Recently I had the opportunity to present at the BC History Conference: twice! My first presentation was on the topic of my upcoming book, Our Homes on Indigenous Lands: A Place-Based Family History. You can see the video here - all the presentations are fabulous, mine starts at 29:45.
The approach I’ve taken to combining family history, place, and colonization is inspired by the work of Victoria Freeman. Like Freeman, when I began the work of personal and family research, I had an unspoken sense that my ancestors “were essentially decent and well-intentioned people ... [and] had simply inherited the aftermath of an already accomplished dispossession.” Recognizing in myself and my family the assumptions named by Freeman and others, I was compelled to explore my family history in detail. And while many of my ancestors seem to have been in fact well-intentioned, they were very much a part of the process of settler-colonization in North America.
Within each section, I’ve made an effort to begin by sharing what I have learned about the context and history of the places where my ancestors lived. Where possible, I share some of the voices of the Indigenous peoples who lived on the same lands that my ancestors have occupied; some of these voices speak truth to power in a way that gives me goosebumps. I then look at how my ancestors came to “own” the land they’re on and what treaties did or did not exist in relation to that land.
Finally, I share what I have been able to glean about my specific ancestors’ lives: where they were born, with whom they married, and anything we know about what they said, wrote or did in their lives. I look for ways to understand how they related to place, to colonization, and to Indigenous peoples.
Throughout the book, I’ve traced my ancestry back through centuries of colonization: from the early days of settlement in New England to more recent settlement on the coast of BC. My ancestors were settlers and therefore by their very presence were complicit with the larger project of colonization. For some, the process of colonization was visible and explicit: for others, colonization was an assumed underpinning of the life they and their families created.
What have I learned about the Ancestor I Hope to Be?
I have come to appreciate that the process of understanding ancestry is an infinitely expanding proposition. In the process of this research, I uncovered many more questions than I started with: some of which I will never have a chance to answer. In addition, I’ve come to recognize that the work begun here is a cognitive and mental exercise to understand the basic stories of my ancestry. What remains is a more emotional, even spiritual process of connecting with the places and people who make me who I am today.
The process of conducting this project has deeply and irrevocably changed my sense of self. I see myself and my family as more significantly intertwined with place and colonization and that impacts the ways I engage and the assumptions I make.
Since beginning this project I have recognized the significant vulnerability inherent in exploring and sharing my own ancestry. I have a renewed appreciation of my own ‘marination in colonization’ and the ways in which I am unable to see the colonization that is most affecting me.
What do you think of all this? It’s part of a book that has been very, very slowly making its way through the editing process to publication with Hancock Press. I'd love to hear your thoughts.