Making Connection, Not Claim
On My Native Ancestry
Here in North America we all live on Indian Land. Non-natives occupy territories that were gained by colonial settlers through subversive means that entailed genocidal acts of erasure, conquest, exploitation, deceit, or theft. Wherever we come from, it is important not only to be aware of this history, but also of the ongoing presence and resilience of native people despite this traumatic past. The violence directed toward indigenous people, both by the State and citizens, is not relegated to the past. It goes on today. Both our historical and present-day government has - again and again - demonstrably broken its promises, its Treaties, committed national holidays to promoting grave hypocrisies, shirked making substantive efforts toward repatriation and restitution, and continued many of its genocidal policies and practices toward native people. Many citizens also engage in stereotyping native people or acts of cultural theft or degradation: using the signs of native culture as costumes, mascots, or for a sense of spiritual enhancement; or propagating harmful or ill-informed discourse about native peoples. There are also cases of positive, genuine, and mutually beneficial exchange between native and non-native peoples in this country. Yet too often, the bulk of the burden to fight systemic injustice falls upon those negatively impacted by it; not only in order to survive, but also to educate others in their process of self-advocacy. To me, this is unacceptable. So I ask, as a settler, how can I fight against manifestations of settler-colonialism today? As part of a consumer culture, against racial capitalism? As a white person, against manifestations of white supremacy? And how can my art become a means through which I fruitfully engage these questions?
These questions arise from a deeply personal place for me, due to my obsession with family, and the patterns - constellations - of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual formations that aggregate within families. It is my ancestors who formed the patterns within my family in advance of my birth. I carry this patterning forward in my very cells now, as much as I became immersed in it through my core relationships from the time of my birth. I encountered a teaching of Thich Nhat Hanh called We are the Continuation of our Ancestors, first in 2006 when I was on meditation retreat, and then again in 2010, when I was beginning to make art work that involved extensive genealogical research. Thich Nhat Hanh's insight that "Each cell of our body contains all the habit energies of all generations of ancestors" has been central to my thought. Within my specific family lineage are woven threads of conquest and exploitation as well as dispossession and loss of culture and homeland; wealth as well as poverty; brute survival and practical resourcefulness as well as intellect and artistry. The forces of both oppressor and oppressed operate, as do the saving graces of resilience and creativity. While patterning is passed down and re-created through families generation after generation, in work for justice it is critical to avoid reinforcing entrenched, harmful patterns through unconscious behavior. I operate from within this paradox, holding my ancestors with care as they press on through my life, as we collectively seek the resolution of our anger, greed, fear, and sorrow; and to see the shine of our basic goodness clarify. Hanh's profound message points me to this possibility for inter-generational healing. From this position, I seek a functional and growing understanding of healing activity. I engage as an artist with this as my core pursuit. How can art act as a healing force? For me, healing necessarily includes forging positive connections in solidarity with indigenous people due not only to my indigenous North American, Wampanoag, ancestors, but also due to the fact that I currently live in Lenape territory. Though in a temporal, historical, and cultural sense my Wampanoag ancestors are remote even within my own inner circle of ancestors, they - as do the ancestral energies of the homeland I now inhabit - remind me of how circles grow to take on spiraling formations. These wheeling spirals of relation draw me both deeply inward and far, outward all at once. Mitakuye Oyasin.* We are all related. Yet, we are not all the same. The historical and present-day tensions between native peoples and non-native settlers in this country are not easily reconciled; solidarity is an easy word but its true accomplishment necessarily makes stringent, unsettling demands.
I grew up hearing a brief oral history of my Wampanoag ancestors through my mother. In the 17th century, the Wampanoag were a loose confederacy of tribes in the Massachusetts and Rhode Island area. My mother told me the story of Ann Philip, the English name of the 17th-century Wampanoag woman who, by her mother's account, related our family to the sachems (chiefs) Massasoit and Metacomet. While Massasoit maintained peaceful relations with the settlers of Plymouth Colony, his son, Metacomet, the “King Philip” of King Philip’s War, was driven to attempt to “push the English back into the sea” as he bore witness to the increasingly voracious colonization of his people's land.** In 1662 Metacomet became sachem of the Pokanoket, a powerful tribe within the Wampanoag confederacy, in his time of grief after his elder brother sachem Wamsutta died, ostensibly poisoned by colonists. I have visited Mt. Hope, in Bristol, RI, to see the Seat of Metacomet, a large, glinting, fern-and-moss-covered quartz rock formation where he held council. Many tribes were allied against the colonists in King Philip's War, but Metacomet was ultimately assassinated in Mt. Hope's Meiry Swamp, by a native man allied with colonists. After Metacomet's Pokanoket tribe and their allies were defeated in this year-long devastating war (1675-1676), Metacomet’s head was gruesomely displayed on a pike in Plymouth colony for over two decades: as "prize of war" and surely also as an example to dissuade further resistance to European colonization. Pokanoket identity was criminalized, and tribal members were either killed, enslaved, or fled to take refuge with other area tribes. After King Philip’s War, Pokanoket identity as-such was thus fully absorbed into the larger umbrella of the Wampanoag. Today, there are two federally recognized tribes and four state-recognized tribes of Wampanoag (Wôpanâak) in Massachusetts.
Ann Philip, my direct lineal connection to the Wampanoag, is my 8th maternal great-grandmother. The historical record from the Library of Congress (transcribed and published online by a veteran-led group who maintains the website "The Patriot Files") reads as follows:
With Metacomet's death, the war in the south was largely ended. Over 600 colonists and 3,000 Indians had been killed. Several hundred more natives who had surrendered or been captured were sold as slaves in the Caribbean. Members of the sachem's extended family were placed for safekeeping among colonists in Rhode Island and eastern Connecticut. In Stonington, Connecticut, selectman John Starkweather married his Christianized captive. Other survivors were forced to join more western tribes, mainly as captives. (italics mine)
Based on this primary source alone, it is speculative how Ann Philip, John Starkweather's captive bride, was exactly related to Metacomet, as she was simply identified as part of his "extended family." In the aftermath of this brutal colonial-era war, there was ample reason for her precise familial identity to be obfuscated. However, the “family lore” of oral history, and recorded in certain Starkweather genealogies, declare she was one of Metacomet's daughters. If she was in fact his daughter, she would have been born (in 1655/6) when her father was only about 17 years old; about five years prior to Metacomet’s recorded marriage to Wootonekanuske. Due to lack of documentation there is uncertainty in her precise relation to him. What is clear however, is that Ann, a Pokanoket Wôpanâak, was forced to assimilate to colonial-settler society. Upon research, other details of her life emerge such as her full communion and subsequent “disciplining” by the Church:
- Ann Starkweather did not receive her "full communion" into the Puritan Church until after her husband's death in 1703; she would have been about 48 years old.
- The Congregational Church in the South Society of Preston disciplined her Oct 5, 1709 "for her being faulty by lying and obstinate therein." She confessed Feb 28, 1711, and was forgiven.
Note that it took Ann more than two years before she "confessed." A life at odds with the Church must have been very isolating and difficult in colonial Puritan society. Over time, and maybe even more so because Ann was an aging widow, she must have been forced to soften her "obstinacy," or else suffer, and possibly witness her children suffer too. I wish I knew what Ann "lied" about. Remote as all this history was to me, growing up white and without any active or ongoing connection with the Wôpanâak people, I imagined the difficult nature of Ann’s life, as she was forced to reconcile the experiences of her childhood and early womanhood with those of her captivity and married life, which began when she was about twenty-one years old. The losses and traumas of colonization and war; the substantive friction extant between her two opposing cultures and life-ways. Her strength in endurance and the labors of mothering; she bore seven or eight children. Interestingly, one of Ann’s daughters, Mary, married John Stanton. When Mary Stanton’s great-granddaughter Olive Leonard married Joseph Starkweather in 1805, my ancestral lineage of "Starkweather" thus became doubly connected to Ann Philip of the Pokanoket Wôpanâak. My deeply beloved maternal grandmother, Mildred Winslow Starkweather (b.1909), my "Milliegram," carried this line of ancestors to my mother, my two aunts, my sister and me, our two cousins, and all four of our children.
As I have made art since the time of the #noDAPL movement, shocked awake by the profound injustice of what happened at Standing Rock (my shock, a product of my white privilege), my 8th great-grandmother Ann, Metacomet, and their ancestors have been very present in my heart and psyche, guiding me to confront the legacy and continuation of such violence, forced assimilation to colonial-settler society, and forms of resistance to this, both past and present. I make no claim to be native, but I work creatively to try to honor all my ancestors. To connect with them. Challenge to my colonial ancestors is a form of honoring them, too, as I reckon with some of the exceedingly painful, difficult aspects of what they wrought, and as I work to heal from and to consciously undermine the legacy of white supremacy they intentionally or unintentionally helped cement. Healing does not come easily; it requires an intense spiritual commitment and vast measures of patience, generosity, discipline, and loving kindness. I often fall short. The impact is immediate: suffering of self and other.
I am in a learning process. I make mistakes. I do my best to be truly open when called out by anyone I might irritate, offend, or hurt. I hope, naturally, to be called in, with the understanding that personal accountability is of paramount importance in any healthy relationship. I understand that white folks claiming nativeness due to some historically remote ancestry is at best mildly irritating and at worst, deeply offensive, particularly when there is no active or substantive relationship with any of those ancestrally-linked native people. It is important to look critically at any white person's motivation for claiming nativeness due to ancestry. Claims might be saturated by self-identification with various essentialized concepts and traits of indigeneity (ecologically, spiritually, etc), yet divorced of an indigenous cultural context for their development, these claims represent more longing than actual belonging. Such claims might also function as a settler "move to innocence" as described by Eve Tuck and Y. Wayne Yang in Decolonization is Not A Metaphor: a way to at-once both authenticate one's right to occupy Indian land, and to expiate a personal sense of guilt for the destruction of indigenous lives and cultures. I am not claiming nativeness. I grew up in a white family and white suburban cultural milieu. I have never checked off any box on any form, ever, except "White/ Caucasian." I would certainly fail any blood quantum test, even the most lenient. Yet, of all my grandmothers so distant in time, it is Ann Starkweather - and her parents and siblings and ancestors - whose lives stand out to me as so poignant, salient, and relevant to today, and to whom I am called to attend. My relation to her vitally connects my heart with indigenous people in a way that has held the sense of meaning for me since my childhood. Divorced from any genuine context and Wampanoag community, what that meaning actually is has never been clear - in fact, I might argue it has lacked real meaning. To leave it at that, however, seems hollow and empty. What emerges when I seek to develop this connection, is that this ancestral link could become meaningful in this world, today, only if I develop relationships and life practices that reckon with the pain of colonization my native ancestors both resisted and endured, and promote acts of decolonization today. As I am white - enculturated within the contexts of both whiteness and settler society - it can be a fraught process to connect authentically with indigenous people now. Yet for where, when, and by whom I am welcomed, I do not intend to retreat to a comfort-zone. I am committed to developing the relevancy of my familial connection with First Nations peoples, not only through my art, but also through relationships rooted in community: possible collaborations, attending and helping to organize events, through critical allyship, and activism. I am learning.
If I hope for greater racial and cultural equality in this country - the demise of white supremacy and its internalized values, attitudes, and deeply oppressive and destructive structures and behavioral patterns - I need to take some concrete steps. These steps require learning about the past and its residue that is still with us: the granular specifics of history that so directly bear on injustices and pain continuing now. The ancestors are with us in both tangible and mysterious, ineffable ways. Yet learning always happens in the present - and in living-breathing relationships. There seems to me to be a paradoxical nature to any consciously anti-racist effort at bridging friendship, connection, alliance. While unfortunate if taken on as a "project," it is also a form of delusion to deny the effort required, and potential missteps along the way to building mutually beneficial relationships. To illuminate this paradox from the perspective of a different, anti-racist liberatory struggle, I will quote in full this poem by black lesbian poet Pat Parker: a poem with profound irony that I take to heart.
For the white person who wants to know how to be my friend
The first thing you do is to forget that i'm Black.
Second, you must never forget that i'm Black.
You should be able to dig Aretha,
but don't play her every time i come over.
And if you decide to play Beethoven - don't tell me
his life story. They made us take music appreciation too.
Eat soul food if you like it,
but don't expect me to locate your restaurants
or cook it for you.
And if some Black person insults you,
mugs you, rapes your sister, rapes you,
rips your house, or is just being an ass -
please do not apologize to me
for wanting to do them bodily harm.
It makes me wonder if you're foolish.
And even if you really believe Blacks are better lovers than
whites - don't tell me. I start thinking of charging stud fees.
In other words - if you really want to be my friend - don't
make a labor of it. I'm lazy. Remember.
I've learned through meditation that the greatest labors are those that must become effortless in order to be fully authentic. To reach this point takes a level of practice (labor) that requires genuine devotion and can be experienced as a profound struggle. I've also learned that when it comes to daily life, it is my well-entrenched habits that dictate so much of what I feel, think, and do. Anti-racist work requires white people to find concrete, embodied, and relational ways to "decolonize." To identify and renounce both gross and subtle habits of cultural, inherited white supremacy: dominance, exploitation, and a false sense of superiority; habitual assumptions of (most often unequal) access to power, privilege, knowledge, and physical and material comfort; exposing layers of white ignorance and denial; and to cease systematically manifesting and institutionalizing in society structures and patterns of behavior borne from such negative emotions as greed, fear, anger, and so on. The steps taken today to "decolonize" - if they are truly impactful - might resonate 350+ years into the future, just like the distant colonial history of my native and settler ancestors resonates profoundly with me now. The long-view is desirable, not just looking back into the recesses of history to discover, in part, why-things-are-the-way-they-are, but in envisioning the future. How might things become, if we are courageous and our actions are motivated by wisdom and love?
As part of my spiritual practice I am charged to cultivate an awareness called "pure perception." This involves apprehending the enlightened essence intrinsic - in equal measure - to all living beings; what my faith calls buddhanature. This practice prepares me to imagine the profound shift of living in a truly equitable, just, respectful, and brilliantly diverse society. When this mentality is authentic, aligned actions necessarily follow. Much work must be done on Turtle Island*** to incrementally yet consistently move toward a society capable of balancing what has been grossly imbalanced, and toward cultures that promote the nurturing and protection of all living beings, in diverse ways specific and appropriate to each. We can't ever really fix the world; foibles of human nature render utopias the stuff of fantasy. Yet we can work toward bettering our prospects; toward righting the most egregious wrongs; toward manifesting greater degrees of love and wisdom. Our indigenous tribal citizens of many different names and perspectives must, will, and already do occupy central roles in reforming and reshaping society. For example, the Water Protectors. Some of this work must also be done by allied white folks; some of it might be felt as healing; some, as art.
*Mitakuye Oyasin means all my relations in the Lakota language. It is a phrase used in address, prayer, and ceremony.
**There are many valuable primary sources and resources out there about the painful complexities of King Philip's War. Some of my sources include: Facing East From Indian Country: A Native History of Early America (2003), Buried in Shades of Night: Contested Voices, Indian Captivity, and the Legacy of King Philip's War (2014), and The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity (1999)
***Turtle Island is a translation of the indigenous expression describing the North American continent, which derives from the creation story of the Anishinaabe, Algonquin, and other aboriginal people of this land.