The question I am asked most often these days has to do with the hows of connecting more deeply with your ancestral lineage.
How do I connect to the lands and rituals and traditions of my ancestors? How can I use the results of an ancestry test to translate them into real wisdom? How do I find my ancient tribal connections, beyond modern-day national borders? How can I go beyond the same white colonizer stories I’m told again and again?
I love these questions.
Not because I have all the answers, but because I, too, am in this inquiry alongside all of you. After a year of intensive research and learning from my teacher and listening and dreaming, I’ve come to realize I’ve only just touched the surface.
So I’ve put aside my inner perfectionist (the one who needs to know all the answers right now) and have embraced this lifelong journey back to my roots.
Because reconnecting to your ancestral lineage is remembering that you belong.
It’s how you come home to yourself, without needing to fit into any sort of societal norm, body type, religion, or tribal clique.
When you remember that you belong here on earth, that there is a deep and powerful wildness stirring inside you, and that the DNA of your lineage still lives in your cells, so much of that deep longing to feel home begins to melt away.
Before I dive in to share what has worked for me, I want to set your expectations here.
This isn’t going to be a straight line to the promised land.
Human history has been rife and complicated with migrations, wars, famines, separation of families, traumas, etc. Over the centuries, a lot of knowledge and real accounts of history (not just the ones we read about in school - the ones written by the victors) have been lost.
What makes this exploration powerful and enjoyable is to frame it as a lifelong treasure hunt, where bits and pieces unfold as you move from one clue to the next.
A Guide to Connecting with Your Ancestral Roots
I want to credit and thank my teacher, Liz Migliorelli, whose class The Folk Medicine & Magic of Old Europe was incredibly helpful in my research and understanding of this vast topic. This work is inspired by her class, and I encourage anyone in the Bay Area or north to take it with her.
1. Get the DNA test
First and foremost, I highly recommend getting the DNA test. I have found it very helpful in clarifying any of the stories or assumptions I’d had about being one-quarter this or two-fifths that.
Seeing the spread of various European lands found from my DNA helped me visually understand the way my ancestors migrated from the northern lands of Scandinavia down through the British Isles, while others went inland to modern day France and Germany. The test helped me see that national identity is such a new concept in human history and that my people moved around (due to food sources, weather, access to water, war, falling in love, etc.) to create the great tapestry that is my ancestral heritage.
My favorite part of the whole process was being able to connect to the first of all my grandmothers through my maternal haplogroup. I write all about this (and how you can find yours) in this post.
There are debates over whether 23andMe, Ancestry DNA, or National Geographic are better, and I don’t have an opinion on that. I, personally, went with 23andMe because they were having a sale and I wanted to get the raw data of my genetics for health purposes. I have heard it’s easier to track down your maternal haplogroup through 23andMe than it is with Ancestry, but that Ancestry has a prettier interface when it comes to genetic ancestry. Go with what calls to you.
Edit: It's best to take your DNA results with a grain of salt, as it doesn't always paint an accurate picture. Read this article to see what I mean and remember that these tests aren't telling you where your DNA comes from in the past, but are instead telling you where on Earth your DNA is from today.
2. Get to know the history and topography of your homelands
Once you have a good idea of the places your people are from, pick one and go deep to better understand the land.
Read up on the history of those places to better understand who was in power and when. Find out when the major wars were, the famines, when industrialization came on the scene. Was it once covered in a giant boreal forest or a sheet of ice?
The more you can understand the history and the topography of the land (and achieve a deeper sense of place), the easier it is to capture what your people experienced.
And, when I talk about “the land,” I want you to zero in as much as possible. Instead of looking generally at Italy for example, see if you can pinpoint a village or group of towns. The more you can identify a specific bioregion (with its lakes, mountains, valleys, etc.), the easier it is for you to transport yourself to the experience of your ancestors living there.
3. Retrieve the stories from your family
I know this may be impossible for some of you for various reasons like adoption, death, or needing to consciously separate from family for the sake of mental health and wellbeing. If that’s you, go ahead and skip this section knowing you still have so many ways to connect to your ancestral lines. This definitely doesn’t have to be the only way.
But, if you do have access to family stories (be it through talking with family members or written accounts from your genealogy-obsessed Great Uncle), find a way to access them. Record a conversation with your grandmother. Make copies of old diaries. Carve out time and space to learn these stories and etch them on your heart.
We live in such a fast and connected time, where many of us don’t even bother to print the photo memories we post weekly on our social media accounts (Note: print your photos!). So many of our stories have been lost because the records have been destroyed, they died with those who last knew them, or no one ever bothered to write them down.
So take some space during your next trip home or family gathering. Story by story, bit by bit, the picture will be painted for you.
A photocopy of an old photo album from my matrilineal ancestors.
4. Search Public Records
We live in an age where we can access so many clues and treasures of our ancestry through digital public records. You can start with getting a trial account on Ancestry.com and doing some digging there. Within five minutes of searching, I was able to find my husband’s great grandmother’s birth certificate from Lucca, Italy and her immigration document to San Francisco two decades later.
But there are other free resources you can tap, including your local network of libraries (time to get down with some microfiche) and the Mormon church. It’s true, the Mormon church keeps incredibly detailed genealogical records that anyone can access. I also encourage you to check out what The Suppressed History Archives has to offer.
5. Build an Ancestor Altar
Now we’re getting into more magical and energetic tools—the stuff that’s really made the difference for me.
To focus your intentions and invoke ancestors into your space, craft an altar to your ancestors.
This could look like anything, so don’t get too caught up in how it’s supposed to look or how many things to put on it or anything like that. I like to start with placing any items that belonged to my ancestors on it and pictures. Then I add in little elements I find in nature that capture the energy of the season (since our ancestors were more seasonally aligned than we are today) and anything else that calls to me.
I spend time at my altar several times a week. It sits under a window in my office right across from my desk. I light a candle and speak my ancestors names out loud, giving gratitude, asking for protection and only good intentions (particularly because there are a few ancestors I’d rather not have a relationship with). Some days, I shift the altar around. Other days, I barely give it a notice. This practice of devotion to connecting more with your ancestors with an altar can be very potent. Give it a try and see what comes of it.
This is a photo of my great grandmother, Philomena (on the left) and her brother and sisters that I keep on my altar at home.
6. Develop a Dream Practice to Connect with Your Ancestors
The dream world can carry with it such potent medicine for our waking lives.
Even in our super western and skeptical society, we reach for dream dictionaries and talk out our dreams with therapists. And that’s because the dream space holds so much magic that we can use to connect us more deeply with our desires and heal old wounds. Dream space is a place for regenerative creativity that is fed by the waking life and then again by dream life, each serving the other endlessly.
In the times of our ancestors, dreams were a way of divining truth, connecting with spirit, and finding your way through the mystery of life. In many traditions, a community would designate a highly revered elder to make meaningful connections with their dream time.
I invite you to cultivate a practice to work with your ancestors in dreamtime. Your practice can simply be setting an intention or asking a question just before you go to sleep. You could say something like, “I want to connect more deeply with my ancient grandmothers,” or “I ask for the guidance of my matrilineal line in overcoming this pattern I keep repeating in my waking life,” or simply, “Will my ancestors make themselves known to me?”
This practice requires patience, curiosity, and the discipline to write your dreams down or record them on your phone right when you wake up. Over time, as you record and pay attention to your dreams, the messages will unfold.
7. Connect with the Folkways of your People
Remembering, for me, is an experience of the senses.
I don’t feel the depth of my roots from a lot of cerebral book research. That part is helpful, but when I incorporate all my other senses with that knowledge, my feelings of deep remembrance are really activated.
When I talk about incorporating my senses, I mean literally eating the food that my people used to cook, listening to their folk songs (there are great curated playlists on Spotify), watching and learning their folk dances (like the Polish polka or the Italian tarantella, for example), and reading or listening to the old myths and folktales that have lasted through time.
It’s important to connect to these folkways of your people because they are the traditions that were able to survive the rise of Empire over the generations and throughout the world. These are the ways in which our roots haven’t been colonized.
I talk more about finding ancestral connection through food specifically in this post.
8. Go on Ancestral Pilgrimage
If it is possible for you, I highly recommend physically go to the lands of your people to touch the soil, drink the water, eat the food, and breathe in the air.
Do a little research beforehand so you can plan to visit places of importance to your ancient ancestors like holy wells, sacred burial sites, and gathering spaces. See if you can visit the village one of your ancestors was born in. Find out where they are buried and visit them to give thanks and honoring.
As someone who has just recently visited one of many of my ancestral homelands, I can confidently say that physically being on ancestral lands gives a depth of connection that is incredibly powerful.
When I was in Ireland, I felt like I went back in time with every stone I touched. I drank cider at an 800-year-old pub and longingly stared out over the misty hills while sipping a very strong cup of tea made by my Airbnb host each morning. It was such a profound experience that I’ll never forget.
My feet, stepping on ancient ancestral land in The Burren of Ireland this past Autumn equinox.
My current favorite books for looking into my specific ancestry right now are:
Witches & Pagans by Max Dashu
A History of Pagan Europe by Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick
Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Caliban & the Witch by Silvia Federici (this one is heavy but very important info is inside)
Now I’d love to hear from you!
Have you tried any of these methods to connect more with your ancestral lineage? Tried anything else you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments below and let’s have us a chat over a virtual cup of tea.
Continue your journey:
- Belonging Episode #8: Ancestral Connection Beyond the DNA Test
- Belonging Episode #9: Choosing the Journey of Decolonization
- Belonging Episode #10: Ancestral Connection Through Folkways
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