Our Ancestors Owe Us Nothing

Ancestor Altar 2020. Image description: framed family photos with heirloom items and an offering of black coffee and candy. A tealight candle is centered held within a purple wampum clam shell.

I am a Healey.
But I am also a Soucia.

a Merrill and Cromp.
a Darragh, LaPlante, Miner, and Soulia.

a McCann, McArdle, Knight, Jones, Beauvais, Barcomb, Titus, and Myatt.

a Keeff, Corre, Lavery, Dennenson, Quin, Finn, Shepard, Perrigo, Wilson, Ostrander, Lebrun, Marshall, Jones, Melavia, Dancouse, Caza, Durocher, Cusson, Guerin, Lemay, Berthiaume, Patenaude, Jodway, Collette, Vreeland, Davidson, Teachout, Johnson, Gibbs, Riveis, and Holcomb.

I could go on farther back before the 1800s, though the blanks and misspellings, and literal dead-ends begin to compound. I can’t tell you stories about all of them either and that I feel is where genealogy falls short and where investigative religion can come in to help.

These are my ancestors, but they aren’t the only ones. There are aunties and uncles, and cousins, and siblings, and neighbors, and friends that all contributed to their stories: their lives and deaths. They are all a part of my family: Mo chúram. Ma famille. Maybe even my Kahwá:tsire.

But ancestors are not only blood and adoptions.

Ancestors are lands.
And Ancestors are teachers, field/practice lineages, leaders, and inspiring/shameful cultural figures.

And if you believe in the transmigration of souls like I do, they may cross oceans, and countries, and continents. Whole languages and cultures entirely that, even if we remember, we still cannot claim from a white colonialist sense of entitlement. Just like we cannot claim our disconnected heritage and cultures because our DNA is not the same thing as lived experiences of a culture. As Lora O’Brien says: “Irish DNA, bloodlines or proven ancestry, at the end of the day, doesn’t mean shit… It’s about living the culture, putting in the work and the effort to connect, the respect and reverence for our history and heritage.”

Like Lora says, they can be learned with effort, and taught by those who authentically care — but these practices cannot be grabbed and reclaimed without giving back. Everything is relationship, and our ancestors owe us nothing.

Ancestors are not only about pride, they are about pain. They are the ghosts that haunt and guide if they so choose. They are progenitors of history, colonialism, racism, capitalism, militarism, cisheterosexism. Generational curses and trauma, but also blessed resilience, joy, and solidarity. Ancestors are timeless.

My grandmother died three weeks ago, and I was tasked with writing her obituary. I was the first grandchild. I knew her the longest out of my generation.

It did not make it easier.

My mind is not always there — so I relied on my cousins, grandfather, and sister: our collective mind and memory was where the stories came from. In this talking we learned things we could not name and things we had long forgotten. This is why it is so devastating for families who cannot share and communicate. We are only the things we leave behind: memories and systemic impacts in others’ lives.

Gather and record and share the stories of the colonised lands you live on. Do what is asked of you by Black & Indigenous activists in how to best help in multiple ways.

Gather and record the stories of your cultural, spiritual, and philosophical teachers. They are more than quotes and pictures, they are who we aspire to be and become. Who we can emulate and whose work we wish to continue.

Gather and record your family stories and recipes while there is still time. Waiting until you’re in your thirties may be too late. “Soon” may be too late. Do it now. Write them down. Preserve them for generations to come. Honour them. Don’t do it alone. The full picture is in the details that live in other people’s minds and attics (and even sometimes in barns and basements).

Make this labour acts of devotion.

Make these acts of devotion labours of love.

Not only for you — but for the collective.

Anthropologist. Abolitionist. Cultural Critic.