I thought I knew about indigenous erasure. The effort by dominating groups to eliminate all residual reference to the culture or existence of a people they have subdued. I read about how the tribes of Turtle Island maintained their language, ceremony, prayers, and songs in secret. About the fear the whites held for the ghost dancers, and how violently they responded to this spiritual resistance. Then the quiet venom of cultural assimilation.
I thought I knew. Of course, accepting that many things have been lost, yet aware that they had existed. That many modern Indians are learning their language again. I empathized too; my mom had told me stories from her Ukrainian grandma, how they held church in a basement, and it was a dangerous thing, they could have been killed.
Now, only now, am I seeing the faint lines where my own ancestors were erased. And I have sought family tree knowledge for 15 years. Realizations are dawning.
When did my ancestors adopt the words of English? Why are we here, in America? These aren’t new questions for me, but now answers are approaching my sight.
Last year, I read the series of books called “The Ringing Cedars” which introduce elements of the Rus culture, in Siberia. I began to have inklings of resonance and connection. I looked into some of the festivals, like the mid-winter week-long pancake celebration, and the summer solstice Kupala night, celebrated by entering the forest together with stringed instruments to seek rare, mythical flowers. My heart sings.
My sister asked me to officiate her marriage, and I began searching our traditional heritage for ideas to include in the ceremony. Looking to Western Ukraine, from where one ancestral line hails, I found this page Lemko Wedding and laughed inside at the controlled chaos, beauty and creativity of my people. My people, wait, what? Who are my people? Who are Lemkos and why have I never heard of them?
I can’t answer that question yet, but I am finding a people known as the “hillbillies” of central Europe, variously called Rusyn, Ruthenian, Carpatho-Rusyn, Lemko and many other names, with foreign borders drawn and shifted across their lands, forcibly moved from their beloved Carpathian Mountains less than one hundred years ago. A people who recognize themselves as apart from the competing nations, a culturally distinct people, struggling to preserve their language and identity, facing cultural assimilation, sound familiar?
My own family left this region in the 1920s following the targeted assassination of my great-great-uncle by Bolsheviks, who barged into his sisters home and shot him dead. Long before I knew this story, I had a vision of this happening to me. Men burst into the door of my home with big guns. In my vision though, I shot them both. I guess, erasure only goes so deep.
My great-grandma left because the Bolsheviks were uprooting all their crops, killing, laying waste, people were starving to death on the road. I mentally see the mountains of buffalo skulls by the American trains. The ways to subjugate a strong people.
I realized I know more about the history of genocide in America, inflicted upon the Red Nations, than I do of my own White Rusyn family, my own ancestors who were chased from our humble homestead. Chased from our traditional ways, our ceremony, our language, our celebration, our love.
For it is one thing to know you have a culture which has been lost, it is yet another to not even know you are from a culture at all. I thought I knew about erasure, but in one hundred years, our family ran so far to escape, I didn’t even know anything had ever been written.