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OPINION: Buffy fraud a gut punch to Indigenous culture

'Reflection provides the lens that we can look through to see how that deception was orchestrated like a fairy-tale Disney production,' says area elder 
Buffy Sainte-Marie performs on the main stage at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia in 2018. | File photo/Kevin Lamb for OrilliaMatters

The aftershocks continue to reverberate through my body, my mind, and my spirit on this day. I feel bruised in every possible way upon learning of how we had suddenly lost one of the biggest icons that Indigenous people had ever known in our modern era. 

The person that I thought was Buffy Sainte-Marie was suddenly gone! The Indigenous woman we all knew as Buffy, the one we grew up watching on TV, the one we had paid to see in concert had suddenly, tragically, dematerialized. 

Santa Maria!

It hit me like a gut punch and as I watched the Fifth Estate, the investigative journal on CBC, I was hit again, gut punch following gut punch as damning evidence was presented that the person that I grew up knowing as Buffy Sainte-Marie was a misrepresentation of not only herself, but a misrepresentation of me as a Native person.

Not Auntie Buffy, I thought. I tried to make sense of it all. Immediately, there was a sense of loss, abandonment, betrayal, and most of all, I felt like the spirits had come to shift the earth’s axis. I tried desperately to put the pieces together, but they disintegrated like the falsity of beads and trinkets. I wondered if I could ever trust again.

The CBC’s Fifth Estate had gathered evidence that this person who calls herself Buffy was named Beverley Joan Santamaria. She was born to white parents and grew up in the United States. There is legal documentation (birth certificate) and that is non-refutable.

The person we had known as Buffy Sainte-Marie is a fraud.

The irony is not lost on me that Santa Maria is the name of one of Christopher Columbus’s ships. Beverley Sainte-Marie’s father is purportedly of Italian descent and both of her paternal grandparents were born in Italy. This runs counter to the narrative provided by the Buffy persona for 60 years that she was an “Indian” adopted by white people. 

An internet search reveals that the person who calls herself Buffy Sainte-Marie was born in 1941 on the Piapot First Nation in Saskatchewan. But the real story seems to differ. Buffy (Beverley) Sainte-Marie was adopted as an adult after she had already created the Buffy persona (and was famous), by a family from the Piapot Nation in a traditional Cree adoption ceremony. 

But she was never born there, and she most definitely was not ever scooped from there as she had claimed to be. This assertion is an insult to Indigenous people who were scooped from their places of birth and cuts like a rusted surgical tool reopening old wounds. 

Irony is twisted and woven together throughout this farcical storyline. Much of the story invented by the Buffy persona plays out like that of the trickster in our Indigenous cultural stories. 

The trickster is a schemer who is often able to shape-shift and make anyone believe that they are something they’re not. And this made-up person made us believe that she was one of us.

This persona was created to mirror us using every imaginable stereotype, making it impossible to pin down where her place of origin was. But stories of the trickster are meant to teach us something. There is always a teaching contained, one that we can use to help us learn to never be deceived again. And we, as Indigenous people, will learn from this.

Buffy deceived us.

“But she did so much for us!” some will say. That may be so, but that kind of benevolence is reminiscent of the same tactic used by organized crime and physical and sexual abusers to gain a foothold in your homes and communities across the globe.

The ruse is simple: have them believe that you are benefiting them so that if your scheme is ever exposed, even they will rise to defend you. She held power over us and in many cases, she still does.

And even I defended her at first. I defended the Buffy that I thought was real. The Buffy that I had personally encountered many times throughout my time as a travelling musician. The Buffy that one of my sons idolized deeply. The warm, friendly, always high-spirited Buffy who made you feel special with each encounter. 

So, it’s a gut punch to know that we were deceived. And factually-based reflection provides the lens that we can look through to see how that deception was orchestrated like a fairy-tale Disney production. 

It hurts those who are already hurting from the effects of colonialism and loss of culture, language, land. Now we lose a person who gave us hope that we could somehow rise above all that loss. 

But that person was never real. That person was a false construct, like Reserves and the Indian Act. That person is an identity thief, born from the colonizers who took our hope and dignity. So once more, we mourn. We laugh, we cry, we comfort one another, and forge ahead.

So, when I hear those non-Native voices defending that false construct Buffy Sainte Marie, telling me it’s not so bad, she helped you in so many ways, I see how colonization happened. And I can’t help but feel the dread that the Taino people must have felt upon learning that the man (Christopher Columbus) that had feasted with them, had prayed with them, had befriended them, was now about to turn his dogs upon them.

There are more Buffys. And if we let her off the hook, go easy on her, we give permission for even more.

Jeff Monague is a former chief of the Beausoleil First Nation on Christian Island, former treaty research director with the Anishnabek (Union of Ontario Indians), and veteran of the Canadian Forces. Monague, who taught the Ojibwe language with the Simcoe County District School Board and Georgian College, is currently the manager of Springwater Provincial Park.