In a story that's become all-too-common in North America, white 'pretendians' claim Native ancestry in an effort to be 'cool'
Oh, will you look at that. Buffy Sainte-Marie ain’t a real Indian.
She is, in a new word I just learned the other day, a ‘pretendian’.
People pretending Indigenous ancestry may number in the ‘tens of thousands’, by the estimate of one Métis lawyer, and that’s just in Canada. We may have more fake Natives than real ones here, and they’re plentiful down south, too, where Indigenous populations are still referred to as ‘Indians’, presumably because Columbus didn’t want to admit he was hopelessly lost.
Buffy Sainte-Marie, for the Canadian-challenged, is a folk singer who rose to prominence in the 1960s. She claimed to have been born on a Piapot reserve in Saskatchewan when in fact she was adopted into it, as an adult, by the band in 1964 when she visited for a pow-wow. Whether they did it because they believed she might be part Native (Sainte-Marie’s mother self-identified as part Mi’kmaq) or if they understood she was fully white, is unknown, but Indigenous peoples in many places around North America often adopted white, black, and neighboring tribe members into their own and regarded them as much a part of their families and ‘real’ Indians as their blood relatives.
But a recent report by the Canadian investigative reporting program The Fifth Estate revealed that Buffy Saint-Marie is not really Native.
She’s white, on both sides of her family. And white is so uncool.
Indians and pretendians
Being Native American has been ‘cool’ for white North Americans for many decades, or centuries if you count the Boston Tea Party. ‘Iron Eyes Cody’, the ‘crying Indian’ in a famous 1970s PSA, was an Italian actor who came to insist he was Native after playing Indians in westerns.
Grey Owl, an Englishman-converted-to-indigineity, was a writer, conservationist and public speaker in the early part of the twentieth century.
Other famous pretendians include Johnny Depp, who has claimed Creek and Cherokee descent, and the allegedly part-Cherokee Cher, neither with documented ancestry. North American academia has more pretendians than Custer had real Indians, with new scandals of ex-Native white people busted periodically.
Claiming Native ancestry became A Thing in the 1960s and 70s with greater attention to Native issues and causes. I remember Floridian elementary school friends bragging they were part Seminole or Cherokee. I asked my mother if we had any Indians in our family and was terribly disappointed to learn our mutt-ley family lines all came from Europe.
Buffy Saint-Marie finds herself in a place where she’s both a ‘real’ Indian and a ‘fake’ Indian. Her Piapot family accepts her as one of their own, but others are expressing their offense and disappointment in her, especially with some fabrications that pretty arguably crossed the line and harmed real Natives.
Sainte-Marie embellished her fictitious Native past, claiming she was caught in the notorious Canadian ‘Sixties Scoop’ whereby Native children were seized by the government and placed with non-Native families, which explained, I guess she thought, why she grew up in Massachusetts in a white family. Except that she was born there, not deposited there, according to her Stoneham, Massachusetts birth certificate.
She has spoken as though this ordeal for Indigenous Canadians’ pain was her own, when it wasn’t. It’s deeply hurtful and offensive to real survivors of such horrific family destruction. The Sixties Scoop, and the horrid residential schools to which these children were sent to ‘civilize’ them, has left some ugly legacy pain that will take many generations to heal.
You don’t make those claims lightly. And especially not for personal gain, and one must wonder why she did it. Because she certainly gained.
Her lies doesn’t erase her decades of social activism, her philanthropy on behalf of Native peoples or her fine music; nor her Oscar for Best Original Song in 1983 for Up Where We Belong, featured in An Officer and a Gentleman, although she’s now no longer the First Indigenous Person To Win An Oscar. But many are angered about several Native Canadian musical awards she’s won that went to a non-Native non-Canadian (at least until she applied for citizenship as an adult), all of them professional opportunities she denied real Natives.
So she has harmed them with her near-lifelong deception, claiming awards that were not hers based on a history and victimhood she did not possess.
It brings up other uncomfortable questions such as who is truly ‘Indigenous’, and how much DNA makes one a ‘real’ Native. It raises further questions for us moderns: If race is merely a construct then does it make any difference? And if ‘identity’ is king, as it is on the subject of crossing sex, then who is anyone to tell Saint-Marie she’s not a ‘real’ Indian?
Who’s ‘real’? Who’s not?
The long-obvious hypocrisy is that it’s okay to identify as the opposite sex and the world MUST go along with it; but people who racially disguise are badbadbad because they ‘appropriated’ marginalization that doesn’t belong to them.
Which, I agree, they did. In probably the only instance in which I laughed along with Donald Trump was when he called U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren ‘Pocahontas’, which the chronically aggrieved immediately jumped on as ‘racist’. She did turn out to have some Indigenous genetics, but not much.
However, if you’re familiar with the history of white Americans pretending, correctly or not, to possess Native ancestry, the ‘Pocahontas’ jest was better than even Trump himself might have comprehended.
After the virtue-signalling, copperwashed and Native-sanitized 1995 Disney movie Pocahontas was released, the 2000 US census recorded a big jump in Americans identifying as Native, some claiming descendancy from the most famous Indian herself. The truth? It took four generations before her line got prolific, but there are many who could claim descendancy from her. But can they prove it?
What if Sainte-Marie has ‘done the work’?
‘Pretendian’ is pejorative, but not uncalled-for for people who engage in this racial identity fraud. Perhaps with a little more truth-telling, and a little less story-telling, those who choose and are honest about a different racial or cultural identity could be differentiated from the natal Indigenous. Because non-Natives adopted into a family or band or tribe may well be as much their kinfolk as my adopted cousins and niece are to my family.
What Sainte-Marie’s critics might consider is the ‘work’ she’s done, the kind antiracists are always going on about for white people. Sainte-Marie knows and understands Indigenous cultures inside and out, through a lifetime of learning if not through a life lived there from the start.
While a person who acquires a different ancestry for their identity will never be the same as one born into it, just as a trans-identified man can never truly understand the female experience, one can still ‘do the [longterm] work’ and legitimately stand up for others.
What if we called people who appropriate Indigenous culture ‘Transnatives’, which sounds less pejorative, as long as they’re not making things up and harming or depriving real Natives with lies?
If done with proper respect and honesty, with the only personal pain testimony permitted being one’s genuine trauma, we could learn a lot with Native-style Black Like Me stories from a different angle. I’ve argued it’s possible to give anyone who wasn’t born into the white experience a similar trip, too.
It can be beneficial to learn from those who acquire or appropriate different identities, if they’re honest and genuine about it.
While no white person can ever fully understand what it’s like to be born and grow up Indigenous, Indigenous folks can gain a better understanding of white people if a few take a walk on the white side themselves.
I don’t suggest any should do this, only if they want to. If transgenderism is okay, then so, in my mind, is transracialism and transnativism, which at least is more easily reversible.
White and Native crossover experiences will be different, given their birth circumstances, yet both, I believe, will offer new perspectives we haven’t considered before.
Some might be annoyed with white people who won’t listen to a Native person’s testimony, but will listen to a white man in redface.
But some of those listeners might well include those who would otherwise write off Indigenous experience as, Oh, there they go again, always complaining about this country. Don’t they know how good they have it now?
Some white people, unreachable otherwise, will listen to the white guy who says, They weren’t exaggerating. Especially about anti-Indigenous racism.
Really, buddy? Was it really that bad?
It was brutal, guys. Let me tell you how I almost got killed just south of Saskatoon…
Where has all the authenticity gone, long time passing?
We live in an age in which it becomes harder every day to know who and what is real, or fake.
I wanted to cry, No, not Buffy! when I found The Fifth Estate story on YouTube. But yes, Buffy too. Pretendian. Dancing, singing and chanting as though she was to the reserve born.
Perhaps the most important question we can ask is where our authenticity has gone; why do so many Americans and Canadians aspire to be something they’re not, whether it’s a ‘marginalized’ group like First Nations or Native Americans, or, more troublingly, a sex switch nightmare that results in lifelong dependence on drugs and may destroy fertility?
Buffy Sainte-Marie was real on one level, fake on another. What some might derisively call an ‘apple’, red on the outside, white on the inside.
I wonder how so many pretendians get away with it for so long. Surely Natives who feel deeply aggrieved at white appropriation notice at some point that someone doesn’t seem to be who they say they are? Sainte-Marie’s Piapot family never squealed on her, but surely others around them deduced after her rise to fame that she was never a child on their reserve.
Perhaps the fault lies not just with white people trying to be cool, or gain popularity and professional success through a victimhood identity. Would Sainte-Marie have been as famous or popular if she’d been ‘60s Italian folk singer Buffy Santamaria, her birth name?
I’m not sure she would have been. A Cree woman is cooler than an Italian one.
Companies and organizations that ‘Indigenize’, add ‘Native’ personnel to diversify and raise Indigenous boats, also collude by not screening to make sure they’re giving a job or some other perk to a genuine Native. But Natives collude too when they don’t tell what they know to be a lie.
I don’t understand why people today can’t accept themselves for who they truly are, but maybe, in the end, even adults can succumb to the lure of make-believe. Regardless of who likes it or not, your family are the people who love you when you come home.
Whether you share their DNA or not.
But if you can’t keep it authentic, at least keep it real.
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