Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

'This is my life': Buffy Sainte-Marie pushes against doubts over Indigenous ancestry

Buffy Sainte-Marie is pushing back on a news report that questions her Indigenous heritage, maintaining she has never lied about her identity. The iconic singer, songwriter and activist says the recent CBC report was full of mistakes and omissions.

Buffy Sainte-Marie is pushing back on a news report that questions her Indigenous heritage, maintaining she has never lied about her identity. 

The iconic singer, songwriter and activist says the recent CBC report was full of mistakes and omissions. In her first public statement since it was published, Sainte-Marie calls the story an attack on her character, life and legacy.

“Being an ‘Indian’ has little to do with sperm tracking and colonial record keeping: it has to do with community, culture, knowledge, teachings, who claims you, who you love, who loves you and who’s your family,” Sainte-Marie, 82, said in a written statement to The Canadian Press.

Chuck Thompson with CBC said in an email Wednesday the broadcaster stands by the story and the evidence was fairly presented. 

CBC reported in October that it found Sainte-Marie's birth certificate, which says she was born in 1941 in Massachusetts. The document lists the baby and parents as white and includes a signature of an attending physician — information CBC says is corroborated by Sainte-Marie's marriage certificate, a life insurance policy and the United States census. 

Family members in the U.S., including Sainte-Marie’s younger sister, also told CBC that Sainte-Marie was not adopted and does not have Indigenous ancestry.

Sainte-Marie said she "will not stoop to respond to every false allegation."

However, she said it was common for birth certificates to be "created" after Indigenous children were adopted or taken away from their families. She said she useda birth certificate throughout her life that was the only document she had.

She has never known if it was real, she said.

"I’ve heard from countless people with similar stories who do not know where they are from and feel victimized by these allegations," she said. 

"Most importantly, this is my life – I am not a piece of paper."

Thompson said CBC was assured by a town clerk in Stoneham, Mass., that its document on file is an original live birth certificate and it's not possible another was inserted after the fact. 

Sainte-Marie also said CBC interviewed two estranged family members whom she doesn’t know. She accused them of perpetuating a story fabricated by her alleged childhood abuser.  

CBC obtained a letter from 1975 that Sainte-Marie and her lawyers sent to her brother, who has since died. CBC's report said family recollections and other written correspondence show the brother received the letter after he informed someone from PBS that Sainte-Marie was not Indigenous.

In it, Sainte-Marie writes if the brother tried to hurt her, she would tell his family, employer and police about the alleged abuse.

“It hurts me deeply to discover that my estranged family grew up scared of me and thinking these lies because of a letter I sent intended to protect me from further abuse,” Sainte-Marie said in the statement. 

She said she had evidence, including childhood diaries, that proves the abuse. “This has been incredibly retraumatizing for me and unfair to all involved."

Thompson said CBC contacted Sainte-Marie, her counsel and publicist multiple times weeks before publishing its report. He said Sainte-Marie was provided a copy of theletter to her brother but declined to comment. 

Thompson also said CBC quoted extensively from Sainte-Marie's public comments and biographies in its report.

"We represented her voice to the best of our ability, despite the fact she declined to speak with us."

Sainte-Marie’s Indigenous culture was a central part of her identity as her fame began to rise in the 1960s. Her debut record, “It’s My Way!,” featured "Now That the Buffalo's Gone," a protest song about the loss of Indigenous lands.

She brought First Nations culture to “Sesame Street” and 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” from the movie “An Officer and a Gentleman.”

She has received multiple Junos and, in 2015, the $50,000 Polaris Music Prize. There have been calls for awards she collected over her six-decade career to be rescinded. 

Earlier this week, a documentary about Sainte-Marie’s life and career won an International Emmy Award. "Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On" won in the arts programming category.

The Indigenous Women's Collective, which describes itself as mothers, grandmothers, academics and activists advocating to stop colonial violence against Indigenous women, said the win felt like a “slap in the face." 

In her statement, Sainte-Marie thanked the International Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, saying the Emmy is recognition of the team who worked on her life story.

“I’ve always believed it takes rain and sunshine to bring a rainbow. This great honour does indeed come after the rain – as I continue to absorb and process the recent attack on my character, life and legacy,” Sainte-Marie said.

The CBC report said the story of Sainte-Marie’s birth, childhood and identity shifted throughout her career. It said she identified as Algonquin and Mi’kmaq before saying she was Cree, adopted from a mother in Saskatchewan. 

Conflicting stories about her adoption have also been published, some saying she was an infant and others that she was a toddler when she was taken by an American family. Some say her birth parents died or her mother was killed in a car crash.

The "Carry it On" documentary touches on her childhood, calling her an "adopted child" born in Canada who grew up in Massachusetts and Maine. In it, Sainte-Marie says her mother told her when she grew up she could find out about her ancestry herself. 

Information provided by the singer’s publicist says Sainte-Marie’s story has been consistent with what she knew. Growing up, her mother talked about being descendants of Mi’kmaq people, whose language is in the Algonquian group. As an adult, she was adopted into a Cree family after oral history connected her to the Piapot First Nation.

Sainte-Marie said she has always struggled to answer questions about who she is. She tried to find information for decades, but eventually realized she would never know. 

“Which is why, to be questioned in this way is painful, both for me, and for my two families I love so dearly."  

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 23, 2023. 

Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press