Barbara Aiello

Buffy Sainte-Marie may not be native but she could be Jewish

Santamaria, her real, very Christian name, actually points to the strong possibility of Sephardic heritage
Buffy St. Marie at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Concert, Ottawa, Canada, June 3, 2015 (Drpeterstockdale via Wikimedia / CC)
Buffy St. Marie at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Concert, Ottawa, Canada, June 3, 2015 (Drpeterstockdale via Wikimedia / CC)

Not too long ago bombshell information hit entertainment news. According to an article in the New York Post (11/17/23) Buffy Sainte-Marie, icon of Native American accomplishment and pride, was found out to be a fraud. The songstress of the sixties whose lyrics graced every “hootenanny,” a woman who wore her moccasins, beads and feathers proudly, is now mocked as “Faux-cahontis” and cast in the same low light as other wannabees who adopted minority racial or ethnic status in order to cash in on the victimology of the day.

Thanks to the diligence of freelance reporter, Jacqueline Keeler, it became clear that Ms. Sainte-Marie had reinvented herself as an Indigenous Native American born in Canada on the Piapot Cree reservation who was later adopted by an American family in Massachusetts.

Although she was born and grew up as Beverly Jean Santamaria in a typical Massachusetts town, for more than 60 years Buffy Sainte-Marie perpetuated her fake Native American status to garner numerous film and television appearances and win dozens of awards and accolades, including a commemorative Canadian postage stamp, all of which were intended exclusively to highlight the accomplishments of real Indigenous Native people.

In 2022 when journalist Keeler labeled Buffy as a “Pretendian” or “pretend Indian,” Buffy Sainte-Marie’s story began to unravel. That’s when Ms. Keeler, a Native American herself, discovered Sainte-Marie’s original birth certificate which effectively debunked the myth that Ms. Sainte-Marie, 82, had been born on a Canadian reservation and that she had been adopted. Buffy, named Beverly Jean, was actually born into her Italian American Santamaria family.

Disgraced? Yes. Confused? Could be. That’s why our Italian Jewish Cultural Center of Calabria (IjCCC) encourages Ms. Sainte-Marie to consider claiming her rightful place in the minority kaleidoscope. Why? Given what we know about the Spanish Inquisition and its history, our staff can say with near certainty that Buffy’s original Italian surname, Santamaria, is an invented converso surname that has verifiable Jewish roots.

Names like Santamaria (meaning Holy Mary) along with other Italian surnames such as Cristiano (Christian man), Spiritosanto, (Holy Spirit), Di Dio ( Son of God) and even Aiutamicristo (Help me Christ) were adopted by Jewish families to bamboozle Inquisition authorities into believing that the Jews they had persecuted and forced into Christian conversion had now become devoted to the Christian Church.

Buffy’s Santamaria ancestors were most likely part of a group known by the Hebrew phrase, “b’nei anusim,” which translates as “children of the forced ones.” In modern times, this phrase means that many Italian Americans, such as Buffy herself, have ancestors who were chased by Inquisition authorities from Spain to Portugal, then to Sicily and finally to the mainland of southern Italy. When they were caught these Jews were forced, under pain of arrest, torture or death, to accept adult Christian baptism.

In fact we find the surname Santamaria listed in the Dictionary of Sephardic Surnames. It is the moniker of a Jewish family, living in Toledo, Spain in 1492, the year of the expulsion of the Jews, when they and many others like them attempted to “hide in plain sight,” by adopting “holier than thou” Christian surnames. Buffy Sainte-Maria’s Spanish Santamaria ancestors may very well have been a part of this group.

Further documentation of the Jewish roots of the Santamaria surname is found in Haim Bienart’s book Conversos on Trial, Peter Bonin’s classic, Sangre Judia (Jewish Blood) and the iconic volume that tells the “b’nei anusim” story, Cecil Roth’s definitive A History of the Marranos.

Local historians based in the “toe” of the Italian “boot,” report that the southern Italian island of Salina, part of the Mediterranean archipelago called the Aeolian Islands, “was the home of the Santamaria family for generations.”

Salina residents say, ”It is likely that our ancestors first arrived in the Aeolian Islands following the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. Santamaria was a commonly adopted name for those who converted to Christianity under duress in the 14th and 15th centuries,”

For more than 20 years the IjCCC has responded to hundreds of requests from men and women with Italian heritage who are eager to learn if their surnames have Jewish roots traceable back to the Sephardic Jews of Spain. They want answers to questions ranging from “Who am I?” and “Who was I?” to “I’ve always felt Jewish. Could it be that our family was once Jewish?”

The New York Post reports that, possibly in an attempt at damage control, Buffy Sainte-Marie wrote that she never knew exactly where she was from. Although this statement in no way excuses her behavior, it does speak to long buried emotions felt by thousands of men and women with lost Italian Jewish heritage. As one woman who contacted us wrote, “I always felt out of place. It was a relief to know my surname has Jewish roots.”

Possibly Buffy Saint-Marie could feel that same sense of relief by coming clean regarding her lack of Native American heritage. Even at 82, Buffy, aka Beverly Santamaria, could embark on a new journey – discovering and embracing her Italian Jewish roots.

About the Author
Rabbi Barbara Aiello is the first woman and first non-orthodox rabbi in Italy. She opened the first active synagogue in Calabria since Inquisition times and is the founder of the B'nei Anousim movement in Calabria and Sicily that helps Italians discover and embrace their Jewish roots