July 30, 2021

Shumka underscores Ukrainian-First Nations interaction

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In my last column I touched upon the extensive interaction between the Ukrainian pioneers and the First Nations of Canada, and noted that this is an aspect of history that is little known. Lately, however, the first steps have been taken to bring this issue to public awareness.

Perhaps the best example as far as popular culture is concerned is “Ancestors and Elders,” a colourfully vibrant dance production presented jointly by the Ukrainian Shumka Dancers and multidisciplinary Indigenous artists. It premiered on April 27, 2018, and was remounted in May of the following year. It was broadcast by OMNI television in three provinces on June 21 of this year in honor of National Indigenous Day.

As Shumka’s Executive Director Darka Tarnwasky explains: “When I first heard a story of Aboriginal assistance to Ukrainian settlers in the early 1900s, I knew it had to be told.

‘These berries are safe to eat. This basket of medicinal herbs will heal you. Here is where the fish can be found.’ This is a portrayal of the true compassion and humanity we are all capable of. Why would the Indigenous peoples – whose land had been stripped from them by the colonials years earlier – try to help these new settlers who were given this harsh land to till?”

Ms. Tarnawsky also notes that there are many similarities between Indigenous and Ukrainian cultures, among them, reverence for the land, the beauty of beading, braiding and embroidery and the significance of circles, rhythms and drums in dances.

But the history of this relationship between the Indigenous peoples and Ukrainian pioneers remains largely anecdotal. Very little has actually been written about this subject.

As Alberta writer Myrna Kostash noted in “The Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the First Nations,” a lecture she delivered in March 2010 to the congregation of St Vladimir’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Calgary during a spiritual retreat when working on her 2005 book “Reading the River: A Traveller’s Companion to the North Saskatchewan River,” she was able to find only one story about First Nations and Ukrainian contact. It was by Maria Yurei­chuk, whose family arrived in Edmonton in 1899 and travelled by raft downriver to their homestead near Victoria Settlement.

They ended up getting trapped by snow after their raft ran aground on a sandy shoal and came to a dead stop.

“Morning found us there, crouched at the entrance of our shelter. And the snow came down like an avalanche, as though it were trying to bury us alive…. We were so cold our teeth chattered, and we were afraid that by morning it would be the end of us. I wept bitterly over my fate and cursed my husband and Canada.

“It was already late morning when some Indians who lived near the river noticed a strange object sitting on top of the sandbank and came down to investigate. They took us into their home (an old shack), made some tea, gave us some dry biscuits to eat, and we gradually thawed out….

“I will not forget that incident as long as I live…. It was a blessing from God that the Indians caught sight of our raft, for without their help we would have perished there.”

There are many common threads that run through the history of Indigenous people and Ukrainian settlers in Canada. Both were subjected to discrimination and looked down upon by the higher ethnic echelons of the “Vertical Mosaic” that was Canadian reality throughout most of the 20th century.

For Ukrainians it was the trauma of World War I internment operations. For Indigenous people, it was the trauma of residential schools. Incidentally, while Ukrainian-origin Canadians never experienced the full degree of horrors, including physical and sexual abuse in prison-like conditions that the Indigenous suffered in residential schools, they nevertheless were also subjected to attempts to eradicate their language and culture in the educational system.

Up until the 1950s, Ukrainian children in rural Alberta schools were strapped or subjected to other forms of corporal punishment simply for speaking Ukrainian. Among those who recall such treatment are former Alberta premier Ed Stelmach and former Speaker of the Alberta Legislature Gene Zwozdesky. In both cases the objectives were similar. The educational system was designed to eliminate their individual cultures and assimilate them into what was perceived to be the superior one.

But their cultures not only survived, they also thrived. That is what is presented in Shumka’s production. But even more important, by focussing on this subject “Ancestors and Elders” has opened the door to further study. And it’s a unique chapter in Canada’s history that certainly deserves much more serious study.

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