If you’re white, this land was not made for you and me.
Like many white North Americans, I grew up with a vague idea of where my ancestors came from. In my case, they were scattered across Western Europe, and I was fascinated by what their lives must have been like. But I had no real connection to what it means, culturally, to be Irish or Scottish or British or German or Norwegian.
One time as a Girl Scout, my troop leader had us create a cookbook with recipes from all of our different cultural backgrounds. My contribution was Irish soda bread, a food I looked up in a book with my mom to correspond with our Irish ancestry. I’d never eaten it in my life. If I had been “authentic” to my “culture,” I would have turned in a recipe for the burgers my family ate, or the white-people burritos my mom would make us with an Ortega taco seasoning packet from the grocery store.
I’ve carried a deep longing inside me my whole life to understand the lineage I come from, to dig into some cultural origins that go beyond the hollow white-dominated culture of mass consumerism and caricature, shopping malls and St. Patrick’s Day. As someone with almost no relationship to anyone in my extended family, and a lot of family trauma experienced by my parents in their families of origin, I’ve never felt connected to a larger sense of familial, cultural, and/or ethnic-based community.
Ancestry.com and White Supremacy
After I started identifying as a witch, I became more acquainted with the idea that our connections to our ancestors are incredibly important and meaningful. And as I learned about things like epigenetics and intergenerational trauma—the ways we continue to carry the blueprints of trauma our ancestors experienced in our very DNA and psyches, although that theory has recently been disputed by some researchers—I felt increasingly called to understand more. I also wanted to know exactly where in the ancient past my pagan ancestors lived in my attempts at imagining what cultures they might have belonged to, before written records and the invasion of Christianity.
But I also instinctively knew that I would probably find out some very disturbing things about my ancestors, and that my relationship with them would be fraught, given the reality of what white people have done to people of color throughout history (let alone the violence we continue to contribute to and benefit from each day).
As many a white person has done before me, I decided to sign up for Ancestry.com.
Digging around in genealogical records over the course of a few months yielded specific stories and locations: not just the countries my ancestors hailed from but the villages they were born in. Names and biographical sketches I never knew existed. I found Pennsylvania Quakers on my dad’s side who were abolitionists. My 11th great-grandmother, Elizabeth Perement Clawson, was accused, and acquitted, of being a witch in Connecticut in 1692. Much further back, thanks to the committed genealogical work of Mormon relatives, I found connections to Scottish warriors who fought the English takeover of their land and who held castles and crests and noble titles.
But just as often, I found direct evidence of the ways my ancestors participated in the founding violence of white supremacy that shaped the trajectory of what is now known as the United States, a land invaded by Europeans who massacred those already living here while building an obscene empire of wealth off the literal backs of enslaved African families.
Name an era of bloody American history and my ancestors were probably connected to it, from the 1600s onward. Given that a line of my mother’s family descended from British immigrants who landed at Plymouth Rock, I presume they were connected to some of the first massacring of Native populations in Massachusetts. To my horror, I also uncovered records showing that the Major family on my mom’s paternal side enslaved at least forty Black people in Kentucky, people whose names weren’t even recorded in the U.S. Census Slave Schedules, just their sex and ages. Some of my ancestors fought for the Confederacy, and at least one paid off another man to fight in his place.
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Others, as they trekked further West, had papers showing them to be veterans of the Black Hawk War, where they had enacted genocide against the Sauk, Meskwaki, and Kickapoo tribes protesting white takeover of their land. I found digitized copies of the very forms ancestors had signed to acquire land through the Homestead Act, stolen from the tribes they had murdered. I even found an entire Master’s thesis written about one of my ancestors who had narrowly avoided being killed by Indigenous warriors as he fought them.
In another twist, I also found an Indigenous ancestor (my 6th great-grandmother, Mary Hendricks, granddaughter of Mohawk Chief Hendrick Theyanoguin) who married into one of my Scottish maternal lines, and whose grandson would, painfully, go on to be named after Andrew Jackson, that (in)famous genocidal president whom Indian Country Today named “worst president for Natives” in September.
Through the process of reviewing all these records, I was able to understand what I had previously only understood more intellectually: it’s thanks to white supremacy that I exist on this continent in this millennium. If not for white supremacy, my very being would never exist. And because of white supremacy, people I share DNA with made life a hell on earth for Black and Indigenous communities.
None of these statements is a new revelation in thinking about the history and present of North America. And it’s a very privileged story, both that this violence made my existence possible and that history has preserved and often celebrated the names of my ancestors, while recording the ancestors of Black and Indigenous people as property without names, or simply throwing their bodies into mass graves (content warning: graphic images).
Small Ways to Fight Against Our Complicity in Settler Colonialism
But I share these details to remind other white people that those of us in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa aren’t simply Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, and South Africans; we are settlers, descended from those who came across in boats, as part of the project of settler colonialism. Settler colonialism is a form of colonialism that aims to replace the Indigenous population with the colonizing population. This is in contrast to other forms of colonialism, such as the British in India, where the main goals were to exploit the labor of those being colonized and generate profits to send back to the colonizing country.
As Laura Hurwitz and Shawn Bourque write:
“Anyone not Indigenous, living in a settler colonial situation is a settler. Therefore all non-Indigenous people … are settlers living on stolen land. Settlers do not all benefit equally from settler colonialism. Many people were brought to settler states as slaves, indentured servants, refugees, etc. Race and class largely prefigure which settlers benefit the most from usurped Indigenous homelands. But as the Unsettling Minnesota Source Book proclaims, ‘it is all of our responsibilities as settlers, especially those of us who descended from European colonizers, to challenge the systems of domination from which we benefit.’”
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As white settlers, we have an obligation to challenge the vicious racism and xenophobia that continue to animate anti-immigrant and anti-refugee debates daily. This sounds so obvious, but it is clearly not obvious to tens of millions of white people who uncritically view white America as the default “real America,” who refuse to look in the mirror to examine their own ancestral immigration stories and complicity with white supremacy, and who continue to preach a 2017 version of the “Manifest Destiny” doctrine that excuses white settlers’ takeover of the U.S. while demonizing immigrants and refugees of color, especially Latinx and Middle Eastern communities.
For white people to understand ourselves as settlers is also to understand the ongoing impact that we have on Indigenous communities as we continue to occupy stolen land, use stolen resources, and interact with the environment. Grappling with our status as settlers, for example, should make us fiercely committed to taking concrete action against the oil pipelines desecrating Indigenous land and leaking toxic waste, such as the recent 210,000 leaked gallons of oil from the Keystone Pipeline in South Dakota. It should make us speak up in solidarity with the numerous tribal nations fighting for access to their sacred lands at Bears Ears National Monument in Utah as Trump decimates its protected status and violates tribal sovereignty.
If you’re a white person who retains wealth from your ancestors’ theft and the unearned advantages that accrue from white privilege, you should consider getting involved with organizations like Resource Generation, which seeks to help wealthy Americans ages 18-35 work to redistribute their wealth to communities who have been deprived of it. Focus your efforts on allocating your wealth to Indigenous- and Black-owned non-profits and local projects.
We can’t give in to the easy temptation to respond, “That’s too bad, but that happened hundreds of years ago—it’s not my fault!” To understand we are settlers is to understand we are settlers every day of our lives, and that settler colonialism is a present project that continues to extract resources at the expense of the very-much-still-here tribal nations who continue to fight for their right to thrive.
It’s up to white people to dismantle white supremacy, but we won’t be able to do that until we take accountability for the important role that settler colonialism has played, and continues to play, in creating and structuring white wealth and advantage. It’s not easy to recognize these painful truths, but it’s mandatory if we want to begin to attempt to heal intergenerational wounds and move through this world in love and in service to justice.
[Featured Image: Photo of a white woman from what appears to be the 18th century. She is wearing a floor-length floral printed blue and white gown and has her brown hair up under a white bonnet. She is looking down at the needlework in her hands. She stands inside a room with wooden furniture and a fireplace. To her left is an open window. Source: Ken Woodley for Pixabay]