There is no single story about Buffy Sainte-Marie’s adoption. One finds that her parents died suddenly, or that she was abandoned, or that her adoption was a kinship type. What is known is that she was adopted by Albert and Winifred Sainte-Marie, a couple of Mi’kmaq descent, in Wakefield Massachusetts.
“In Canada, we had something that, sometimes, a little bit later referred to as the Big Scoop. But it had been going on for generations, where native children were removed from the home for their own good. But what happens to children who are kind of lost in the system like that, they’re assigned a birthday (she doesn’t actually know her exact birthdate). They’re assigned kind of a biography. So, in many cases, adoptive people don’t really know what the true story is.”
~ Buffy Sainte-Marie
She was born in 1941 on the Piapot 75 reserve in the Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan, Canada. Sainte-Marie began researching her Indigenous heritage in her teens and making trips back to the Piapot reserve and connecting with her Cree community. In 1964, on a return trip to the Piapot Cree reserve in Canada for a powwow, she was welcomed and (in a Cree Nation context) adopted by the youngest son of Chief Piapot, Emile Piapot and his wife, Clara Starblanket Piapot.
Of her adoptive parents, she says – “For the most part, they were wonderful. There were some terrible predators in the neighborhood, and some bully predators in the house.” When asked if her mother noticed anything, she says – “Well, I thought I was telling her what was going on. But little girls don’t have names for what big boys do to them. We don’t have that language, and we certainly didn’t during the ’40s. My mom would say, has he been teasing you again? So I thought that’s what it was called. It is not something that has become my main story. My story is about getting beyond that.”
As a child from an abusive childhood, as a person who was abused by boyfriends and spouses, there’s another kind of song that she writes which she calls empowerment songs. Sainte-Marie set out to address the problem she saw in Indian country, where Indian kids would graduate from high school, want to go to college, but didn’t know how to negotiate the path to college. They didn’t know how to get a scholarship, they weren’t connected by family and friends. She founded the Nihewan Foundation which gave law school scholarships to Native Americans. She says that her biggest honor was to find out that two of her early scholarship recipients had gone on to found tribal colleges.