The past is never dead. It isn't even past. -William Faulkner
As Americans (as citizens of the United States like to refer to ourselves), particularly those of us with European heritage or who appear white, we are often unfamiliar with our ancestry and ancestral traditions. Victor Lewis, in Lee Mun Wah’s award-winning documentary about race, The Color of Fear (1995), says (speaking as an African- American man to David Christensen, a white man) You had to throw away your ethnicity to become American. That’s what it means. You give up who you are to become American. And you can pretend that it’s okay because you’re white. When we give up who we are to become American, we know that we’re dying from it. You’re dying from it too, but you don’t know it necessarily. As Rucha Chitnis, feminist Indian filmmaker, scholar, and journalist observes in the documentary film An Unfinished Conversation about Race (2020), (paraphrased) America has a very specific assimilation narrative that requires divestment of cultures of origin. As European Americans, there was an assimilation process in the construction of whiteness whereby varying European cultures and categories became white (see Nell Irvin Painter’s 2010 book, The History of White People). There was a point in American history where Italians ‘became’ white, where the Irish ‘became’ white, because, as immigrants, many of these groups faced persecution and oppression along racial lines. For many of us who identify as white or are white-appearing, our families cracked the assimilation code at some point, and divested ourselves of our cultural and ancestral heritage and traditions.
When we start thinking more in ancestral time, we can track the movement of humans out of Africa about 60,000 years ago, and in fact a 2011 study by researchers at Stanford University found that modern humans can trace their ancestral origins to the San people of southern Africa, in what is now known as Botswana. From this original migration out of Africa, our ancestors spread out in many different directions. If that 60,000 years corresponds to 3,000 generations, that is how far each of our families goes back to our African origins. In the past 3,000 generations, then, our families have dispersed across the globe. We often think in human timescales—our calendar dates back to the time of Jesus- about 2,000 years ago, but this represents only 100 generations of our human lineage. Our modern sense of the history of the world (our calendar starts 2000 years ago) is but a tiny fraction of the ancestral awareness held in our bodies. (Our mentor Ilarion Merculieff can trace his Unangan (Aleut) people's history back 10,000 years. The Australian aboriginal culture has a 50,000 year history.)
In exploring ancestral awareness, part of what we are seeking to do is establish a historical felt connection to our deeper ancestry—its migration patterns, its language patterns, the land where we are or were, and the influences upon it. These can tell us things about the diets that are most likely to be healthy for us, about cultural patterns in our pasts, about inter-generational trauma, and even about our language. (All languages evolve in relation to a specific place.). The Iroquois Confederacy, the indigenous alliance comprised of six tribal peoples in what is now the Northwestern United States and Canada, whose form of governance directly inspired the framers of the US Constitution, suggested that in all of our deliberations we should consider the impacts of our decisions on the next seven generations. We have been told about a branch of Hawaiian trauma healing that works across seven generations. Part of what this means is that epigenetically, there are traces of our family at least seven generations back—we would propose to you that it goes back much further. Learning about our ancestry is then not only learning about someone else, but about reclaiming the parts of ourselves that have been in-formed (I’m using that word very intentionally) by our heritage.
Speaking personally, as a white person of Jewish origin, I had a lot of resistance to getting back into connection with my ancestry, because it contains a great deal of collective trauma, and because the dominant narratives of our culture contain anti-Semitic strands, some of which I had internalized. What I’ve discovered (an am still uncovering), however, is a key to deeper understanding of myself, and a sense of continuity. This arose in particular when I discovered some things about my great-great-grandfather (my elter elter zeyda, in Yiddish, the language he would have grown up speaking). I began to grow curious about what had motivated him to leave what is now Belarus (on the border of Poland and Ukraine), and his family, and to emigrate, first to Brasil, and then to the United States. In 1904, he started a fish company in St. Louis, that I was always ashamed of growing up. Again, part of the assimilation narrative of my ancestors on that side of the family was that they stopped speaking Yiddish, they divested of their cultural heritage, to the point where no one in our family knew the history, let alone spoke our ancestral language.
Ancestral connection practices can work in different ways. If you are inclined to do so, you could take a genetic ancestry test. The internet, and Google, have remarkable repositories of information (I found pictures from the 1920s of our family fish company, complete with the name in Yiddish on the window). Maybe there is someone in your family or extended family who knows some part of the genealogy. Maybe there is a particular side, or part, or branch of the family that you feel particularly connected to, or interested in—perhaps start there. As you begin to make discoveries, keep returning attention to how what you are discovering makes you feel. How does it land in your nervous system, in your felt sense of self? And remember, if it doesn’t feel like it is serving your deeper sense of well-being, you don’t have to do it. It’s up to you. You may be surprised how this inquiry impacts you. I became largely pescatarian; it turns out there is a history of eating fish in my family. Ha! Interestingly, that diet choice was transformatively helpful to my physical health.
*The Iroquois Confederacy was a cultural and political union of Native American tribes residing in the present-day state of New York. At its founding around 1550, the Confederacy included 5 tribes: the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca peoples. The Tuscarora joined the Confederacy in 1722, and it became known as the Six nations.
Who taught us this?
There are many sources that invite and encourage us to connect with our own ancestry. One of the ways whiteness often operates is disconnecting white people their lineage. It was through anti-racist work that the author of this section began turning back toward knowing his own ancestry.
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Video: Distill | Photography: Stein Egil Liland | Licensed from Pexels.com, used with permission.