Conversations with our Ancestors - Guest post by Murphy Barney
What we can learn from conversing with our ancestors and how to carry on their wisdom.
This guest post is by Murphy Barney, a fellow Substacker and friend, who is author of Our Medicine, which is, according to her Indigenous Community, how they describe love. As she describes it, her “writing is an exploration of the human tapestry of wisdom rooted in collective care.” I was intrigued to hear how she considered and entertained conversations with her ancestors. Much like the Seventh Generation Principle (where you consider your actions in relation to how they will impact those seven generations after you), I was sure that there would be interesting things to capture from Murphy’s singular perspective. It made me think how important it is to know your past and prepare for the future. I hope you’ll enjoy the read! PS Here’s Murphy recent appearance (Oct 10th) on the BBC World News Podcast (via Overcast).
Our lives are filled with conversation. We converse on different platforms and with different purposes, approaches, and lingo. Some conversations last only a few exchanges, while other conversations take place over a lifetime. Conversations with our Ancestors are lifelong, complex interactions that require our patience and humility. For many colonized and formerly colonized peoples, connection and conversation with our Ancestors are deeply nourishing and remind us that the blueprint for a more just world lies in the wisdom of the generations that preceded us. Certainly, those before us faced immense challenges, and they also lived in communities that flourished. Our Ancestors have lessons for us, but we have to be willing to converse with them to learn from them. Fortunately, much of what they want us to know is memorized in our bodies, our instincts, and our values. We just have to allow them to step in and help us to remember.
This is a lifelong process of learning who you are, and carrying on the wisdom that allowed the generations before us to coexist, live in harmony with the earth, and survive the end of their worlds as they knew it. I believe these conversations are a cornerstone of a more just, compassionate world. They create a reconnection with all we were meant to know, be, and do. They bind us with the teachings that allow(ed) our communities to flourish, survive, and create before our survival was threatened.
Allow for imperfection
Our Ancestors are not here to sit down and have a back-and-forth conversation with us. However, they are here in the stories our elders tell us. So listen. For some of us, they speak to us in the dreamworld. So listen. They speak to us through the meals we find nourishing and the anger we feel as we face oppressive systems. They speak to us through the really agitating things our parents do. While we can’t call our Ancestors for advice, we can call upon their teachings when we get quiet and ask to remember. As you commit to conversing with your Ancestors, allow the process to be imperfect. Don’t blame yourself for what you don’t know. Do, however, get more curious about what you do know and what lies ahead for you to discover and remember.
Along the way, you might learn things from coffee chats with your Ancestors that don’t feel possible in the current world. That’s okay. You will have to constantly recontextualize what you learn for a changing world. This will be an imperfect process – as is everything else you do. Why not let it be so? You might misremember a story your great-Auntie told you before she passed and thus perform a ceremony or honor a life in a slightly remixed way. You might hear the same story four different ways from four different family members who heard it from eight different elders. You might go outside to connect with your Ancestors and pick up on signs from them without any context for how to interpret them. Be kind to yourself. Be imperfect in the process. Have reverence for them, and also for yourself.
Mind the gaps
My great grandmother wrote a book about her life. She was placed in a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school, and later went on to teach in boarding schools - often as the only Indigenous teacher. So, I have her book, and I also know this book was edited and co-authored. I know that for every story included in the book, many more were left out. I try to remember conversations with her. Alas, I was only 3 years old when I was listening to her stories, so there will always be gaps. In the process of conversing with your Ancestors, I urge you not to try to fill in every gap you find. Often, when we fill in gaps, we do so with our own perceptions to avoid the discomfort of not knowing. Instead, I offer you the opportunity to sit with the gaps, and allow them to be filled in future conversations with the generations before you.
Find & make meaning
What an honor it is to have a generational conversation. To speak to an Auntie who spoke to an elder who was raised by their elders and passed down life’s essential knowings. What a gift it is to hold in our minds and bodies the result of generations and generations of conversations. We converse with our Ancestors through symbols, memories, reflexes, and happenstance. The beauty of these interactions is in the conversations, as well as the interpretations and meaning making. A lifetime of conversations will leave you with a lifetime of interpretations. You will be asked to find and make meaning over and over again. This is a decades-long journey of gentle nudges and remembrance. It will often be your duty to make meaning out of ancestral interactions. Trust yourself. Trust your interpretation. Trust your inner-knowing. Allow yourself to reclaim your childhood imagination and instincts. Don’t let your adult analytical brain rule these interactions. Your most open, receptive self is likely your inner child waiting to solve puzzles and reconstruct these stories with you.
Be hopeful & forgiving
You are going to get things wrong along the way. You are going to misremember and mishear and misinterpret. Keep going. Forgive yourself quickly. Remember, the lessons your Ancestors want to teach you took many generations to form. It might take many more generations of conversations and storytelling to remember. Forces of colonialism and violence have spent centuries attempting to erase our Ancestral wisdom, so be forgiving of yourself as you seek out connection with what survived. Responsibility does not mean urgency. You have a duty to converse with your ancestors, and you have a duty not to rush the process.
In one of my roles, I am a doula. My practice is centered around birth and postpartum as a ceremony. I make sure the people I work with have meaningful elements interwoven through their birth and postpartum plans. This work – especially within the U.S. medical system – presents challenges. It also is the most hopeful work I have ever done. When a baby is being born, I rely on the wisdom of my Ancestors. I am guided by them as I listen to the instincts they passed down to me. I watch the next generation enter the world and feel a deep sense of hope that they too will converse, remember, and build a world guided by ancient wisdom.
About the author, Murphy Barney
Murphy is a Two Spirit woman living in Middlesex, Vermont. She is a sister and doula who authors a newsletter focused on storytelling, love, and rematriation. Murphy received her Master of Public Health from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and focuses her work on storytelling as a tool for health equity, though her favorite job was as a taxi driver.
This is a lovely piece, and very timely for me to read here on Samhain! With the veil being thin, I’m thinking a lot about ancestors who have shaped me--and who will honor my legacy in time to come.