The supposed unmasking of Buffy Sainte-Marie doesn’t bring vindication — only more hurt

Indigenous communities are left to deal with the painful aftermath of identity exposés, and unpacking them is exhausting
Photo: Buffy Sainte-Marie at Riddu Riđđu festival in 2019. Photo by Kimberli Mäkäräinen
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I am a Cree woman. I was born on the Sweetgrass reserve in “Saskatchewan” almost 50 years ago. My mother didn’t go to the hospital to give birth to me — a fact I used to think was egregious, but as I got older, I realized she did it to ensure I wouldn’t be scooped. My father was her midwife, having been trained in women’s plant medicine usage by his grandmother, and he, along with my two older siblings aged 4 and 7 and my 16 year-old cousin, were the only ones present at my birth.

During a recent visit home, my auntie pointed out the place where the house where I was born once sat. It’s just a field now, but I feel incredibly lucky to know who I am and where I come from.

Many, many Indigenous people were — and still are — removed from their families as children and don’t have the privilege of knowing where they are from, who was in the room when they were born, what their families were dealing with, or how their parents felt as they were apprehended by the state. It’s a painful reality for many of us.

It’s also a situation that gives others an opportunity to manipulate their identity. They’re able to blend in with Indigenous communities by telling people that they were scooped. And we’ll believe them, because why would they lie? It seems unfathomable.

The most recent CBC investigation, which calls into question music icon Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Indigenous identity claims, was shocking and hurtful to many. This story comes on the heels of several others — and it’s always the Indigenous community that carries the burden of these revelations.

As Tanya Talaga recently wrote, she didn’t feel Indigenous enough as a child. Neither did I. Most mixed-race Indigenous people are probably familiar with the feeling. As a “halfbreed” on the rez, where I visited but never lived, I felt like a fake. Everyone else was darker than me. My cousins who lived there understood Cree and spoke in a different lexicon — using rez slang that further emphasized for me that I wasn’t one of them.

I went through life being mistaken as white, Mexican, or something else. “Where are you from?” people would ask me and when I told them would say, “But where are you really from?” When they found out I was Indigenous, some people would ask if I spoke my language and then seem disappointed when I told them I didn’t. Almost everyone would tell me that I didn’t “look” Indigenous.

I’ve spent my life tiptoeing through the world, unsure of where I belonged or what I had the right to claim. For much of my adulthood, I didn’t feel like I qualified as an Indigenous person, because I didn’t go through what my family on the rez did. My closest cousins seemed unhappy when I saw them, as though they were trapped in the middle of nowhere and desperate to get away, while I came and went as I pleased. They were bored, or they were broke, and they wanted to go to town, or to the bigger cities beyond. I didn’t have the experience of feeling isolated on a remote piece of land that offered little in the form of economic opportunity or entertainment.

The recent high-profile cases of people purportedly misrepresenting themselves as Indigenous people has shed light on a way of being in the world that I never saw coming. The most recent CBC investigation, which calls into question music icon Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Indigenous identity claims, was shocking and hurtful to many. This story comes on the heels of several others — and it’s always the Indigenous community that carries the burden of these revelations.

Buffy Sainte-Marie on her album cover for her 1971 song, Smack Water Jack.

People want to pretend to be Indigenous when they’re not? Why would they do that?

Perhaps it’s because they have a romanticized view of Indigenous people — the caricature-like depiction of the noble savage, the innocent “children of nature” who were so cruelly treated. Perhaps it’s because of the interest such a declaration of identity garners, and wanting to be at the centre of that. Perhaps it’s the opportunities that are afforded Indigenous people – in an effort to address the historical subjugation of our communities, which led to decades of stagnation, with no way to make a living and no clear reason of why we should even try to. Maybe it’s because of the job opportunities that this sentiment led to.

But how does one go from being white to being Indigenous? Surely there is a physical shift. Perhaps you go to a tanning salon to make your skin darker, and dye your hair black. Perhaps you grow it long and part it in the middle. Perhaps you remake yourself in the image of those tragic, spiritual people that you have in your head, thus perpetuating that same image.

But to keep it up for decades? That takes a certain level of commitment. Maybe, in order to do that, you’d have to slowly convince yourself that you really are Indigenous. That you’re actually helping the people with your high profile. That you’re teaching the language, even. That you’re helping “save” us, because you believe Indigenous people need saving. And in the process, you have a wonderful career, fêted by every “Canadian” institution and almost every Indigenous person in the country.

It sounds exhausting to me. And it sounds like something a white person would do. After all, have they not tried to take everything of ours that they could?

How does one go from being white to being Indigenous? Surely there is a physical shift. Perhaps you go to a tanning salon to make your skin darker, and dye your hair black. Perhaps you grow it long and part it in the middle... But to keep it up for decades?

But — how someone presents themselves to the world is, ultimately, none of my business. One thing I’ve been taught by my culture is to let others be. In his tiny booklet two articles, Wilfred Pelletier says of his community, “One of the practiced ethics of the community was non-interference.” This is true in my community as well. So when certain facts are brought to light, I can have an opinion of the situation, but does that matter?

There are those who will feel terribly betrayed. There are those that will be outraged at the accusations and refute them categorically. Others will be hurt, shedding tears of confusion and wondering what to believe.

I know how I feel inside of my heart. I know what rings true for me, and what appears to be obvious from what I’ve seen and read. I also know that there is an air of unkindness, a sort of gleefulness, behind certain types of news stories, as though their authors believe they have created something very special in the alleged unmasking of a traitor in our midst. And that hunger for attention — for the headline, for the scoop — is not an energy I am comfortable aligning myself with. And the gendered nature of most of these accusations is also not lost on me.

At the end of the day, what is accomplished when an 83-year-old is accused of lying to us for decades? Who benefits? Perhaps it is too soon to tell. For me, there is no freedom in these implied revelations, no greater truth that brings light to the darkness of this world. There are only more questions and the grief of betrayal.

This commentary is co-published with IndigiNews Media.

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