Skip to main content

Kalle Benallie
Indian Country Today

The Ukrainians and Indigenous people in Canada must have a bond because babas, Ukrainian for grandmother, and kokums, Cree for grandmother, still wear the same scarves today, said writer and author Marion Mutala.

Wearing the colorful kokum scarves or grandma scarves as many in Indian Country say, also known in Ukraine as babushka scarves, fuska or huska, has become a symbol of unification for Ukraine after Russia invaded the country on Feb. 24. Indigenous people across social media have explained the relationship of the scarves and affirmed their support for Ukraine.

“In solidarity to our brothers and sisters in the Ukraine I wear mine to say this: myself as a Comanche woman of Turtle Island, I stand with the Ukraine,” said an Indigenous TikTok creator.

Mutala’s grandparents immigrated from Ukraine in 1911 and remembers her mom, who lived in Hafford, Saskatchewan, telling her about Indigenous people visiting and trading items like bread and fish.

Related:
Monitoring the Arctic in Russian invasion of Ukraine
What now? Pandemic. Social unrest. And war

About 150,000 Ukrainians came to Canada in the 1890s through the 1910s with many settling in the prairies in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta — the homelands of the Plains First Nations and Métis peoples.

Mutala said the idea for the book came after she was approached by an Indigenous man who read the title of her book “Baba’s Babushkas: Magical Ukrainian Christmas” and told her babushka is a Cree word. She began researching soon after and wrote “Kohkum’s Babushka” with illustrations by Donna Lee Dumont.

In her research she noticed Ukrainians, Indigenous people like the Métis have similarities like beadwork, playing the fiddle and violin and their spirituality.

“Different but good is the message (of the book). I look for the commonality between people,” she said. “It’s the babushka that unifies them.”

The story is about a babushka landing on a little girl’s head, Natalia, and taking her on a journey to the Saskatoon area to learn the relationship between Ukrainians and the Métis people.

The cover also features Métis beadwork and Ukrainian embroidery. This year the story will be made into a play in Edmonton Alberta, Canada.

She said she uses her books to share her culture and traditions, but now they are used as tools for peace like her poetry book “Race to Finish.”

“We really appreciate all the Indigenous people making their TikTok videos and supporting Ukraine because we have to say prayers for Ukraine and for peace in the world. That’s so important at this time,” she said.

Jayroy Makokis, another Indigenous TikTok creator, said Ukrainians today still visit his area in Saddle Lake Cree Nation, located in the Amiskwacīwiyiniwak region of central Alberta, Canada, and that there’s a “mutual respect.”

He said he sees the scarves being worn during ceremonies.

“It gives us pride. We feel very powerful with our scarves on our head,” he said. 

Mallory Yawnghwe, founder and CEO of Indigenous Box, wrote in the company’s blog post describing how the name “kokum scarves” derives from the Cree word kokum meaning “your grandmother.”

Yawnghwe said during hardship and famine Ukrainians and Indigenous people would help each other.

“It was because of this trade, commerce, and cooperation that floral scarves became a symbol of the strength and hard work of our matriarchs,” she wrote.

She added how the fabrics complimented the floral patterns found in Cree, Dene, and Métis beadwork.

“I guess that also explains why feasts in my community usually feature foods such as pierogies, and cabbage rolls, alongside our traditional foods,” she said.

Some retailers that are selling the scarves are Indigenous Supplies and Indigenous Face Masks

Indian Country Today - bridge logo

Our stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories are worth your support. Contribute $5 or $10 today to help Indian Country Today carry out its critical mission. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter.