Matters of Ancestry

Indigenous people speak often about their ancestors, but they may not mean anything as simple as genealogy.


Who do indigenous people mean when they talk about their ancestors? Honestly, the question did not occur to me on my own. Like most people, I presumed they meant the same thing we mean by it: their biological parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on back into the mists of time.

As Graham Harvey puts it in his book Animism, though, “The least interesting and least generative fact about ancestors is that they have died.”

More important, in those cultures in which they are significant, the term ‘ancestors’ is most often used to refer to specific, named individuals and not merely to some amorphous and vague conglomeration of all who have died. Merely genealogical interest is not enough, it can be vitally important to know and use the names of ancestors in addressing them. To be an ancestor is to continue relating.

Emphasis mine. Harvey discusses the ways in which indigenous animists relate to their ancestors, not as the supernatural “spirits” we so often presume, but first and foremost as the people who shaped the world they live in today, who relate to them through the real ways that they changed and created the present world.

The Perception of the Environment by Tim Ingold includes an essay titled “Ancestry, generation, substance, memory, land,” in which he considers each of those terms under what he calls the “genealogical model” that we usually think of versus a “relational model.” To illustrate what ancestry could mean in such a model, Tim Ingold offers four different ideas from different indigenous traditions. First he discusses the Chewong of Malaysia, noting that for them an ancestor

was an ordinary human predecessor whose activity, in this case of planting a tree, left an enduring token in the landscape. But his contribution to successors was not to hand anything down by way of substance or memory (thereby converting ‘successors’ into ‘descendants’); it was rather to play a small part, along with the innumerable other beings — human, animal, spiritual—that have inhabited the forest at one time or another, in creating the environment in which people now live, and from which they draw their sense of being. Passing by the fruit tree, contemporary Chewong may be reminded of the ancestor’s erstwhile presence and deeds, but it is in such acts of remembrance, not in any transmitted endowment carried in their bodies and minds, that he lives on.

The Nayaka of Tamil Nadu in southern India refer to their immediate forebears as well as geographical features like hills, rivers, and rocks in the forest as dod appa (“big father”) and dod awa (“big mother”). Anthropologists, relying on the genealogical model, typically split this into a system of “fictive kinship” that cannot possibly have anything but a metaphorical connection to real kinship. “But the people themselves,” Ingold writes, “for whom there is no anomaly, are telling us something quite different. It is that the role of parents is not, as the genealogical model implies, to pass on to their offspring the essential specifications of personhood in advance of their entry into the lifeworld, but rather—by their presence, their activities and the nurturance they provide—to establish the necessary conditions in the environment for their children’s growth and development. This is what kinship is all about.”

Of course, we encounter a similar problem with the genealogical model in our society all the time, as revealed by the difficult nest of vocabulary that arises in cases of adoption. The term “real parents” often comes up, even though we use it as often one way as the other. Sometimes we use it to reinforce the primacy of the genealogical model by using it to mean the biological parents, but just as often we use it to mean the opposite, in defiance of the genealogical model, to say that relationship matters more than genealogy. Even those who hold to the genealogical model most fiercely cannot escape the fact that it fundamentally denies something important and unescapable: that parenthood, ancestry, descent, and kinship refer more accurately to relationships than bloodlines, to lived experience than pre-determined natures.

Ingold goes on with further examples from Australian Aborigines and the Ojibwe who claim as ancestors various beings who could not possibly have contributed genetic material to modern human populations, like the sun (a grandfather to the Ojibwe). Most anthropologists simply dismiss these claims as primitive myths and superstitions, but Ingold illustrates how, if we take indigenous claims seriously, we can see a different model of ancestry at work here. The relational model defines ancestors not in terms of biology, but in terms of relationship. It cares very little for genetic makeup, genealogy, or bloodlines. Instead it cares deeply about the relationships that define and create us and the world around us.

Graham Harvey writes about the Wari’ in Brazil, who believe that their ancestors come back again and again as white-lipped peccaries to feed their descendants. Like the dod appa and dod awa of the Nayaka, anthropologists dismissed this as mere mythology, missing that under the relational model this did not describe a primitive superstition but a sophisticated conservation ethic.

Indigenous people around the world define themselves not in terms of genealogical descent, but in terms of relationship to the land and in terms of their relationships to others through the land. Tim Ingold writes:

Every being, in the course of its life history, works in the first place to keep the progenerative process going rather than to secure its own procreative replacement. Thus there is no opposition, here, between history and land. Both carry the same intrinsic temporality. Woven like a tapestry from the lives of its inhabitants, the land is not so much a stage for the enactment of history, or a surface on which it is inscribed, as history congealed. And just as kinship is geography, so the lives of persons and the histories of their relationships can be traced in the textures of the land.

Ancestry & Indigeneity

Tim Ingold’s essay concerns itself with the implications that this model has for our understanding of indigeneity. He opens the essay with the United Nations’ definition of indigeneity, which of course leans heavily on the genealogical model and privileges the moment of contact with settlers (usually, though not always, Europeans) as the measure of authenticity. It defines indigeneity in terms of settlers and when they arrive, making it an inherent, heritable trait. It defines indigenous people in colonialist terms, and erases their own history and their own definitions for themselves.

Indigenous people have had to fight fiercely to wrest even basic rights from states around the world in a struggle that remains very much alive today. With so many laws, including hard-won victories, framed in the genealogical model, it should not come as a surprise that many indigenous people have become quite invested in it. After all, unsatisfied with displacement, oppression, and genocide, settlers have shown a keen interest in stealing indigenous identity when it suits them, too. I can understand the skepticism an argument like this can arouse. It can sound like yet another colonialist attempt to redefine indigeneity to take it away from indigenous people. They’ve had to deal with settlers constantly redefining the terms of engagement, always to the settlers’ own benefit.

Nonetheless, how can we ignore the gross irony that we seem to have colonized even the concept of indigeneity? Indigenous people themselves again and again define indigeneity in terms of their relationship to the land, reaffirming it again and again as the source of their knowledge, tradition, and coherence. Such a relationship doesn’t inhere in the blood or DNA, though. It comes from participation in traditions of continuing, skilled engagement shaped by the land, which have shaped the land in turn.

How this should connect to legal rights seems like an altogether other matter. The genealogical model runs through settler laws too strongly to try to simply ignore it in this one regard. Perhaps for now it will suffice to simply remember that, like so much else in law’s domain, as necessary as it may seem within that realm, such fantasies have little to do with reality outside of it.

Honoring Your Ancestors

The subject of ancestry often comes up in rewilding circles. In the context of the Paleo Diet and the related “ancestral health movement,” the term tends to refer to the basic idea that we all descend from hunter-gatherers at one point or another, that Homo sapiens evolved in the context of hunting and gathering, and because of that we should always consider our health in that context.

For rewilding folk, though, ancestry can become an even more important topic, especially with regards to cultural appropriation. By definition, rewilding folk have little love for the traditions that they grew up with. They share the perspective of the ancestral health movement that we should always consider our health in that evolutionary perspective of hunting and gathering, but they also consider psychological health and social adaptation in that light, rather than just physical health, diet, and exercise. Sometimes this makes cultural appropriation tempting, as one looks to the traditions of native people from the same place. Fortunately, rewilders tend to also hold indigenous people in sufficiently high regard to listen to what they have to say, and that generally makes them at least aware enough to consider cultural appropriation a problem, even if it doesn’t always prove sufficient to steer them away from it.

Ancestry often comes up among rewilders as the answer to this dilemma: to reach back in our own lineage to find indigenous people, and tease out what we can from those traditions. Unfortunately, this all too often veers towards 19th century Romantic fallacies, including myths about ancient Celts, Teutons, or Aryans, and even things like “genetic memory.” Though well-intentioned, you can see the morass of pseudo-science, racism, and muddled thinking that the genealogical model leads us into.

The relational model highlights why we should consider cultural appropriation such a problem. The traditions that connect indigenous people to their land emerge from many generations of ever more skilled engagement. It does not constitute a singular object, a “culture” that one can simply pick up or adopt. We should not think of it as a thing, but a relationship, and we ultimately can’t steal that relationship, only its outward appearances. That makes the attempt an insulting mockery at best, and a mode of colonization and genocide at worst.

The relational model also provides a way forward, because while you can’t steal someone else’s relationship to the land, you can still start one of your own. Yes, it will take a long time to turn into anything as intricate, sophisticated, or beautiful as indigenous people have, but it could become that in time. We cannot change our blood, but we can change our relationships. We can end abusive relationships. We can nurture tender relationships. We can repair damaged relationships. We can begin new relationships. Many fall under the spell of the genealogical model because it sings a seductive song about who you are, but I find that the relational model has a much more empowering song about what we can do.

Perhaps with that, we could become ancestors worth relating to.

Like what you read? Give Jason Godesky a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.