What Have We Inherited? Part 2

(Image from here.)

Hello again folks,

I got a lot of great responses to my recent post Here. There were some great comments across multiple platforms, and today I want to dig a little bit deeper into all of that.

For any human, ancestry can be really complicated. If you go back far enough, eventually we all came from Africa, at least according to the best science we have available to us at the moment. We all have common ancestry there, and a long line of generations back to the very origins of our species. But we all also know that ancestry and inheritance are a lot more complicated than just simply straight descent.

If you are anything like me, as a American of (mostly) European descent, you know that there is a lot of fuzziness when it comes to ancestry. I have spent many years tracing my genealogical and genetic ancestry. I can tell you that I am related to people in Siberia 50,000 years ago, but I am not Siberian. I am related to people in Scandinavia 7,000 years ago, but I am not Scandinavian. I am even related to First Nations in North America 12,000 and 4,000 years ago, but I am certainly not Native American.

You see, as I pointed out in the previous post, I am really in an odd place as far as ancestry. I am a descendant of European immigrants, but much of the Old World was not passed onto me. I was born here in Michigan, and educated in the US school system. The culture that I inherited was not from the multiple European cultures, but the one that formed here in the US after the colonizers took over. The culture I inherited is not of the Old World, but the story of revolution and civil war, of manifest destiny, and American exceptionalism. I am the descendant of many generations of US born people, American through and through. Whatever that means.

However, even though I was born in the land of Michigan, I’m not Native American either. Even though I have some genetic roots, I have no cultural ones. The indigenous cultures to this land are not part of my individual cultural mix.

I was reading a piece on NPR the other day that really brought this home for me. It is an article about St. Patrick’s Day, but also the holidays of other cultures. There was one line that especially struck home for me;

Something I’ve thought about for a long time is, how Chinese are my kids going to be? And the answer is, less than me. And I’m less than my parents. I’m going to marry a Sri Lankan man. My children are going to be Chinese and Sri Lankan, and very American at the same time. So there will dilution of our culture. That can feel like something you can mourn. But then, whatever we create from that may also be something new an existing.” (NPR)

I wonder if my immigrant ancestors worried about the same thing. My ancestors came from all over Europe, at different times and different places. They came to America mostly through England, but through many other routes as well. That was early in the colonial period, sometime during the 17th century probably. They would have carried with them the heritages of Europe, from Scandinavia, from Scotland, Ireland, from England. That brought all of that with them to this country, and one generation after another became less European, and more American. But they still were not native to this country, and some of them were quite horrible to the people that were. My ancestors displaced the Native Americans, took their land, and tried to destroy their culture. I am happy to say that they failed, but that the damage was still done, and the First Nations today are the inheritors of that wounding.

Frankly, so are we.

The Tribes of Europe

As was pointed out by John Trudell in my last post, the people of Europe went through a comparable process of colonization, mostly at the hands of Christianity. But it also has to be said, that the history of European peoples is a lot different from that of Native Americans.

The various and diverse Native Americans (which are not monolithic) came to North American over 15,000 years ago, and likely much before based on newer findings. From that point there was a huge diversication across time and space, from north to south, and from east to west. Native American history is a complex tapestry, and varies from tribe to tribe, but on the whole they were free from outside colonial influence. Sure, tribes fought with one another, exchanged with one another, made alliances, made enemies and so forth… Human history is never simple, but it is fair to say that Native peoples were the first aboriginal settlers of North America, and were indigenous to it, with long cultural histories of interaction with the land.

(Map of Native America Tribes, From Here)

European history (once again not monolithic) is a bit of different case. Partly because the European continent has been settled longer, and has had experienced huge sweeping changes in the long history. In many ways it can be argue that the aboriginal hominds to settle in Europe likely belong to Home erectus, and later to the Neanderthals. Modern humans, homo sapien sapiens, started to first settle in Europe, and interbred and assimilated the Neanderthals. Maybe that was the first dramatic change, the displacement of one species of Homo by another.

For a long time homo sapiens in Europe likely lived a kind of tribal life, deeply tied culturally to the land and way of life. Hunter-gatherers were the first modern humans to settle in Europe, and that stayed true until the Neolithic, and farming started to spread across Europe.

Civilizations grew and flourished across Europe, but probably one of the biggest cultural changes that is relevant to our discussion is the Indo-Europeans. In the fourth millienia BCE, they migrated across Europe, and generally assimilated the people that were already there. This was the foundation of most modern languages in Europe, as most are IE in descent.

(Modern Indo-European Language Groups, From Wikipedia)

These migrations set the stage for Europe as we know it today, and many of the facets we know as Western Civilization, from the ancient Greeks, to the Roman Empire. It could be argued that the IE cultural shift was another big break in cultural horizon of Europe. The migration and assimilation of Indo-European cultural groups was so thorough, that very few non-IE groups or place names still exist in Europe. The exceptions being groups such as the Basque and the Saami.

In this way, the IE people were not aboriginal to Europe, they conquered and assimilated other people that were there before them. But could we consider them indigenous? I think it is best that we run on the assumption that they were and are, as the IE history in Europe spans almost 6,000 years at this point. That is countless generations of people born with a decent historical and culture connection to European lands.

More than this, the IE people are our ancestors, and the ancestors of the language I am writing in now. My ancestral roots can be directly traced to Indo-European peoples. The Tribe of Europe, which were once my people.

(Map of Europe during the Roman Empire, from here.)

Which brings us to the Roman Empire, which must be mentioned briefly. It was the Roman Empire which conquered huge swaths of Europe, and brought many tribal peoples under its rule as colonies. The Romans, perhaps more than any other group, colonized European tribes for centuries. More than this, Imperial Rome was also the homeland of Christianity, which can be argued has many of the same imperial tenancies. This is quite evident in the Biblical Passage know as The Great Commission;

18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father,and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”… Matthew 28: 18-20

It was Christianity in this form that spread across Europe throughout the Middle Ages and down to the current time, that would result in Crusades and Inquisitions, and the conversion of entire groups of people. As Linda Hogan so rightly puts it, it was a cognitve, cultural, and spiritual imperialism;

These invasions, not just of land, body and spirit, but the cognitive invasions, are what Yupiaq Oscar Kawagley calls “cognitive imperialism.”

Now, for context reasons, Linda Hogan is a Native American author and activist, and the words above specifically refer to the European colonization of North America. However, I think they apply to the Roman and later Christian conquests of Europe just as easily. In many ways, there are paralells between what happened to “The Tribe of Europe” under Roman and Christian rule, and the colonization of North American by European Christian settlers and missionaries. This too can extend well beyond North America, to Africa and the slave trade as well. Suffice to say, I don’t have the space to tease out all that nuance.

But all that is important to the point that Mark Green raised on my last post;

Interesting and thoughtful post. I, too, am here by way of very early European arrivals in the early 17th century. And I feel no “cultural affiliation” other than being an American, which is kind of like being…nothing.

I think the history of racism ties into this. In order to lump Black people as inferior, American culture created a category called “white” which is defined only by skin color, not any kind of culture or history. We are the inheritors of this. It simultaneously leaves us culturally impoverished and yet socially privileged.” – Mark Green

Yes, racism absolutely ties in here. In order to be “white”, we had to strip ourselves of many things, including many ancestral cultural ties. Also, being “white” put at us the top of a construct social order, that actively degrades other peoples; especially Native Americans and People of Color.

Hogan I think drives this point home when she says;

… It has not gone unnoticed that without these relationships (indigenous), a great pain and absence has been suffered by humanity, an absence and loss we have felt as a result of the Western mind to separate us from our homelands, and which has created great destruction to the living body of the continent. We know our own pains as we have been forced, often through violent means by the governing politics, to take up values vastly different from our own.”

This is the exact same kind of thing I was talking about in my last post. When Hogan talks about the pain of loss and absence, it is partly the conversion to Christianity that she is talking about. Through colonization and forced missionary conversion, the indigenous people’s of the America were forced to convert to the new religion, or to die in the process.

Our ancestral tribes of Europe, were subject to very similar processes.

Hogan has this to say on the topic;

Some of us are still shedding the long and violent processes of acculturation. Some have not yet begun. Many of the numerous loses we have had are due to Christianity. We had little choice but to be converted, and the Papal Bull called for the annihilation of many millions of Native people. Other losses are due to stolen lands with which we kept our knowledge, and to the many forms Western education took, none of which any of us has escaped…

While Hogan is specifically talking of indigenous experiences, it is true that none of us have escaped the spectre of Western education. That includes those of us who are not native to this land; we were still educated into Western culture. I agree with where Hogan is coming from, and we have indeed lost something in the process of Westernization. It was inflicted upon it’s own people, if only in a more subtle way than it was on Native Americans.

In the process of Christianization, we changed our relationship to our spiritual selves, and to everything else. It changed the perception of our ancestors, and that was something their descendants inherited. We became part of Western civilization, and it that process we suffered from the same loss Hogan is talking about.

(From Cameron’s Avatar)

And when we destroy it, we will blast a crater in their racial memory so deep, that they won’t come within 1,000 klicks of this place ever again. And that, too, is a fact. “

My ancestors and as well myself were colonized body, spirit and mind by cognitive imperialism. We are part of that machinery that perpetuated this spiritual and cognitive imperialism upon others, and continue to do so to this day. Something has to change, in order to start to heal this loss we have created. In order to mend the broken relationships we have created, we have to start making those important changes.

But we also have to be honest with ourselves too. I might not be here today if my ancestors hadn’t converted, and also we need to remember that some of our relatives converted willingly. Many of my own relatives were Christians, and I wouldn’t be here today without them.

(Shuri, from Black Panther)

We also need to be honest that the work ahead of us is huge, and it will take more than one person, and likely even one generation. That said, I think paganism as well as animism have an important part to play in dealing with our ancestral baggage, and maybe starting to heal some of the spiritual and cultural wounds created as a result. As Linda Hogan puts it;

For those of who have always prayed with, to, and for the waters, and known our intimate relatives, the plant people, the animals, insects, and all our special relations, the field of animism is a belated study.”

We are late to the party, and we need to understand that. We also need to remember that there was once a time when the land and the waters were part of our culture reality. In short, we need a heavy dose of paganism and animism in order to help us deal with some of the problems we have created. Many of our ancestors once understood the land in a much more indigenous way and sustainable way.

Many of us are far removed from our ancestors culturally and spiritually. I am not Siberian, or Nordic, or Finnish, I am American through and through. As the quote from NPR made pretty clear, there is something to mourn in that. But also, our heritage does provide us with some material in which to create something new. Maybe, just maybe, create something new to help us in the here and now.

We are not our ancestors, true, but we can certainly look to their stories for the wisdom that might be found there.

As Hogan says;

I am grateful for the new animism, because it counts for something. Its importance cannot be overstated. It is a beginning, even without the history and aboriginal connection to this land. It says the human is searching and with a need to be in touch with this land, or other lands of origins in a time when the world is so achingly distressed.”

We, as the descendants of colonizers, don’t have the history or certainly not the aboriginal connection to this land. That is something we left behind long ago. But the work we are doing counts for something, we are seeking and that matters.

The world is hurting, we are hurting, and we need to figure out what part we are going to play in healing that hurt.


We call it tradition, by Linda Hogan. In “The Handbook of Contemporary Animism” Edited by Graham Harvey

When Other Cultures’ Holidays Become an Excuse to Party NPR



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