On Going to Your Ancestors

I will be writing about this more soon, along with some other thoughts, but just wanted to get a quick vent out:

I am well tired of naysayers against nonindigenous shamanisms telling white people (or anyone nonindigenous, for that matter) that we should automatically look to our ancestors’ traditions for our shamanisms.

It doesn’t always work that way.

I am not European. Yes, my ancestors however many generations back (depending on the side of the family) were. But I am culturally American (with a bunch of subcultural nuances), and I live in the Pacific Northwest U.S. What good would it do me, when I am trying to connect to the land I live on and the people I am surrounded by, to try to connect with lands an ocean away, and people I’ve never met? Never mind the spirits poking at me, which are even more an influence.

I would rather continue to stumble along an unbeaten track, learning through falling on my face, and developing something that is genuinely mine, than appropriate practices from people whom I am only connected to through DNA strands. And as far as traditions go, it’s Catholics (and other Christians) a far way back anyway.

This is not to say that I disapprove of European and other pagan reconstructionist movements, or see them as less appropriate for the American here and now. Quite the contrary; I’ve been really damned impressed at modern pagan reconstructionism, syncreticism, and the like. For me, though, that’s not a good fit for what it is I need to be doing. So, no. “Go to your own ancestors” is not a one-size-fits-all solution to the neoshamanism conundrum.

(Also, on a totally different note, I am wayyyyyy behind on answering comments on this blog. Now that the semester is winding to a close, I hope to fix that. Thanks for your patience!)

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10 thoughts on “On Going to Your Ancestors

  1. Personally I find it a bit racist to say that white people can’t be shamans–shamanism is a global phenomenon with various different flavors.

    I’m backtracking along the so-called ancestral line to a degree, but only because I’m in the slow process of moving back to the country of my ancestors (Germany).

    I suppose I can’t be a Greco-Egyptian polytheist then–I’m not Greek, nor Egyptian. Feh.

  2. Preach it, Sister! 🙂

    There’s also the issue that way back, many Americans have some Native blood. Sad to say, but our ancestors weren’t always gentlemen, and if they were, love doesn’t always pick along “racial” lines. I think you’ve got the right idea, anyway – figure out your own relationships, and over time, it will be clear what the “American” tradition should be.

  3. Yeah. What you said. I sometimes think *duck* that people who are very caught up in connecting with ancestors, or distant DNAcultures, whatever you want to call it… they are avoiding the work of connecting with what is *right now,* with what is speaking in this place at this moment. It’s not easy, not as “romantic,” and perhaps sounds a lot less impressive on paper to say that you are guided from within and by the spirits in your familiar. I mean, damn, that’s in part what the spirits around us/that are actively coming to us are for. Land elders, Nature spirits, stars, or whatever… they want to be acknowledged and actively helpful. And shamanism, in some vague expression, is a primal pursuit of working with what you have, not what you wish you had or should have.
    Cheers!

  4. I completely agree. I have theories that having a bloodline does permit people to have some sort of in-roads, if they know how to exploit them and so wish to. But there’s nothing to stop anyone from joining a spirituality if they well and truly mean it. I tend to label most everything I do under “Marcsism”, because…that’s me. And not like that hack Karl *hum*.

    I think people who claim descent as their only justification for deciding to choose their path are just as bad as the nonindigenous naysayers; it leads to a lot of issues when people are being talked to who are obviously NOT part of that group. In my eyes it’s helped lead to the creation of more radical folkish movements that want to enforce a genetic or cultural purity at the expense of honest spirituality, even though their background may not have any such cultural trappings for several generations.

    What do people do if they want to go back to a Northern Tradition/Anglo-Saxon/Nordic shamanism? There isn’t any record of indigenous shamanism, and the closest neighbors that still practice today are the Sami. As an Anglo-Saxon, what do I do? I willingly choose to reach back through my own family history (my mother’s side has a lot of rich history dating back to before the Norman conquest) because I feel I -can-, but I am firmly aware that I’m NOT living in 10th century England/Germany, I am thousands of miles away and need to adapt my day-to-day spirituality accordingly.

    I guess it is all about intent, one’s intent to live up to a dedication and conviction. But what you mention is one of the big issues about the modern paganism movement that I have run across: it seems that there’s a lot of vocalized attempts at shoehorning people into one narrow definition for the ease of…what exactly?

    I hope that your end semester is winding down well, and that you’ll be able to relax (sort of) soon!

  5. Most of the time land comes first.

    I remember struggling to tap into European tradition growing up in Australia. Now that I do actually live in Europe I can feel why my attempts were in vain.

    People live all kinds of places these days. Which is why land should come first.

  6. The Ancestors are one of the paradoxes in developing a Pagan practice. At least for us immigrants or children of immigrants. They are over there in the old land, yet they are also right there in the new land. We try to figure out how to balance this. Or take a fall.

    All in all, I have discovered that, even when I tried hard to link up with my ancestral lands and cultures, I am a creature of right here where I was born and grew up and live my life. I just cannot be them, or even be very much like them.

    My “Native Land” is the one under my feet…ancestors or not.

  7. For me, in that I have a greatly-mixed heritage of European and possibly a drop or two of Native blood, blacks as part of my family, etc. then to which particular Ancestors should I direct my prayers, workings, etc.? In working with the Norse and understanding the concept and spirits of disir (powerful female ancestor spirits) and the like, as well as connecting with and working with my own Ancestors as I go, it seems as though one cultural paradigm need not dominate nor apply. Nor, to me, does it seem ancestry make a neoshaman, but the spiritual revolution of accepting what that role brings, and sometimes Ancestors play a part.

    I’ve yet to see an across-the-board trend where Ancestors are concerned for neoshamans, or shamans, medicine-workers, magical practitioners, etc. of surviving indigenous and diasporic ways, though the trend in both circles seems to go toward it. Ancestors, to me, aren’t just blood, but spirits, the land, and the things and beings of the past we touch as we go along this journey. Perhaps in getting in touch with my spiritual Ancestors, maybe not my blood ones, is the way to go.

  8. I’ve been exploring more about my ancestors recently, more out of curiosity than for any practice. However, the more I learn, the more difficult it becomes to “go back to my ancestors” for spiritual direction. Sure, they’re mostly Christians but it’s a whole mix of Methodist, Moravian, Baptist and who knows what else. How is that helpful?

    It appears most of my lineage is German and English, but there may be some Irish or Welsh thrown in for good measure–so which do I look to?

    Could it be that Native Americans understand us as little as we understand them? It seems to me that native tribes were more homogenous, at least more so than European/American Christians.

    It’s frustrating to find, in general, that your own spiritual background doesn’t really have anything to offer. After all, that’s why I’m no longer a Christian. It’s the entire philosophy that I reject, not just a practice or two. And even pre-Christian traditions–well, who kept records of that??

    So, yes, I’ll keep stumbling along that unbeaten track, too…

  9. Not all spirits are ancestors.

    Connecting to your blood ancestors is one honorable path.

    But there are also spirits of the land, and as someone who connects deeply with the land I was born in, I find it hard to believe that the spirits of the land care only about my ancestry, and dismiss all the other aspects of who I am and not how I live.

    I also think that other types of ancestors are important–that it is just as valid to honor the people whose lives, words, and creative endeavors laid the foundations for your path in life.

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