In the wake of a CBC Fifth Estate investigation questioning the Indigeneity of celebrated musician Buffy Sainte-Marie, Indigenous Northerners are grappling with the legacy of a woman who has been both an icon and a trailblazer in their communities.
Gary Bailie, a longtime organizer of the Blue Feather Music Festival in Whitehorse, recalls Sainte-Marie’s impact on him personally. “She said, ‘You found your purpose,'” Bailie remembered, emphasizing the positive memories he has of Sainte-Marie’s multiple appearances at the festival.
The Fifth Estate report has sparked a wave of hurt, anger, and division among Indigenous communities in the North. Many are now wrestling with how to reconcile Sainte-Marie’s contributions to Indigenous music and advocacy with the allegations brought forth in the report.
The controversy surrounding Sainte-Marie’s Indigeneity is further complicated by the historical and ongoing impacts of colonialism, as well as questions over who has the authority to determine Indigenous identity.
Miranda Currie, a musician from Yellowknife of half-Cree descent, expressed the complexity of the issue, stating, “It’s really important just to show compassion in this whole issue… Just be gentle with yourself.” Currie, who was once nominated for a Canadian Folk Music Award alongside Sainte-Marie, continues to stand with her, calling her an “unquestionably amazing musician” and “an advocate, an ally, at the very least for the Indigenous community.”
Others, however, feel that the accolades and opportunities Sainte-Marie has received should be revoked if the allegations prove true. Garth Wallbridge, a Métis lawyer in Yellowknife, stated, “People have so much invested in it. They want to believe. They’re having a hard time moving away from that.”
The inspiration drawn from Sainte-Marie’s music and achievements, however, remains undeniable. Aaju Peter of Iqaluit stated, “You cannot take [away] the talent and the inspiration that came out of that.” Peter, a Greenlandic person living in Canada, empathizes with Sainte-Marie’s feelings of belonging to a community, but also highlights the distinction between being born into a community and choosing to belong to one.
Despite the controversy, the impact of Sainte-Marie’s contributions to Indigenous music and advocacy cannot be denied. As Indigenous Northerners reflect on her legacy, the words of Gary Bailie serve as a reminder: “I think that no matter what’s said, what’s done, we have to maintain our humanity through it all.”