Indigenous Peoples Wear Traditional Scarves to Showcase Long Connection and Support for Ukrainians

Alejandra Rubio (Yavapai-Aapache Nation) and Jarrette Werk (Aaniiih & Nakoda Nations) report on how for generations, Indigenous peoples in Canada and the U.S. have worn colorful floral Ukrainian scarves, also known as ‘Kokum’ scarves. Now with the war in Ukraine, they’re wearing them to showcase their support.

In a relationship that goes back more than one hundred years, Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island (a name for Earth or North America, used by some Indigenous peoples in Canada and the United States) are displaying their solidarity for Ukrainian relatives by wearing the colorful floral scarves called ‘khustka’ in Ukraine or “babushka” in Russian, which were once traded between Ukrainian immigrants and the Cree Nation of Canada, who call them “kokum,” a Cree word for “grandmother.” These scarves have since adorned the heads of both Indigenous and Ukrainian matriarchs for the last century.

As a result of early cultural exchange Indigenous grandmothers adopted the kokum scarves and built meaningful connections with their new Ukrainian neighbors in the late 19th and early 20th century. Thousands of Ukrainian immigrants settled in Western Canada, and similar to many Indigenous Nations, faced persecution from the Canadian government. Understanding the shared hardships, the Indigenous communities helped their new neighbors, and from there, a historic friendship blossomed.

The scarves quickly became integrated into Indigenous culture for symbolizing prayer, strength, resilience, and entrepreneurship amongst Indigenous women and elders. The floral patterns of the scarves complement the Cree floral beadwork designs and have since been incorporated into traditional powwow regalia, as well as everyday wear.

Indigenous content creators and influencers across multiple platforms are posting videos and photos explaining their shared history with these beautiful scarves.

In a series of videos, social media influencer, Jayroy Makokis, a member of the Saddle Lake Cree Nation, used his TikTok platform, which has more than 816,000 followers, to highlight the often forgotten connection between the two cultures.

In an initial video from November of 2020, Makokis shares the history behind the scarf from his own personal experiences, the connections to matriarchs and grandmothers, as well as the significance the scarves hold to his people within their culture.

His Prayers for Ukraine video can be seen here: https://vm.tiktok.com/TTPdSVpq2j/

In a more recent video, Makokis explains why he wears his kokum scarf and what it signifies at this moment in time — solidarity and prayers. “I’ll be wearing my scarf, and everytime I look at myself in the mirror I’ll be reminded ‘hey, there’s people that need prayers,’” he said.

In other videos Makokis asks his fellow community members to wear their scarves to show their solidarity, to pray for their relatives, and expands on the long historical friendship between the two cultures.

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

According to Makokis, since first contact with the Ukrainian settlers in the 1890’s, there are still long-lasting meaningful connections and close relationships with the Cree people to this day.

“There [are] still Ukrainian people that come into our reserve and come sell their goods and come to interact with our people,” he said. “There is a mutual and historical respect for one another.”

First produced in Moscow, Russia, in the middle of the 19th century by Pavlovo Posad, the textiles were called ‘khustka.’ The design patterns derived from traditional Eastern Europe and Russia Indigenous embroidery patterns and the predominant color on the textiles has always been red, as this color represents beauty in Russian culture. This explains the bright red flowers seen throughout the scarves today.

More than 200 years ago, while unmarried Ukrainian girls richly decorated their heads with flowers and ribbons, married women covered their hair completely. This tradition has its reflection in present day wedding celebrations.

The head coverings were usually black with small floral ornaments, and were extremely costly. Women usually only had one in her lifetime, receiving it during their marriage ceremony. After they were married, it was a Ukrainian tradition where women were expected to always cover their head, usually with a khustka scarf.

The Cree may have been the first, but they were not the only Tribe that incorporated the scarves into their fashion. Many Tribal Nations across Turtle Island followed suit and incorporated the beautiful floral textile into their wardrobes. Similarly, in the Southwest, the Diné Nation call them “Másání” scarves, meaning “grandmother” in Navajo.

According to a 2018 article published on the Indigenous Goddess Gang website by Nicole Lefthand,“The History of the Pavlovo Posad Textile Manufactory and Its Integration into Navajo Fashion,” by the 1930s, the Pavlovo scarves were incorporated into Diné (Navajo) women’s fashion and throughout the twentieth century, Diné women were beginning to be photographed wearing floral head coverings.

According to Lefthand, with the rise of newspaper publications such as the Gallup Independent and the Navajo Times, photographs of Navajo fashion were becoming increasingly available to the local communities on the Navajo Nation, which spans four states and over 27,000 square miles. With time, the recurring photographs began to influence how Navajo people perceived themselves and what they considered traditional apparel.

“The scarf also was integrated as a men’s headband which carried its own metaphorical and ceremonial significance,” writes Lefthand. “The floral design is an acknowledgement of mother earth. When the band is tied around the head to join in the back, it symbolizes the Hogan, the four directions, the duality of the world brought together into balance. When the band is knotted over the left ear — considered the North which is the direction associated with both enemy forces and protection — it symbolizes protection from enemies.”

Between the years of 1875 to 1900, the Yavapai women would use long ‘stum’ scarves as tools for gathering and hauling wood, hay, and other materials needed for their day-to-day lives. Today, the Yavapai women use these same scarves during one traditional Yavapai dance called the “Bird Dance.” The women take the shawl-like scarves and wrap it around their shoulders and hold it outward in their hands to represent a bird’s wings while participating in the dance.

“When we use these scarves while we dance, it signifies the work and burden that our ancestors had to undertake,” said Monica Marquez, a member of the Yavapai-Apache Nation.

The Apache peoples use these same scarves during a young women’s Sunrise Dance, or coming of age ceremony. Family members of each young woman pin a scarf to the top of her dress, and then each woman’s specific partner uses it to wipe the sweat off the woman’s face, because every young woman going through the ceremony is not allowed to touch herself.

At the end of each ceremony, relatives of the young woman will receive scarves and other gifts that signify love and give thanks to different family members and community members who are connected to the woman going through the coming of age ceremony.

As mentioned earlier, the beautiful floral designs of the scarves complement the beadwork of many Indigenous Nations, and have become staple pieces in traditional pow-wow regalia. Both men and women have integrated the scarves into every-day wear like headbands, hair accessories, ribbon skirts, and the list goes on.

The scarves go beyond fashion, they have become a symbol of resilience of Indigneous grandmothers and matriarchy to ensure survival. People also wear them to show the women in their lives, who worked relentlessly to find opportunity, and to build relationships and cooperation among families and Nations.

With this deeply rooted cross-cultural history, the scarves continue to unite people from different parts of the world. They have now become a symbol to stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine, while also acknowledging the often forgotten friendship to First Nations peoples.

To learn more about this deeply rooted history or to view pictures and videos of other Indigenous creators adorned in kokum scarves follow along with hashtags like #kokumscarf and #solidaritywithukraine.

Explainer Journalism by Alejandra Rubio (Yavapai-Aapache Nation) and Jarrette Werk (Aaniiih & Nakoda Nations) for the Reynolds Sandbox

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