Monday, 5 September 2011

Ukrainian-Aboriginal Relations in Pioneer Folk Prose

1. (#1). My interest to this topic was provoked by my childhood’s romantic stereotypes on Indians in North America based on the novels of American writer Fenimore Cooper, I mean his The Leatherstocking Tales[1]. From my first months of stay in Canada I started collecting the episodes, images, life stories, personal experience narratives, interviews, anecdotes, just signs of Ukrainian-Indian contacts/connections. Firstly I’ve been disappointed with the fact that those relationships are not like ones between Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook from the Cooper’s The Last of Mohicans.
Later on I’ve got more or less objective vision on this issue based on the pioneer folk prose and database, І was lucky to work with – “Local Culture and Diversity on the Prairies”. Shortly I figured out that Ukrainian experience in Canada, particularly in the area of intercultural exchange with Native peoples, is pretty much similar to the pioneer experience of other immigrant ethnic groups.

2. (#2). Ukrainian immigrants (actually Galicians, Ruthenians, Bukowinians) came to Canada when it already has been settled with European immigrants. (Frenchmen, Englishmen, Germans already have got an experience of dealing with Aboriginal people (Indians and Métis) face-to-face, in different areas). The main legal documents (treaties, acts (primarily Indian Act of 1876)) regulated the relationships between “white people” and aboriginals. (The redistribution of the lands between whites and natives according to the British legal principles has already been done. The paradox of this governmental Indian policy was: “the started aim of the policy was to assimilate Indians to the mainstream of Canadian society, but the means chosen to implement this policy was segregation”[2].)Segregation process took place before Ukrainians appeared in Canada. This fact is reflected in Ukrainian pioneer folklore.

3. (#3). According to my first impressions, I named the Indian factor in the life of Ukrainian pioneers as an “invisible presence”. When Ukrainian immigrants had settled on their homesteads, the silent aboriginal signs were everywhere – in placenames (toponyms), in weather terms (Chinook, Indian summer), in botanic terms (muskeg, Saskatoon berries, etc.).
Like aboriginal hunters and gatherers Ukrainians learned how to read nature. “Everyone who lived in wilderness must notice, read, interpret and share the meanings of signs in the natural world”. And many of that signs were connected to Indians.
(#4). “Following the Indian trails” – is the very stabile plot/episode in Ukrainian pioneer folk prose and storytelling tradition, primarily these are settling or homesteading stories and narratives. We know that all the so-called foundation stories, stories about “beginnings” start with the designation of the time and the place. The place in Ukrainian foundation stories usually is defined as «wilderness»: usually with the expression «there was nothing exept Indian trails». «These were narrow and winding, but they crossed the creeks and rivers at the safest places”. Ukrainian homesteaders and farmers followed the Indian trails. “Sometimes newcomers widened them, when necessary, for the passage of wagons or sleights”.
The description of Indian trails can also be found in the chilhood memories of the first generation of Ukrainian Canadians – immigrants' children born i Canada. This plot appears as a stabile episode in the stories describing children on their way to school.

4.  To be honest, those episodes seemed to me insomuch insignificant that I even didn’t pay much attention to them until I realized that as a matter of fact we are dealing here not only with the description of landscape, but with latent/hidden customary law issue, namely the differences between legal views on land ownership (#5).
Between hunter-gatherer and agricultural languages there are many examples of difficulties in cultural translation. “Some aboriginal languages have a way of speaking of ownership, with a word-root signifying that a place or thing is for use of someone. By attaching personal possessive endings to some thing, anyone can make a word that means “mine”, “yours” and so on. But there is no verb form equivalent to the English “I own, you own, he owns”[3].
In “Old Country” Ukrainians (Galicians, Bukowinians, Ruthenians) (which in different times were the parts of Austro-Hungarian Empire, Polish Commonwealth, Romania) actually lived on the edge of at least two legal systems: Ukrainian customary law and non-Ukrainian official codified law. The Ukrainian folk law contains not the same, but very similar to North American gatherer-hunters’ views on possessing or sharing the wild territory. At the same time they also were acquainted with laws regulating land property issues.
In Canada Ukrainian immigrants, on one side, realized that as farmers they are the owners or as homesteaders they are almost the owners of some quarter section. That was de jure fact. But at the same time living de facto in the wildereness on the small pieces of cultivated land, they felt very unconfident, because according to Ukrainian customary law only ploughed soil may belong to them. Wild territory belongs to all, special rights on that land may belong to those, who lived here earlier (#6).
That is why and also because of natural fear of unknown, Ukrainian homesteaders and farmers on their beginnings were terrified when the nomad Indians were crossing “their land” and camping on “their” land, until they’ve got used to that. There are many stories on that topic in Ukrainian pioneer stories and narratives. For defining Indian nomadic style of life Ukrainians used the old-country term “gypsies” («Indians were like gypsies»).

5. Very soon Ukrainians learnt how то be fiends with aboriginals. This friendship was especially helful in terms of survival in wilderness. Canadian folklore and storytelling tradition are exceptionally rich with such a stories.
No secret, that pioneers felt vulnarable in the face of wild nature. Indians were the right people who taught them how to survive, how to hunt and to fish.
This is one fragment of my interview (#7), where

MH: Who taught you hunt and trap?
W.S: My teacher was my older brother Steve. And Steve was taught by local Indians teaching how to trap, how to hunt, and how to make your own moccasins and how you would stay in a bush through week with no food, and you have to trap muskrats, you took up the skin of the muskrats and you clean you put a stick in a muskrat and hung over a campfire and that was food for the day. Steve was taught by the Indians how to survive. How to hunt moose, deer…[4]

Usually those stories are accompanied with the episodes of sharing the food.
«... And native Indian with just 6 kids – John Toma – has a muscrat for each: one for Steve, one for (wife), each for kids: the whole muscrats camp! And they would eat muscrats for the supper»[5].

After Hugh Brody, “a hunter-gatherer family shares what it has, whether that is information or food. To give to others is to be able to receive from others. Knowledge and food are stored, as it were, by being shared. By contrast, in societies where social ambitions and personal rivalries are systemic, distortions and secrecy are used to manipulate others”[6] (#7).

Once I found in the “Pioneers Memories” book the story about one Ukrainian family who have got a homestead far from Winnipeg. Instead of wasting money on train ticket, they decided to travel by river, using a float. It was early spring, and the float was very primitive. They’ve been almost deceased. Being wet, frozen and hungry they were risked by the Indian family or band who fed them and gave them а shelter for a while.
While recording the interviews with people of Ukrainian background I didn’t waste an opportunity to interview non-Ukrainians. And I found out that the sharing custom was applied by Aboriginals irrespectivly to the ethnic origin of people.
(#8) The woman of English backgoround told me the family story about her own birth. Norma West told that her parents were the first European settlers in small area (North Alberta, 1920-ies), and her mother was the fisrt white woman there. Norma's family lived on the yard of native Indians (you see, sharing place custom) who lived in the little shack. When her mother was in labour, the Indian woman helped her to deliver the baby: «A neighbor –  a little Indian lady ran out with a basin and cloth and everything, and helped my mom. And she delivered me with no word of English»[7]. It happened in 1932.
In 1927 in a one-room shack in Northern Alberta was born Wasyl (William) Kurelek. “A legless Indian herbalist had been brought in later to help with Mary’s after-birth complications”[8].
By the way, the expression «she was the first white woman in area» is pretty much popular in English pioneer folklore, and does not appear in Ukrainian.

The custom of sharing place, food, information, etc. was natural for Native people, so they expected, on their side, the same sort of attitude from white people. This model of  behavior sometimes terrified, sometimes amused immigrants (mostly newcomers).

6. (#9)
“the Indians would come through on their way to hunt moose and deer. They always stopped at our house to ask for bread. Dena never refused them and would give what she could spare. However, they never took it for nothing but on the way back would leave a generous piece of meat. One time when they stopped, she was making cookies and to the one Indian who came in she offered a cookie. He said: “All of them”. Then took them all. Dena didn’t mind but found it very amusing. On the way back that time they left a whole quarter of moose meat. We children, at first, were a little nervous when the Indians would stop and the dog would growl, but we soon found out there was nothing to fear for they were always friendly”[9].

The note  “ they never took it for nothing “ is often appears in such type of stories.
Radomir Bilash told me a story he has heard from Ukrainian woman from Smoky Lake. When the woman and her husband got the homestead, they put their first shack just by the Indian trail. One night when a husband was away, a group of Indians entered her shack and showed her with gestures that they want to stay there through the night. She was scared; nevertheless she hosted them with modest supper. Next morning they left, and “paid” her with skins of fur animals they’ve trapped.
This is an old and highly respected by Indians trade custom, called sometimes as give-and-take, it was tolerated in the realm of trade even by French fur traders.
The respondents who lived side by side with Indians mention in their memories “It must be remembered that the Indians were known and respected for their honesty”[10].

7. (#9) In general, the pioneer’s period in Ukrainian-Canadian folklore demonstrates the Ukrainian-Indian relationships to be very cooperative.  This was the tough times for Ukrainians. Interrelations with Native people helped them to adjust to the new landscape, even sometimes survive in severe nature.
The situation changed in 1940-1960-ies, when Ukrainians felt much more confident in Canadian society. One can notice the stabile plot of folk prose: social intolerance vs human values.

[1] The Last of the Mohicans, The Deerslayer, The Pathfinder, The pioneers, The Prairie)
[2] Daniel Francis, The Imaginary Indian: The image of the Indian in Canadian Culture. – Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver, B.C. – 1992. – P.216.
[3] Brody Hugh, The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers and the Shaping of the World. – Douglas & McIntyre – Vancouver-Toronto, 200. - P.198-199
[4] Interviewer: Maryna Hrymych            Interviewee: William Skaly            3.04.2010, Rycroft area
[5] Interview by Maryna hrymych with W.Skaly (Rycroft, 3.04.2010).
[6] Brody Hugh, The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers and the Shaping of the World. – Douglas & McIntyre – Vancouver-Toronto, 200. - P.198-199
[7] Interview by Maryna Hrymych fromNorma West, born  in 1932 (Rycroft, AB, April, 3, 2010)
[8] Morley P. Kurelek: A Biography. – Toronto, 1987. – P.17
[9] Adrith Trudzik, Our first people. In: THE LANTERN ERA: A HISTORY OF CHERCHILL, ROCHFORT BRIDGE, SANGUDO AND SURROUNDING SCHOOL DISTRICTS. COMPILED BY SANGUDO AND DISTRICT HISTORY SOCIETY, Ed. Vera E. Holt. – Prinet by Inetr-Collegiate Press. – Winnipeg, Manitoba.             -            1979. – P.13
[10] Adrith Trudzik, Our first people.


  1. Це стаття про взаємовідносини українців та індіянців на першому - піонерському - етапі життя в Канаді. Я збираюся її опублікувати десь в Україні українською. Поки що англійський текст.

  2. Марина, потрясающе, жду перевод, чтобы "поймать" некоторые детали.

  3. To:

    Maryna Hrymych

    Dear Maryna Hrymych,

    I was delighted to see / read your piece on “Ukrainian-aboriginal relations in pioneer folk prose” (provided by my colleague Orest Martynowych).

    I myself have been investigating the same topic, and this has led me to most / all of the same things raised in your piece, but also to other aspects besides “folk prose”. As far as Old Country scholarship is concerned, I have been intrigued by the work of Klyment Kvita, Hrushevs’ka, Petro Karmans’kyj (his reference to “Ukrainian Indians” in Winnipeg), the recently deceased Myxajlyna Kocjubyns’ka (her intro to Pauline Johnson in Ukrainian translation, Kyjiv, 1996), the leftists, Myroslav Irchan and Ivan Kulyk, whose brief stays in Canada inspired them to…

    I also find that certain Canadian-Ukrainian government bureaucrats have historically raised the issue of the “oppressed” native / Indian/ Aboriginal/Metis.. Is there some sort of in-grained / ethnogenetic / cultural empathy (spivchuttja) here?…

    “We” also have a weekly television program (entitled “Mixed Blessings”) on the “Aboriginal Television Network”) about a Ukrainian man married to an Aboriginal woman…

    Another aspect of these “relations” are a number of reported cases about Indians stealing Ukrainian children. (I find this material similar to “old country” folkloric material regarding Jews and Gypsies who would also steal children…In Canada, perhaps we can speculate -- the Indians were used / blamed in the same way to explain the disappearance of children if they wandered off the farm into the forest or… ). It seems that the missing children tend to be girls (not boys), and at least two of these girls were found / returned later – one was married to an Indian and the other…).

    I am unqualified to comment on your attention to the “customary law issue” regarding “land ownership” although this too is very telling…

    If / when you produce a Ukrainian-language version of your piece, I would love to read it.

    Poza tym,ostajush, z poshanoju i t.d.,

    Bohdan Klymash

    PS You may reach me (in Ukrainian, Russian, English or French) via e-mail through the Centre for Ukrainian Canadian Studies at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.