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Buffy Sainte-Marie is the latest public figure accused of being a ‘Pretendian.’ Here’s why that matters

By Harmeet Kaur, CNN

(CNN) — When there were few other Indigenous celebrities in the spotlight, there was Buffy Sainte-Marie.

The celebrated singer-songwriter rose to prominence during the folk revival of the 1960s, building a name as a Cree artist. She sang about the injustices experienced by Indigenous peoples in songs such as “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone,” “My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying” and “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.”

She showed children that Native people weren’t relics of the past in a five-year stint on “Sesame Street.” Along the way, she racked up numerous awards and accolades.

But a recent investigation by CBC News calls into question Sainte-Marie’s claims that she has Indigenous ancestry. Sainte-Marie is refuting the allegations.

Sainte-Marie is the latest high-profile figure accused of lying about being Indigenous — similar controversies arose in recent years around actor Sacheen Littlefeather, author Joseph Boyden and Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, among others. The phenomenon is so pervasive that it’s colloquially called Pretendianism.”

The CBC’s report has shocked some fans and members of Indigenous communities who saw her as an Indigenous icon and has threatened to taint the 82-year-old singer’s long career and legacy.

It’s also resurfacing complex questions about what it means to be Indigenous.

Buffy Sainte-Marie was born to White parents, CBC alleges

CBC News’ October 27 investigation alleges that Sainte-Marie was not born on the Piapot First Nation in Saskatchewan, Canada, and adopted by a White family as she has claimed for most of her career. Rather, the CBC suggests that she was born to White parents in the small town of Stoneham, Massachusetts.

The report draws on interviews with Sainte-Marie’s family members, genealogical records and archival research. At the heart of the investigation is a birth certificate from a Stoneham hospital that indicates Sainte-Marie was born Beverly Jean Santamaria to Alfred and Winifred Santamaria, who Sainte-Marie has claimed were her adoptive parents. CNN does not have a copy of the birth certificate obtained by the CBC and authenticated by Stoneham’s town clerk.

Sainte-Marie declined to be interviewed for the CBC’s investigation, but has since pushed back on its allegations. In a statement last week to The Hollywood Reporter, she said that the CBC report largely relied on accounts from her brother who she alleges sexually abused her, as well as interviews with estranged family members she didn’t know. Sainte-Marie’s brother was challenging her claim of Native ancestry as far back as the 1970s, according to the CBC.

She cast doubt on the birth certificate unearthed by CBC reporters, stating “it was common for birth certificates to be ‘created’ by Western governments after they were adopted or taken away from their families.”

And in a video on Facebook before the CBC investigation was published, Sainte-Marie said she was always honest about the uncertainty of her origins.

“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,” she said.

But the CBC investigation documented inconsistencies and contradictions in Sainte-Marie’s story. Early in her career, the organization reported, the singer was characterized in various news stories as Algonquin, full-blooded Algonquin, Mi’kmaq, half-Mi’kmaq and Cree.

CBC also reported that Sainte-Marie has alternately claimed that she knew who her real mother was and that she didn’t know her biological parents.

In a September 18 email to CBC, Sainte-Marie’s lawyer said the singer had never “personally misrepresented her ancestry or any details about her personal history to the public.” CNN has reached out to her lawyer and her publicist. The publicist told CNN that Sainte-Marie will not be commenting further.

Sainte-Marie was later adopted into the Piapot First Nation

Complicating matters is that Sainte-Marie has said she was adopted as an adult by a couple from the Piapot First Nation. Members of Sainte-Marie’s Piapot family have since stood by her, telling CBC that “Buffy is our family. We chose her and she chose us.”

“Every understanding of our spiritual practices, the history our grandparents shared with us and the traditions of the Cree refute your suggestion that our Auntie Buffy is not Indigenous or a member of our community,” some Piapot family members wrote in an email to CBC.

But for some experts, there’s a distinction between having Cree ancestry, as Sainte-Marie has claimed, and being accepted into the Piapot community.

“Getting ceremonially adopted does not make you Cree or Indigenous, it makes you family,” said Kim TallBear, a professor of Native Studies at the University of Alberta. “Just because you make kin, whether it’s through ceremony or everyday customary practice, it doesn’t mean that person then therefore has the right to claim to be of your nation or your people.”

In TallBear’s view, part of the issue is the ambiguity of the label “Indigenous.” Indigeneity is often viewed in racial or ethnic terms, while Indigenous citizenship hinges on specific terms set by a tribal nation. She pointed to Sainte-Marie’s use of the phrase “Indigenous-American identity” in recent statements, saying it indicates how many people see being Indigenous as a matter of self-identification.

“When it gets found out that she’s not actually Cree, that she’s not actually born to a woman from Piapot First Nation, she can suddenly claim to be this vague, broad Indigenous category that gets delinked from nations,” TallBear told CNN. “And our nations, our peoples, are what matter.”

The problem with ‘Pretendianism’

Sainte-Marie’s case and other instances where people have been accused of Indigenous identity fraud strike a nerve partly because those at the center of such controversies have often benefited from the claim.

Sainte-Marie has been celebrated as an Indigenous icon and won awards as such. In light of the CBC’s investigation, the Indigenous Women’s Collective is calling on the Junos Awards Committee to rescind her 2018 honor for Indigenous album of the year.

“We understand that traditional adoption comes with great responsibilities, it does not provide anyone permission to falsely claim Indigenous origin identity,” the collective said in a statement. “Being adopted into an Indigenous family and community does not authorize anyone to speak on behalf of all our people.”

The Indigenous Women’s Collective also condemned Sainte-Marie for what they called her appropriation of the trauma that many Indigenous people have experienced.

Sainte-Marie has claimed in her authorized biography and in media interviews over the last few years that she was taken from her Indigenous family in Canada and adopted by a family in Massachusetts, referring to a period of history known as the Sixties Scoop. The CBC investigation notes that Sainte-Marie was born in 1941 in Massachusetts, while the Sixties Scoop began a decade later.

The “pretendian” problem is bigger than any one individual. A 2022 report by Métis lawyer Jean Teillet for the University of Saskatchewan suggests that tens of thousands of people in Canada are pretending to be Indigenous, and that the number is growing.

TallBear said she hopes that the CBC’s investigation into Sainte-Marie and similar cases in recent years will prompt institutions to more thoroughly vet claims of Indigeneity, rather than taking people at their word.

“Now what we really need to do is at universities, different professional organizations, go beyond self-identification. You can’t just check a box. You have to provide some sort of testimony or documentary proof that you have citizenship in or kinship relations with a First Nation or a tribe,” she said.

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