Going through my boxes of old files in the basement, I am now working on files related to activism in solidarity with Indigenous people in Boston back in the 1990s. I found some correspondence with one particular activist, for example, and I am remembering the long process of getting to know each other, building trust, and finding ways to be helpful in that struggle. But when my ministry calling required that I move to another place (Cape Cod, at first, and then Maine), it meant that all of that relationship-building was lost, in a way, and I had to start all over again in a new place to build trust, to make connections, to find ways to be of use.
When white people are moved to act in solidarity with Indigenous people, it requires a lot of work to create relationships of trust. There is such a long history of colonization, of oppression, of theft, of genocide, between us–and a long history of “helpful” people doing damage. And yet, the more I became aware of that broken history, the more I have felt moved to participate in such solidarity. Not without mistakes. But I have continued in these other places seeking to build relationships of trust with other Indigenous people, doing the long work of decolonization.
I am not one who usually has spirit-filled dreams at night. Usually, in my dreams I am at a conference or gathering somewhere, along with a whole crowd of people, only some of whom I am acquainted with. I am trying to find my way around, or find food, or find my way back to where I was before–such mundane anxieties. Sometimes I meet old friends there. Often, I feel lost and overwhelmed by all the people I don’t know in places I don’t know.
I started feeling like that as I was going through these and other files from Boston. So many people with whom I have done work, shared conversations, struggled for justice, had significant experiences, lived in a household together, loved, hurt or been hurt by, and yet, I had forgotten so much of it. If I were not looking through these files, I wouldn’t remember much of what is in them. It all slips away with the effort and energy of building a life in a new place. Only a few relationships carried into long distance realities.
Sometimes I fantasize about not having moved everywhere, living somewhere and staying there my whole life. But I realize it is only a fantasy. This came clear to me a while back when I watched the movie Kuessipan, about two girls who grow up as best friends in an Innu community. In the description, “their friendship is shaken when Mikuan …starts dreaming of leaving the reserve that’s now too small for her dreams.” In reflecting on that movie, I realized, I would have been the one who left. In fact, I did leave a small town to go off to college, and I kept traveling to “bigger dreams.” I guess that journey is also in my blood. My grandmother left Canada to come with a foreigner to America when she was 17. Perhaps she too was seeking a bigger life, bigger dreams.
And now, here I am, sitting alone in the basement, going through memories, looking back on the many people I met over so many years. Sometimes I feel so tired. Sometimes I feel lonely in the midst of the crowded gatherings in my dreams. Sometimes it is a relief just sitting alone with the boxes, trying to make sense of the puzzle pieces of my life. It is a humbling journey. May Spirit help me to remain curious and grateful.
“Even if you don’t know who your ancestors are, your ancestors know who you are.”
@drxicana Dra. Vanessa M. Bustamante
I think I am coming to the end of myintensivesearch for the family of my Innu third-great-grandmother Marie Madeleine. I have found the most likely Marie Madeleine of the many that I researched, though I cannot have conclusive proof of any connection. Here is what I found.
Marie Madeleine Napeteiashu was baptized June 6, 1803 at Îlets-Jérémie. She was at that time about 7 years old, “or even more,” so her birth would have been 1796 or perhaps a bit earlier. By that time, the priests started recording the father’s Innu name as a surname for the children, so she does not have her own personal Innu name listed. Certainly, she would have had an Innu name that she used for the first seven years of her life and beyond. Her brother Simon Napeteiashu was also baptized at the same time, and said to be about 4 ½ years old, so born in late 1798 or early 1799. Their parents were Napeteiashu, who did not have a Christian name, and Catherine Mitiskue. Their godparents were Simon Tshinapesuan & Marie Madeleine Iskuamiskuskueu, elders in the community who were also parents or godparents to other Marie-Madeleines I researched. Both brother and sister were named for their godparents.
I was able to find an older brother as well, Jacques Nahabanueskum (later also called Jacques Napeteiashu), who was baptized 6/19/1786, at 2 years old, at Îlets-Jérémie, his parents listed, with a slight variation as Nepiteiashu and Catherine Matshiskueu. I think the name Napeteiashu might mean “male fox” if you stretch the spelling a bit—napeiatsheshu. Mitiskue seems a combination of bead/mitish, and woman/skue, so “bead woman.” Matshiskueu means “ugly woman.” I’m not sure about Nahabanueskum. Sometimes the Innu names changed over time.
Sadly, I did not see any further clearly identifiable records for Marie-Madeleine’s parents. Today I spent hours looking at earlier records to see if I could find Catherine. I found many Catherines, but none with her Innu name or a clear link to identify. Unlike for some of the other families I researched, there weren’t multiple prior generations in the baptism accounts; I could open the mystery no further. Perhaps this family’s connection to the priests at the trading posts was more tenuous, at least prior to Jacques, with the father Napeteiashu unbaptized, and the children not baptized until they were 2, 4, or 7 years old. I would have thought there might have been more children between Jacques 1784 and Marie Madeleine 1796, but I could find no record of them. Perhaps might this family have been more tied to their own Innu culture in the forest, and warier of the trading posts?
However, I did find many other records for Marie Madeleine’s brother, Jacques Nahabanueskum. In May 14, 1804, he was married to Monique Peshabanukueu at Îlets-Jérémie, (with his parents identified as Napeteiashu and Catherine Mitiskue.) They had several children baptized through the following years, with their father’s Innu name listed as their surname: Agnes, 1809, Rose, 1810, Marie, 1812, Charles, 1814, all at Îlets-Jérémie, then Jacques 1818 at Riviere Godbout, and an unnamed child who died 1821, then Monique, 1822, at Îlets-Jérémie. Jacques died before 1824, when his widow remarried to Jacques Tshiuteshish, widower of Marie des Anges Tshimatshueu. The children of that Jacques and Marie des Anges would also have been part of an extended family: Simon, Beatrix, Christine, Hélène, and possibly more.
I also found a possible later link for Marie Madeleine’s brother Simon, as Simon Napitaietshunwith Marie Catherine Tshiatshe, parents of a daughter Marie, baptized in 1819, and a son Simon, baptized in 1821, both in Mingan.
One clue that led me to identify this woman as the most likely choice is in the record for the baptism of my own Marie Madeleine’s son Simon, in 1833, at Îlets-Jérémie, where she is identified as “sauvage du dit poste,” which means, translating the racist imagery, “Indian of said post.” And so it seemed to me it might be identifying her place of origin. Of the women on my list of possibilities, within the right time frame, she was the only one who was baptized at Îlets-Jérémie. Now, on the other side, I know that her husband Peter McLeod was a clerk of that post in 1833. But she, along with two other Indian couples baptizing their children were all identified as Indians of that post.
Another reason I find her a compelling possibility is her age. Born about 1796, that would make her about 50 years old at the birth of Marie Madeleine’s last child of record, Marie Sylvie, born in 1846. Late age, but possible. It also means that she would be 53 at the time of her death in 1849, where she was identified as “about 60 years old.” Close enough. I also thought about the fact of her father being unbaptized—and whether that might make it more likely that she would partner with a Protestant man, quite a divide in those days between Catholic and Protestant, but perhaps not unlike the divide between Catholics and the non-baptized. Until the year of her death, when it was conducted in a Catholic ceremony, her marriage to Peter McLeod was not considered a “legitimate” marriage.
A more ambiguous reason I am drawn to her has to do with the network of relationships she seems to be embedded in. My Marie Madeleine named one of her sons, Simon, at Îlets-Jérémie. This would have been the name of her brother, but also another Simon. When her daughter Angèle was baptized in 1836, her godparents were listed as Simon and Angèle, who possibly match a couple named Simon Utshinitsiu and Angèle Neukapne. (No godparents were listed for Simon’s baptism.) This couple appears often in the records, and this Simon is the son of Jacques Tshiuteshish, (whom Monique married after the death of Marie Madeleine’s brother Jacques).
There were several instances of people being in the same place for ceremonies at the same time. Here is just one example. In 1812, on the day after the baptism of Jacques and Monique’s child Marie at Îlets-Jérémie, Simon and Angele’s child Charlotte Utshinitsiu is being baptized there. It is hard to articulate those connections, but to see the names again and again, led to a feeling of interconnection between the families, that might have followed through into the baptisms of my Marie Madeleine’s children Simon and Angele.
The unfortunate thing about this Marie Madeleine is that there is little information about further ancestors. But with her there is a definite link to a place and a community. Might I be related to the place called Îlets-Jérémie/Jeremy Islets? In Innu, it is called Ishkuamishkᵘ, which one source said means “where you can find polar bears” but is also similar to the word for a female beaver ishkuemishkᵘ. Now, to further clarify, generally speaking the Innu went into the woods in fall, winter, and spring to hunt, and came to the posts only in summer, to trade and to connect with the priests who did the baptisms, marriages, burials, and such. And they didn’t necessarily just go to one post, while avoiding others, but they usually were found at ones that were close to each other. So there definitely seemed a connection to Îlets-Jérémie, over many years.
I feel a strange sort of sadness as I let go of further hunting. The records are so sparse, so much is unknown. And yet I have learned so much, I have a sense of the community that I had no awareness of before this search. All I had was her baptismal name, really, and the place where she lived the last few years of her life. And now I have this sense of visiting her world of 200 years ago, learning the places of the trading posts, which were first of all gathering places for Innu people before colonization. I glimpsed the multiple inter-relationships, I scanned hundreds of Innu names, I observed the seasons of gathering and then going into the forest, the births and the deaths. I could see that she was born into a world of mostly Innu people, and by the end of her life in 1849, the increasing number of settlers outnumbered the Innu. But in that world, one joy was she was able to bear many children, and to live to be in her 50s, which was old for that time. My imagination is now richly populated with all of these people I have glimpsed through the strange window of the scratchy French handwriting of the missionary priests.
I come back to the message I received in the middle of this journey. It was like all these women whispered in my ear, “We are all your relatives! As you search for us, and find our stories, we are pleased, and take you under our wings. We are all your relatives.” So I welcome them all now. And remember, “Even if you don’t know who your ancestors are, your ancestors know who you are.”
I’m starting to write this early in the morning. The clouds are covering the sky, and the eclipse of the full moon is happening now, invisible, but I can feel it in how dark the outside has become. A funny thing about aging—I saw the most amazing full eclipse of the moon when we lived on Cape Cod—October 28, 2004, the night the Red Sox won the world series after an 86 year “curse of the Bambino.” We were watching the game, and intermittently going to the front door of our house, to watch the passage of the eclipse right there. As it was covered by the earth’s shadow, the moon got full deep red. Then the Red Sox won. What a magical night! So back to the funny thing about aging—after that experience, and with an older tired body, I don’t have the same urge to watch eclipses of the moon—especially if it involves getting up in the middle of the night. Tired body, cloud cover, greater memories. Yet here I am awake.
And somehow, it does seem a fitting time to write about another of the Marie Madeleines I have been researching. I’ll start by saying I don’t think she is my actual ancestor, though there is no conclusive proof to rule her out. At first, she was just another name, Marie Madeleine Utsinitsiu, baptized in Chicoutimi July 16, 1805, at about 4 years old, “fille naturelle” of Alphonse Utsinitsiu and Marie Kukuminash. “Fille naturelle” means she is the daughter of parents who are not married, at least by the church. At first when I began to research her, nothing seemed to fit together. But now I think I do have a picture, and I am not sure what to feel about it.
Her father Alphonse, in other records also called Alphonse Ukuinigsiu, was born in 1745 in Chicoutimi, so he was about 54 when she was born. I was able to find six of his other children, with 3 different mothers, only one of whom he was married to. Then he had one more marriage to Marie Louise Utshisk, in 1797, the record indicating it was “rehabilitated” which implies that there was something irregular about their union, and the marriage made it right.
But then it got weird to me. Because Marie Louise Utshisk is the mother of Marie Kukuminash. This means that Alphonse had a child, four actually, with the daughter of his last wife! I will come back to that. Marie Louise Utshisk has her own interesting series of marriages and children. Born in 1746, she was married to Jean Tshinupesuan, and with him had five children, four before Marie was born around 1781. In 1784, she also had a child with Bernard Pilote, who was French, a trading post clerk. She was 51 when she married Alphonse in 1797.
Her daughter Marie Kukuminash was herself married in 1793, at the age of 12, to Andre Tshinusheu, who was then 40 (and a widower with a child, Margaret Kukuminash, five years younger than Marie). Marie had a child with him, Marie Josephe Enukesh, in 1795, at 14, and then Andre died in 1796. The following year, her mother married Alphonse Ukuinigsiu. Then, about 1801, Marie Madeleine was born, the daughter of Marie Kukuminash at age 20 and Alphonse Utsinitsiu at age 56. Ironically, Kukuminash means “old woman” in the Innu language. Later they had three more children, Protais, Pierre, and Agathe, still unmarried, all these children baptized in 1811, but ages not given. I found a record of the death of Agathe in 1816, where she is listed as 10 years old, and the daughter of Alfonse and Marie Louise. But perhaps this was a cover-up of her actual mother.
This family is kind of the opposite of some of the others I researched, who seemed upstanding members of the Innu Catholic communities of the trading posts. Part of me wants to set aside my judgements and see them as people living in extended family community, freer about sexual relationships than the priests would like, having children, and finding partners in arrangements that enabled the group to function for hunting and trapping and gathering. People couldn’t be “single”—everyone needed a group to belong to, and when a partner died, it was necessary to find a new one, or your family couldn’t survive. And marrying young was not unusual either at that time.
But, I also feel creeped out about Alphonse having those four children with the 20-year-old daughter of his 54-year-old wife. Is it just an example of male creepiness, familiar to us in our own time? Or is there something that is hidden by the passage of time and the inadequacy of any records? The death of Alphonse “Ukunikushu” was May 12, 1813, 68 years old, recorded July 15, 1816 at the ceremony of his burial. (Note: these ceremonies did not happen usually at actual burials, but were a religious ceremony to account for the death.)
But, you see, I don’t really know what happened to most of these women and children. Not all deaths were recorded, and scrolling through the records year after year, I eventually notice that people don’t appear again. I didn’t see any further records for Marie Kukuminash. Into the later 1800s, the priests often recorded only first names of people, and it gets harder and harder to identify them. It is still possible that this Marie Madeleine could be my ancestor. A chaotic family life with many marriages and liaisons would certainly fit with her getting together with Peter McLeod, a Protestant clerk of the posts, without benefit of marriage. And Peter and Marie Madeleine later lived in the Chicoutimi area after 1844.
However, more likely, I think I might have found this Marie Madeleine, in the marriage record of Marie Madeleine Kukuminu to Joseph Akamkash, 06/25/1821 in Chicoutimi, with no other details given. Marie Madeleine “Utsinutsiu” would be about 20, and perhaps she adopted the name of her mother? Also it is in Chicoutimi, the same community. There weren’t other Marie Madeleines that I found in that community. These are the only real clues I have about this. This Marie Madeleine and Joseph appear clearly two more times, with the baptism of their children, also named Marie Madeleine and Joseph, and then appear with just their Christian names with possibly 5 other children, some being baptized, some being buried, and Joseph being married in 1839. All these records are in Chicoutimi or Tadoussac, nearby. So, I think it might be the same person, which is why she couldn’t be my own ancestor Marie Madeleine.
I learned a lot by hunting for this family, sparse though the details were. It raised so many questions for me too, all the important information that was never recorded. Surely some of the Innu people and their relationships were broken by the impact of colonization. I wonder about alcohol, I wonder about disease. I wonder about sexual predation by the clerks or priests. And yet, also, I feel heartened by the possibility of Marie Madeleine Kukuminau and Joseph Akamkash making family once again, and caring for children through many years in the place they called home.
Woke up to a misty morning on this new moon day, and started reading my journal from the last new moon until today. It is a ceremony I honor each new moon, and it is a way for my life to teach me.
I was struck by some passages from the time of Halloween/Samhain, that special time of connections to the ancestors. Because of chronic illness and its deep fatigue, I haven’t felt very spiritually focused lately, not much energy for deep ritual. Plus in COVID times, we don’t have our seasonal gatherings either. But it seems like the ancestors and spirits are reaching out to me nonetheless.
I did manage to cook salmon and potatoes for dinner on Samhain to honor some of Margy’s and my various ancestors. I listened to Quebecois music while doing dishes, and drank East Frisian tea. During the night of the full moon/blue moon I suddenly woke at 4 a.m. and saw the moon shining brightly outside my window. The next day, I saw a cardinal–my healing messenger bird–at the bird-feeder–the only time I’ve seen one there all this season. I was watching TV a couple days later and stumbled upon the movie Coco, which (despite its flaws) got me into the mood of Dia de los Muertos.
I was looking for things to watch on our Roku and stumbled upon a series on Canadian Rivers. The best episode was on the Moisie River, or Mishtashipu in the Innu language. I had first learned about this river from Innu people who were fighting to protect it from a hydrodam planned by Hydroquebec. They won that fight, partly because there were also rich white people trying to protect their own salmon fishing. It was beautiful to see the river, and to listen to the Innu people who call it home. (And by the way, the word-segment “ship” in Mishtashipu is a cognate to “sip” in Passamaquoddy, which means river. I feel happy to know that.)
All these little threads meandering unexpected through my days, pulled from me this prayer: “Ancestors, are you reaching out to me from the other side of the veil? Even though I have so little spiritual concentration or focus right now? I open my heart to your presence.” I remembered magical moments of other times when I felt the presence of spirit close by. When my Innu ancient-grandmother, Nukum, first appeared, holding a bowl full of the universe. When I was able, despite all odds, to find the grave of my great-grandmother Claudia in Ottawa. When I was sitting right next to my dad as he took his final breath on this earth.
During those Samhain days, I was also working on a testimony about my family’s role in colonization. I was feeling the weight of the ancestors–the migrations, the wars, so much. I was feeling overwhelmed by that weight, I was feeling that I could not carry that weight, or imagine ways to find healing for this aspect of my heritage. I feel weary even from the weight of my many living relatives who seem trapped in a cult of lies, there is much estrangement between us. And so once again I reach back to spirit kin.
Finally, I hear: “You don’t have to carry the weight. Let go. Remember trust. I am here even when you cannot hear me, in this dark night of the mind and body. You are already in my hands. It was never a question of guilt or innocence. It was always about love. It is okay to trust my love. Breathe in love.”
And so, today, day of the new moon–this new moon which is also considered part of the time of closeness to the ancestors and spirits–I let myself hear those words again. There is room for magic to intervene, even in the midst of illness and fatigue, even when I cannot dance or sing or build a fire. And I am filled with gratitude.
Some presenters at Healing Turtle Island this summer suggested that we all, colonizers included, should seek to uncover our own distant Indigenous languages. I had the idea then to learn to introduce myself in the Innu language, the language of my matrilineal ancestors, and then to mark their transitions to other languages. (Three of my grandparents have Germanic roots, but in this exercise, I limited myself to my matrilineal line.)
I want to thank Roger Paul, my teacher of Passamaquoddy/Wolastaqey, because I could not have approached the Innu language without having learned so much about Passamaquoddy. From what I can tell, the structures of these languages are the same, the grammar, the animacy, even some of the words are cognates. So with this foundation, I was able to use the Innu dictionary online to shape sentences that might bear some resemblance to how the language is spoken, though no doubt I have made errors.
After I was deep into it, I laughed at myself, because to whom could I speak these words, since I am not in touch with any Innu people right now? But then it seemed that perhaps they were for my ancestors in the spirit world. And so this is dedicated to them. I also want to acknowledge that though I have studied French, Google translate was my helper in the French language parts of this exercise, and unfortunately there is no Quebecois French in that translation program, so some subtleties have not been included. I have heard it said that Quebec French is closer to ancient French ways of speaking. I begin with a photo of my great-grandmother, since she is at the heart of the story.
My great-grandmother Claudia Tremblay.
Mishen Claudia nitishinikashun. My name is Mykel Claudia.
Claudia iapit nitanishkutapanukum ishinikashu. Claudia is also the name of my great grandmother.
Shekutimit utshiu, ińnu-assit. She is from Chicoutimi, in Innu territory.
Ukuma ińnushkueuńua, Mańi-Matińin ishinikashuńua. Her grandmother is an Innu woman, whose name is Marie-Madeleine.
Ińnu-aimińua. She speaks the Innu language.
Eukuannu nui ińnu-aimin. That is why I want to speak the Innu language.
Mańi-Matińin uitshimeu Pień McLeod, kie mitshetusheu. Marie-Madeleine marries Peter McLeod and she has many children.
Utanishu, Anisheń ishinikashuńua. She has a daughter, named Angele.
Ashku Anisheń kutuńnuepipuneshit ashu nishtᵘ, ukauia Mańi-Matińin nipińua. When Angele is thirteen years old, her mother Marie-Madeleine dies.
Natshe uitshimeu Anisheń kakussesht. Shushep Tremblay, kie mitshetusheu. Later, Angele marries a French-Canadian, Joseph Tremblay, and she has many children.
Anisheń utanishu Claudia, nitanishkutapanukum an. Angele has a daughter Claudia, that’s my great-grandmother.
Kakusseshiu-aimu. She speaks the French-Canadian language.
Mon arrière-grand-mère Claudia parle la langue canadienne-française, comme son père Joseph Tremblay. My great-grandmother Claudia speaks the French-Canadian language, like her father Joseph Tremblay.
Très probablement, Marie-Madeleine et Angele parlaient aussi la langue canadienne-française, ainsi que leur langue maternelle. Most likely Marie-Madeleine and Angele also spoke the French-Canadian language, along with their mother tongue.
Mes ancêtres canadiens-français sont au Canada depuis le début de la colonisation, depuis l’an seize vingt. My French-Canadian ancestors have been in Canada from the beginning of colonization, since the year 1620.
Je ne peux pas compter le nombre d’ancêtres français qui se sont installés au Québec, atteignant onze générations en arrière. I cannot count the number of French ancestors who settled in Quebec, reaching eleven generations back.
Ils ont abattu de très nombreux arbres et cultivé la terre dans un climat difficile. They cut down many, many trees and farmed the land in the difficult climate.
Malheureusement, leur arrivée a entraîné la maladie et la mort de nombreux Innus. Sadly, their arrival brought disease and death to many Innu people.
Les Innus vivent dans leur terre depuis des temps immémoriaux, et y vivent encore aujourd’hui. The Innu have lived in their land since time immemorial, and still live there today.
Claudia a une fille Yvonne, c’est ma grand-mère. Claudia utanishu Ipuan, nukum an. Claudia has a daughter Yvonne, that’s my grandmother.
Par ma grand-mère Yvonne, j’ai l’héritage des colonisateurs mais aussi, dans ma descendance matrilinéaire, l’héritage des colonisés. Through my grandmother Yvonne, I have the heritage of the colonizers but also, in my matrilineal descent, the heritage of the colonized.
Yvonne a déménagé aux États-Unis à l’âge de dix-huit ans, où elle parlait anglais. Yvonne moved to the United States when she was eighteen, where she spoke English.
Ipuan atutsheu Upashtuneu-assit ashku kutuńnuepipuneshit ashu nishuaush, tanite akańeshau-aimit.
Yvonne has a daughter Carol, that’s my mother. Yvonne a une fille Carol, c’est ma mère. Ipuan utanishu Kańań, nikaui an.
English is my first language.
L’anglais est ma première langue.
I learned another new word in Passamaquoddy: Mocahantuwok, which means wicked devils. I am not sure if the word is used in a friendly teasing way, or in a serious condemning way. But in a serious way, I have been thinking about using it for certain people in Washington DC who are bent on undermining the processes and hopes of democracy in this country. You can guess who I mean.
It is not the worst time in our country’s history. That might have to be the initial conquest of these lands, and the direct genocide of millions of Indigenous people. (That oppression still continues of course, but perhaps in more indirect ways.) Another contender for the worst time would be the 250 years of enslavement of captured African peoples. (That oppression also continues, also in more indirect ways.) I don’t believe there was a golden age of American democracy, that we are now on the verge of losing.
But I do believe there was a dream of America that had something to do with democracy, cooperation, and reciprocity. I think about the poem of Black American, Langston Hughes, written in 1938.
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
…Let America Be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed! This dream was not only dreamed in America either. In learning more about my ancestors in Europe, I was struck by the ongoing struggles between the forces of domination, empire, and greed and the forces of reciprocity, cooperation, and shared power. For example, my East Frisian ancestors valued their freedom and resisted domination, resisted being forced into feudalism. Friesland actually means Free Land.
But those relational values were even more striking among my early Innu ancestors on this continent. I remember reading parts of the record that the Jesuits wrote about the Innu during early conquest times. How horrified the Jesuits were that the Innu people would only follow the lead of their leaders if they agreed with them. (Democracy!) How horrified they were that a man might agree to a contract, but if he went home and his wife disagreed, he thought he should be able to get out of that contract. (Power was meant to be shared!)
Those are the same values we are now struggling over, in Washington, and all over this country, once again and still. Will we create a society in which all people are included, in which power is reciprocal and we cooperate for the good of all? Or will some mocahantuwok create a society in which they dominate over others, accumulate as much as they can, and destroy the rest of the people and the world?
It is no easy struggle. I don’t know how we achieve our goal. But I know I choose to live by the values of reciprocity, cooperation, and democracy in every way possible, and I choose to align myself with others who share those values. Perhaps each time we do that, in all areas of our lives, we contribute some spark of energy that makes the dream more possible.
Holle Sand in East Frisia: a nature preserve on the duneland forest, near where my ancestors lived.
Are there any European ancestors who might help us to find a mutually beneficial relationship with the earth in our time? Today I was remembering that this was my original motivation for reaching back to these ancestors. Oh, it has also been helpful to gain a better understanding of how my ancestors fit into the larger story of the colonization of this continent in which I live.
But on a spiritual level, why would I reach for a true connection, if not to ask for help in the struggles we are facing in our time? Much of Australia is burning right now, fascism is running rampant over our country, hurting the plants and animals, and the people of our land, leaders plot for power and violence, and so much is being destroyed.
And I remembered what sparked my heart last spring about my patrilineal East Frisian ancestors. It was a line in a letter, a mocking recounting of a piece of old wives’ advice: “Remain in the land and nourish it.” I wanted to reach out to those “old wives” to see if they might help me, help us. During our Ancestor Wounds and Healing workshop in October, I introduced the group to the East Frisian tea ceremony, as part of our ritual of gratitude for the gifts of the ancestors. We were short on time, and I considered leaving out the tea ceremony, but felt an unmistakable tug from spirit–“No! You must do the tea.” And so I did.
Two days later I led our group on a trance journey with the intention for each of us to find an ancient ancestor–maybe from centuries ago–for each of us to meet someone who was at one with their land, in harmony with their land and people. So we traveled through time and out of time to make a connection. In that journey, I met my East Frisian ancient many-greats-grandmother, the same one who called for the tea.
When she arrives, I burst into tears and suddenly feel how wounded I am, we are. She is whole, she can traverse deep time and be called upon in any time. I burst into tears and she is loving me, with healing hands, and she knows how all of us have been broken. I felt the holding power of her love to contain the pain of centuries. She is a healing presence, a witness to it all. She touches my heart, she says, “I can teach you how to laugh, even though the later Germans in your family lost how to feel.” She has a joy deeper than I know. She wants to continue our connection. She says, “Drink the tea ceremony to call me.”
I was profoundly moved. I didn’t have a name for her that day, but later, a name came to me. The German/Frisian affectionate name for grandma is Oma or Ooma. But a great-grandmother would be, in German, Ur-grossmutter and I am moved to call this ancient great-grandmother Ur-ma, or Oor-ma. The word also reminds me of the rune Uruz, which represents the aurochs, an ancient wild cattle species, now extinct, that was the symbol of wild strength, persistence, healing, and courage.
At the end of December, Margy and I shared in a rune reading. I used the runes to reach out to Ur-ma, and the first rune I pulled was Uruz. Sweet. Then came Nauthiz–which means Need, or difficulty, or struggle. How we are. Finally I pulled Gebo, which means Gift, and the power of reciprocity which is love.
And so when I reach out to Ur-ma, I drink the tea and I pray: “You have wholeness, we are so broken. Bring your healing energies to our time. We have lost the connection to all beings and the land. We have forgotten our kinship. Help us heal. Help us to love the land, to love the spirit.” And I keep remembering those words, which somehow came down the centuries even so: “Remain in the land and nourish it.”
As I explore my Germanic ancestors, I have been struck by the repeated rise and fall of empires in Europe, somehow timely during these days in the United States when it seems that the impulse to empire is battling the impulse to democracy. I didn’t study much European history during my educational exploits, so much of this has been new information. But most important to me, it seemed that the places where my ancestors lived were deeply shaped by the struggles of empires.
My grandfather Hochreiter’s birthplace, Linz, Austria, for example, was first named “Lentia” during the Roman Empire, one of the many frontier fortifications along the Danube River. The Rhine River was also pivotal to the Roman frontier, and the Gerling’s town of Osterath was near the old Roman frontier settlement of Novaeseum, now Neuss.
The fall of the Roman Empire saw the rise of the Frankish Empire, the center of which was in the Rhineland. From Wikipedia:
Julius Caesar conquered the Celtic tribes on the West bank, and Augustus established numerous fortified posts on the Rhine, but the Romans never succeeded in gaining a firm footing on the East bank. As the power of the Roman empire declined the Franks pushed forward along both banks of the Rhine, and by the end of the 5th century had conquered all the lands that had formerly been under Roman influence. The Frankish conquerors of the Rhenish districts were singularly little affected by the culture of the Roman provincials they subdued, and all traces of Roman civilization were submerged. By the 8th century, the Frankish dominion was firmly established in western Germania and northern Gaul.
On the map below, the dark green area of “Austrasia” is centered in the Lower Rhineland. (Note that the city of Cologne is just south of where my ancestors were from many centuries later. They lived on the west/left bank of the Rhine.)
I somehow had always thought of Charlemagne as French, but he was actually Frankish, and likely born in the lower Rhineland area as well. The center of his court was in Aachen. The Franks were precursors to both modern France and Germany. Perhaps this explains something that my grandmother Johnson said about her family being both German and French. The Rhineland where they were from was Frankish, and went back and forth in later days between Germanic and French rule.
Soon after Charlemagne, his empire was divided into three parts.I will skip right over the “Holy Roman Empire,” which was mostly a Germanic coalition of many kingdoms and cities that persisted through to the time of Napoleon. (My apologies to all true historians!) But moving closer to the time before my own Gerling ancestors emigrated, the whole of the left bank of the Rhine was taken by Napoleon’s empire for France in 1795. I found out more about this time from a very helpful website describing the Rhineland Under the French.
The “Rhineland” only emerged as a united political entity in the first half of the 19th century. Before 1794 the area on both sides of the Rhine, between the river Moselle and the Dutch border, comprised a patchwork “rag-rug”, made up of many different territories and princedoms. …The French Revolution of 1789 was the event which influenced the political landscape in that epoch, beyond the borders of France and also in the longer term. …In 1794 revolutionary France conquered the regions left of the Rhine, which Napoleon subsequently annexed in 1801. They were systematically brought into line with the legal, administrative and political conditions in France. In 1802 the French constitution, le Code Civil, was introduced. The achievements of the revolution enacted in the Code Civil included the equality of all people before the law, an independent judiciary and the universal right to vote. However, “people” were still only defined as men; women were regarded as the chattels of men and were not recognized as independent persons.
It seems that the forces of empire and the forces of democratic ideals were beginning to wrestle with each other in those times, and I am very curious what my Gerling ancestors might have made of it all. Gerhard Gerling is described as a “hotel meister” (manager?) so he would have fit into the newly emerging class of small business people–whether by owning or working in a hotel.
In 1815, Prussia gained control of the area, and it became the new Prussian Rhine Province, but it had been irrevocably shaped by the prior years.
In 1815 the time of French influence was over, but had left behind far-reaching changes, which had been appreciated as a change for the better, especially in the areas of commercial law and administration. Therefore the population also resisted having to sacrifice such achievements for the sake of Prussian citizenship.
One thing that I wonder about. When sources say, “France took control,” or “Prussia took control”–they don’t mention the armies or the battles or what human cost might have been part of these shifts of power. It must have been difficult to live on the edges of these empires. In 1840, France threatened once more to claim the west bank, but it did not materialize. That was the year that the Gerlings, and many in their town of Osterath left it all behind to come to Missouri.
So I come round to the question, What does it mean for me to be of 1/4 Austrian heritage? All of my ancestor research has been linked to my quest to understand the colonization process, and how my family fits into that long history. How might I be connected to my Austrian ancestors, and how were they connected to the land where they lived? What might I learn from them? I have had very mixed and often troubled feelings during this particular search.
Johann Hochreiter as a baby, in Linz
Linz, the city where my grandfather Hochreiter was born in 1884 and lived until 1910, was also the home of Adolf Hitler for several years, from 1898 to 1907. It is not a connection I feel good about. Wikipedia noted, “Like many Austrian Germans, Hitler began to develop German nationalist ideas from a young age. He expressed loyalty only to Germany, despising the declining Habsburg Monarchy and its rule over an ethnically variegated empire.” Learning the history of Austria’s connection and disconnection from other Germanic states, (see my last post) helps me to understand this somewhat, but the outcome was terrifying.
I was glad to read that in 1996, Linz became the first city in Austria to deal intensively with its own Nazi past. There was widespread research by the municipal archives, and the culture of remembrance extended to the construction of monuments for the victims of National Socialism. But of course all of these events, including both World Wars, were after my own ancestor had emigrated to North America.
In my family, we didn’t really learn anything about Austria when we were growing up. As far as I can tell, there were no cultural aspects that were carried forward to us, except that, ironically and randomly, the only classical music album in our house was Johann Strauss’s Vienna Waltzes, including “The Blue Danube.”
In fact, it is the Danube River (German Donau) which has called most strongly to my heart, of all that I have learned about Austria. (Not insignificantly, the Danube also flows through the city of Ulm where the Swabian line of my ancestors is located.) The Danube begins in the Black Forest and flows through southern Germany and through Austria, and then on to the Black Sea. The Danube valley in Austria is north of the Alps, and one of the most fertile and populous regions of Austria. This river is at the center of all its history and culture, and was the major East-West transport on the continent of Europe.
Linked to its location on the Danube, the Linz area was settled continuously, from the late Stone Age Neolithic period, in 4000 BCE. They have also found early Bronze Age urn sites and burial sites from the Hallstatt-period. In the first century AD, the Romans constructed a wood-and-earth fort to secure the important Danube river crossing to control traffic and for military reasons. They named it Lentia. In the second century it was expanded into a stone fort. It was part of the Roman frontier called the limes.
The official history site for the city of Linz notes there were many Goth invasions during the second century and that by the end of the 4th century A.D., the indigenous population is thought to have withdrawn to the easily defensible district of Martinsfeld in reaction to the advance of peoples from the East and West.
Upper Austria on the Danube seems to have been a crossroads of many peoples–who knows whether our ancient ancestors were part of the Roman colonizer settlements, or were the “Barbarian” hordes on the other side of the river? Or some combination of the peoples from “the East and the West”? In my personal DNA analysis, there seem to be fragments (less than 2%) of Italian and Eastern European ancestry–maybe they met along the Danube river in Austria.
So much is up to conjecture and imagination, except that it is clear they were of the so-called “lower” classes. Maybe my very ancient ancestors lived along the river, and then later migrated north to clear the forests and farm. Maybe they were a part of the Peasant Uprisings in 1626, or one of the 62 known uprisings in Upper Austria between 1356 and 1849. Maybe they were not. Day laborers. Weavers. Farmers. But in any case, around 1884, they left their rural connection to land and became urban city dwellers, and thus also came my grandfather to the cities of Ottawa, Ontario, and then to Detroit, Michigan. So much is lost in the translation. But I am glad to make the acquaintance of the great river Danube.
I’m on my way to the Wild Maine Witch Camp! My friend Sylvia and I are leading one of the morning workshop series (called a Path), on the topic of Ancestor Wounds and Healing.
Our intention in this path, is to open our lives to the blessings of our ancestors and to healing the wounds we carry from them. This work, for us, is rooted in our understanding that our path as witches is tied up with collective liberation from colonization and oppression, from patriarchy and racism. Connecting with our ancestors is a way to wrestle with our collective history and all that it includes, in order to bring healing and liberation in our times.
I have been blogging about this process with my own ancestors for the last several months, discovering more about the experience of my German and East Frisian immigrant ancestors, and the Quebec story of my French, Innu and Scottish ancestors. I’ve been asking questions about how the stories of my ancestors fit into the larger story of colonization, of relationship to the land, of migration, and belonging. Perhaps I have also been wrestling with the question of whether my European ancestors might have any blessings to offer me. That story is so tangled and broken.
I am looking forward to sharing this work with a group of people in the context of our lives as witches. Our tools will include experiential magical practice, music and chanting, personal sharing, guided meditation and trance work, sacred herbs, and the wisdom of each person in the circle. We will draw on Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects which is based on a cycle of four movements that we will use through our four days together. We will begin with gratitude, then move into honoring our pain, then seeing our connections with new eyes, and finally, going forth.
Perhaps I am hoping to discover if this message from Linda Hogan, Chickasaw writer, also might apply to me: