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Indigenous people are snapping selfies in kokum scarves in solidarity with Ukraine

Communities in Canada and the U.S. have worn colorful, Ukrainian scarves for generations. Now they’re donning them as a symbol of support.

After having watched a video of a fighter jet dropping missiles on a Ukrainian village, Jayroy Makokis said he was haunted by the sound of a child crying in the background. It made Makokis, 30, think about how his community — the Saddle Lake Cree Nation in Alberta — had a long history of friendship with immigrants from Ukraine, who settled nearby in the early 1900s. 

Through shared hardships — the forced relocation of his Indigenous community and Canada’s discrimination against the new Ukrainian immigrants — they grew together and made sure that their children did not suffer, he said. 

So Makokis, who has more than 800,000 followers on TikTok, made a simple plea to fellow members of the Saddle Lake Cree Nation. 

“There’s women, there’s children, there’s elders there that are scared,” he said. 

One symbol of the Cree’s friendship with Ukrainians is the “kokum” — brightly colored scarves, called “babushkas,” embroidered with ornate flowers. Ukrainian immigrants shared them with the Cree, who called them “kokum,” a Cree word for “grandmother.” The scarves have been popular for generations of Indigenous people in Canada and the U.S., particularly among elders, who often wear them for community gatherings. 

Kokum scarves
Indigenous scholar Dr. Robin Zape-tah-hol-ah Minthorn, left, and Candace Linklater of the Moose Cree First Nation wear Kokum scarves to show their solidarity with the Ukrainian people.Dr. Robin Zape-tah-hol-ah Minthorn; @RelentlessIndigenousWoman via Facebook

“What I want to ask of my fellow people of Turtle Island is that if you have a kokum scarf, put it on for our brothers and sisters in Ukraine,” Makokis said.

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With Russia’s assault on Ukraine, the kokum has become a symbol of solidarity on social media, as Indigenous people in the U.S. and Canada snap selfies in scarves with messages in support of the resistance. On Twitter, TikTok and Facebook, people have posted dozens of pictures of themselves adorned in kokums with hashtags like #solidaritywithukraine.

“This is something that we have a connection with,” said Sherry Mckay, an Anishinabe content creator, whose grandmother was Cree and often wore a kokum scarf. “So, like, let’s wear our kokum scarves and show support.”

Leah Hrycun, a Ph.D. student at the Faculty for Native Studies at the University of Alberta who focuses on Indigenous and Ukrainian relations, said there is a dearth of knowledge about interactions between early Ukrainian immigrants and the Indigenous people who were displaced and relocated nearby.

Beginning in 1891, the Canadian government began recruiting Ukrainians to relocate and farm the lands of what is now Alberta, she said. 

“They really wanted to have white settlers coming to settle the land so that they could make it Canada and as a result then displace the Indigenous people who were already there,” Hrycun said. 

She said many young Ukrainians who were struggling to find land to farm took the opportunity. “They had a lot of knowledge about grain crops and different types of crops that would grow in the prairies,” Hrycun said, “and so I think to the Canadian government it seemed like a really obvious fit.”

Over time, the Indigenous communities and the Ukrainians grew increasingly connected as both communities faced discrimination, Hrycun said.

“There’s a lot of stories of trade back and forth, of people sharing farm implements, people lending each other horses or teams of animals to work their lands,” she said. Many of the Cree now have Ukrainian last names, she added.

During World War I, the Canadian government deemed thousands of Ukrainians “enemy aliens” and forced them into internment camps.

Makokis and others say that through their struggles, as well as trade, Ukrainian and Indigenous cultures share connections that continue today.

“The elders still wear the scarves today to remember that good standing, friendship,” Makokis said. 

Makokis said the kokum now also represents solidarity against the threat of imperialism and offers an opportunity for a return to tradition, ceremony and reconnection. 

That vibrant cloth that he sees draped over the heads of his elders and folded across the foreheads of young men is a perfect symbol of unity, he said.

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