The parentage of Buffy Sainte-Marie, a folk singer known for her activism on behalf of Indigenous people, was questioned after CBC News reported that it had found a birth certificate indicating that she was born to white parents in Massachusetts, and not on a Piapot Cree reservation in Canada.
Sainte-Marie, considered the first Indigenous person to win an Oscar, has said for decades that she was born to an Indigenous mother before being adopted first by a white couple near Boston and then, as an adult, by the Piapot First Nation. The CBC investigation, which was published on Friday, pointed to documentation, including Sainte-Marie’s birth certificate and marriage certificate, to show she was born in Stoneham, Mass., as Beverly Jean Santamaria.
Sainte-Marie did not speak to the CBC, but in video and written statements, she said the woman she called her “growing-up Mom” had told her that she was adopted and was Native. In both a 2018 biography and the statements, Sainte-Marie also says she was told she may have been born “on the wrong side of the blanket,” referring to an affair.
“I don’t know where I’m from or who my birth parents were, and I will never know,” Sainte-Marie, 81, said in the written statement. “Which is why to be questioned in this way today is painful, both for me, and for my two families I love so dearly.”
Sainte-Marie, whose songs include “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone,” “Universal Soldier” and “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” won an Oscar in 1983 for “Up Where We Belong,” a song from the film “An Officer and a Gentleman.” “I wanted to write songs that would last for generations,” she told The New York Times last year.
News of the investigation was particularly surprising to Canadians because Sainte-Marie is such a well-known figure, said Kimberly Tallbear-Dauphine, a professor of Native Studies at the University of Alberta who was quoted in the CBC article.
“She’s a celebrity but she’s also somebody a lot of Indigenous people know and have met with, and that makes it more personal,” Tallbear-Dauphine said in an interview with The Times. Emails and text messages she has received show that people are “feeling very emotional about this.”
The freelance journalist Jacqueline Keeler said in the CBC investigation that she began looking for Sainte-Marie’s birth certificate after watching an “American Masters” episode about the singer last year. Keeler wrote a column for The San Francisco Chronicle last year that challenged the Indigenous heritage of the actor Sacheen Littlefeather.
In their article, CBC reporters described how they obtained Sainte-Marie’s original birth certificate from Feb. 20, 1941, which says she was born to Winifred and Albert Santamaria at 3:15 a.m. The CBC said the Santamarias were of Italian and English ancestry; in her statements, Sainte-Marie said Winifred was part Mi’kmaq, a tribe from eastern Canada.
The investigation also cites a 1945 life insurance policy document that says Sainte-Marie was born in Stoneham and a 1982 marriage certificate in which Sainte-Marie certified that she was born in Massachusetts. Also included was a 1964 newspaper article in which an uncle of Sainte-Marie’s disputed her claims that she was Indigenous, saying, “This is all part of the professional build-up.”
A lawyer for Sainte-Marie told the CBC that many adoption records had been destroyed by Canadian governments and that children adopted in Massachusetts were commonly issued new birth certificates. “Sainte-Marie is entitled to a reasonable expectation of privacy about her personal genealogical and family history,” the lawyer, Josephine de Whytell, told the CBC.
After growing up in Massachusetts, Sainte-Marie was adopted by the Piapot First Nation in Saskatchewan, where she says she was born. In a statement, two members of the tribe, Debra and Ntawnis Piapot, said that “Buffy is our family.”
“We chose her and she chose us,” they said. “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.”