“Your culture is your medicine.” – Jeff Duncan-Andrade
Each of us belongs to a collective body of people with a story (or stories) that reach before us and after us in time. Before we were ever classified as “white”, our ancestors were distinct peoples with their own unique culture – their own unique “medicine” (to quote Dr. Duncan-Andrade). Many of us who have been socially categorized as white do not know or possess the medicine of our ancestors. We may not even know their stories, or who “we” were before we were white.
In this post Darcy Ottey, co-founder of Youth Passageways, shares with us her own experience of seeking this ancestral medicine, and exploring questions such as: “Who am I? Who were my original, indigenous ancestors? What is the story of my own ethnic identity, and at what point did my family become “white”? What happened to them, and what did they do to others? What wisdom can I bring back from these stories into my own life, and how can I use this wisdom to strengthen my work for liberation of all Peoples?”
What we find in Darcy’s journey are not clear answers, but rather koans, or riddles, for our own reflection. Perhaps Darcy’s experience will inspire you to explore your own ancestry and family story more deeply – not as a trivial pursuit, but as a means to recovering cultural, personal “medicine” that you can bring into social movements for liberation, equity, and much needed social change.
Part One: Who Are My People?
As I waited to board my connecting flight from Honolulu to Hilo, I caught sight of a thickly tattooed Latino man with carrying drums standing around the same gate. I knew instantly he was bound for the same destination as I was. We were two of about 100 people who were about to come together for the Global Passageways conference, exploring the need for rites of passage for young people during these times of great cultural and ecological changes.
This relatively small group represented many different backgrounds. Folks came from as far away as Argentina, Ecuador, and Australia. Gwich’n, Lakota, Dineh, Cherokee, African-American, Latino, and European-American were just some of the cultures represented. Folks crossed the lifespan, from late teens to elder years, and we were also professionally diverse: writers, youth workers, vision quest guides, and community leaders, among others. We shared a common passion for bringing forth healthy young people and healthy communities in a complex, changing world.
There were parts of this conference more beautiful than anything I’d ever experienced. The first morning we arose very early, making it to the volcanically-fed Warm Ponds before dawn. Here, underground hot springs mix with cool waves coming in from the ocean, creating a still, warm, Olympic-sized natural pool. Silently, one by one, members of our group submerged themselves. For about fifteen minutes, all was silent and calm as we drifted in the warm water.
Soon, the contingent of Hawaiian hosts began to gather on the rocky berm, waves crashing at their feet, and the rest of us followed. It felt like a dream as they began to sing a Hawaiian chant when the sun broke the horizon.
But all was not magically idyllic during our week together. The conference mirrored the explosive energy of the island, alive with active volcanic forces and constantly weathered by the forces of wind and wave. Race, ethnicity, gender, age—all were sources of struggle in bringing together 100 people used to taking strong leadership in their communities. Individual egos were bruised as cultural conflict erupted, to the point where many participants deemed the conference a resounding and utter failure.
The experience was not a failure for me: it was transformative. I got my first schooling in the great difficulty of weaving community across diverse lines, and learned for the first time directly from indigenous community leaders. I had the opportunity to meet people whom I had long admired: individuals whose books I had read since college and whose work was legendary in my world. I was in awe of the ceremonies, the protocols, the teachings, things I had only read about in books. I was pretty overwhelmed, and very…humbled. I quickly retreated into myself, afraid of offending, of sounding stupid, of revealing my total ignorance. I watched, I listened, I made big mistakes—and I learned a lot.
One thing I noticed about many of the indigenous folks and people of color at the gathering was how deeply connected with their ancestry they appeared to be. This seemed different from many of the white folks present, and it was definitely different from me. Experiencing the Hawaiian hosts welcome us and introduce us to their culture through traditional chants and dances, and sharing the lineage of these traditions, I reflected on my own lack of songs and stories passed down through the generations. Hearing Paul Hill, Jr, describe his program, in which three generations of young Black men and women have been initiated into their African heritage, made me reflect on the lack of a clear cultural context within my own work. These experiences and others helped me to realize how essential it is that we each have a sense of ancestral and cultural inheritance.
As I listened to the stories, new and different ways people related to themselves and their communities, I realized that I had never considered myself as having a culture–even though as a social scientist, I knew I did. As conference participants talked about the practices and beliefs among “their People,” I began to ask: Who are my People? I began to inspect the landscapes, bloodlines, and social realities that made me who I am.
This question has guided me ever since, in my work and in my spiritual journey, leading me last year to the lands of my ancestors, to understand more the ancient traditions of My People, and what forces caused them to be lost, destroyed, and abandoned, eventually leading my family to come to the lands of Turtle Island and become White.
Part Two: A Pilgrimage to My Ancestral Homelands
In the summer of 2016, I traveled over the moors of the British Isles, along the steppes and rivers of Ukraine, and through the forests of Pennsylvania, exploring my family lineage. I carried these questions:
What were the earth-based traditions of my ancestors?
What happened to disconnect them from the lands where they had lived for millennia?
What forces caused them to leave Europe, and travel far across the ocean to what would become known as the United States, where eventually they became white Americans?
Over time I began to see these questions less as riddles in need of an answer, but rather as koans for quiet contemplation.
Included in this post is Darcy’s exploration of the first of these questions during her time in the British Isles. This material is originally posted on her blog here. To read more about Darcy’s travels you can also read Part Two and Part Three of the “In Search of Lineage” series on her blog.
British Isles: What were the earth-based traditions of my ancestors?
“Indigenous survival as peoples is due to centuries of resistance and storytelling passed through the generations…this survival is dynamic, not passive.” –Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States
Her intact bone bundle was found wrapped in a bear skin, tenderly preserved in an ancient grave high up on the moors. The discovery of this burial cistvaen (pronounced kist-vayn, a pre-Celtic word for a stone burial box) was a boon for archaeologists in 2011, providing keen insights into the lives of the region thousands of year ago. Other long-buried treasures were nestled inside also: a necklace made of clay, tin, and amber; a bracelet made of animal fibers and tin studs; hand-turned ear studs made of spindlewood; and remnants of meadowsweet flowers.
Found on White Horse Hill in Dartmoor, in the midst of an ancient ritual landscape, these remains come from a woman who walked the landscape 4,000 years ago. They call her White Horse Hill Woman. I heard this story during a fire ceremony at Merripit Farm, part of a magical evening offered by musicians and land stewards Carolyn Hillyer and Nigel Shaw. This particular concert centered around songs from their album from twenty years ago, Songs of the Ancestors.
My ticket said “Fire Ritual 6pm.” At the appointed time, I dutifully followed the narrow pathway toward the Round House, joining my shoes with the others surrounding the dark entrance. As I stepped inside, I made my way to the bench around the periphery, my eyes adjusting to the dim light of a small fire at the center. I soon gave up my seat to an older person and found myself instead on a soft, thick woolskin pelt on the floor, close to the fire.
We sat in silence, waiting for others to join. Next to me sat a woman who was clearly the ceremonial leader, a drum the size of a small coffee table sitting in front of her. When the space was full, this commanding yet gentle woman, Carolyn Hillyer, broke the silence by offering us a song, beating in time with her drum like a low, patient heartbeat.
She soon shared the story of White Horse Hill Woman. She told us that when the bones were removed from the earth by archaeologists, her community gathered the bones of wild horses from the high moors and built their own small cistvaen on their land, in solidarity with White Horse Hill woman.
She then passed around a bowl of earth, inviting us each to take a pinch to make our own offerings to the land, or to the cistvaen dedicated to White Horse Hill woman twenty or so yards away from the Round House entrance.
“Blessed this hearth, Blessed this ground, Blessed this prayer that we pass around” we sang as the bowl moved from person to person, across the circle. Then Carolyn taught us a song that she had recently composed from proto-Celtic words, saying “these are words that would have been understandable to our early ancestors here on the moors.”
Early on during my time in Britain, weeks before I found myself in the Round House at Lower Merripit Farm, I visited West Kennet Barrow near Avebury. West Kennet Barrow is a stone age burial site that once held the remains of a handful of people placed there over several hundred years. The remains, which came from men, women, adults, elders, and infants, had been long since removed, spirited away to the halls of scientific inquiry.
Natalie, my friend and guide for much of my time in England, played interference with other visitors as I entered the barrow. “My friend is here on ancestral pilgrimage from the United States,” she said to a young couple as they came up behind us. “Do you mind giving her a few minutes alone inside?” As I slipped behind the stone that marked the entrance, and into the cool, dark cave, I felt grateful she had known to create a personal moment for me. A small altar with offerings of candles, ribbons, and other treasures had been built along the far wall; swallows had made their home in the ledges once housing human remains. It felt good to be in that space, without other humans, feeling into this portal to the underworld, a space that had housed the ancient ancestors of my ancestors.
Yet being in this space, I also felt its profound, vacuum-like emptiness. My stone age ancestors had vast knowledge systems that made them capable of moving gigantic stones from the Preseli Hills of Wales to a distance five hundred miles away, where they erected them with precision to catch a certain light at a certain angle on certain days of the year. They knew how to live and thrive without any of the modern conveniences on which I am fully dependent. They knew how to use the ancient crypt in which I found myself to honor their ancestors, and did so for unknown generations. How many of us today can fully comprehend what wisdom they carried, to be able to do all these seemingly magical feats?
Everywhere I went throughout Europe, visiting these ancient holy sites that now attract throngs of tourists, I saw signs that spoke of ancient knowledge with judgments framed as scientific fact: “Stone age peoples believed in superstitions like…”
In the barrow, I felt the grief of a people who no longer have claim to the bones of their ancestors. I felt the emptiness of a people who don’t understand that this is part of the loss that we keep desperately trying to fill with more and more stuff. I felt gratitude for the indigenous peoples whose lands I live on, who keep fighting for their right to the remains of their ancestors, the right to choose when and how and if the tools of Western science will be applied to them.
Hearing Carolyn tell the story of White Horse Hill Woman, I saw clearly and undeniably that there are people surviving in the lands of Britain, so long ago colonized, still quietly tending to the Bones of their Ancestors.
Many native peoples of the Americas ask to be spoken of in present tense, for others to remember that They Are Still Here. With Carolyn, I saw confirmation that though the museums and interpretive centers consistently speak of the earth-based traditions of the British Isles in past tense, there are living traditions that remain. There is an unbroken line–however thin and frayed it may be–of indigeneity that remains in lands long occupied. There is a resistance that has existed for thousands of years.
More recently, I attended a performing arts show on Maui, Hawai’i called ‘Ululena, a beautiful telling of the history of Hawaii from the birth of the Islands to modern times through dance. Throughout the performance, a lone figure kept appearing: a man dressed in traditional clothing, carrying the bones of the ancestors in a bundle on his back. Again, I was struck by the power of staying in physical connection with ancestral remains.
Western culture has become radically desensitized to the subtleties of spiritual power. Like the delicate flavors of freshly harvested vegetables compared with a salty bag of potato chips, our palate has become used to associating power with wealth, technology, politics. Yet while many of us may not be attuned to it, the physical remains of our dead carry spiritual power. They give us access to insights, to the wisdom of the generations. Our fear of death makes us turn away, sanitizing the power we feel intuitively by turning it into scientific curiosity. And with this, we lose opportunities to stay connected to our Beloved Dead, to access our ancestors and loved ones on the other side.
Since I’ve returned, I haven’t known what to do with this experiential lesson I received. My grandmother’s ashes sit at my mom’s house, in the box that we selected after her death. There is a calling I feel to be closer to them, to bring them into my ceremonial practices, but it all feels clumsy and foreign. I have not yet made my way into a comfort and ease with the dead and dying, or with death itself. Bringing human remains into ceremony feels so taboo, so against everything that I was taught, that I am afraid. And yet, this is part of the ways of my ancestors, part of the wisdom that my lineage has lost.
Darcy Ottey has been exploring the role of ceremony in building healthy community since her rite of passage at age 13. She recently helped to birth Youth Passageways, a diverse network of individuals, organizations, and communities working to support the initiation of young people into mature adulthood in these transition times.
As an initiated European-American woman (British/Ukrainian descent), Darcy is passionate about helping people who are disconnected from traditional rites of passage reclaim and create rites and practices meaningful and relevant in their lives and communities at this time, in ways that are in solidarity with the liberation with all Peoples, and all beings. Darcy currently consults with programs and organizations on topics related to rites of passage and social justice.
Jeff Duncan-Andrade quote: La Cultura Cura