I grew up in Southern California and for much of my life I experienced Halloween as a multicultural experience. I was never drawn in by the industry of horror, and I quickly began to feel that Halloween was the only time of year that people were honest about wearing masks. But I loved the colorful celebrations for Day of the Dead. The Milagros, the flowers, the bread, the candles, and the remembering of ancestors.
Remembering ancestors is complicated for me. My mother was adopted and as much as I love my grandmother, her history is not mine. Both of my parents had their DNA tested so I know a bit more now, but the list of countries my ancestors came from is so long, that it doesn’t give me a sense of having a Scottish, Irish, English, Welsh, French, Norwegian, Finland, German, Russian, etc. homeland. There’s no one in any of those places waiting for me to come home. I live here in the U.S. where many of my ancestors have been for more than 300 years. My father’s direct line settled in the hills of what became West Virginia during the English Civil War and stayed there until the middle of the 20th century. My great grandfather was a coal miner. My grandfather left West Virginia to work in a steel mill in southern California. And it’s true, you can take the West Virginia boy out of the hills, but you can’t take the hills out of the boy.
I remember having a conversation about being children of colonization with Linda Black Elk at a small conference in Montana. I told her that I was developing an understanding of herbalism and traditionalism based on my indigenous ancestry, which is best known as Celtic. She agreed that this is a way to honor ancestry and avoid cultural appropriation.
Charles, my partner in many things, began to have an interest in understanding what it meant to be a descendant of Celts. First, he learned that being Celtic wasn’t just Irish. And the thing that has had the most impact is a small group of people in Europe who have put together a band, ceremony, experience (I’m not sure what to call it) that is their adaptation of indigenous European healing traditions. They are called Heilung, the germanic word for healing.
But then a funny thing happened, he talked with his mother and she said that he isn’t Celtic, he is American. And as much as we understand what she was saying, we still laugh about it. Yes, we are U.S. citizens, but that says nothing about ancestry. His parents have no interest in testing their DNA. When people identify with countries that were not officially established until the 20th century, DNA tests can be unsettling.
Take my mother’s adoptive mother for instance. She was born in England, orphaned in NE Ohio, and spent thousand of hours researching, writing letters, and developing her life story as an English woman living in the U.S. She got her DNA tested and discovered that she has not a shred of English in her. She laughs about it, but I’ve wondered if she felt a bit of disappointment. Like many children of colonization and immigration, she grew up in the absence of what she lost. While people like Linda Black Elk grew up in the face of what they lost.
Stick Medicine is the fruit of my sense of indigenous living as a child of colonization, a remembrance of ancestors, and an authentic sense of self that has nothing to do with the mask that (anti) social media and identity politics demands.
Happy Halloween, Day of the Dead, Samhain, and so on…