If opinion polls are to be believed, presidential candidate, Donald Tusk, could well be the first member of an ethnic minority – and snuff taker – ever to set up residence in the Polish presidential palace.
When the government banned the sniffing of snuff in the nineteen nineties, Kashubians – the Slavic ethnic minority from the Pomeranian region in northwest Poland – were up in arms. Putting powdered tobacco up the nose has been an integral part of their culture since the seventeenth century.
At the head of the campaign for the right to sniff snuff was leader of Civic Platform, Donald Tusk. “If snuff is banned then we might as well ban smoking cigarettes,” he says. And in a country where millions puff, cough and wheeze their way through packets of ciggies everyday, this was not a political option.
So, in 1999, an amendment to the law on the protection against the effects of tobacco products re-legalized snuff taking. Thousands breathed (and sniffed) a sigh of relief.
Donald Tusk has been a tireless campaigner for the linguistic and cultural rights of Kashubians since he was at university. “The way to keeping the culture alive,” he says,” is for the authorities to give full recognition to Kashubian as a distinctive language, and not a dialect.”
He has published an elementary school textbook in the language, and a children’s dictionary. Because of his efforts, the language is now taught at schools in the region as a second language. “These days the language is really catching on; cultured Kashubs even like to show off by speaking it.”
It’s generally thought that there are around 300,000 Kashubs in Poland. However, in the last census in 2003, only 5,000 identified themselves as such, though 50,000 said that they could speak the language.
“The Polish and Kashubian identities live closely together. To be a Kashubian means to be Polish. Kashubs don’t like to think of themselves as a minority. They don’t even like the word ‘minority’. Where they live, they are the majority.”
The Kashubian region was incorporated into Poland in 1454. The area was invaded by the Teutonic Knights, the Swedes, the Brandenburgs and the Prussians. But as the soil in the region was not particularly fertile, and fishing unpredictable, Kashubians often suffered great poverty. Between 1859 and 1898 many thousands emigrated to Canada and the United States in search of a better living. Consequently, the Kashubian identity faded away.
Kashubs fight back
To make matters worse, being a member of an ethnic minority was not encouraged in communist Poland.
As a result, Tusk, born in Gdansk in 1957, was 21 years old before he knew he was a Kashubian.
“I was stunned when a colleague of mine at university told me of my ancestry. My parents, grandparents and great grandparents were born in Gdansk. The city was a real melting pot of German and Polish cultures. Kashubians who lived there quickly forgot their roots. My parents were totally unaware of their ethnic identity.“
Worse, belonging to that ethnic group had negative connotation. “Only a couple decades ago, the label ‘Kashubian’ was a term of abuse; it implied that you were a bit ‘simple’.
But the realization of his true ethnic identity quickly produced positive results. “When I was at university, one of my professors could have kicked me out of college because of bad grades. But, as he was a Kashubian too, he didn’t. This act of solidarity really meant something to me.”
Kashubian crafts specialize in embroidery, ceramics, painting on glass and amber jewelry. One of the crafts and traditions characteristic of the region is making snuff pots out of cow’s horn, made in the shape of a cone, sometimes with a top curved into the shape of animals or birds.
Don’t be surprised when in the area to be offered snuff. You might hear the phrase ‘Chceme le so zazec’ – Let’s take snuff.
Snuff sniffing is a habit usually associated with males and maleness. Refusing to take some between the crook of your thumb and forefinger is considered bad manners. Kashubians take their snuff seriously, and it is a core part of their cultural identity. Hence Donald Tusk’s fight to legalize the practice.
Could it be, then, that Poland is about to elect its first Kashubian, and snuff snorter into the presidential palace? Certainly he’s assured of much of Kashubian vote.
A version of this article first appeared in the NWE
Wednesday, September 07, 2005
Posted by beatroot at 9/07/2005