Ancestors and Elders, a joint production by the Shumka dance company and the Running Thunder Dancers and Indigenous artists explores many similarities between the two cultures.Shumka and Marc J. Chalifoux Photography

Ukrainian and Indigenous cultures intermix for inspiring dance production

Ukrainian and First Nations cultures may seem very different, but when they work together they create something that holds the attention of the world.

The collaboration was the theme of this year’s Ukrainian Bishop’s Prayer Breakfast in Edmonton.

The focus was on Ancestors and Elders, a joint production by the Shumka dance company and the Running Thunder Dancers and Indigenous artists. The show, which had its world premiere in April and will resume performances next year, explores the shared values and the differences between Ukrainian settlers and First Nations people.

“We’re making history,” said Adrian Lachance, founder of Running Thunder Dancers.

The Ancestors and Elders production involved more than 100 artists, musicians, choreographers, actors and costume designers from both cultures.

“This was the most fulfilling project I have ever worked on,” said Darka Tarnawsky, executive director Ukrainian Shumka Dancers and Shumka School of Dance, and the keynote speaker at the June 6th breakfast in Verkhovyna Hall.

“Ancestors and Elders was an exploration of tradition and truth in a collaboration between Ukrainian and Indigenous artists, a portrayal of true compassion and humanity. When I first heard a story of Aboriginal peoples providing assistance to Ukrainian settlers in Alberta in the early 1900s, I knew it had to be explored,” Tarnawsky explained.

“Through the process, I also heard stories of Ukrainian immigrants helping their Indigenous neighbours, providing occasional work and shelter on their farms, and hiding Indigenous children who had run away from the harsh environment of Indian residential schools.”

The participants in the production learned much about the past interactions between Ukrainian settlers and Indigenous peoples, Tarnawsky said. They also discovered that there are still many similarities between our cultures: embroidery, percussion in music, and respect for the land.

The production brought together interesting creators from both cultures.

Tarnawski said artist Lana Whiskeyjack, “was raised by a Ukrainian foster family whom she loved dearly and who hosted travellers on many occasions with traditional Ukrainian hospitality”.

And Svitlana Krawchuk, also an artist, is a first-generation Ukrainian immigrant whose husband is Cree. This enabled Krawchuk to create art that spans both “spiritual cultures”, Tarnawsky said.

In the Ancestors and Elders show, both Krawchuk and Whiskeyjack shared stories and painted images that were used in projections on seven large panels above the stage.

Indigenous and Ukrainian costumes were blended by Megan Koshka. Tarnawsky said earthly elements, like flora, fauna, day, night, water and soil, wind and fire, demonstrated the respect each culture has for creation. Ukrainian and Stony Nakoda musicians and composers developed the music.

Joseph Hoffman, Shumka’s artistic associate, took on the role of co-director with Indigenous theatre artist Barry Bilinsky, whose mother is Cree and whose father is Ukrainian.

Shumka focused on the precision of stage dance and Running Thunder focused on ceremony, starting with a pipe ceremony in Edmonton’s river valley. Both Ukrainian and Indigenous cultures called upon ancestors and elders to bless their common journey. And before their April performance at the Jubilee Auditorium, the production team held a circle of unity with a ceremonial smudge.

“Ancestors and Elders is not a look at truth and reconciliation. It is an act of truth and reconciliation,” said Tarnawsky, adding the production strengthened her own sense of Canadian identity.

The collaboration continues at the local level.

“We’re breaking ground here, and this is cutting-edge collaboration with two different unique cultures … as two entities coming together and making something more beautiful,” said Joan Carr, superintendent of Edmonton Catholic Schools and the host of the Bishop’s Prayer Breakfast.

Betty Letendre

For more than a decade now, Edmonton Catholic Schools has had a Council of Elders, the first of its kind in Canada. The council’s 18 First Nations, Inuit and Metis members lead pow wows, dances, pipe ceremonies and other traditions. They also work to promote understanding within the school system.

The council’s founder, Betty Letendre, spoke at the Bishop’s Breakfast, noting the Cree believe in the interconnection of all of nature, from humans to plants, to animals and even insects. She said ants were perhaps more deserving to be on earth than humans, because ants function as part of creation without harm. Humans, on the other hand, are destructive of our world and its creation.

Letendre “has been honoured for many years to hold, share, and serve as a living model of ancestral sacred laws through her role as a Kehteya (Elder),” Carr said. “The wisdom and knowledge she carries has earned her the right to sit in the north direction, along with the old ones.”

Born on the Papaschase First Nation, which was located in what is now south Edmonton, Letendre is a direct descendant of its chief, Papastew. She grew up northeast of Lac La Biche.

In opening the breakfast, Letendre led the Lord’s Prayer in Cree with Braydon Callihoo and Elise Szolosi, two students from Ben Calf Robe-St. Clare school. Later she read the Prayer for the Laity, Clergy, Religious and Monastics that she composed in Cree specially for the event.

Joe Naccarato, assistant superintendent for Edmonton Catholic Schools, provided the traditional offering of tobacco.

A group of young Indigenous drummers from Ben Calf Robe and their instructor Lloyd Cardinal performed an Honour Song. And Anna Marie Sewell, a former poet laureate for Edmonton, read a poem she wrote for the Ancestors and Elders production in which she incorporated English, Ukrainian and Ojibwa.

-Jayne L. Buryn is communications coordinator for the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Edmonton.