The stories of Russian imperialism are woven into my childhood. They are braided together with threads of an Ojibwe family that I knew only in a single photo album. Threads described to me by my German/Ukrainian mother. Through her, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and episodes of Bonanza I learned about being Ojibwe through a white lens. But the stories of Russian imperialism—these I learned from her parents, my grandparents with whom we lived, who had experienced it firsthand.
My grandmother was descended from Germans brought to Ukraine by Catherine the Great, that Russian empress who sought to modernize and exploit the farmland of my grandfather’s people. My grandfather was Ukrainian, descended from those who farmed the black soil of the European breadbasket. They told me about her family’s factory that built farm implements, about his family’s farm, and about the fighting that raged after the Russian Revolution, rolling over them in waves of violence that dumped first German and Russian, and then Ukrainian refugees on the shores of Canada and the US and into the breadbasket of the central plains. Other Slavic refugees would follow: Lithuanian, Latvian, Polish, Georgian, more. They picked up their bundles and fled. Scarves depicting the flowers and fields of their homelands came with them.
In the late 1800s a textile factory in Russia began making floral printed shawls and kerchiefs. They took the traditional embroidery patterns of the Slavic peoples, the ferns and florals that had once been hand embroidered or painted onto fabric, and mass produced them. Something that had once been rare and expensive, became accessible and ordinary. These scarves came with the women who fled the violence in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, the violence of Stalin, the violence of world wars. They came with these women to cities up and down the Eastern Seaboard, and they came with them to the central plains where they, the women and the scarves, became part of our story too.
In a colonial state, a story of safety is also a story of displacement. After the war of 1812 was concluded, the Treaty of Ghent laid out the border between the US and Canada. A border thousands of miles long needed protecting, ownership had to be asserted. The cheapest way to do that is to move people who will be loyal to the state onto the land, and who is more loyal to a newly formed state than those who find safety within it?
To the Lakota and Blackfoot, to the Cree and Ojibwe, these plains were vast grasslands, not a breadbasket. Prairie grasses and people had deep roots in the soil, both of whom were torn out and replaced with newcomers: wheat and refugees whose thirst and need depleted the soil. Violence would roll across the plains too. After the starving Dakota were refused rations and, in desperation and hunger, attacked a settler community, the battle stretched over weeks and left dead on both sides. Abraham Lincoln ordered the hanging of 38 Dakota.
And yet these scarves remained.
We call them kokum scarves, that’s how I knew them after I found the Indigenous community that had always been there. Despite the displacement and violence, there was also relationship. Just as the Scots and Irish entered Ojibwe lineages, so did Ukrainian and Russian enter Cree families. You can’t go to a pow wow without seeing booths selling these scarves. Male and female dancers in all categories carry them or wear them. They are present in children’s books and images of resistance. Many of us don’t even know how they came to us, we just know that they did. The florals are familiar to us, the colors, the glint of silver and gold. They look like our woodlands, our fields, the sun sparkling on our waters. They remind us of our grandmothers, our kokums.
Long before we wore them in solidarity with Ukraine, we wore them in solidarity with our grandmothers and with each other, as much a part of our culture as beadwork and moccasins. I am troubled by a superficial solidarity that has flared across the US and Canada, across Indian country, because it erases so much, and one of the things it erases is possibility.
It is important to be in solidarity with those who are experiencing harm, with those being violently pushed aside by a colonial state or an imperial power. It is right that we respond to the calls of Ukrainian people for solidarity against invasion and assault because we too have experienced that harm and one way to push back against injustice is to remind the powerful that we are watching, that we are doing what we can to help. In 1847, a group of Choctaw who were themselves experiencing hunger raised money to send to the Irish who were in the midst of a famine. And although a relationship remains between the Irish and the Choctaw, these relationships are complicated by colonialism, because Irish settlers also displaced Indigenous people. We need solidarities that recognize and work through these complicated layers, not superficial solidarities that flatten history and the fullness of these relationships we inherit.
I am troubled by a solidarity that aligns with whiteness at the expense of others who are also fleeing colonial violence. Canada welcomes Ukrainian nationals as refugees, a welcome that is denied to others who are also fleeing Russian imperialism. Poland is lauded for accepting Ukrainians fleeing harm, but Poland is also building an armed border wall against Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans and one of it’s migrant detention centers was the site of a hunger protest just last month. Poles stand with signs to welcome white Ukrainians into their homes while Black Ukrainians and Africans report difficulties in their attempts to find safety. It is important to be in solidarity with all who are experiencing harm and being violently pushed aside by a colonial state or imperial power.
The “solidarity” that troubles me glorifies Ukrainian settlers and erases the violence of colonization. The land they settled on, the 160 acres they were given on the plains, hadn’t been empty after all. It had been emptied. Indigenous peoples on both sides of the US-Canada border were forcibly and violently relocated to make room for farmers and railroads. I have maternal cousins living on stolen land in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, relatives who fled Tsarist Russia decades before my grandparents fled Stalin. I have paternal cousins struggling with the marginalization that marks being Indigenous in Canada. When I wear a kokum scarf, I tie these histories together around my hair. I grew up experiencing one displacement while hearing stories of another. It is tempting for a people now experiencing violence to claim only part of their history, to claim only the courage of settling, only the contributions to this new country, and ignore other realities.
To push back against the myth of these immigrant nations is (seen as) a political act. It is (seen as) a subversive act. It is, possibly, (seen as) a transgressive act. The problem is of course that this myth is itself a political act, it is violent and oppressive and so pushing back against it is necessary. Pushing back reveals the possibilities that the myth conceals.
Almost ten years ago, I came across an essay written by Elaine Enns of the Bartimaeus Institute in which she works to claim her full history and the possibility it contains. She wrote about a trip back to Ukraine, and as I read her essay the story was familiar. It was the story I had grown up hearing, not the generic similarities of those fleeing violence but the same story from a slightly different perspective. And this essay, written by a woman I now know as a distant cousin, asks what it means to work towards reconciliation with Indigenous peoples when your own safety was found at their expense. How do refugees find home on stolen land?
These scarves. They can be (seen as) more than solidarity. They can be (seen as) possibility.
The relationships that existed between these women, between Cree and Ukrainian or Navajo and Russian or Lakota and Polish—these relationships have the power to work across state boundaries and create solidarities that build rather than destroy. When we wear our scarves in solidarity with Ukraine exclusively, we may be providing them with needed and necessary support, but we abandon the others to the very thing we say we oppose. We erase the relationships we had with other women. Other mothers. Other babushkas and kokums and aunties and cousins and all the connections that form outside of the arbitrary lines drawn on top of us by fiscal-military states. When we show solidarity with Ukraine alone, we abandon solidarity with all these others.
We abandon peace.
International Women’s Day was first held in New York City in 1909 and it was organized by the Socialist Party of America. It spread into Europe, and on March 8, 1917 Russian women marched in what was then called Petrograd. Textile workers were joined by others, hundreds became thousands who demanded bread and peace. This mobilization eventually brought down the tsar and ended Russian involvement in the first world war.
Women, uniting across national boundaries, changed the world.
The Russian anti-war movement exists today. Night after night Russians gather to demand peace. Thousands of people have protested, chanting “no to war” and “shame on you.” Thousands have been arrested. Misinformation and control of media clutters our social media feeds but videos still emerge. Stories come out. A CBC article shows anti-war demonstrators in Kazakhstan holding signs and Ukrainian flags. Euronews reports that protests have taken place in 65 cities across Russia. I grew up on stories about Imperial Russia, about Soviet Russia. I have friends who were arrested in Canada during the G20 summit and other protests. I have listened to the way that they were treated by police. I can only imagine what these Russian protestors are experiencing. And yet they persist.
So I think about the connections that are held in these scarves. The florals and the colors of Ukraine and Poland, of Latvia and Russia. The Turkish influence in some of the patterns that draws in women from the Middle East. And I think about the connections formed by women experiencing displacement, searching for safety, finding relationship. War is never won by more war. It is ended by those who demand peace, who demand an end. And in Russia there are people who are demanding peace, who are marching in streets and standing in front of government buildings. They are risking more than we can imagine.
They too are wearing floral scarves and calling for an end to invasion and war. Where is our solidarity with them? Can we support those in Ukraine as well as these others? Can we tie them all together in the threads of these scarves? Wrap our hair in solidarity for a peace that transcends the violence of bordering regimes?
Early in the Covid pandemic, calling it the Wuhan Virus led directly to an increase in anti-Asian discrimination and violence. Store windows were broken, people were harassed. Now we’re starting to see the same thing happening to Russians living in the US and Canada. The Washington Post has reported incidents of vandalism and harassment, children being bullied at school. And just as people didn’t stop to ask if their targets were Chinese or Thai, people who are perceived as Russian are feeling this aggression even if they are Latvian or Ukrainian.
We need solidarities for peace, not solidarities for war. We need solidarities that reach across the borders that are written on top of us and exist only to divide. Our grandmothers found these solidarities in the relationships they formed and we can find them too.