Longing and Belonging: The Strange Case of Buffy Sainte-Marie

Buffy Ste. Marie

Buffy Sainte-Marie and birth cert of relative indicating “non-white” ancestry

 

I wrote a short piece recently about the controversy surrounding the “outing” of singer-songwriter and indigenous rights activist Buffy Sainte-Marie.

This “outing” by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation News (CBC) concerned the unearthing of Sainte-Marie’s birth certificate showing her to be the birth child of Italian-American Albert Santamaria and his wife Winifred Irene Kenrick.

Sainte-Marie had presented herself over many years as being the daughter of First Nations people – further claiming she had been removed from her community and merely legally adopted by the people named on the recently unearthed birth certificate.

This documentation has led to Buffy Sainte-Marie‘s claims to indigenous ancestry and identity being very publicly called into question.

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It must be stated at the outset that whatever the case of her biological birth, her DNA has no bearing whatsoever on her standing as a beloved and respected member of the Piapot Cree community of Canada.

The belief that “blood” determines identity is an attitude stemming directly from the history of colonialist racism pervading every level of society for over 400 years in the Americas.

But a human being’s true identity does not flow from their DNA, skin color, or some imaginary “race” category which they were assigned by racists.

Real identity comes from our actions and our lived culture.

Because we are ALL descended from one small population bottleneck of between 40 and 1000 individuals 70,000 years ago in Africa.

To believe that we are now somehow fundamentally different to one another on a biological level is to think of humans as pedigree animals, in which some of us have selectively bred so carefully as to create a “better” strain of human.

Yet we know from the science of genetics that human population groups have never managed to remain isolated long enough to develop into “races” with any meaningful differences.

I have been writing about this for years.

Why do I bother?

Because the hypocrisy of one group of people telling others “who they really are”, BASED ON BLOOD, is beyond outrageous.

The USA in particular practices this form of hypocrisy on an industrial scale.

So-called “white” people will point excitedly at people like Buffy Sainte-Marie, and label her a fraud, BECAUSE HER CULTURAL IDENTITY DOES NOT MATCH AN EXPECTED GENETIC INHERITANCE.

Yet most of the “white” people in America with no recent immigrants in their family will happily refer to themselves by ethnicity – German, Italian, Scots-Irish, etc. – while having only a small genetic component from that one specific ethnic group, and having even less cultural commonality with any such group.  Wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day won’t cut it.

Now, with that out of the way, on balance it seems clear that Sainte-Marie DID misrepresent her genetic inheritance in order to “add value” to her cultural identity.

This is of course seen as deeply dishonest by those people who claim to know exactly who they are.

The real ethnic background of many, many “white” Americans is mischaracterised almost every single day.  By the media. By their own families. By themselves.

Some don’t even know it.  Others do.

The question then becomes…why do so many self-identifying “white” people get so angry when someone rejects “whiteness” to claim a “non-white” identity?

It is surely for the people whose identity has been appropriated to feel anger and betrayal.

Is “white” anger really about honesty and authenticity?

Could it be that many Americans have fought so hard to arrive on the white mountaintop, they can scarcely believe that a fellow traveller would turn around and head straight back down?

It diminishes the value of the identity.  It’s disrespect for the ascendant gang.

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Colonialism is the ultimate destroyer of the link between ancestry and culture.

In order to justify themselves – the robbers of land and resources,  the exploiters of labor, must constantly reinforce a message of superiority.

Superiority of DNA (aka eugenics).

Superiority of culture.

Any people opposing the stealing of their labor, the taking of their land, must be constantly, incessantly portrayed as inferior to the colonising or enslaving group.

And once everything tangible has been taken, to ensure that the disempowered do not rise again in anger, the underclasses’ very sense of self-identity must be erased.

This combination of assaults on the enslaved and colonised has created millions of humans who float untethered and emotionally bereft in a sort of no-man’s-land, belonging nowhere and to no one.

If we do not see this, understand this, then we are either extremely lucky or a descendant of the colonising group.  Or we are simply plugging our ears and averting our eyes.

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I have been discussing these ideas online for years,  and as the news about Buffy Sainte-Marie broke, many discussions came to the boil.

Many of my friends online are the descendants of what I like to call “Old Mix Americans“, the people formed from the splinters of colonialism.

The disappeared people between the written lines.

We know we’re “not quite white”, but there is no place in America for people who do not claim a simple “racial” identity.

The boxes we were once invited to tick – Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, Native American – have expanded somewhat in recent years, but there is still no suitable identity or ethnicity for those of us of Old Mix ancestry.

Some might say “Get over it. Just call yourself American.”

But for some people, simply saying “I’m American” is too blunt and ill-defined. “American” is a word freighted with multiple meanings – national, political, colonial.

To say “I’m American” with pride almost suggests that a person buys into the entire myth of America, wholesale.

And many of us born in the USA do not buy into “the official story”.

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I have a pretty serious database, built over many years, which I use to try and document “Old Mix America“.

This makes it relatively easy for me to pop in a name, and be able to place people within a geographical, historical, and demographic context.

As regards Buffy Sainte-Marie, it became obvious fairly quickly that she is part of the Old Mix story.

When addressing the ethnic background of Sainte-Marie’s parents, CBC simply states that:

“Albert’s parents were born in Italy, while Winifred’s mother and father were of mostly English ancestry”.

For a start, the CBC News story failed to make clear the existence of family correspondence (readily available online) in which Sainte-Marie’s great-grandfather Frank Atwood wrote to one of his daughters explaining his Seminole origins on his mother’s side.

Perhaps even more interesting is the birth certificate of Sainte-Marie’s Aunt Lucille, on which we find an infant girl born in 1914, clearly stated as being “colored”.

This was no small thing in 1914.  For Lucille to have been called “colored” on a birth cert in 1914 means she was clearly seen as such.

Throughout American history, if the father was white and the mother was ambiguous or dark, “brown” children would be listed as “white”, to avoid a punch in the nose.

I have quite literally thousands of records on file in which the exact same person was noted variously as “white”, “black”, “mulatto”, “Indian”, or “free person of color”, depending on the location or racism of the record-taker.

While pondering why Sainte-Marie’s aunt was recorded as a person of color, other anomalies became apparent.

Why did Sainte-Marie’s mother and aunt – Lucille Winifred Kenrick and Winifred Irene Kenrick (who were also the two siblings nearest each other in age) – why did both carry the name “Winifred”?

And before you ask, yes, they were definitely two separate people.

Of course sometimes a name might be given to more than one child as a way to honor an especially beloved friend or ancestor, yet my own research can find no other “Winifreds” in this family tree.

This got me to wondering if these girls might be TWO adopted children, with both given the name of their possibly deceased mother?  Perhaps an indigenous mother, as Sainte-Marie’s mother did mention Mi’kmaq ancestry?

While the case with Buffy Sainte-Marie’s own birth certificate is unclear, older birth certificates were able to be legally amended in the USA if a child was adopted.

AND OFTEN WITH NO RECORD OF THIS AMENDMENT.

Provisional family tree of Buffy Sainte-Marie

Provisional family tree of Buffy Sainte-Marie

 

Some of the Lakota I wrote about recently who were stolen and placed with “white” parents have birth certs showing the white parents as their biological parents. When these adoptions took place under the aegis of church institutions, the paperwork could be, shall we say, sketchy at times.

This issue touches me personally.

I was formally adopted aged 5 by my stepfather.  When I was legally adopted, my own birth cert was amended.

My Missouri birth cert shows me as “Robert Brian ——-“, birth son of Robert ——-, my stepfather.

AND I WOULD HAVE NEVER KNOWN MY ACTUAL BIRTH FATHER IF FAMILY MEMBERS HAD NOT INFORMED ME.

When I joined the army at 17, when I got my first passport, I had to order a notarised copy of my birth certificate.  All showed my stepfather as my biological father.

In legal and documentary terms, my original birth cert showing my true name at birth, my true ancestry, has been expunged and “disappeared”.

But onwards.

The possibility of Mi’kmaq ancestry on the maternal side of Buffy Sainte-Marie‘s family becomes even more of a possibility when we investigate further, and find her family tree reaching north into Nova Scotia, which is of course one of the heartlands of the Mi’kmaq and related Métis people.

I make sure to mention the Métis, because the Mi’kmaq of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia have been intermarrying with peoples outside their tribe or nation since at least the 1500s.

Basque, French and English fishermen, and later, colonial settlers.

During the 1780s, at least 3,500 African-Americans including slaves and Black Loyalists – formerly enslaved people from the American colonies who had fought for the British in exchange for their freedom – arrived in Nova Scotia.

Needless to say, those at the bottom of the social hierarchy were the most likely to intermix, and the Métis of Nova Scotia and Canada were a people much like the Melungeons of Southern Appalachia.

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All of the foregoing is not an apologia for cultural appropriation.  No one is saying that Buffy Sainte-Marie was Seminole or Mi’kmaq or even Métis based simply on her mixed ancestry.

And this is the entire point of this essay.  To be a person living 60 years ago without a cultural community to “explain” being seen as a person of color – a female person of color at that – must have been well nigh unbearable.

Were Buffy Sainte-Marie‘s mother and aunt the ones who were actually adopted?  Was anyone adopted?  Dunno.

Did Sainte-Marie’s mother have a child by a man other than her husband?  Perhaps a man of color?  Dunno.

Did a girl born into a house where she was a dark-skinned child among whiter siblings cause her to shoulder a part of her mother’s hidden back-story?  Again, dunno.

Did a woman born into a country which utterly denigrated brown and black people while elevating “whiteness” simply stumble upon a way to make being “brown” a survival advantage?  Maybe.

Put even more bluntly, who among us would have chosen in 1963 (pre-Civil Rights Act) to accept a life of discrimination over acceptance?

Who among us would have taken the time required every single living day of our existence to patiently explain to bigots that in spite of our skin color, in spite of our “mixed race” appearance, in spite of having the taint of possible illegitimacy, in spite of being a woman of color in a white man’s world, in spite of not even knowing WHY we look the way we do, in spite of ALL this, we deserve dignity and respect and a fair crack at success?

Really?  Would we take such a path?

Or would we, as a profoundly conflicted young woman with an identity crisis did, try to paper over some very complex personal and familial issues with a simple, more easily digestible (and dare I say, marketable) story?

A story which brings us love and acceptance into the bargain?

There is a difference between wrong and REALLY WRONG.

Perhaps we should all step off the treadmill of social media-induced rage, where The Left simply screams “Appropriation!” and The Right yells “Pretendian!”, and look at the life story of one girl, one woman, in holistic context.

Isn’t this the very essence of “Judge not lest ye be judged”?

As a very thoughtful First Nations elder pointed-out on TikTok this week, only Buffy Sainte-Marie knows the reasons she rejected her birth family, and why she so desperately wanted to “belong”.

The elder’s advice to Buffy?  To become a real elder herself, by speaking the truth.  Forgiveness can then follow truth.

From a less judgmental distance, the career, the inconsistencies, and the current battle over the legacy of Buffy Sainte-Marie seem really to be a weird and horribly surreal part of the larger tragedy of American racism.

The people who will suffer most from the outfall of this are of course the Cree Nation and other indigenous peoples.

Old Mix Americans, unable to belong anywhere else, will continue to be packed by others into boxes marked “black” or “white”.  Or they will choose themselves to self-identify simply as a “color”.

Multi-ethnic people having no real cultural identity with which to anchor themselves will always be nobodies or “colors”, until they choose otherwise.

And once they choose to be more than a color, let their new identity be based on truth.

Only when we reclaim our true selves are we ready to be claimed and adopted by others.

 

#BuffySainteMarie #history #racism #IdentityPolitics

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