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Unmaking an Icon Named Buffy Sainte-Marie

As a child I was presented a Cree hero on a platform built by the media. With her image in doubt, how much is the media to blame?

Kevin Ward 31 Oct 2023The Tyee

Kevin Ward is a member of the Mikisew Cree First Nation and lives on Coast Salish traditional territory in Metro Vancouver. He has done corporate communications work for B.C. First Nations and related organizations for many years.

Crushed. That pretty much sums up my feelings after reading CBC News’ “Who Is the Real Buffy Sainte-Marie?” an investigation into her suspect claims of being Cree by birth. As much as anyone, I want the allegations of her deception and dishonourable conduct to be untrue. I want her to stay firmly on the pedestal I and many others have put her on.

But the evidence against her, as hard as it is to say, does not look good. And so now I’m reeling, as are all Buffy fans, especially Indigenous ones like me.

Sainte-Marie first entered my consciousness when I was a young boy watching Sesame Street, where I learned she was an “Indian,” and then again when, as a teen, I heard her song “Universal Soldier.” That song struck me in several ways, first as a poignant antiwar song, then by its operatic tone (which, incidentally, I found odd for a Native singer) and finally by how courageous and forthright it was. This last point was the pedestal’s foundation.

The pedestal’s construction and her placement on it was complete when I heard her 1992 album Coincidence and Likely Stories. Its anti-establishment songs, delivered through a fusion of Plains traditional music and synth rock, totally hooked me. The clincher was the song “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” which took the name of a book I had read a few years before. The book describes the genocidal wars the U.S. government launched against Indigenous Peoples in the late 19th century, and so the raw feelings I still had from reading it fully and completely meshed with Sainte-Marie’s stick-it-to-the-man lyrics along with her fervent delivery. She became my first Indigenous pop-rock musical hero.

In the decades that followed, I always took time to watch her appearances on TV (mostly on CBC, strangely enough) and later was a close follower of her Twitter account. I remember musing aloud once how great it would be if she and famed Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq would team up together to produce musical magic. And so, when they released their duet song “You Got to Run (Spirit of the Wind)” in 2017, I was absolutely delighted.

You see, everything Buffy did and represented over the years was rock solid to me. So much so that I don’t think a better Indigenous ambassador could have been invented on page or film. Yes, a very high pedestal indeed.

But now, sadly, here we are. Her artistic reputation, her public image, her legacy, as well as all the hopes and dreams she inspired over a 60-year career, are poised to be toppled if she doesn’t mount a plausible defence against charges by relatives, confirmed by public records, who powerfully make the case she’s been deceiving us from practically Day 1.

If true, then why? Why would she do it? Was it because there was a vacuum of Native celebrity at the time, and out of goodness she wanted to fill the void in service of Native people? Or was she satisfying an inner calling that an assumed Native persona sat better with? Or was it merely a showbiz gimmick at first but naturally had to become a lifelong lie that needed to be both promoted and protected at all costs?

These questions ran through my mind as I watched CBC’s The Fifth Estate show “Making an Icon,” which lays bare evidence against her claims of Indigenous identity and worse. Frankly, they should have called the show “Unmaking an Icon.”

At this point, as I read and listen to diehard fans reacting to the news, especially Indigenous admirers, I am not at all surprised by how firmly they stand in her corner, regardless of the evidence. Nor am I surprised by their targeting of the messenger. More than anything, their reaction reflects just how entrenched her unadulterated cultural status has become in their hearts and minds — and eyes, too, if you consider those who say, “Just look at her! How could she not be Native?” Thus, the prospect of her status being easily dislodged isn’t likely.

But if it is, or as part of the process of doing so, other questions need to be asked, and not just of Sainte-Marie.

The first one that comes to mind is learning the identity of the PBS executive who ignored Sainte-Marie’s brother, Alan, who had warned she was not who she claimed to be. What does this person have to say? And for that matter, both PBS and Sesame Street should be questioned, given each played a significant role in establishing her claim to being an “Indian.”

Relatedly, honouring programs such as the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards, the Juno Awards and others played a role in furthering Sainte-Marie’s claims, not to mention bestowing an American citizen with Canadian accolades, and so each should be questioned as well. At this point, given the far too many examples out there, the broader question of media culpability when it comes to perpetuating “pretendians” should be vigorously examined.

It's easy now to acknowledge how early on no one in the media or elsewhere pressed Sainte-Marie to verify her Indigeneity claims, just as nothing was done in Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond’s case for many years. It seems the media, along with other social institutions, were satisfied that Indigenous Peoples themselves had vetted them, and so they went unchallenged for decades. Yet social institutions are primed to take formal steps that informal communities don’t practise, such as instituting a verification process without fear, favour or prejudice. But that’s hindsight. What isn’t is what they choose to do from here on in.

It’s been a few days now and I’m still working my way through the stages of grief, not unlike if someone important to me had died while at the same time learning they’d betrayed me and my family. And while I’m already in the process of reframing Buffy’s image in my mind, I won’t soon be erasing memories of the genuine joy she brought me. Yes, cognitive dissonance is something we as Indigenous people have had to deal with since colonialism. And this is just one more tainted thing to add to the pile.  [Tyee]

Read more: Indigenous, Media

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