North Dakota Ukrainian community kept intact by Ukrainian Cultural Institute

by Tamara Tershakovec
Special to The Ukrainian Weekly

BELFIELD, N.D. - A policeman from Dodge City, N.D., (population: 86) stopped us for speeding. "We're lost," I said, looking for sympathy. "Can you tell us the way to St. Demetrius Ukrainian Catholic Church?"

I didn't really think he would know, but I thought that, maybe, if we seemed like nice religious girls who had never gone 40 miles per hour in a 25-mile-per-hour zone before, he might let us off the hook. It didn't work - the officer gave us detailed directions, and a ticket.

Many friends told me that North Dakota would be boring, but they were wrong. North Dakota is flat and sparse, but very beautiful. There are herds of cattle and farms everywhere along the roadside, and among them sits St. Demetrius Ukrainian Catholic Church - the first Ukrainian church in North Dakota. Originally located in a town called Ukraina, the church was moved to Belfield in 1949. Like many churches, it also serves as a community center. As we drove up, a group of women had just finished making about 800 varenyky to sell as a fund-raiser for a dance program.

In 1996, North Dakota Ukrainians will celebrate the 100th anniversary of their arrival. Many Ukrainians, especially those from western Ukraine, settled in the area near St. Demetrius, in western North Dakota.

Agnes Palanuk, founder of the Ukrainian Cultural Institute and member of the North Dakota State Historical Board, explained that the free land parceled out to settlers by the Homestead Act was claimed from east to west. Ukrainians, being in one of the last waves of settlers, got the land that was farthest west, in the Badlands.

"This is where our people settled," said Mrs. Palanuk, "in the worst land of North Dakota." (Ironically, some Ukrainian Americans became millionaires during the OPEC oil crisis in the mid-1970s because of oil found on their "bad land".)

The community stayed intact in large part because "in many cases the land stayed in one family, ... because they were tied to the land," said Mrs. Palanuk. These Ukrainians, however, called themselves Russians, possibly because the name "Ukraine" was not common until after their ancestors emigrated. Dr. Bohdan Hordinsky, who lived near the community of Ukrainians who considered themselves Russian, took it upon himself to enlighten them.

"They'd talk to him," said Mrs. Palanuk, "and they'd say they were Russians. So he would speak to them in Russian - and they couldn't understand! And when he would speak Ukrainian they would understand. That was his way of saying, 'See, you are of the same language.'"

One of Mrs. Palanuk's pet projects was an oral history based on interviews with about 33 Ukrainians who emigrated to North Dakota. Titled "In the Voices of the People: A History of Ukrainians in North Dakota," it paints a vivid picture of the lives of the early immigrants. According to Mrs. Palanuk, it is "one of the better things I have done in my life."

As published in North Dakota History magazine, one of the people interviewed by Mrs. Palanuk said the young couple who sponsored them "took us to the chicken coop to live, my God, a stove with holes and a water stand... I took care of the baby. The baby was born premature and tiny. I didn't know that... I thought the children in America are so tiny." Such was the life of those pioneers.

For a long time, the Ukrainian culture was maintained by the church, and Mrs. Palanuk complained that when the church had "an American-born priest who did not have the national feelings, you could see the interest going down, the language wavering away, the mass changing to English, the sermon changing to English, no Ukrainian language classes during the summer."

Then, she said, a Father Tom Glynn - an Irishman from Chicago who switched to the Byzantine/Ukrainian rite - came to serve at their church, and he told them, "If you want your culture preserved, you're going to have to do it."

That was the seed of North Dakota's Ukrainian Cultural Institute, which was organized in 1980.

The institute's goal was to promote not only awareness of one's Ukrainian heritage, but also involvement in the community. While working on the story of Ukrainians in North Dakota, Mrs. Palanuk visited the Ukrainians who thought they were Russians. "Some of them were very skeptical," she said. "They thought we were Communists even."

But interest grew, and so did the projects of the institute: a symposium on the conditions at the time of immigration, pysanky, tsymbaly-making, Ukrainian language and bandura classes, a summer festival and a folk dance program, which keeps the younger generation interested in Ukrainian culture.

Now that Ukraine is independent, formal education is probably the next step, with the exchange of students from here and Ukraine. Many leaders of these projects are not Ukrainian by birth, but are married to Ukrainians - and yet they are so involved. Mrs. Palanuk said they probably feel a sense of having Ukrainian roots. That's a big accomplishment when, as Mrs. Palanuk says, "you stop to think that there was almost nothing."

The institute was opened up to North Dakota Humanities Council grants when it signed an agreement with the local state college in Dickinson. It is also closely affiliated with the North Dakota Council on the Arts.

"They have funded us from the very beginning," said Mrs. Palanuk. "Because we are as active as we are, they want us to be an example for the other ethnic organizations. And they just push us! Like this Saturday, we are sponsoring a grant-writing workshop, just inviting all these non-profit organizations. It looks pretty good when you see this grant-writing workshop and it says 'call the Ukrainian Cultural Institute.'"

And thus, one little known Ukrainian community remembers the past and moves toward the future.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, January 24, 1993, No. 4, Vol. LXI

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