Sheep-herding cultures around the world have many things in common: they love to sing, dance and eat traditional foods. They also know a thing or two about working with wool.
The Sumni Polish Highlanders Folk Ensemble will attend the Trailing of the Sheep Festival this weekend for the 10th year. They will celebrate sheep culture from the Tatra Mountains, a range of peaks that separates Poland from Slovakia.
“Sumni” translates from Polish to mean “people who are courageous and get things done without hesitation or fear,” said 24-year-old Karolina Walkosz, a high school English teacher and vice president of the Sumni Polish Highlanders.
“All sheep-herding cultures come from the country, where you have huge pastures, water and land,” Walkosz said.
The Sumni Polish Highlanders were founded in the Chicago area 13 years ago by a group of Polish-American teenagers, led by Zdzislaw Miernicki and Marek Ogorek, who returned from Europe and wanted to celebrate the traditions they experienced in the Old Country.
“We wanted to celebrate a tradition that we grew up with,” said Walkosz. “If you don’t know where you come from, it’s hard to go anywhere from there. Our founder came to Idaho when he was a bachelor. Now he is bringing his children, so we are returning with the next generation.”
The Sumni group plays violin and cello music and sings traditional songs that once helped people find their ways through mountain terrain, and also one another.
“Live music is a huge part of our culture,” Walkosz said. “A lot of the lyrics were once used for communication, describing our surroundings. There are also courting songs that help communicate between boys and girls so they could learn who was available and who was not.” Sumni is part of the Polish Highlanders Association of North America, founded in Chicago 80 years ago, with branches in Arizona, Florida and New York.
“Many Poles came to small ghettos in the Chicago area many decades ago, often settling in places where illegal immigrants could not be found,” Walkosz said. “Anytime we can dress up and perform, we do, because we do not want our traditions to die out. Today a lot of people in Poland are pleasantly surprised to find that we continue our traditions here in the U.S.”
The Sumni Polish Highlanders are easily spotted, wearing red and black vests over white shirts with white woolen pants. The men’s shoes are made of black leather and strapped up the legs for dancing. The men also wear gold or silver broaches.
“Traditional men’s pants are itchy, but welcome in warmer weather,” Walkosz said.
Favorite foods of the Polish shepherds include oscypek, a football-shaped cheese, as well as sauerkraut, bread, potatoes and kielbasa, a Polish sausage made from pork with traditional spices. But it’s not easy to find out the sausage recipe.
“Whoever makes the best kielbasa will not tell you what they put in it,” Walkosz said.
The Polish Highlanders are also known to sip homemade spirits made from caramelized honey and 99-proof vodka.
The Sumni group gathers donations from an annual picnic attended by 1,500 people in Chicago, who provide the funding to support regular festivals in the Chicago area. But for the past 10 years, traveling to Idaho’s Trailing of the Sheep festival has been a highlight.
“It only took one year to know that this would be our big treat each year, traveling to Idaho,” Walkosz said. “Everyone is so friendly and welcoming there. The Idaho environment is very similar to the Tatra Mountains of Poland. The Trailing of the Sheep Festival shows a lot of support for arts and folklore.”
Walkosz said one of the benefits of coming to the Wood River Valley each year is to meet and share stories with other sheep-herding cultures, including the Peruvians, Scottish and Basque groups who also attend the events.
“A few years in a row we have had get-togethers with the Basque dancers,” she said. “We have a bonfire on the last night and exchange food and culture. We also stay in touch with them throughout the year.”