On the prairies, where I’m from, it’s common for Cree and Ukrainian people to mix and become family. My mom is Ukrainian and my dad is Cree. I like to joke and say I’m Ukreenian.
As someone with multiple cultural identities, I’ve always been a little fuzzy on borders. How could it make sense for someone to draw a line on the earth, and announce that on one side of the line there’s one cultural group, and on the other side there’s another? Surely there’s overlap.
Before my mother’s apartment was destroyed in a fire in 2003, she showed me her father’s passport. It was written in another language, in the Cyrillic alphabet. “He was born in Poland, but he was Ukrainian,” she told me. “That was back when the borders were constantly shifting, depending on who had won the most recent war.”
Borders have always been a flexible concept.
An Anishinaabe Elder recently told me that he doesn’t like the term First Nations. “We aren’t Nations,” he said, “We’re cultures. And we didn’t have territories. We shared land. All of our territories overlapped.”
That made sense to me. If you look at a website like native-land.ca, which attempts to map out Indigenous territories around the world, you will find an overlapping sea of colours and of cascading circles that share boundaries with others. There was no neat and tidy line that was enforced the way today’s international borders are. In fact, it was in some ways the opposite. I’ve heard Indigenous oral histories of how different communities would share certain lands — where one community or group might use it in the winter, and another would use it in the summer.
Land use was flexible, and changed to respond to the needs of the people who lived there. But, it required a willingness to cooperate.
When I read about Ukrainian people now pouring into Poland, I think about how long these two distinct cultures have been neighbours, and I wonder how much culture they share in common. I think of how my grandfather was nationally Polish, but culturally Ukrainian.
I’ve been seeing a lot of pro-Ukrainian sentiment on social media. There seems to be a lot of literal and figurative flag-waving online these days. Nationalism is something I’ve never understood, perhaps because of my multiple identities. People seem enamoured with Ukrainian grandmothers, but I can’t help but to also think of Russian grandmothers. Surely they have much in common with their Ukrainian sisters.
Today, as a madman once again wages a bloody attack on a people, we are left to watch, heartbroken. I can imagine that Russians may be more horrified about the war than the rest of the world, because it is happening in their name. In fact, thousands of Russians, in more than 50 cities were detained by police for protesting the invasion of Ukraine.
My grandfather immigrated to Canada as a teenager, and when the Canadian border agent couldn’t pronounce his name, Yaslov, he was given the name Joe. Joe ended up marrying my maternal grandmother, Mary-Jo and together they made a home in Bienfait, a tiny town in Saskatchewan, near the American border. My grandfather Joe died when my mother was 16, long before I was born. I know him only through stories and pictures.
From what I’ve been told, he was a strict man with a commanding presence, one that my grandmother and aunts feared and respected. He spoiled my mother, the baby, by buying her presents and bringing her home books. He was a coal miner who tried to create his own co-op mine, but it failed. He was once hit by a train - albeit a slow moving one - and survived. He died at the age of 55, on the steps of the mine, his hand on the handrail. At first my grandmother didn’t receive his death pension because he didn’t die while underground in the mine. But after two years of my mother’s lobbying, my grandma received a cheque. My mother, in her teens when it all went down, was very proud.
After my grandfather died, my newly widowed grandmother, Mary-Jo, went back to school and became a nurse. Born and raised to Ukrainian immigrant farmers, she had dropped out of school in grade eight to help raise her siblings while her mother was in a tuberculosis sanitarium. She worked as a nurse for about 20 years, and then retired. Mary-Jo was a small but formidable woman. At 12, I was taller than her in heels, which she wore so often that she lost the ability to walk barefoot without walking on her tiptoes. I remember her in tight jeans, always smoking a cigarette, and blond hair in a tight perm. She didn’t like me, or didn’t seem to.
Once when I was 9, I stayed with my grandmother for a week by myself. I don’t remember why I was sent there, but it was a lonely week. The boredom left me with nothing better to do than read, so I forced myself to muddle through the Yorkshire accent of Joseph in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. By the end of the week, I had both finished the book and learned that I loved to read. I had also learned that my grandma Mary-Jo had a framed photograph of every single one of her grandchildren, except me.
Even as a child, I could guess why: my father was Cree, which meant I was an Indian.
My mother once told me that at a family gathering, one of her uncles approached her and told her “this family had been fine” until she had “brought an Indian into it.”
Back then, in the 1950s and 60s, it was hard to be a Canadian of Ukrainian descent. My grandmother was ashamed of her ancestry, and wouldn’t let her daughters speak Ukrainian in the house. When my mother was growing up, she was not considered “white” the way she would be considered white now. In those days, the English were white, and as slavic people, my mother’s family felt less-than. With the pressures to be less Ukrainian, less different, I can see how it could be upsetting to see that my mother had given birth to another supposed outsider, an Indigenous child.
It’s madness, but I can understand it.
So as colonial violence continues to play out on the world stage, and Ukrainian people again are targeted by the madness of a power-hungry man, as they have been on and off for centuries, I think of my ancestors, and I’m grateful.
I think of my grandmother, short and stout, in her heels at the kitchen table in Bienfait, a big bowl of perogie filling before her and dough rolled out on the Formica laminate table. Every so often, she would spend about eight hours making 300 perogies. They were delicious. She would give some away to family, and freeze the rest. When they ran out she would do it again.
She grew up during the Great Depression. Then suffered a nervous breakdown after the birth of her second child, and slept in the grainery on the family farm for a few months while she recovered. Her family cared for her and her children during that time. She worked incredibly hard all of her life, and then lost her husband when she was still young.
I know she loved me, in her own way.
I think of my grandfather, who told my mother that as a young teen he was once chased for three hours straight, by a gang of men, in the rain. When he got home, he collapsed, and instantly fell ill with pneumonia. He was sick for a year. When he recovered, he emigrated to Canada, at age 15.
What are the chances that either of these two people would survive? Yet here I am.
My other grandparents also both survived a difficult life. As Indians under the Indian Act, they were forced to live in legislated poverty. When my dad was a boy, they lived in a small cabin made of mud and hay. Both my paternal grandparents and all of their children survived residential “schools.” They lived at a time when Indians weren’t allowed to vote, hire lawyers, own property, or leave the reserve without a pass.
Yet here I am.
I think about my mother, currently in the hospital with a broken hip, and my dad, living on the rez, healthy and strong. I think of my two beautiful sons, who are just starting out their journey in this life. It’s a miracle we’re all here.
Some day, I’ll be gone too, and I don’t feel bad about that. My short time on this earth is part of an overlapping wave of millions of lives, of cascading circles that flow out across the earth and across time.
We may not have peace in the world at this time, but we can make it inside of ourselves. Remember that Ukrainian grandmothers are impressive, and that Cree grandmothers are impressive. But don’t forget that Russian grandmothers are impressive, too. Do your best to keep the wars out of your heart and out of your homes. Do your best to find the love that your ancestors had for you, even if you weren’t always treated with kindness. Do your best to see the miracle of you and your Ancestors’ existence.
As a “Ukreenian” I come from a mix of cultures, and if we look back far enough, so does everyone else. We are all the result of a big explosion in the sky, a mix of stardust. And who knows? Perhaps someday the overlapping circles of our existence will return us to the explosion from whence we came.