Healing ancestral relationships is important to activism

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"There's a cartoon where activists march bearing placards. ‘No more motorways,' says one. ‘Stop the War,' demands another. ‘Down with the corporations,' shouts a third. And, finally, the guy at the end proclaims, ‘I hate my dad!'"
- Andrew Harvey

While personal pain is probably not the sole motivation for why activists do what we do, we probably all have to admit that it plays some role, even if only to sensitize us to the suffering of others. Perhaps, however, we are unaware of just how much personal pain we carry with us into our work.

In the view of many of the world's Indigenous peoples, maintaining good relationships with ancestors is considered crucial to ensuring the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health of individuals as well as the community. Indigenous wisdom keepers, such as Malidoma Patrice Somé (Dagara from Burkina Faso), believe that the severing of relationships with ancestors is partially responsible for the personal and social ills in North American (as well as other societies which have adapted North American worldviews and political economies). Healing these relationships is seen as fundamental to addressing our social and personal problems.

Even someone who doesn't consider her/himself to be a spiritual person can acknowledge how relationships with parents have impacted her/his perceptions, values and behaviours. If they are wise enough they will understand that their parents were similarly impacted by grandparents, who were in turn impacted by great grandparents and so on, back multiple generations. We may or may not be aware that we are role modeling or rejecting perceptions, emotions and thinking that originated centuries ago; that we have internalized messages that were originally transmitted by ancestors we may never have heard of.

Science is increasingly demonstrating that ancestral perceptions, values and memory are passed on not only through socialization but also biologically. Our genetics and other biological functions are shaped at a very early age by our social and family environments AND before birth by ancestral experiences. We internalize messages about who we are, who we are not, why we are (or are not) loved unconditionally, as well as which expressed feelings, thoughts and behaviours will keep us alive and thriving.

Certainly, how we are nurtured (or not) will impact our physical, mental and emotional development. Molecules of thought and emotion impact our body chemistry which in turn impacts our physical development down to our very genes and then gets passed to the next generation. The process moves in reverse as well; our body chemistry impacts our thoughts and feelings in a continuous cycle. Add to this the environmental influences outside of our body (physical and social), which further influence our perceptions, feelings and biology, and we get a better idea of the complex web of relationships affecting every aspect of our being.

The nature versus nurture argument is over and has been for some decades, despite the denial of many sectors of society. We now realize what Indigenous peoples have known for centuries: that we cannot be separated from either our physical or social environments; they both shape our perceptions, biology and consequent behaviours. And, of course, the reverse is true, our perceptions, physicality and behaviours shape the environment and society. Hence, another compelling reason to heal ancestral relationships: to heal the planet and society.

I have thought about how the experiences of my enslaved ancestors have impacted me. How their ongoing physical, mental, and emotional stresses were passed on in our family history. How the experience of enslavement and racism has shaped our family dynamics and our individual senses of self. Like many others, my family has struggled with domestic violence, sexual abuse and other issues no one likes to talk about. It is obvious to me that the history of being enslaved had a role to play in fostering these unhealthy behaviours.

Luckily no one in my family had to go to a residential school but it is quite clear in literature and oral accounts that the legacy of that experience impacts many generations of Indigenous families on Turtle Island.

I have no doubt that my ancestors' enslavement has impacted me at every level of my being. I have childhood memories of emotions I felt while reading the stories of enslaved people, listening to beloved family members speak about their experiences in the Jim Crow state of Virginia, and being taunted (and twice beaten up) as a child when sent to integrate a formerly all-white school outside of Philadelphia.

I felt the fear, anger, and stress of knowing not only that these terrible things had happened to me and my loved ones but that they could still happen to my children and others I cared about because the racism that justified genocide and slavery are still embedded in the dominant culture's worldview and institutions.

That fear, anger and stress were among many feelings that elicited biochemical reactions in my body and shaped my physical, mental and emotional self. This in turn has shaped my perception of the world; my roles, responsibilities and understanding of limitations within it. And these perceptions are among many that are rooted in my ancestors' lives.

While some schools of thought hold that we and we alone are responsible for our behaviours because we choose them, science is showing us that engrained perceptions in the subconscious as well as the physical body are not so easily disposed of. This is especially true when we live in a society that rewards individualism and obscures the fact that we are beings that exist in relationship to others. The idea of looking to our social environment and our ancestry for understanding behaviours, changing actions and healing health problems is not taken seriously. After all, how could pharmaceutical companies and the medical industrial complex profit if we were to discover that attending to our relationships could provide us with as much, if not deeper, healing than drugs, medical treatments and surgical procedures?

In any case, there is good news: we are not stuck with perceptions rooted in the past or with the implications of them.

Indigenous ceremonies involve ancestors in the healing processes as well as in our day-to-day routines. We heal them and they heal us in an ongoing cycle aimed at spiritual evolution for all. We learn through the experience of connecting with ancestors that everyone is given a context for their lives that contains both opportunities and challenges (and sometimes the opportunities are encoded in the challenges). We can either use those challenges to help us learn and grow or blame them for our pain and live as angry, fearful victims. When it comes down to it, if I could remove the pain and suffering of enslavement from the legacy of my family, I wouldn't. That legacy is part of what makes me who I am. I honour, accept and respect it because of the experiences and wisdom I and others have gained from it.

Indigenous ceremonies are not the only option for people looking to connect to their ancestors. The Personal Legacy Workshop developed by Vancouver-based Urban Ink Productions is an option for artists to do this work. Michael Brown, author of Presence Process, provides another self-guided process for erasing ancestral "imprints." Even obstetrician Dr. Christiane Northrup in her book Mothers and Daughters focuses on this topic. Hopefully we will all find culturally appropriate processes for this important effort.

For those who do not function out of a spiritual worldview, the process of coming to terms with ancestral legacies might be perceived as an exercise in mind over matter, since it is now well recognized that our thinking patterns impact our physical bodies and those of our offspring. If we are troubled by baggage we have either experienced in early childhood or inherited we can heighten our awareness of how it impacts us and start to free ourselves from its influence, if we want. If we don't perceive there is anything to heal, we can at least honour the lives and struggles that came before us and become stronger for it.

For those who consider themselves "settlers" on Turtle Island and consequently reject the idea of connecting with ancestors whose lives were less than exemplary, I will share another of my stories. I also have European-descended family members, and know little about them. However, I am aware that the environment my white mother grew up in included horrific family violence and vile racial hatred. I would ask anyone who thinks they have to pay off an ancestrally incurred debt by virtue of being descended from settlers, genocidists and racists to think again. My grandfather was a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan. As one would guess, his suffering as an abused child, as well as his hatred of certain peoples impacted me and my siblings through my mother, who both internalized and rejected his "stuff." Either way, I certainly don't want to internalize or pass on perceptions of myself or the world that are rooted in his life experience. So yes, I am healing my relationship with him as well.

One of the things I've learned through this process is that it has been important to heal my relationships with ancestors for the sake of younger generations. I want my children to be free of my "stuff" so they can enjoy their lives. I think the same is true of those who have passed before us. They want to see us healed of the baggage we inherited from them. My grandfather, who was once a racist, no longer has a white male body whose superiority he must defend against evidence to the contrary. It must have been quite a transformative moment for him when he realized that he was not his body and ultimately none of his ingrained ideas about race and maleness would serve him in the Spirit World.

I believe ancestors stand to suffer from the problems of our world; the anger, fear and denial of connectedness and inter-dependence. Ultimately, if we continue on this path the human race will be extinct and there will be that many less opportunities for spirits to enjoy this experience of life. That is why they help us in the process of healing our relationships. This may not make sense for anyone who doesn't share my worldview but I can only share from that viewpoint so take what resonates and leave the rest.

I appreciate that people from different belief systems and practices will intellectualize differently about this issue and I hope it will ultimately lead them to the same basic conclusions if they pursue their own logic far enough.

In any case, because we are all related, everyone's ancestors are our ancestors. Healing relationships with ancestors will impact all our lives, our work and our movements for the better. The work of healing ancestral relationships can only contribute to enhanced well-being and global transformation.

As children of survivors we ask
What purpose of pain in generations past
How do we honour legacies
And give thanks for ancestral deeds
That, however adjudicated,
However loved or hated
Gave us the lives we now live
Opportunities to share and give

Zainab Amadahy is a mother, writer and activist. Her publications include the novel Moons of Palmares (1998, Sister Vision Press) as well as an essay in the anthology Strong Women's Stories: Native Vision & Community Activism, (Lawrence & Anderson, 2004, Sumach Press). Most recently Zainab has contributed to In Breach of the Colonial Contract (Arlo Kemp, Ed. 2008) by co-authoring "Indigenous Peoples and Black People in Canada: Settlers or Allies?"

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