Cuimhnich air na daoine bhon tànaig thu’
(Remember the people from whom you descend)
~ Scottish Highland Gaelic proverb ~
When Nona threw our heavy mahogany dresser across the dining room, she woke me up from centuries of amnesia. The dresser, which had been sitting there quietly for more than a decade, landed with a sickening thud, shuddering the wooden floors and rattling the glass cabinets of our old house. Nona’s framed photo, her antique clock, and a tall glass vase were propelled across the room, intact. The big dresser nearly landed on my youngest child, who was trembling with fright. Most alarming of all, Nona was dead. There was no logical explanation for a large piece of furniture suddenly flying across the room. A supernatural occurrence had threatened my child. Something had to be done.
I consulted Yeye Luisah Teish, a Yoruba Priestess whose maternal authority conveyed that she knew exactly what to do in such circumstances. She prescribed a ritual to take place on the dresser, now restored to its former inert state in the corner of the dining room. Flowers, grains, fruits, a seven-day candle and a bowl of water were arranged with care around Nona’s framed photo. I was to sit and listen to Nona for seven days.
Staring at these items on the dresser felt ridiculous at first. It was quiet there in the dining room, the ticking of Nona’s antique clock barely audible. Gradually, after several days, time stopped altogether. Nona’s message permeated the cells of my skin and blossomed in pictures behind my closed eyes:
“How could my grandchildren have forgotten me? You haven’t spoken my name in years. You don’t tell my stories anymore. Your children don’t even know me!”
Nona’s sorrow at our abandonment pumped through my blood. She had thrown the dresser across the room and threatened our youngest child in a last-ditch effort to get our attention in the chaotic material world. Nona, my husband’s Italian grandmother, had a dramatic flair. As a devout Catholic, widowed single mother, and owner of a bar in Rock Springs, Wyoming, Nona became enraged when a priest tried to extort money from her, and she never set foot in church again. Of course she threw a dresser when we neglected her memory.
Until that night, my ancestors had been people of no consequence in my mind. They had come from dreary places like Scotland, Ireland, Germany, and England. In contrast to fiery, Italian Nona, they were Protestants who wore drab woolen clothing in rainy places. They lived in sod houses; they worked hard. They were people of small stature because food was often scarce.
In their antiquated black and white photographs, my great-grandmothers were packed uncomfortably into corsets, their hair pulled back harshly. My great-grandfathers wore stiff suits, long beards, and looked lost. I did not know how to relate to these people who seemed frozen in a distasteful past. I was born on the Fourth of July, 1975, in America. Ancestors had no place here. There was nothing of interest in their forgotten languages and obscure ways. They were dead people from a long time ago who had lived in bleak places with bad food. They had come to this land to make a better life for themselves. There was nothing else to say. No one thought of them anymore; why would I?
Although I’d always been stubbornly averse to my own ancestry, Nona had piqued my curiosity when she threw the dresser. I had a vague recollection of Samhain, an ancient Celtic festival at the end of October. I remembered hearing that Samhain is an auspicious time to honor the ancestors. So, on October 31, 2015 I picked up Luisah Teish’s Jambalaya: The Natural Woman’s Book of Personal Charms and Practical Rituals. Following her instructions for creating an ancestor altar, I cleaned my house, placed a small table in a corner of the dining room, laid a cloth on top, lit a candle, and filled a small bowl with water. My youngest child had found two sheep horns in the countryside when we traveled to Scotland one summer. I placed them on the altar to honor our Scots ancestors.
I pulled up the chair my father had given to my mother when I was born. Sitting in the same chair where my mother had nursed me; where I had once rocked my babies to sleep, I whispered to my ancestors. Curious about those who belonged to the ancient Celtic and Germanic tribes, I addressed them first. Who were they before old-fashioned cameras captured their descendants’ stilted images in black and white? Did they have anything to tell me? A blank silence yawned back from the doorway of these questions; a void I couldn’t cross.
On a crisp, icy morning a few weeks later, I sat with an astute Diné storyteller named Sunny Dooley. The previous evening, she had shared a mesmerizing story at a community event. Wrapped in the warmth of her story, on a whim, I invited her to breakfast. In a bustling diner, we chatted over coffee and pancakes, getting acquainted with friendly small talk.
I was acutely aware of myself as a white woman visiting with an Indigenous Elder. There was a lot of history between our people that I didn’t yet have the capacity to understand. I could sense it lurking beside us like an uninvited guest. Feeling an uncomfortable mixture of curiosity and defensiveness, I sat with a vague sense of the horrific mistreatment of the Indigenous people of this continent. I didn’t know what to do about it. Out of the blue, with a twinkle in her eye, Sunny said:
“You know, you carry the epigenetics of the oppressor. You carry their DNA. We’re told that at this time, that DNA is turning back on itself and coming to help us. It’s turning back to make things right again.”
I smiled politely and continued drinking my coffee, buffered by the din of the diner. But inside, my blood ran cold. My ears buzzed with a high-pitched whine. As far as I knew, my ancestors had been poor, devout, humble people who arrived on this continent only a few generations ago. A settler myth I’d accepted for a long time allowed me to think of them as innocent bystanders rather than oppressors.
That night, my well-rehearsed denial was already wearing thin. By candlelight, I bundled myself into the chair in front of my ancestor altar and demanded:
“What did she mean about the epigenetics of the oppressor? Is there something you want to tell me?”
I heard nothing but sparse whispers floating raggedly on the chilly wind.
One night, a dream arrived:
I am standing on top of a stone fortress in the Scottish countryside. Next to me is a man I’ve never seen before, a father figure. With alarm, I watch as he topples over the edge of the tower, falling.
I race down the spiral staircase of the tower. Turn after turn, it feels like I will never reach the bottom. I am afraid he will be dead before I get there. When I finally reach the bottom, I find a circle of stones pressed into the earth with glowing embers at the center.
The man’s body is nowhere to be found. The embers are all that remain of him. It will take time, but they can be rekindled.
Soon after this dream, a family tome came into my hands. My great uncle had researched and written the book of genealogy decades ago. It had been collecting dust in attics and basements since then. I opened it randomly and read the name of an ancestor who immigrated to this land from the Highlands of Scotland in 1739. This was much earlier than the immigrants I’d previously known about. The book’s hundreds of pages recorded all his known descendants. Some of them received grants of land that were stolen from the Indigenous peoples of North Carolina. Some of them enslaved African peoples in Mississippi.
My neck prickled and my stomach curdled. The book revealed that I am a ninth- generation American settler. Sunny was right: I carry the epigenetics of the oppressor.
I am standing in a small apartment. Someone has violently thrown my beloved childhood cat against the wall outside. Her injuries are so severe that she will probably die. I wail with mourning.
I open the door and peek into the hall. Living relatives are marching down the hallway toward me. Some of the relatives silently rage and fume, “It had to be done.” Other relatives shake their heads in mournful complicity, holding fingers to shushed lips. “Don’t talk about it, whatever you do,” their expressions plead.
Inside the apartment, my deceased paternal grandmother awaits. She turns my attention away from the hallway and toward her. She embraces me and drapes a green snake around my neck. I become a person I do not recognize. It is an initiation.
This dream sent me to my ancestor altar, shaking in the chilly predawn. Harm has been happening on this land for centuries and it continues today. I was being asked to accept that the harm has got something to do with my own bloodline. With dread and anticipation, I sensed an assignment taking shape inside my bones. Years later, I would understand that my dream of the father figure falling from the stone tower depicted intergenerational trauma from millennia of war and patriarchy. In my initiation dream, the ancestors nudged me to look unflinchingly at the horrors some of our people perpetrated on this land. I would need to break the unspoken rules that had silenced and justified these patterns for a long time.
When the ancestors’ assignment first took shape in my bones, there was nothing to do or say. For weeks, I simply listened, aware that this assignment was going to change everything. Finally, I went to the forest and asked the trees for their help.
Grief came as I sat in the forest day after day. The ancestors’ wails erupted and their tears flowed. I cried the tears of my great-grandmothers who left their impoverished families in Europe under duress and came to the so-called “New World” as young women and mothers. I cried the tears of my ancestors who must have known the cruelty of their presence on this land but were powerless to stop it. From their ancestors, even more primordial laments arose. At the time, I did not understand the layers of suffering that led my people to these shores long ago. It would take years to learn about the events that impacted them while they were still in Europe. Gradually, I realized that just like the Indigenous peoples of this continent, they had once held sacred relationships with their land. For now, their tears were unstoppable, so I simply followed their assignment to let the grief move all the way through me.
Earth was the only being big enough to hold the tears of my people. Over time, I took their tears to Her forest, to soak into the soil and nourish the trees. I took their tears to Her creek, to be tumbled amidst the slippery rocks. I took their tears to Her mountain, who was big enough to hold a grown woman in her lap. I took their tears to Her ocean, whose waves moved in sync with my blood. Renewal is always possible. It is never too late to begin.
During this process, I often felt rage and disgust toward my ancestors who had colonized and enslaved. How could they have stolen others’ homes and lives so cruelly? Why had they disconnected from their hearts and brought sickness to this land? I was often tempted to abandon them, but their assignment in my bones insisted that I keep going. Now I could sense archetypal, seemingly divergent strands running through my DNA: oppressor and healer. I returned to my ancestor altar often, offering plates of homemade food, bowls of water, burning candles, cleansing rosemary and juniper smoke. Sitting with the paradoxical inheritance they’d left, I shared my feelings and asked for their help.
With their vast cosmic library, the ancestors began teaching me over several years. Certain dreams distinguished themselves as ancestral messages. These dreams came fully formed, bearing repeated symbols, storylines, and strong emotions. Exploring scholarly works, I learned that my dreams were pointing to ancestral mythologies. Synchronistic interactions came in waking life to corroborate these dreams. Eventually, the ancestors connected me with human elders who taught me old songs in Irish and Gaelic. To my surprise, these songs contained memories of Earth-based cosmologies that honored water, land, and animals. My heart blossomed when I learned that my ancestors once practiced longstanding, complex rituals to honor their ancestors. They once employed folk magic to navigate the challenges of life. Long before feminine wisdom was assaulted throughout Europe, women’s sovereignty was the law of the land.
Further historical research taught me how their traditional ways were interrupted by millennia of hardship. The Roman Expansion, Viking conquests, the Inquisition, the Burning Times, the Black Plague, eviction, and endless wars had razed cultural and linguistic diversity throughout Europe. I felt my ancestors’ despair when their kinship bonds were broken in favor of nation-states and market economies. I felt their shame when politically enforced religion disparaged their folk traditions, oral histories, and reciprocal relationships with the land. I felt their terror when the loss of the commons ensured their hunger, homelessness, and desperation.
Amnesia descended. Wave after wave of exodus from hurting families, stolen lands, and broken communities ensued. Sometimes they came willingly, but often, government and corporate entities colluded to force their migration. After long journeys by sea, they arrived on the shores of this land as orphans. The bones of their ancestors were lost to them. The old stories and songs would die with them. How many generations did it take for them to forget their ancient languages and speak English exclusively, the language of conquest? In exchange for a measure of security, they adopted a new identity that was engineered to consolidate power into the hands of a few. White.
Learning these histories enabled me to patch together an arc for their story; a way to make sense of the unthinkable. I imagined how, in their denial and amnesia, consciously and unconsciously, they consented to the lie of Manifest Destiny. They upheld a delusion in which this continent was rightfully theirs; in which they, the “civilized,” were entitled to take all they wanted of others’ bodies, lives, land, and labor. White supremacy told the lie that they were exceptional. The wounded, ancestral European orphans believed the lie, and repeated ever more extravagant versions to their children and grandchildren. After a few generations, our forgetting was complete.
How could my DNA turn back on itself to make things right again?
Waking life mirrored my dream of relatives walking down the hallway. When I told my friends and family about grappling with my ancestors’ longstanding presence on this continent, some justified this legacy with silent rage. Still others pleaded for silence. But the ancient ancestors presented a third option: Remember. They said:
Welcome, Daughter. You are an initiate in the School of Ancestral Memory. Wind your way through the maze of amnesia. Feed us with songs and flowers; remember our beauty. Rekindle the embers we left for you after our fall from grace. Become a good relative to the land. Become a good relative to the descendants of those we colonized and enslaved.
Use your time on Earth to take the steps that you can. Unfold the long arc of our story with honor.
Unravel the lie of supremacy in your mind. Remember who you are: a humble child of Stars and Earth. You are having a brief embodied experience in flesh and bone. Soon enough, we will reunite. You will remember that you are us and we are you. We have always been related.
Become the ancestor who plants seeds in the dining room; rocks babies awake; dreams embers into fire, turns the DNA back to make things right again.
“I will,” I whispered.
Over six years, this assignment continued to unfold, transforming me from the inside out. And the process continues. Today, I am familiar with the oppressor in my DNA. I have developed the strength to look him squarely in the eye. He is afraid of not having enough, of not being in control. I seek to understand him, empathize with his wounds, and make him a relative. Sometimes he becomes agitated when my white comfort is challenged. I have learned to take deep breaths, sit with him, hold his hand, and keep my mouth shut until he settles down.
There is also a healer in my DNA. She provokes discomfort and generates change. She tells unwieldy truths, grapples with trauma, and summons courage. She is not afraid to wail because she knows that tears cleanse my heart. She teaches me how to build relationships across the divides that were manufactured so long ago. She nudges me toward sovereignty and returning what was stolen. She soothes the present generations of our family with memories of our grandmothers’ ancient songs, stories, herbs and foods.
Over the years, my friendships with Yeye Teish and Sunny Dooley have deepened. Our relationships give me the courage to face these legacies and continue building empathy. Sometimes, being the first to publicly acknowledge my ancestors’ history on this land feels overwhelming. Other times, it feels insignificant: just one small piece of our collective human story. Always, it feels necessary.
Threads from the lands now called Italy, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, and England run through my children’s bloodlines. To honor this weaving, our simple ancestor altar still stands in the corner of the dining room next to Nona’s dresser. Most days, I spend time with the ancestors there, sharing food, water, prayers and songs. We have come to an agreement: this is a portal through which their messages can pass. I am constantly reminded of their assignment to become a whole person in relation to the past. I do this for my children as well as the future generations of our family.
Fondly, I remember the hands, voices, and stories of my beloved grandparents and fiery Nona. I call on those whose human identities are lost to time, but whose genetic blueprints live in our blood. Appealing to their cosmic body of wisdom, I ask: please show us the way toward equity, healing, and peace.
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About the Author
Hilary Giovale is a ninth-generation American settler who is descended from Celtic, Nordic, and Germanic peoples. She lives at the foot of a sacred mountain of kinship that is revered by thirteen Indigenous Nations, on land that is now called Flagstaff, Arizona. Hilary is a mother, dancer, writer and community organizer. She is the author of a forthcoming book about her process of healing from the wounds of colonialism and making reparations. She has been a contributor to Yes! Magazine. See her website, www.goodrelative.com, for more information.