Ancestors & Healing in this White Body
It’s been nearly six years since I walked into Atava Garcia Swiecicki’s Indigenous Medicine class. It was my first semester in graduate school. I was looking forward to the class but was unsure of what to expect. Atava spoke of the recovery of the indigenous mind; she shared that we all have ancestors who lived in relationship to the Earth. The purpose of the class became clear: build a relationship with my ancestors, learn the practices of my ancestors. It was the spring of 2015 and my life was changed forever. I dove deeper into the work in classes with Kimmy Johnson. I learned about herbal medicine while interning with Atava at her apothecary and school. In 2017, I graduated with a master’s degree in Integrative Health Studies unsure of what path lay ahead of me but confident that my ancestors would lead the way.
Leading up to this time in my life, before grad school and before my ancestral journey (consciously) began, I began my healing journey. I was yearning for something, anything, to heal the deep wounding within me. The wounding that led to my depression, the wounding that led to (what felt like) the endless search of belonging. Like many white women searching for spirituality and healing, I started learning about and incorporating practices like meditation, mindfulness, yoga, and the Chakra system. I started learning a bit about Native American spirituality and practices. I even have a (culturally appropriative) Zuni Bear tattoo to show for it. I did so without any awareness of history, systemic oppression, or cultural appropriation. I didn’t consider that most of the teachers and healers I worked with were white. I didn’t consider my own whiteness in relationship to the practices I was engaged in. I didn’t consider how I was perpetuating harmful systems of oppression on my healing path.
I went to graduate school and, thanks to Atava and Kimmy, I became aware of my ignorance, of the harm perpetuated in my unknowing. I learned about settler colonialism, about the history of Turtle Island I wasn’t taught in grade school. I was invited to face into the colonizers, oppressors, and enslavers in my lineage. I learned that there are practices within my lineage that can (and do) bring healing to my wounds and to my ancestors. I narrowly avoided the path so many well-meaning white women end up on: a path lined with cultural appropriation and spiritual bypassing. A “healing” path steeped in individualism, with no historical context or accountability.
I understand the desire for healing. I understand the search, the grasping. We need to heal. Capitalism, white supremacy, settler colonialism, and patriarchy depend on numbness, they depend on denial, they depend on avoidance. Healing, however, is not just about the light. Healing is not just about the individual. It’s not about ascending this body. Healing involves going through the underworld. It’s means facing the shadows within ourselves, within our lineages, within the collective. Healing is about restoring balance. Healing involves community. It is filled with joy and sorrow. Pleasure and pain. Liberation and accountability. Learning and unlearning.
But healing without historical context is not healing. If our healing does not involve dismantling systems of oppression and the ways we perpetuate them, it's not healing, it's causing more harm.
What's asking to be healed in this white body?
We all carry trauma in our lineages, in our bodies. When I think of trauma in my lineage, I think about my German Anabaptist ancestors. Those who fled religious persecution in the 17th century. Ancestors who faced the threat of violence if caught as an Anabaptist. The choices: renounce your faith and drown to death or hold your faith and be burned alive. I think of my Scottish Highlander ancestors who were forced from their lands during the Highland Clearances. I think of my Irish ancestors who fled as a result of the Irish Potato Famine. What was lost when my ancestors left the land of their ancestors? When they left home?
When I think of trauma in my lineage, I think of the choices my ancestors made when they arrived on Turtle Island. The choice of assimilation. The choice to become white. I think of the language and the practices of our people that were (mostly) lost. This happened at varying points within my lineages, for different reasons, but the end result was the same for all: whiteness. I think of the choice to farm on land that was stolen from the Susquehannock people. I think of the choice to employ indentured servants. I think of my Irish Catholic ancestors who, in response to their own oppression, disparaged African Americans. I think of the choice to remain silent in the face of violence & racism against Black, Indigenous & People of Color. I think of the trauma & harm caused by my ancestors.
I hold all of this in my body. It’s in my blood. It’s in my bones.
My people once had practices that supported them in processing and healing trauma. They had songs and stories. They held ceremonies and rituals. They worked with plants. They worked with stones. They honored the seasons, the sun, the moon. They had deep relationships with place, with the elements. Water was sacred to my people. They lived in community. They worked to restore balance. They honored their ancestors. I have ancestors who fought against oppression. I have ancestors who survived.
I hold all of this in my body. It’s in my blood. It’s in my bones.
I look to my ancestors, to my community, to heal the wounds I carry. I look within myself. A process of remembering the wisdom and resiliency my ancestors have passed down to me. Remembering the healing power of community. When I look to my ancestors, I must look at my whole ancestral story. Not just the parts that make me feel good about myself, about my people. But also the parts that make me grimace and squirm. The parts that feel heavy and burdensome. I must look to history.
“History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”
- James Baldwin
Here we are. Carrying our history. Those of us in white bodies, carrying the history of white supremacy and settler colonialism. As I write this, we've been living amidst a global pandemic for seven months. As I write this, the entire West coast is on the fire. A climate crisis. As I write this, Black Americans are fighting for liberation and justice, the same fight their ancestors have been leading for centuries. As I write this, Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island are fighting for sovereignty, for rematriation. As I write this, there are children locked in cages, there are hysterectomies being forced on people in immigration detention centers. A time in history that is only possible because of the illusion of white supremacy, because of the violence of settler-colonialism. A time in history that is only possible because of capitalism, because of patriarchy. Because of systems of oppression and those of us who uphold them.
Here I am in this white body, saying the violence and harm I carry in my lineage ends with me. Here I am in this white body, committed to healing the wounds I carry and atone for the wounds I (and my ancestors) have caused. Here I am in this white body, committed to the path of antiracism, committed to the path of unlearning settler colonialism. Here I am in this white body, committed to fighting for justice and collective liberation.
Who's with me?