DECOLONIZING YOUR NEWSFEED
In 1975, singer Buffy Sainte-Marie became the first "Indigenous person" to make regular appearances on Sesame Street. The Canadian Broadcast Corporation's music series, "Reclaimed," featured the artist on its program in October 2020. Last month, the network revealed evidence challenging her long-standing claims to Cree
ancestry in the Piapot First Nation in Saskatchewan. The Sesame Street Library Volume 13
BUFFY SAINT-MARIE 💔 | 11.05.23
Warning: This edition of Indigenously mentions acts of
government-led genocide and identity-based misappropriation that may be difficult for some readers to receive.
Late last month, the Canadian Broadcast Corporation’s Fifth Estate,
an investigative documentary television series, broadcast a report titled, “Making an Icon.” It explores the Indigenous identity claims of Buffy Sainte-Marie – a powerhouse singer, songwriter, author, and activist – whose career
has spanned six decades beginning in the 1960s just as the civil rights movement was exploding across North America. In the days leading up to the documentary’s October 27th release, members of Buffy’s adopted Piapot First Nation family, which is Cree, based in Saskatchewan, released a public statement against damning evidence that Buffy misrepresented her Indigenous ancestry, alleging she is a fraud. “The accusations which are about to be made of our Auntie Buffy are hurtful, ignorant,
colonial, and racist,” read the statement signed by Debra & Ntawnis Piapot.
Buffy is an influential figure I grew up watching on Sesame Street in the late 1970s and who went on to become the first "Indigenous person" to receive an Academy Award in 1982. That the CBC is the news outlet to reveal she has been deceiving the public about her Indigeneity during
that time and earlier is significant given its track record in recent years for outing a trail of so-called “Pretendians” – those who falsely pass themselves off as Indigenous including a slew of professors,
judges, filmmakers, and writers. In his investigation
about Buffy, reporter Geoff Leo was quite clear about her storied chronology, calling it “a shifting narrative full of inconsistencies.”
One is easily wowed by the dateline of documentation he reveals in “Making of an Icon.” Leo’s CBC investigation digs deep into public records that contradict a variety of stories Buffy has reportedly made over the years: that she was born on the Piapot First Nation in the early 1940s; that she’s Cree and was a victim of Canada’s “Sixties Scoop” era which forcibly removed Native children from Native families. This was how she explained a childhood with a white family in the idyllic suburbs north of Boston,
Massachusetts. From there, she went on to launch a successful singing career in New York City’s Greenwich Village.
As the Piapot family puts it, the challenges to Buffy’s identity woefully
lack an emphasis or sensitivity to sacred Cree laws of 'Wâhkôhtowin, the state of being related. “We are a sovereign nation, a sovereign people – Canada does not get to determine who we claim as family, and neither does the media.”
Music icon Buffy Sainte-Marie’s claims to Indigenous ancestry are being called into question by family members and a Fifth Estate investigation that includes genealogical documentation, historical research and personal accounts. The Fifth Estate examines the harms of “pretendians” — those faking Indigenous heritage. CBC
I agree that colonial systems such as journalism have historically run roughshod over Indigenous ways of knowing including understanding kinship societies. And so, I was not surprised by the Piapot family defending their right to claim who they want as their relatives. But no Piapot individual agreed to an interview with the CBC, despite the network’s requests. There was also something that Buffy said in her own statement addressing the fraudulent allegations against her that gave me pause. “I have championed Indigenous and Native American causes when nobody else would or had the platform to do so,” said the
singer. For me, her words struck at the heart of what has long embodied the Indigenous experience – an exploitation that, in her defense, felt altogether righteous and paternalistic.
Since the seismic social shifts brought on by the murder of George Floyd, the pandemic, and the challenged 2020 election by Donald Trump, I have removed myself from social media and its unrefined discourse, devoting my attention instead to more slow-cooked and intentional thinking. (This newsletter is one example.) So, I took in the news about Buffy at the same pace as the greater public, although I had heard grumblings about her identity issues roughly a year or so
prior. I watched the CBC documentary expecting something shoddy and sensationalized. I was surprised when I was mostly proven wrong.
A former TV news journalist, I, of
course, snickered at some of the hokier aspects of the broadcast such as staged camera pans over the interview subjects and shots of closet doors seemingly opening on their own to reveal uncovered documents proving Buffy wrong. But I was relieved to see Native professor, Kim Tallbear, a tribal citizen of the Sisseton-Wahpteon Oyate featured early on in the documentary, making strong points about why Buffy’s deception perhaps matters now more than ever before. “I am sure that representation of her greatly elevated her career and her visibility at a time when Native people were coming into national consciousness,” she said.
It felt validating. The investigation stirred up things I have been brooding over in recent years but haven’t spoken about publicly, though I’ve wanted to on several occasions before – how Indigeneity has been trifled with time and again, both by Natives
and non-Natives, and for some level of mercenary gain.
Kim Tallbear, a Native scholar and tribal citizen of
the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate has been commenting about the "Pretendian" phenomenon for more than a
decade. Steinhauer Photography
Tallbear is, perhaps, the best person to stand up to the misappropriation. She has been dissecting the “Pretendian” paradigm for over a decade, and because of this, has faced escalating backlash with skill and grace. But
while the connection she has made between Buffy’s rise to stardom and the cyclical vogue of Indigenous existence could be better pronounced, in the rash of recent reporting it probably still would not temper the anguish and
hardship unleashed across Indian Country in the wake of the revelations about Buffy. In every one of these cases of identity fraud, it’s always the Indigenous community’s burden to bear.
As the documentary states, Buffy reinvented herself at a time when the Red Power Movement was surging, back when Natives and their allies occupied Alcatraz in an early Land Back demonstration in the 1970s. According to Tallbear and others, such lasting visibility has warped realities about Indian Country in a
way that has harmed Natives and non-Natives, alike. “To steal Indigenous Peoples stories, appropriate them and use them to build your wealth and fame and to gather your own resources, that is also an act of colonialism,” she said.
But not all exploitation is bad. When not defrauding others, it can ignite social movements like the anti-pipeline demonstrations at Standing Rock, and attack systems of oppression and genocide that have historically marginalized Indigenous Peoples. It’s when Natives are subjugated for capital gain – what we also saw at Standing Rock, followed by unprecedented visibility of Indian Country, which continues – that it’s fair to say there is a misunderstanding by a wider public who see Indigeneity through the distortion of which they are fed. In
other words, people don’t know what they don’t know. This is doubly true in today’s age of “reconnecting,” those trying to get back in touch with Native roots that, for whatever reason, have been disrupted.
In the days following the CBC investigation about Buffy Saint-Marie's Indigenous ancestry claims, her son, Cody Wolfchild turned to Facebook to state that his mother was "half italian and half english" [sic], comments that have been verified by at least one Indigenous Canadian journalist. Facebook/Tamara.Ikenberg
Representations matter. But so does compassion. Though I strongly believe Buffy lied about her identity (her own son, Cody Wolfchild, has said she is "half italian and half english" [sic]), I personally feel that such investigating should be handled with kid gloves. In the case of Buffy Saint-Marie, she has relied on a dark legacy of government-funded child separation
to cloak her falsehoods, triggering traumas of others who have actually lived these experiences. The CBC could have done a better job of considering these mental health thresholds for those taking in this news. As the hunt for more pretendians continues, the emphasis on this kind of compassionate reporting should rise to the very top.
There are so many Natives I know who aren’t enrolled in a tribe, or they have been disenrolled, or they are connected in ways that are respected by the ties that bind because that’s how their relationships breathe. It’s harmful to rely on a monolithic way of thinking when it comes to Indigeneity. Though it is
equally painful to allow ethnic fraud to continue, where liars benefit socially and financially in ways that take away such gains from actual Indigenous people.
and institutions and governments need to get on board and figure out how to stop this problem,” said Tallbear. “And if it doesn’t happen after [Buffy’s] case, then I don’t know where we go.”
- One of the first cases of ethnic fraud exposed by the CBC was one that Indigenously profiled in a 2021, titled “Policing Indigeneity”
- To get a sense of how toxic and divisive the issue of Native identity has ballooned since then, here’s a satirical Twitter (X) feed to peruse (though it has lost traction over time): the Dept. of Karendians
- And added to the Indigenously Bookshelf: Real Indians by Eva Marie Garroute (University of California Press, 2003), a text I read upon learning about disenrollment for the first
- For a primer about disenrollment, here’s a dated but still credible news clip from 2012 that explains cases of kicking out tribal citizens of the Pechanga and Pala nations.
There are so many things I want to share with you since my last dispatch last spring. In
short, I’ve been busy advancing a separate project that I simply can’t wait to reveal – in time. Until then, I thought the revelations surrounding Buffy Saint-Marie was an opportunity to check in and say “I miss you, guys!” especially at a time when there is some real heaviness around this shocking news. For some folks, it's like there's been a death in the family, so tread tenderly out there.
As much as I don’t like saying it, I probably won’t be putting out another newsletter for a good while. My calendar and range of focus is pretty spoken for in the coming weeks and months. Getting out this
newsletter came at a rare time when I have small window. I’ll be sure to chime in again when I can. This community is so important to me. Honestly, if I could clone myself to keep pace with Indigenously’s weekly production, I would in a heartbeat.
Thank you for all of your kind emails and “coffees” that you have sent my way during my prolonged hiatus. I truly cannot wait to share more about what I’ve been working on which has me pretty inspired these days. Wishing you calm in these trying times, friends.
I'm so glad to receive your latest newsletter. I miss this & look
forward to the special Sunday when a new one arrives."
Susan, the Internet
Dawaa'e, thank you Susan for the kind words following my last dispatch profiling the 22nd session of U.N. Permanent Forum on the Rights of Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). In highlighting "Green Colonialism" which was often discussed at the gathering, I was delighted that it resonated with so many readers.
A hiatus is a perfect time to catch up on back
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