Indigenous Northerners wrestle with legacy of Buffy Sainte-Marie

A CBC Fifth Estate investigation found evidence contradicting Buffy-Sainte Marie’s claims of Indigenous ancestry. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

‘No matter what’s said, what’s done, we have to maintain our humanity through it all,’ says festival organizer

When Gary Bailie thinks about Buffy Sainte-Marie, he remembers the kind words she said to him before one of her performances at the Blue Feather Music Festival in Whitehorse.

“She said, ‘You found your purpose,'” the longtime festival organizer recalled.

For Bailie, who has dedicated his time and energy for decades to making the festival a celebration of Indigenous music, that was “a pretty cool thing.”

Following a CBC Fifth Estate investigation into Sainte-Marie’s claims of Indigeneity, Bailie sees the hurt, anger and division the issue has stirred up.

He carries a feeling of sadness about it all, though he isn’t talking about where he stands. No matter which side people fall on, he hopes they remember there’s a human at the heart of it.

Gary Bailie, who has spent decades producing the Blue Feather Music Festival, says he has empathy for everyone who is grappling with questions around the ancestry of music icon Buffy Sainte-Marie. (Virginie Ann / CBC News)

“People love her. She always took time for people, she was funny, intelligent — I have nothing but good memories about her,” he said of Buffy’s several appearances at Blue Feather.

“I think that no matter what’s said, what’s done, we have to maintain our humanity through it all.”

A complicated issue

People across the North who belong to Indigenous communities have spoken with CBC North this week about their efforts to grapple with Sainte-Marie’s legacy and whether to believe the Fifth Estate report. So far, Sainte-Marie has not addressed any of the issues raised in the report with CBC directly, but has called the allegations “deeply hurtful and continues to claim Indigenous identity.”

The issues are complicated by questions over who gets to decide whether someone is Indigenous, and how the lasting effects of colonialism are involved.

Miranda Currie, a musician in Yellowknife who describes herself as half-Cree, said it’s a nuanced issue that she has been wrestling with since the news broke.

“She’s an icon and she’s a trailblazer … She was busting down doors, especially for female Indigenous artists, and making awesome music and being an awesome person,” she said.

“It’s really important just to show compassion in this whole issue … I just want to say to people who are processing [this] — just be gentle with yourself.”

Yellowknife musician Miranda Currie, singing for youth at École Įtłʼǫ̀ in Yellowknife. Currie says people should be gentle with themselves as they figure out how they feel. (Taken by Jared Monkman/CBC)

Currie said she personally is standing with Sainte-Marie for now, though she noted her feelings could change.

As someone of mixed descent, Currie said looking at blood quantum — the amount of Indigenous blood someone has running through their veins — is a “very colonial way of measuring our Indigeneity.”

“I think that Indigenous communities get to determine that themselves, and who they let in and who [becomes] part of their families,” she said.

As a musician who was once nominated alongside Sainte-Marie for a Canadian Folk Music Award, Currie said that remains an honour.

“She is unquestionably an amazing musician and a talented performer and an advocate, an ally, at the very least for the Indigenous community,” Currie said. “If I could do a fraction of the work that she has done in the Indigenous community, that would still be something that I would be honoured to do.”

‘People have so much invested in it’

For others, like Garth Wallbridge, that work Sainte-Marie did throughout her career has been tarnished.

Wallbridge, a Métis lawyer in Yellowknife, said she remains a wonderful musician, but the awards she’s won and the honours she’s been given took away opportunities from Indigenous people.

He wants to see those revoked, but also acknowledges how difficult the Fifth Estate report is for many to accept.

“People have so much invested in it. They want to believe,” he said of Sainte-Marie’s legacy. “They’re having a hard time moving away from that.”

There’s one part of Sainte-Marie’s legacy that won’t change, though, said Aaju Peter of Iqaluit, and that’s the inspiration people felt from her music and achievements.

“You cannot take [away] the talent and the inspiration that came out of that,” she said.

To Peter, there is a distinction between belonging to a community and being born into a community — something she understands all too well, as a Greenlandic person living in Canada.

“I lost my own identity, going to school in Denmark, but then I was accepted into the Inuit community,” she said.

“I can understand that one, and then her feelings of belonging to that community. I can understand it. But that doesn’t reverse itself to being born as an Indigenous person.”

Peter said all she can conclude right now is that the facts appear to dispute Sainte-Marie’s claim to Indigeneity. She said she is open to whatever the truth might be.

With interviews by Teresa Qiatsuq, Hilary Bird and Dave White

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Case delayed for sisters, mother charged with fraud for claiming Inuit status, CBC News

Finland: Sami self-governing reform headed to Finnish Parliament, Yle News

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