Ancestral Healing



Our bodies are landscapes created by unprocessed ancestral trauma—in healing ourselves, we begin to heal back through our lineages—ending intergenerational cycles of trauma by working with them at the taproot. This initiation is based on the gate of "Ancestral Grief.” 1 It is an invitation to "Renegotiate our Contract with the Ancestors.” 2 This also impacts our "genes and brain chemistry," reframing depression as a biological response to epigenetic trauma and the grief of living in a culture that does not meet our basic needs for social connection.” 3

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Monsters support the ground on which I walk. There is a wound somewhere, a violent uprooting, a distrust that there is anything solid to walk on, to call home.

Where are my roots reaching deep into the soil, the intimate knowledge of a place, a culture, a song called deep out of the belly?

Ground is belonging, ground is staying put, the accumulation of sediment, layers of silt sitting in relationship to each other, compacting into soil.

Who are my ancestors? Who has made the soil I stand upon?

I want to dig deep, to unearth old bones, re-membering deep time. I want to feel safe to submit my muscles to gravity, to trust in the support of that which holds me up.

The Initiation of Ancestral Healing

The wounding incurred during this devastation in Europe actually altered human nature, I am told. Both our masculine and feminine aspects were wounded and altered. The violence and pain inflicted was so savage that it became part of collective cellular memory for both the feminine and masculine of our species...As well, in essence, this was the wiping out of the Indigenous culture and communal life-ways of Europe. And when they had honed their techniques and strategies, when they had completed their task in Europe by subduing the women who were connected to the Earth as healers and who held the communal life-ways, they came for us, the Indigenous peoples of the world. I bow to the European ancestors for resisting this terrible wave of destruction for more than two-hundred-years. Every blow that you took was one less that my people had to take. We understand this resistance. We are bound together in this rectification from death-way to Thriving Life Way. This deep realization of our interconnectedness was a great gift to me.

—Pat McCabe, "Witch Hunt Visions" 4

As I drove slowly between the trees of Fort Snelling State Park, the air felt thick with ghosts. I remembered Bayo Akomolafe's words: “everything is sacred because it’s haunted by the relationships that created it...the exclusions always haunt what matters...we are already threaded through with ghosts.” 5 I pulled my car into a parking space next to the memorial for Dakota women and children. This was the site of the internment camp that imprisoned Dakota families during the genocide my settler colonists ancestors perpetrated on the indigenous peoples of Minnesota. 6 Today, this is a state park through which hikers walk and families go to picnic. And it is also the site of active ceremony and remembrance for the Dakota peoples today, who returned to their occupied lands in spite of the federal law still “on the books” banishing the Dakota people from Minnesota. 7

Getting out of the car, I noticed that the empty clearing next to the parking lot was covered in small prayer cloths tied to branches and a circle of stakes. The cloths, each wrapped into a tiny bundle and tied with a string, reminded me of the bundles we were asked to make at a Moon Ceremony I attended with Dakota Elder Sharon Day. “Hold the tobacco in your left hand and imbibe it with your prayer, roll it up in the small cloth, release it into the fire.”8 The cloths also reminded me of the cloutie rag I had worn a year before on Dartmoor, spending all day speaking to the fabric, whispering prayers, then tying it to the branch of a tree next to hundreds of others.

I felt called to approach this place but stopped. It felt right to ask the land for permission to walk among the prayer cloths. I knelt near the entrance to the clearing, speaking to the land and the ancestors of this place. "I am the child of settlers on this land," I said. "My people were English, Jewish Romanian and Ukrainian, German, and Swedish. Among my ancestors were those who stole the land of the first peoples, who committed genocide against their culture, who banished them from their home.” I asked for forgiveness for my ignorance of this, for growing up not knowing the extent of what my ancestors had done or how close it is to where I have lived my whole life. “I am here witness, to undo the amnesia, to listen." I asked permission to enter and walk among the prayer cloths.

I put my hand to the earth and listened, waiting for an answer. A feeling arose, “you may enter, but enter with humility, and without words.” I walked through the entrance to the clearing, where branches had grown into a doorway. All around me were the cloths, tangible prayers of faded fabric. I touched nothing, listening deeply, feeling into the place, each footstep an honoring. I walked slowly around the circle of poles at the center of the clearing, each with cloths tied to them, and noticed that there were faint names written there. I was witnessing a circle of ancestors, memories alive in the moving fabric troubled by wind. The events that had happened here suddenly felt incredibly close as I realized these prayer cloths were left by living descendants honoring their relatives who were interned here. I felt the closeness of these people still, not that many generations away, their great great grandchildren coming here to remember them.

Ancestral Medicine healer Daniel Foor explains that "the ancestors express the collective wisdom of humanity. They are elders who remember our full evolutionary journey as human beings, and they are custodians of our genetic and cultural memory." 9 Foor explains that just as the living are on a spectrum of relative health, the dead also have various degrees of wellness. The ones who die without a deep knowledge of a culture and place, the unmourned ones, do not fully become ancestors, but remain in a state of dis-ease, their trauma playing out in the lives of their descendants.

As a person of European lineage living in dominant North American culture, generations of assimilation into the homogenous concept of whiteness have left my family with a complete amnesia about where we come from. Growing up I barely ever heard stories about my European ancestors or the traditions they practiced. In the dominant monoculture, history itself becomes short-sighted, a narrowing of only a few hundred years of domination—we are not taught to connect with our deeper ancestral roots.

Francis Weller describes ancestral healing as "a form of ancestral soul retrieval each of us can do. As we do so, we become better able to set our souls into this soil and become indigenous on this land." 10 As I emerged from my dark night of the soul with a renewed need to put down roots where I am, I realized that before I can find ground in my own life, I have to grieve the wounds of my ancestors. I have to witness the betrayals of colonization, the loss of all of the beauty and life-giving nourishment that my ancestors’ trauma deprived us of. I felt an immense chasm between my recent lineage and the deep time ancestors I actually connect with, those indigenous people of Europe who lived in sacred relationship with land, deeply embedded in the imagination of the earth. Between those distant ancestors and me there is a void of misguided, wounded people who were pulled further and further away from their source.

Bayo Akomolafe explains that "whiteness has to search for roots." He describes how European-lineage people were also colonized, the definition of whiteness arising out of economic and industrial divisions that "removed an entire world of abundance." By placing an emphasis on economic scarcity that turns relationships into transactions "whiteness has become estrangement from land, estrangement from community." 11 This estrangement trapped my ancestors in what neurobiologist Darcia Narveaz describes as a "safety ethic." In the safety ethic, “we cease being a human self to others. We stubbornly stay out of relation, killing part of ourselves.” 12

Narvaez contrasts the western "safety ethic" to the kind of “communal imagination” modeled by indigenous cultures:

"In indigenous cultures, losing the ability to recognize the selfhood of other, even non- human beings, is a type of soul blindness. And when one loses the ability to see the “soul- stuff of the other souled selves that inhabit the cosmos,” one loses oneself (Kohn, 2013, p. 117). To be, one must see and be seen."

Communal imagination reaches beyond a judgmental view of a person into a holistic view of all the circumstances they come from. In an essay on "The Vast and Beautiful World of Indigenous Europe," Lyla June Johnston, an artist of Diné and European ancestry, details some of the trauma that her European-lineage ancestors faced, including "horrific epidemics of biblical proportions" and "forced assimilation by the Roman Empire and other hegemonic forces." 13

Johnston also describes the so-called "witch trials" that murdered "8-9 million European women" as a deep form of cultural trauma separating European people from their indigeniety:

"It is obvious to me now that these women were not witches, but were the Medicine People of Old Europe. They were the women who understood the herbal medicines, the ones who prayed with stones, the ones who passed on sacred chants... This all-out warfare on Indigenous European women, not only harmed them, but had a profound effect on the men who loved them. Their husbands, sons and brothers. Nothing makes a man go mad like watching the women of his family get burned alive. If the men respond to this hatred with hatred, the hatred is passed on. And who can blame them? While peace and love is the correct response to hatred, it is not the easy response by any means."

In their essay "What it Means to Heal White Supremacy," cultural somatic therapist Tada Hozumi details the way this passed-on hatred is embodied in the colonizer impulse of white supremacy. Resonating with Narveaz's description of the "Safety Ethic" of western culture, Hozumi explains that "whiteness shows up as a hyper- vigilant need to dominate and control the soma of others." Hozumi describes the impacts that whiteness has on our nervous system:

"The mind becomes cut off from the rest of the body, engaging the ‘friendly’ social nervous system only to appease and avoid conflict. The heart, the sympathetic nervous system, becomes overly-activated and fragile, easily triggered into fight or flight for devastating effect.

The gut (enteric nervous system), the mainstay of the parasympathetic nervous system, becomes sickened and in a state of shut down. Causing carnage because of its hunger for a sense of home." 14

When seen from this depth of context, my ancestors’ violence emerged from experiences of trauma that severed them from their ability to be in authentic relationship. Part of the work of decolonization must be to ask— what are the indigenous forms of relationship that we have exiled? Instead of seeing anti-racism as merely giving equal opportunities for people of color to compete within the existing systems of extraction and ecocide, Akomolafe invites us to imagine a deeper form of reconciliation:

"[White] supremacy and white privilege is a denial of other places of power and a shrinking of the world into a small space...When we speak about other places of power, we’re saying to ourselves that there are other ways of being in the world, other ways of navigating the world that modernity has pushed out of the frame..."15

As well as “rematriating” indigenous lands, a core element of decolonization is learning from indigenous cultures. This is not about appropriating indigenous knowledge in yet one more act of violent domination, it is the acknowledgment that as European-lineage people, our healing will be found by engaging in regenerative practices to bring back the thriving life that we took away from others and from ourselves. One example of this comes from Diné artist Pat McCabe, who began having visions of the persecution of European women healers. Prompted by these visions, McCabe created a healing ceremony for living European women whose female ancestors were forbidden from practicing their ancestral knowledge. McCabe gathered a group of indigenous grandmothers together to pray with European women in several days of ceremony throughout Europe. This kind of ceremony offers a path to heal the wounds of mistrust of community and relationship, allowing women to access the deep ancestral knowledge with which they can "move and speak and act with the authority of the mother." 16

This summer, I learned that the freeway near my house covered the root systems of oak trees planted the year my ancestors violently exiled the Dakota from their homeland. Twenty years ago these marker trees were to be cut down so that a more convenient highway could come through. 17 A protest encampment formed around the trees, a movement called the Minnehaha Free State, people climbed onto the branches to protect the trees with their bodies. In "the largest police action in Minnesota history" a raid violently cleared out the protectors so the bulldozers could come. 18 After the sacred oaks were cut, someone snuck back in the construction site to gather a few cuttings from their branches. These cuttings were grafted on the bodies of infant oak trees. Now, twenty years later, four new sacred oaks grow in the backyard of a church. I visit them at night, watching their ghostly branches dance in the light of a flashlight from our guide. I stand and I weep in the darkness, seeing myself in the young-old oak trees, cut off at the roots yet connected to a deeper embodied ancestral knowledge, tenderly yearning to grow.


1. Who are your ancestors, what were their lullabies, their stories of creation?

2. What is the ground you stand upon, who lived/lives here?

3. How do you embody a relationship to deep time?



1 Weller, Francis. The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief. North Atlantic Books, 2015, Page 63.

2 Thomé, Azul Valérie. “Grief Composting Circles.” SOULand, composting.html.

3 Hari, Johann. Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions. Bloomsbury USA, 2018, Page 158-254.

4 McCabe, Pat.“Witch Hunt Visions.” Thriving Life, visions.html.

5 Akomolafe, Bayo. We Will Dance with Mountains: Re/Membering Home. http://

6 University of Minnesota. “The Dakota War of 1862.” Holocaust and Genocide Studies, https://

7 “1863 Dakota Expulsion Act Still on Books.” KEYC Mankato, 19 Nov. 2013, http://

8 Day, Sharon. 2017 Women’s Congress for Future Generations. Earl Brown Heritage Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

9 Foor, Daniel. Ancestral Medicine: Rituals for Personal and Family Healing. Bear & Company, 2017, Page 41.

10 Weller, Francis. The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief. North Atlantic Books, 2015, Page 69.

11 Akomolafe, Bayo. How I Am Unlearning My Whiteness. v=vvqrI6MhI_Q. Racial Justic Allies of Sonoma County, Santa Rosa, California.

12 Narvaez, Darcia, and Allan N. Schore Ph.D. Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture, and Wisdom. W. W. Norton & Company, 2014, Page 207.

13 Johnston, Lyla June. “The Vast and Beautiful World of Indigenous Europe.” White Awake, 1 Jan. 2018, europe/.

14 Hozumi, Tada. “What It Means to Heal White Supremacy.” Selfish Activist, 17 Nov. 2017,

15 Akomolafe, Bayo. How I Am Unlearning My Whiteness. v=vvqrI6MhI_Q. Racial Justic Allies of Sonoma County, Santa Rosa, California.

16 McCabe, Pat. Earth Talk: Thriving Life - The Feminine Design and Sustainability. https:// Schmacher College, Dartington, Devon, England.

17 Losure, Mary. Our Way Or the Highway: Inside the Minnehaha Free State. University of Minnesota Press, Page 132

18 Proctor, T. “The Invasion of Minnehaha Free State.” Culture Change, Jan. 1999, http://

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