Discovering Buffy

Buffy Sainte-Marie performed at The Iron Horse in Northampton, Mass. June 15, 2013. Photo: Michael Borkson. CC BY-SA 2.0

Buffy Sainte-Marie has been big news lately.  I have no interest in either joining the pile-on or proclaiming Buffy’s innocence, but I do have some thoughts to share.

As a genocide of the indigenous people of Palestine unfolds before us, with US protection, as the rest of the world watches helplessly, at least in Canada there’s another headline to compete with that one.

Anyone looking for concrete conclusions so they can decide what’s good and what’s bad, what should be defended and what should be condemned, will be disappointed by what I have to say.  I’ve spent so much of my life judging others, and being judged by others, that I’ve lost interest in notions of moral clarity or correct thinking.  I’d rather be lost in the endless complexities and contradictions of life because that’s the real world.  Might as well experience it, rather than spend your brief time here on Earth constantly trying to shove a square peg in a round hole.

I’m a musician, of the singer/songwriter variety, very much coming out of the same musical traditions that sparked the “folk scare” of the early 1960s, though I came around later, not born until 1967.  But the first bunch of other singer/songwriters that really blew me away when I was in my late teens, discovering what was for me new music, after Bob Dylan, were certain of the other artists who were his contemporaries in the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the period, most especially Phil Ochs, and Buffy Sainte-Marie.

For most people in broader US society, especially people younger than me, when people say the name “Buffy,” they first associate it with the hit TV series from the 1990s, Buffy the Vampire-Slayer.  But for many, particularly in Canada and particularly among indigenous Canadians, the Buffy that is more likely to come to mind is Buffy Sainte-Marie.

I know that Buffy is an iconic figure in certain circles for being an indigenous musician.  I can’t remember when I first learned about her indigenous identity.  I was too interested in the music to be particularly interested to know about the personal details of the musicians.  I wasn’t that kind of fan.  I was a musician — obsessed with the music, specifically, rather than the lives of the musicians that made the music.

And what a musician I discovered in Buffy Sainte-Marie.  I found her earliest material first.  As with so many other artists that got swept up in the folk scare of the early 1960s, these years were the peak of her long career, when she was barely out of her teens, and writing such gobsmackingly powerful songs as “It’s My Way.”  I was as inspired by her inventive use of open tunings as I was by the way she attacked her instrument, her unique vibrato, and her raw lyrics that cut right to the heart.

I was well into adulthood and on the cusp of pursuing a career as a musician when Buffy released Coincidence and Likely Stories in 1992, which once again blew me away with songs like “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.”  Musically she had gone in exciting new directions, with what seemed to me like groundbreaking explorations in the power of synthesizers.  And politically, she had clearly not become any less militant in her older age.

I attended one live show of hers in 1993, and she was largely doing material from that most recent album.  It was at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and local indigenous communities had come out in large numbers, opening for Buffy with wonderful hoop dances from the youth.  Buffy coming to town was a big deal for a wide variety of people.

She spoke only sparingly between songs, but some of the things she said made a big impact on me.  Perhaps being of Jewish descent made what she said overwhelmingly obvious, but it was an interesting statement to mull over, nonetheless.  Perhaps in an oblique reference to some of her extremely bitter early songs such as “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone,” she said she used to be very bitter about the whole history of genocide in North America until she got into global history and discovered that the Europeans were doing the same thing to each other, too.

I remember a lot of people commenting on her high heels at that show in Olympia, as if they had been expecting her to wear moccasins.  I think she made a joke about it from the stage, too.

Like so many others, I first heard about the revelations in the past week in the CBC that were then shared with shock and disbelief around North America and beyond that Buffy was in fact not adopted by a white couple in Massachusetts, where she grew up, but was their biological daughter, delivered at the same hospital where her brother was born, by the same doctor.

My first reaction to hearing about the allegations was to reject them out of hand, without watching the documentary or reading the written article version of it.  When I finally was ready to take a break from following the hourly death toll of children in Gaza, I found myself looking over my shoulder as I clicked on the CBC article about Buffy, as if I were about to view pornography.  By the time I got to the end of the lengthy expose, hearing from Buffy’s immediate family members about her childhood, beginning with her birth at a hospital in Massachusetts, the evidence that Buffy had fabricated her Cree ancestry seemed overwhelming.

I can only try to imagine how painful and perhaps confusing these revelations are for so many people, probably most of all among indigenous Canadians, whether they accept them or reject them.  For me, they brought up a lot of thoughts about history, as well as personal memories.  I can’t know how relevant any of these thoughts may be to understanding Buffy Sainte-Marie’s decisions in life.  But I’d venture to guess that they’re probably all relevant, and it’s a matter not of whether, but to what degree.

Buffy’s grandfather was an Italian immigrant.  Buffy was born in 1941.  The family name on her father’s side had been Santamaria, but it was changed to Sainte-Marie to sound less Italian.

At the time Buffy was born, Italians had been barred from emigrating to the US for the previous two decades.  In Canada, Italians were being imprisoned for the crime of being Italian, just as Japanese nationals and generations of Japanese-Americans were being imprisoned for the crime of their national heritage.  The US and Canada were at war with Italy, which was ruled by fascists.  Italians in the US at the time were mainly associated in the popular imagination with anarchism, fascism, and organized crime — all very negative things, as spun by the establishment press and political leaders.

There were a lot of people back then who didn’t want to be Italian, look Italian, sound Italian, etc.  People changed their first and last names in large numbers to assimilate, be safer, have a better chance of getting a job, etc.

The laws in the US against Italians back then also existed for Germans, regardless of whether they were Jewish or whatever else.  I mention this because my nanny when I was a baby in the late 1960s was a German Jew, but I didn’t learn this until just after her death, from her sons, who had learned about this during the last year of  Lola’s life, when her mind was fading and she could no longer keep her story straight.  They always thought she was English, had married an Italian-American soldier, and moved to New York City with him at the end of World War 2.  It was true about the soldier and moving to New York City from London, but what she never mentioned was that she had only a few years previously moved to London, as a teenager, escaping Nazi Germany just in time to avoid the gas chambers.

I only learned of these things after Lola’s death, too late to ask her why she never told anyone of her German or Jewish roots.  Was she treated badly by kids in England for having a German accent, as she surely did at the time she lived there?  Did she just not want to pass on to her children the crazy baggage of being from a group of people who had just been largely wiped off the face of the Earth?  Did she choose to adopt an English identity because it was the most obvious one, since she had been living in London for years and had some idea how to pretend to be English better than how to pretend to be some other nationality?

It’s not like Lola didn’t know other Jews in New York.  There was my family and so many others, all over the place, including German Jews with whom she could have spoken German or Yiddish, both of which she evidently spoke fluently.  I visited her apartment with a German woman once, as a young adult.  But at no point did she ever utter a word in German or otherwise give anyone any indication that she had spent most of her childhood in Germany.

Buffy Sainte-Marie first started identifying her background as indigenous and adopted when she was in her early twenties, once she was in New York City and a central feature of the folk revival happening there, and beyond.  Less than two decades earlier, my nanny Lola also adopted a new identity in New York City, becoming English.

My nanny Lola spent her entire life ever since I knew her taking care of children and living in a small, rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan.  Changing her identity from German, or Jewish, or German Jewish, to being a Londoner of some kind, never benefited her in any measurable way.  She certainly never got rich or famous from pretending to be English.  And if she had, it might never have become a scandal of any kind, because the history of the oppression of Jews is such that a lot of people can viscerally understand why someone with her background would want to keep her Jewishness in the closet.  (The term, “in the closet,” was first coined to refer to Jews who practiced their religion secretly, keeping their religious items literally in the closet.)

Along with thoughts of Lola, reading about these revelations also sparked memories of my early teens, when I participated along with a gaggle of high school students in a bicycling trip around New England, along with our adult trip leaders.  I had been studying karate at that point for some time, maybe a few years even.  I was pretty good, and could do showy high kicks and stuff, but I wasn’t a black belt.  At some point early on in the expedition I found myself telling another kid I was a black belt.  I regretted saying it soon afterward and wasn’t quite sure why I did even.  Something about being with an entirely new group of people, and having the rare opportunity to reinvent my past and my identity without my sister or parents or old friends anywhere nearby to correct the record.  Either way, once I found myself inventing a slightly different identity for myself, I felt obligated for fear of mortal embarrassment to maintain the ruse for the rest of the trip.

In that instance, it wasn’t an especially hard ruse to maintain.  Even among teenage boys, we had other things to do, but the subject didn’t come up.  The guilt ate at me though.  If I had in some way benefitted from the ruse, it would surely have eaten at me much more, just as the fear of being found out would have as well.

I have a lot of contact with modern young people, as a performer and as a father, and I certainly know lots of folks of my generation and of Buffy’s generation, which is my parents’ generation, more or less.  I have never known of a period in the US where it was popular among white people to be white.  “White” has never been much of an identity to embrace.  It’s not especially descriptive, it doesn’t embrace any particular cultural notions that anyone can possibly be proud of.  It’s not like identifying with a particular national or ethnic group that has its own exciting cultural traditions.  No one plays “white” music, or talks about their “white” heritage.

Growing up in the suburbs of New York City, most of my young friends had some kind of story about their native ancestry, whether they were blond and blue-eyed or had less Aryan features.  It hasn’t changed at all — I don’t think any of the teenagers I know in Portland identify as white, even though the overwhelming majority of them are.  I always assume they’ll grow out of this and face reality after a bit.  In any case, I’m sure it was similar when Buffy was a kid, too.

When I was growing up and kids in the neighborhood would play some variation of “Cowboys and Indians” it was always hard to find anyone who wanted to be the cowboys.  Even if you are from the dominant culture, raised in a family that has been benefitting from being part of the dominant culture for generations, living in a million-dollar house in picturesque, woodsy New England suburbs — I am describing most of the people I grew up with in Wilton, Connecticut — you still don’t want to identify with any of this.  Or at least that was what I observed, and experienced, with lots of my peers.

With these anecdotes, I’m not trying to suggest that I understand Buffy Sainte-Marie or her motives, as a young adult or today.  I don’t know her.  Never met her beyond having her sign a CD and smile glowingly at me and my friends at Evergreen that night we heard her perform.

But it’s not hard to imagine how a kid born into a group broadly identified as either criminals, anarchists, or fascists — Italians and Italian-Americans in 1941 — would want to identify in some other way.  It’s equally easy to see how embracing the dominant “white” identity feels like a bizarre thing to do as well, especially when you’re coming from a group that is or was recently clearly being broadly criminalized.

Did someone at a gig in Greenwich Village ask this dark-complexioned woman if she was indigenous, and she found herself saying yes?  It’s easy for me to imagine such a beginning to this strange story.  Easy to imagine the inner conflict she might have struggled with when her indigenous identity became such an important part of her story and her artistic recognition in some circles.

In this era so characterized by black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking, where people are either virtuous or villainous, I think it’s good to take a step back and look at the big picture, which, for me, necessitates holding contradictory things to be true at the same time.

One of those truths would seem to be that Buffy Sainte-Marie has been lying about her indigenous ancestry since she began identifying as such, in her early twenties.  I don’t want to minimize the implications or impact of this deceit for so many people, and I don’t want to say it’s OK — that’s not for me to do.  I just want to highlight the many complexities involved with however it was that she first started identifying that way, and consider some of the possible motivations.

Another of those truths is that regardless of Buffy’s real or proclaimed ancestry, she was one of the most musically groundbreaking and talented songwriters or guitarists to emerge from the folk revival of the early 1960s, and she went on to have a long career involving so much more great music.

Another truth is that because of Buffy’s deep involvement in and advocacy for the native sovereignty movement, she was one of several musicians coming out of the 1960s who was targeted by the FBI, which was directly involved with trying to minimize radio airplay for Buffy and other efforts to try to make sure she didn’t get any more well-known or influential than she already was.

One more truth is for generations of young indigenous folks and anyone who grew up watching Sesame Street, at least up until very recently, Buffy’s voice has been a powerful one, for doing popular education, for standing up against injustice, and for bringing people together in so many ways.

I hope that however it is that the dust settles around all of this, Buffy Sainte-Marie will continue to be known as a great artist and a great voice for making the world a better place, not just as a fallen angel.

David Rovics is a frequently-touring singer/songwriter and political pundit based out of Portland, Oregon.  His website is