career, which led her to a Saskatchewan couple — Emile Piapot, grandson of then-chief of the Piapot reserve, and Clara Starblanket, daughter of the chief of the File Hills reserve.
The biography says the couple “reportedly had a daughter taken from the reserve around the time Sainte-Marie was born.” Other accounts say the couple had other children who died. In about 1964, Sainte-Marie was adopted as an adult through Cree traditions into the Piapot family.
“But we never have known whether I’m a [biological] relative or not,” Sainte-Marie said in the book.
Sainte-Marie, who announced she was retiring from live performances earlier this year, referenced her relationship with the Piapot First Nation in a podcast earlier this month, calling parts of the story an urban legend.
Throughout her career, conflicting stories about her adoption have been published. Some say she was an infant, others that she was two to three years old when she was taken by the American family. Some say her birth parents died, and her mother was killed in a car accident.
The Piapot family said in a statement that allegations against Sainte-Marie are “hurtful, ignorant, colonial — and racist.” They said the singer was adopted in the traditional way.
“We claim her as a member of our family and all of our family members are from the Piapot First Nation. To us, that holds far more weight than any paper documentation or colonial record keeping ever could,” the family said.