Saskadumy: Songs From the Ukrainian-Canadian Folksong Cycle

Saskadumy: Songs From the Ukrainian-Canadian Folksong Cycle

Saskadumy is a collection of songs recorded in 2020. These recordings exist as a contemporary example of the Ukrainian-Canadian Folksong Cycle.  Researched extensively by scholars such as Filjaret Kolessa, Robert B. Klymasz and Bohdan Medwidsky, this folk tradition stretches from the steppes of Ukraine to the plains populated by the Cree, Dakota, Dene, Ojibway, and Anishinaabe peoples. The album is greatly informed by Natalie Kononenko’s research and translations in the 2019 book Ukrainian Epic and Historical Song: Folklore in Context.

Saskadumy is a constructive contribution to the Ukrainian-Canadian folksong cycle, building upon the longstanding tradition. The album places the historical songs covered by Kononenko alongside new canonically Canadian creations informed by Klymasz and Medwidsky’s research. Their 1992 joint text Ukrainian Folksongs from the Prairies features lyrics and invaluable interviews with Ukrainian-Canadian folk singers.

According to Klymasz (1970), there are six categories when it comes to Ukrainian-Canadian folksongs:
1. Songs of emigration
2. Songs of hardship
3. Songs of praise
4. Macaronic songs
5. Other non-ritual songs
6. Ritual songs
And, in 1992, Medwidsky proposed a seventh category: “songs of homesickness.”

Songs of homesickness combine key themes already found in songs of emigration and songs of hardship to create new meaning in the colonial context. Medwidsky (1992, p. 83) explains how he created the seventh category:

“Two criteria were used in selecting the present texts: one was a direct reference to Canada or Canadian lexical items, and the other was the use of the Ukrainian word tutyna (and its cognates), which refers to foreign lands or parts and which in the text also implies strange surroundings and, very often, homesickness.”

An example of homesickness, despair, and longing for one’s homelands in the Ukrainian-Canadian folksong cycle (Medwidsky, 1992, p. 85):

It is sad and cloudy in the valley
It is difficult to live in a foreign land because a foreign land is not your family’s [place].
The heart weeps like a child.
Life in a foreign land is compared to lifting a stone;
however, whereas one can rest after such work is completed,
there seems to be no getting away from a foreign country:
It is difficult to live in a foreign land
Just like lifting that stone
After I’m perishing needlessly in a foreign land.

Lyrics in the Ukrainian-Canadian Folksong Cycle continually refer to Canada as a strange and foreign land. In this way, I view these songs of homesickness as an acknowledgement and awareness of our invader status on Indigenous lands. The example above demonstrates the despair evident in these songs. A desperate homesickness. But, this sort of homesickness was not new to Ukrainians. They had been uprooted and displaced long before they began traveling across the Atlantic.

However, the Saskadumy collection takes this displacement and homesickness and applies specificity. “We are an invading people on these Cree and Dene lands,” lectures the widow in the album’s opening track. Sheho, a village on Highway 16 in Saskatchewan, is mentioned alongside Yorkton, Zealandia, Foam Lake, Bethune and the South Saskatchewan river. These songs are firmly planted in Canada.

As it happens, Sheho gets its name from the Dakota word for prairie chicken. This place name points to some of the positive cultural exchange between Ukrainians and Indigenous peoples, but the reality of residential schools, forced adoptions, and the ongoing disappearances of Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirit people highlights a very real, and a very present, reality of two different experiences of life in Canada. Therefore, Saskadumy situates settler complicity as a key component to the Ukrainian-Canadian existence. “Inanimate Things” is a song best categorized as a “song of settler complicity” as it targets both Canada’s deceitful promises and the realities of living in a colonial war zone patrolled by an equestrian military:

Well, when they arrived the wind stopped their wondering
And while they had hoped to enjoy their bread and salt in peace
Instead they fed hordes of mosquitos with their bodies
The sod house and the stable
An obstruction viable through no legal purchase nor lease
Entered quarrels with mounted police
“I’ll teach you how to eat raw horse meat”
(Inanimate Things, Saskadumy, 2023)

Defined simply, settler complicity is the the acknowledgement that settler Canadians are embedded in the structure of settler colonialism and therefore contribute to, and benefit from, the ongoing oppression of Indigenous peoples in material ways. The concept of settler complicity has been defined and refined by Fiona Probyn-Rapsey (2007), Beenash Jafri (2012), Emma Battell Lowman and Adam Barker (2015), and Susanne Waldorf (2012).

An example of the ways Ukrainians benefit directly from settler colonialism: Ukrainian settlers on the prairies were provided ample plots of lands while the Indigenous nations native to those prairie plains were limited to reserve lands. The reason for this was the Numbered Treaty initiative put forth by the Canadian government. Getting the Indigenous peoples to sign treaties allowed for “control” of the lands which was needed in order to facilitate the settlement of a foreign population. Those treaties are a legal mechanism designed to disenfranchise Indigenous nations in order to do three main things:
1. to free up the plains so the Canadian government could build a transcontinental railway for the primary purpose of shipping natural resources around the globe.
2. to pacify Indigenous nations who were resistant to colonial expansion and bring them under the Indian Act (threats and starvation were just two of the coercive methods used to get nations to sign onto the Numbered Treaties)
3. to satisfy the colonial legal requirement needed to extinguish Indigenous title to the land as per the British North America Act (1867) via the Royal Proclamation of 1763.

As the Shumka Dancers have shown, the interconnection between Indigenous and Ukrainian settler communities runs deep. We, as Ukrainian-Canadians, continue to hold a deep debt for the crucial knowledge passed on to our ancestors. Knowledge of the plants. Knowledge of the water ways. Knowledge of the stories. Knowledge of the land. Knowledge that would ensure survival.

Ukrainians largely settled on the prairies, but we’re found all around the country. In 2019 I found myself documenting a series of performances by bandurist Julian Kytasty. The first was at the Holy Ghost Ukrainian Catholic Church in Whitney Pier, Cape Breton Island, Mi’kma’ki. Kytasty’s family has been crucial in carrying the kobzar tradition across the Atlantic.

Although the bandura doesn’t appear as an instrument on this album, it is the focal point of two songs: “Dry Hooves” and album-closer “Bloody Bandura.” It was crucial that this album include songs that featured kobzars. The lyrics at the end of “Bloody Bandura” tell of a kobzar singing a lament for a slain kozak.  The “funeral wail (or lament)” was a style that Medwidsky (1992, p. 84) feared was losing its relevance in the Ukrainian-Canadian folksong cycle. The kobzar in “Bloody Bandura” wails:

The valley erupted with the Kobzar’s lament
Strumming forcefully with no fingertips
Her mournful tone stung like thistles on horsehide
“Don’t cry!!!”

Although I’m not necessarily a kobzar by traditional definition, I find many similarities between the kobzar tradition, the dumy, and my own experiences as an independent musician. Traveling around and humbly singing songs that contain crucial stories, lessons, and legends. An aspect of this is the appeal of assimilation into Canadian society. Without religion as a tether, my family largely escaped our traditions beyond the culinary classics. It was through my research into colonialism and the attack on Indigenous cultural and political economies that I sought to find more about my own ancestral practices. Although I may not wield a bandura (I do play one on my 2019 album A New Phase of Tox though!), these songs are meant to bring the dumy into a new formulation of what Ukrainian-Canadian folklore sounds, looks, and feels like.

It is through the connection between babushkas and kokums that I see the true possibilities of relations on these lands. It is unfortunate that through our ability to climb the social ladder, most Ukrainians stepped away from this core relationship. Saskadumy reinforces the importance of our own self-knowledge as Ukrainians (and the descendants of Ukrainians) in a way that remains rooted in the realities of settler colonialism in so-called Canada. It is not enough to transcend squalor, to transcend internment, the Ukrainian-Canadian community, and especially the artists, must address the reality of our existence as settlers and look towards a different future.
A future that might not look so different from the recent past.

“Three years and three weeks have elapsed in Ukraine
but I really mean Saskatchewan…”


Battell Lowman, E. & Barker, A. (2015). Settler: Identity and colonialism in 21st century Canada. Black Point, Canada: Fernwood Publishing.

Jafri, B. (2012, March, 21). “Privilege vs. complicity: People of colour and settler colonialism.” Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences. Retrieved from

Klymasz, R.B. (1970). An Introduction to the Ukrainian-Canadian Immigrant Folksong Cycle. Ottawa, Canada: National Museum of Canada.

Klymasz, R. B. & Medwidsky, B. (1992). Ukrainian Folksongs from the Prairies. Edmonton, Canada: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies Press.

Kononenko, N. (2019). Ukrainian Epic and Historical Song: Folklore in Context. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.

Probyn-Rapsey, F. (2007). “Complicity, critique and methodology.” ARIEL, 38 (2-3), 65-82.

Waldorf, S. M. (2012). Moving beyond cultural inclusion towards a curriculum of settler colonial responsibility: A teacher education curriculum analysis (unpublished master’s thesis). University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada.

Author: TheNL

since mid 2000s