Being a Good Ancestor: How to Live a Life with Many Generations Down the Line in Mind
Dedicated to the ancestors who became ancestors too soon, to the ancestors who never got a chance to heal, and to the ancestors who pushed for a better world.
Inspired by the Podcast Good Ancestors by Layla Saad
The Discipline of Hope
Public violence and collective trauma is unfortunately our norm in the United States, but many of us are not desensitized to the violence. Instead, our fear and grief compound with each new attack on our health and safety. These past few months we, unfortunately, gained new ancestors due to white supremacist violence. We have also been exposed to a more persistent form of gun violence coverage and state violence. The constant influx of bad news can be overwhelming when it feels like nothing is ever going to change. When violence is the norm it can be tempting to check out or give up on imagining a better world.
Mariam Kaba’s quote, “Hope is a discipline,” serves as a necessary reminder that we cannot lose hope for change. We all can feel multiple conflicting emotions at once. While all emotions are valid, it doesn't mean that they are always telling a whole story. White supremacy aims to harden us. We have to interrupt it.
There were good ancestors in our history who were just as persistent for liberation as white supremacy is for violence. Hope was a discipline our fighting ancestors had no choice but to practice against new manifestations of white supremacy. If those that came before us persisted, we have the power to unlock what knowledge they left behind for us. It is a practice to remain hopeful that somewhere down the line if we are intentional, our actions will be meaningful. Like many before us, we can change the trajectory of the future. To honor our ancestors, new and old, we can be good ancestors. How we define what a good ancestor is up to us and our communities.
Being a Good Ancestor by Building on the Hope That Came Before Us
A good ancestor is someone who makes decisions that prioritize the quality of life for the lives that will come after their own. This practice comes from the indigenous philosophy, the Seventh Generation Principle practiced by the Iroquois, Haudenosaunee, or Ongweh’onweh, a confederacy of First Nations peoples in northeast North America/Turtle Island.
The principle was used as a governing philosophy for the confederacy of First Nations people to conserve the land as well as deepen the value of relationships with other living beings. It is understood that Benjamin Franklin had a great deal of respect for The Great Law of Haudenosaunee Confederacy, and the Constitution of the United States of America was created with influence from the First Nation’s principles rather than European governing principles. It is important to note that our governing principles come from people who the early colonizers considered to be “savages” and aimed to eradicate from history.
As good ancestors it is our responsibility to acknowledge the history of our governing practices while honoring them. By grounding our decisions in holistic wellness for all life, we are positioning future people to avoid unnecessary suffering. Because this concept goes beyond our physical resources and planet, we also must practice in the relationships we create with each other. Our interactions and connections with other people can dictate the way others approach relational living. As good ancestors, we practice decision-making that impacts everyone's wellness.
Honoring our ancestors can often be considered respecting our elders and following traditions without question. This is not what we consider a good ancestor. Honoring our ancestors is breaking traditions if they cause harm. It is living with purpose and questioning the ways things have always been. Often as descendants, we have to heal for the ancestors who were unable to live free or heal from their own lives. Many of our descendants will continue the practice of healing the trauma we are experiencing today. We owe them our wisdom.
How to Leave Future Generations With Tools For Living a More Purposeful Life
Nobody can force anyone to care for others let alone for seven generations down the line. Take a moment to consider your own life:
How have external factors like access to resources, finances, and social norms impacted your life?
How have you noticed the changing climate impacting your environment?
In what ways would you make changes to improve the lives of your loved ones?
The answers to these questions are affected by the choices people made generations before us. How often were they considering our wellbeing? How often have we paid for the consequences of others' actions?
We can see the impacts of the past every day. Have you ever heard a white descendant of slave owners say that they are not at fault for their ancestors' decisions? This is an example of how our choices can be seen and felt generations down the line. What will be your legacy?
Despite the time that separates us, we are responsible for undoing our ancestors' mistakes. How will we make choices today so descendants don’t have to feel the responsibility and burden of their ancestors' choices? We have the power to change the outcomes of the future. The reason why you should be a good ancestor is that you want to be one.
Identifying your Strengths as a Good Ancestor
Every person has a role to play in being a part of collective change and care. Every member of our society has strengths they can lean into to identify how we each can be of service to our communities. We all have experienced loss, especially in the last few years. By tapping into our experiences of pain we can heal while offering up the wisdom that comes from enduring hardships. There are many ways to be a good ancestor. Sitting with and determining your values can help identify what that means to you.
Here are some questions to ask yourself when deciding what it means to be a good ancestor:
Answer these questions with a radical imagination:
What do I want the world to look like in seven generations?
What parts of today's life do I hope are eliminated for future generations?
Why should I care about future generations?
What are qualities about myself that I admire?
What brings me energy?
What role do I see myself playing in change?
Here are some ways to be a good ancestor:
1. Build meaningful relationships with our elders.
Unfortunately, our elders are often forgotten when they no longer offer our capitalist society a means of production. Our elders' lives have immense value beyond what they have to physically offer up for profit. There is an infinite amount of knowledge that has been learned from their experiences. We enter this world with an abundance of wisdom available to us if we are willing to listen. Taking the time to learn from those who have experienced this world many times over will not only enrich our lives but save us from some grief.
Looking for the answers to life’s big questions can seem daunting when we don’t even know where to start. If we approach gently, many elders we know have the wisdom to bestow upon us if we just ask.
Engaging Our Elders
Start asking elders in your family or close-knit community more questions.
Seek out elders in your community. Look beyond your own family and friends.
Seek out books, articles, and journals, written by elders.
Ask questions like:
What are some highlights from your life?
Tell me about some of your favorite talents or skills?
What do you miss about the past?
Tell me about your family history.
How are things different today?
What is something meaningful to you?
What was something challenging?
What is a valuable lesson you learned?
What is some advice you would give me?
Our culture prioritizes the new but there is a lot to learn from history. Building relationships with our elders can strengthen our communities.
2. Heal generational trauma and break cycles of abuse by engaging in restorative practices.
Many families experience generational trauma and cycles of abuse. These are often the symptoms of immigration status, class status, race, gender, and other identities or experiences that can cause challenges in the United States. As good ancestors, we can begin to unlearn behaviors and break cycles of negative behavior to better our own lives and those of our descendants.
This is no easy undertaking especially if you continue to be subjected to inequitable conditions like poverty, racism, or abuse, but it can start with one person. Each generation that challenges the dangerous or harmful norms of a family can break cycles that have caused pain for generations. There can be barriers to engaging in counseling, therapy, community care, and more restorative practices. Here are some ways to get care:
Navigating Access to Care
Start journaling and learning online. There can be barriers to counseling but you don't have to wait until you can access care, to engage in restorative practices. Find journaling prompts on Psych Central to start unpacking some of the things you’ve been experiencing. The internet is a great resource but always be sure you are on a credible site that is backed by research and licensed professionals.
Ask a member of your community for support. There will always be a person around whose chosen role it is to help others. Keep your eyes open for someone who has made it their mission to offer support. They can help find you resources and point you in the right direction to care. This doesn’t have to be a professional. This can be someone who will help you make an appointment or share how they got into their own counseling. Your community is your biggest resource.
Seek out identity-specific counseling or support. Many therapists or counselors offer sliding scale or free care. Sites like Open Counseling offer resources for state funded services in Oregon. Many states have sites like this one.
It can be difficult to engage in the process of healing trauma, especially while navigating cultural differences. Many cultures frown upon counseling and therapy but you deserve care for your mental health and trauma. Healing generational trauma is liberating and reverberates through the generations.
3. Consider how your decisions will impact seven generations down the line.
Our choices today will affect many people. We have a responsibility to those that will be left with the consequences of our actions. It is more apparent than ever that the past is difficult to reverse. Instead of burdening future generations with damage control, we can gift them the ease of a better life.
Many people continue to exist in survival mode. We have been dealt a difficult hand like many before us. This can serve as a reason for making better choices for the future.
Making Thoughtful Decisions
Practice patience. Much of the change work we do today won’t be obvious to us or even our children. We have to remember that this is a long game when we start to feel overwhelmed by the challenges we face. Keep the bigger picture of a reimagined world in mind when you are discouraged. Hope is a discipline!
Take a second longer to think of how many points your decision touches. Each of your decisions touches many points in different people's lives. You could say something as simple as picking a shirt to wear is an individual decision, but it is not. That shirt has touched many points before you and will touch many points beyond you. We are all in different positions to make different decisions so do the best you can without exceeding capacity or your resources. Sustainability is a nuanced conversation and there is no shame in engaging with the world in the ways you are able at this point in your life.
Learn from the past. We witness the past creep into our daily lives often. Make an inventory of what you realize isn’t working and why. Use that to inform your values. If you make a decision a certain way, you might say, “ I noticed when we didn’t speak to our community, the outcome was lost trust from the people. While our intention was to help, we ended up causing more harm. I am going to seek out additional information from someone who may know more than me.” Be honest about what you don’t know and use the past to guide you forward.
It can sound complicated to consider seven generations down the line, but the practice is rooted in our instincts and values to care for the well being of others. If you aim to reduce harm, you are working towards being a good ancestor.
Choosing to be a Good Ancestor
Most of us have our moments of being good ancestors every day. We try to be good to our people and make choices that don’t hurt others. Most of us do this naturally and instinctually. This goodness we carry can be the framework of our decision making. On a good day or a really sad day full of violence, our overarching consideration for others can guide us. Being a good ancestor can look different to everyone but being a good ancestor will change the lives of the future.
Memorializing our Ancestors Lost to the Buffalo Mass Shooting and Ulvade Mass Shooting
We have lost many of our ancestors to white supremacist violence. We aim to remember those and memorialize them here. We continue our fight for dismantling harmful systems in honor of those who we’ve lost.
May 14, 2022: Buffalo Mass Shooting Donate to the families
Roberta A. Drury of Buffalo, N.Y. – age 32
Margus D. Morrison of Buffalo, N.Y. – age 52
Andre Mackneil of Auburn, N.Y. – age 53
Aaron Salter of Lockport, N.Y. – age 55
Geraldine Talley of Buffalo, N.Y. – age 62
Celestine Chaney of Buffalo, N.Y. – age 65
Heyward Patterson of Buffalo, N.Y. – age 67
Katherine Massey of Buffalo, N.Y. – age 72
Pearl Young of Buffalo, N.Y. – age 77
Ruth Whitfield of Buffalo, N.Y. – age 86
May 24, 2022: Uvalde Mass Shooting Donate to the families