When I was around 10 or 11 years old, I remember one of the girls from my class running up to me at recess to ask “where are you from?” It wasn’t malicious, or even microaggressive, as it might be justifiably considered today. It was a routine question for kids our age, in suburban Alberta, around the time of the school year when our social studies classes looked at multiculturalism.
“Where are you from” is a question about origins and belonging, culture and place. The answer may be a single word, or it may be a drawn out story. Either way, it points to some of our roots, the histories that form and inform us.
The heritage diorama
I remember getting home from school, announcing to my mom that I had a homework project: a heritage diorama. The assignment was to assemble a selection of items that showcased my cultural heritage. It was an easy choice for me. I was going to do my project on Ukrainian culture.
“But you’re not Ukrainian,” my mom replied.
“Of course I am. We eat pierogies and cabbage rolls at Christmas and Thanksgiving. That’s Ukrainian,” I explained. “Grandma makes them herself.”
“Hm, yes. Okay. Grandma makes them and they’re part of every special meal, but we’re not Ukrainian.”
With a little convincing, I ended up making a diorama of Irish things, claiming my mother’s mother’s family’s roots. I remember a lot of green, and maybe a brochure from my grandparents’ visit to Blarney Castle.
My great-grandfather on my dad’s side, Grandpa Jim, was tall and slender. Around 6 foot 4. My memories of him are of an old man, not frail but not young, rolling cigarettes with one hand, wearing cardigans and thick rimmed glasses.
Grandpa Jim spoke English with an accent. He called me muzhik - a Russian word that may mean something between “man” and “peasant.” I’m told he spoke four or five languages, English, German, Russian, Ukrainian, maybe more.
He was born around 1900, and lived through the Russian Revolution. When people asked him about his nationality, he’d say: “I’m just a stupid peasant. The politicians kept moving the borders - one day it’s this country, tomorrow it’s another country. But my farm stayed in the same place.”
He told stories - or so I’m told, as these ones are second hand tellings, from Grandpa Jim, to my dad, to me - of stealing watermelons from farms along the Volga River. He also told stories of being transported in packed boxcars, and of surviving massacres at stations when the train would stop, the doors slide open, and people stumble out for fresh air only to meet bullets.
Grandpa Jim and his young family were able to leave Europe and migrate to Canada in the late 1920s. Other relatives stayed behind, endured famine and starvation, and eventually made their way west to East Germany. My direct ancestors eventually settled in Alberta, farming south of Edmonton in an area with a lot of other people like them - Germans and Ukrainians and more who left Europe for the Canadian frontier.
Settlers all the way down
Calling my ancestors “Germans” or “Ukrainians” or “Russians” or some other nationality is a bit of an anachronism. Growing up in the 20th Century, it’s easy to assume that the countries we knew had always existed - nation-states as ancient and natural as mountain ranges or prairies. But states expanded and contracted, borders moved. Sometimes the peasants did stay put, and other times they too moved across the landscape.
Three of the four grandparents on my family tree trace their roots to routes through Eastern Europe, and to German linguistic and cultural heritage. Where we have records of births and marriages, they’re linked to places in present-day Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Kazakhstan, Czechia, and Austria.
Some of those ancestors, most clearly on my dad’s side of the family, were Volga Germans, settlers encouraged by Catherine the Great, and later by her grandson, to take up lands on the southern margins of the Russian Empire. We don't know when they moved or where from. Maybe the information is out there somewhere, or maybe it's lost to time.
Their mission - the settlers in general - was economic, cultural, and political. They were a source of (agricultural) labour as well as a buffer between Russian society and its Others who rebelled or resisted assimilation. These settlers were given cheap access to land and allowed to keep their language and culture.
In Canada, the mission was similar. Open up the vast lands taken through Treaty, clear the bush, break the sod, and grow commodity crops in rich black soil.
The farm I know as my ancestral home - sold and converted to a suburban neighbourhood around 20 years ago - where my grandparents lived and my dad grew up, was on Papaschase land. Some of my ancestors moved in shortly after the land was stolen, and some a generation later.
I don’t know what my early-20th Century ancestors thought about their role in colonising Canada or their relationships with First Nations people and communities who were forcibly removed to make way for white progress. I don’t know that they thought about it. I wonder what my relatives who still live on those lands think about it today.
From where I sit in Balmain, an Inner West suburb of Sydney, Australia, a settler immigrant Australian citizen, descended from settler immigrants to the Canadian West, from settler immigrants to the Volga region of the Russian Empire, and from who knows where before that, I think about my roots a lot.
We humans are not separate from the lands where we live. We ingest nutrients from foods grown in the soil, we’re made of earth and water. For some communities, those roots go deep - to time immemorial. We may, as my fellow anthropologists will say, all be able to trace our roots back to Africa, but after so many generations in place what sense does it make to focus on where people’s ancient predecessors may have come from? Indigenous peoples - sprung from the land, are one with the land.
But not me. My roots are shallow. A few generations here, a few generations there. I pay my respects to the Traditional Owners of the land where I live and work, but I don’t know them. After nearly eight years here, I have yet to form a relationship with the people of this place. My community is mostly settlers too, even if many of them have a few generations head start.
Likewise with the land - despite small gardens that sometimes connect me to soil through food, my suburban habitat is one where layers of built infrastructure separate me from the land. Even those gardens are usually raised beds, to prevent the roots of plants from reaching into the chemical-laden soil of this area’s industrial era. My settler community has built connections with these places mainly by trying to purge them of their people, their histories, and their defining features.
Like in Canada, some of the place names nod to Aboriginal presence. But names without stories lack meaning. These places are more like spaces, emptied, readied for planting new seeds with little to no history, relationship, or care.
I can trace my shallow roots across three continents, but not confidently back to a point of origin. I can claim belonging here in Australia by legal process, and in Canada by birth.
I can say where I’m from, but answering where I belong is not as easy.
If you made it this far down the page, thanks for reading.
Like with every post on this blog, consider this an invitation to join in thinking together, and maybe doing together. Why not get in touch with me on the Get in touch on the Fediverse to share your thoughts?