As an American of largely English and German early settler-colonizer ancestry, I was neither raised with a framework for ancestor reverence nor taught to value my own ancestors. Before my first experiences with ancestor-focused ritual, not only had I never heard stories about earlier generations of my people, I had never thought to ask. Turning to face this cultural blind spot has served as a gateway of personal transformation and healing, deepened my understanding of intact indigenous cultures and traditions, and inspired me to serve others of diverse lineages in the reclamation of earth-honoring wisdoms.
In my own experience and for the thousands of others whom I’ve guided in ancestral healing since 2005, we return in spirit to a time before our specific lineages stopped openly tending to relationships with the ancestors. Timelines vary depending on the origin of one’s ancestors. In my case, I now understand my earlier ancestral amnesia as a symptom of European colonialism and white-body supremacy that has so profoundly shaped recent centuries of human history in the Americas. Only within the last five hundred years were these troubles then exported in earnest to most of the rest of the Earth as a kind of cultural contagion. Before my people crossed the Atlantic, the indigenous, pre-Christian traditions of my Northern and Central European ancestors were already profoundly fragmented by Roman and Christian empires within Europe. When I initially sought out ancestor-honoring traditions of my people, I realized the fires had been cold for centuries. Ancestral reconnection along European lineages often means visioning back thousands of years.
For others seeking ancestral reconnection, anchoring in the vitality of the ancients may mean contacting a time before the arrival of ships full of physically, culturally, and spiritually unwell Europeans or knowing in your bones the old magic of a time before the horrors of the Transatlantic slave trade. And for others from more intact lineages of ancestor reverence and ritual, reconnection may call for attuning to one’s grandparents, great grandparents, or other recent dead who openly cared for the ancients during their time on Earth and beyond. No matter the timeline, I have observed again and again that everyone can connect directly to wise and loving ancestors if we approach with humility and respectful tenacity. Over the past two decades of helping folks of diverse lineages to come back into relationship with their healed and whole ancestors, here are just a few things I’ve found helpful to keep in mind:
Thinking about ancestors is not the same as relating. Just as money still owed to us doesn’t pay the bills and imagining food doesn’t fill our bellies, thinking about our ancestors is not the same as directly relating. We know this when it comes to connecting with other humans; if we don’t spend quality time, the relationship gradually dies out. It’s no different with the souls or spirits of the dead. The ancestors are not just a part of us, not just a thought or good idea. This is a key difference between a generalized indigenous, animist, or traditionalist perspective and one that reduces the ancestors only to psychological processes, memories, or aspects of self. Reconnection will include a felt sense of contact and that quality of contact is decisively different than thinking alone.
Relationship means being open to influence. As with living teachers, elders, and trusted advisors, if we’re not actually open to influence the relationship becomes stale. Inhabiting the role of the beloved child and the face of our ancestors on Earth calls for actually allowing in the influence of beloved lineage elders. Sometimes this leads to sweetness, prosperity, and ease. Sometimes this means they shatter old structures that no longer serve you or end unhealthy relationships in ways that make you feel like you’re dying. Our loving ancestors are preoccupied with us fulfilling our potential here on Earth. They are catalytic, fearless, and able to see through our masks. We can’t reconnect with them and expect nothing to change. To truly call on our wise and well ancestors is to invite greater congruency and acceleration of our path of destiny. This is good news! Not always comfortable, but it’s way better than wasting this precious life.
Ancestral relationships often follow an elder-junior dynamic. Most Westerners have little reference for how to relate with elders and tend to see all others as equals. Those among our lineage dead who are wise and well ancestors, the vibrant and healed ones, are truly elders in relation to us here on Earth. My time in indigenous ritual and community, both in North America and in West Africa, has been helpful for me to see elder-junior power dynamics modeled, to see organic hierarchies of care that recognize each person’s differing capacities and responsibilities. Working within the contours of these dynamics doesn’t mean we give up our choice; we are still responsible for all our actions. This doesn’t mean we hold back confusion, pain, or intensity; to the contrary, our ancestors and true living elders can very much hold us. Although elder-junior dynamics can take many forms, they’re different in important ways from peer relationships and it’s an important point of etiquette to keep in mind when coming back into sustained connection with the old ones.
We are living through demanding and troubled times. The intergenerational confusion that is European colonialism, racism, misogyny, economic greed, and disconnection from the Earth; these troubles continue to drive ecological collapse and tremendous suffering. At the same time, we each have access to wise and well ancestors whose specialization and good medicine lies in knowing how to be an ethical and effective human being. They have lived through crisis. They see the urgency of the times and wish to be more consciously included in the change and healing. No matter when your people stopped tending to the ancestors (if they ever did), the old ones are available, and the way forward through the turbulence ahead includes walking in partnership with them.