Judge Rules Against Tribes in Fight Over Nevada Lithium Mine

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By Ketrin Agustine

This week’s roundup focuses on a story that continues to dominate headlines:

The Buffy Sainte-Marie Scandal: Is she Indigenous?

Since bursting onto the folk music scene in the early 1960s, singer/ songwriter/Indigenous activist Buffy Sainte-Marie has claimed to have been born Beverley Sainte-Marie to an unknown Cree mother on the Piapot First Nation Reserve in the western Canadian province of Saskatchewan and adopted out to a Mi’kmaq (Micmac) family in New England.

There have been questions about inconsistencies in her account over the years.

Ontario’s Sault Times in July 1963, for example, identified her as Mi’kmaq from Canada’s Maritime provinces.

Detroit’s Free Press in October 1963 stated, “Buffy was born a Micmaq Indian in Maine and grew up with a part white, part Micmac family.”

Saskatoon’s Star-Phoenix in March 1966 identified her as a “full blooded Cree” brought up by a “Micmac Indian couple.”

Given the singer’s iconic status, no one publicly challenged her genealogy.

Until now.

Last week, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s investigative series Fifth Estate revealed results of a year-long investigation claiming that her she was born Beverley Jean Santamaria in Stoneham, Massachusetts in 1941 to a white couple, Albert and Winifred Santamaria, and as an adult was adopted into a Piapot Cree family.

The report claims that when her brother Alan Santamaria moved to reveal her deception, she threatened him with allegations of sexual abuse.

Last week’s broadcast stunned Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities on both sides of the U.S.- Canada border.

The Indigenous Women’s Collective in Canada issued a statement calling for Sainte-Marie’s 2018 Juno music award to be rescinded.

Canadian music historian John Einarson, who wrote a 2006 documentary called Buffy Sainte-Marie: A Multimedia Life, expressed his disappointment on Facebook.

“I feel a sense of betrayal that Buffy engaged in a deceit for decades and after so much praise for her as an Indigenous Canadian,” he posted. “There have been ample opportunities in her 60-year career to ‘come clean’ on her falsehoods but instead she continually modified her ‘story’, doubling down, obfuscating and waffling. That, to me, is unforgiveable and all her great works are stained now by that.”

Others have condemned the CBC investigation.

“For some inexplicable reasons…some Native people seem to be questioning her truth,” Native American land rights activist Winona LaDuke wrote on Facebook.. Why that would occur baffles me. Time to stop hating our own…time to quit witch hunting. Time to respect and love our people…time to move towards a real healing and survival.

One day before the report aired, Buffy Sainte-Marie posted a video statement on Facebook denying the allegations.

“I’m lucky to have had two families to love: a growing up family who were wonderful and my Piapot family, who are also wonderful,” she said. “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 town.”

Facts of her adoption

No one disputes her custom adoption into a Piapot Cree family.

According to accounts in Saskatchewan’s Leader Post newspaper and elsewhere, in early August 1962, Sainte-Marie, then 21, attended the Wikwemikong Pow Wow on Ontario’s Manitoulin Island, where she met and was subsequently adopted by Emile and Clara Piapot, something the singer called the “highlight of her life.”

Judge Rules Against Tribes in Fight Over Nevada Lithium Mine


Buffy Sainte-Marie playing a mouth bow at the Grand Gala du Disque in Amsterdam, Netherlands, March 6, 1968.

The elder Piapots are no longer living, but younger family members have come out to defend Sainte-Marie.

“Our grandparents filled the holes in their hearts by adopting Buffy after losing several children to illness and disease …” Debra and Ntawnis Piapot said in a written statement. “Buffy is our family …To us, that holds far more weight than any paper documentation or colonial record keeping ever could.”

Anishinaabekwe musician and activist ShoShona Kish told CBC that she isn’t interested in debating Sainte-Marie’s indigeneity.

“We are sovereign nations, and we can decide our own citizenship,” she said.

Others disagree, citing differences between traditional or “customary” adoptions and legal adoptions.

Buffy Sainte-Marie poses with British actor Peter Ustinov and American actress Carroll Baker at a party given in her honor in Rome, Italy, April 29, 1969.


Buffy Sainte-Marie poses with British actor Peter Ustinov and American actress Carroll Baker at a party given in her honor in Rome, Italy, April 29, 1969.

VOA reached out to Kim TallBear, a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton tribe in South Dakota and a professor of Native Studies at the University of Alberta.

“There are some First Nations bands in Canada that do allow legally adopted children to enroll in the band, and in the United States, enrolling spouses and legally adopted children in tribes was very common pre-World War Two,” she said.

But Sainte-Maries’ adoption was purely ceremonial.

“These don’t make people tribe members or First Nation citizens,” TallBear explained. “Tribal rules around citizenship and membership are very legalistic, like the rules around U.S. and Canadian citizenship, and they rely on documentation.”

For his part, Piapot First Nation acting chief Ira Lavallee told CBC he understands people’s sense of betrayal.

“When it comes to Buffy specifically, we can’t pick and choose which part of our culture we decide to adhere to … We do have one of our families in our community that did adopt her. Regardless of her ancestry, that adoption in our culture to us is legitimate.”

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