I Love Ancestry: Responsibility, Honor and Truth

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The pursuit of family history (genealogy) and origins tends to be shaped by several motivations, including the desire to carve out a place for one's family in the larger historical picture, a sense of responsibility to preserve the past for future generations, and a sense of self-satisfaction in accurate storytelling. For others, it means self-worth and validation. Self-worth and validation are the two biggest contributors to our feelings, along with the need for approval. Some will argue that having approval is not necessary; however, it is very emotionally reassuring to have this experience with others. Their acceptance provides external feedback for positive feelings about us. Putting forward our own “image” rather than letting others speak for us, about us, or not at all. Every human being is viewed through the prism of stereotypes, consciously or subconsciously. Regardless, all people have this core need of wanting to know their ancestral roots, especially for “black” Indians, whose history continues to struggle for acceptance in today’s popular stream of consciousness.

Adrian Heckstall, a mixed French-Black American with a family oral history of his Great-grandmother, known as “Mother Smith”, being of the Rappahanock Tribe of Virginia, wants to do just that, raise public awareness through his self-created I Love Ancestry (ILA). ILA is a national issue advocacy campaign, that formally organized in October, 2012, addressing issues of identity, history, culture, diversity, social justice and the advancement of indigenous communities and people of color. ILA is entirely managed online through a website and social media networks by tech-savvy volunteers who are passionate about the original inhabitants of Turtle Island.

Adrian claims his original motivation was to honor the memory of his father Charles W. Heckstall Jr. (1929 - 2000). He says, “My father was American of African and American Indian descent. My mother is French. Their union was not well received by the patriarch of my mother’s family. It was the typical French experience of racism where parents claim they are not racists.” Through a multi- disciplinary lens, however, covert racism as opposed to overt racism is disguised and subtle, rather than being obvious, where overt racism is expressed and open for public view. It is hidden in the fabric of society, covertly suppressing the individuals being discriminated against. Covert racially biased decisions are often disguised or rationalized with an explanation that society is more willing to accept. These racial biases cause a variety of problems that work to empower the suppressors while diminishing the rights and powers of the oppressed. Covert racism often works subliminally, and often much of the discrimination is being done subconsciously, and thus sometimes difficult to prove.

He continues, “This tension between my mother’s father and my father, based on his race, laid the foundation to a very subtle form of oppression toward me by some members of my mother’s family.” The other reason he purports, “Is to make sure my two young sons become well aware of the historical truth that is often, if not always disregarded in school textbooks about the foundation of the United States of America.” He says, “A country built on stolen land by stolen people.” Dan Carrow (African, French, Saponi, Tuscarora), and an I Love Ancestry member agrees. “It’s important that we tell our story. A lot of the history that’s being taught is beyond wrong and must be corrected.”

I Love Ancestry works in collaboration with scholars, authors, historians and visual artists to bridge the past with the future, through publications, artwork, storytelling and more, about American Indians, Africans, and people of “mixed-race,” who contributed greatly in shaping the history of this country. Adrian says, “An important part of ILA’s work is to collect and share personal biographies of people of Native and African heritage, and the untold stories of their ancestors.”

Asani writes poetry (African, Choctaw and Chickasaw), also a member of ILA says, “Genealogy has been important to me since I was a small child, watching Alex Haley’s Roots for the first time. I was determined to find my Kunta Kinte. I hit my first roadblock when my maternal grandmother let me know that we were also Indian by saying, ‘You’ll have a few Indians before you find your Africans.’ Since then, family history has been important because I just wanted to know about our beginnings. I wanted to know what was true and what was fiction in our family histories.” Asanti continues, “While a paperwork glitch kept my Chickasaw ancestor from enrolling, he still had connections with his people and raised his children in both Native and African American ways. Regardless of BIA or other federal designations, I am a real Indian because those customs were still given to me by my grandmother.”

In Virginia, the Pocahontas Exception along with the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, reclassified mixed-race Indians as “black, “negro” or “colored” on census records, birth certificates and marriage licenses based on phenotype — facial features, skin color and hair texture. Native Americans with “white” admixture were declared the “Pocahontas exception.” The Virginia General Assembly declared that people could be considered white as long as they had no more than one-sixteenth Indian blood. Many influential Virginia families claimed descent from Chief Powhatan’s famous daughter, Pocahontas. Under the Pocahontas exception, a person with white and Indian admixture could choose to be either Indian or white, depending on the benefits that came with that choice. However, the same choice was not offered to other mixed-race people with Indian and African ancestry.

Lynetta Barrow asserts she is mixed African, Akwesasne Mohawk, Cherokee (NY/NC), Lenape (NJ) and Saponi (VA/NC) and possibly others, “It’s because Native Americans traveled and intermarried with other tribes. Our family extends from N.C. to Upstate NY. (Eastern Woodland). We always knew about our Mohawk lineage from my Grandfather, however; my Cherokee and Leni-Lenape and others were known by the elders in the family that passed away, so research/genealogy allowed me to connect with the paper trail of some of my family recorded on (the Rolls and other documents).” Lynette continues, “On my father’s side, my grandmother is Eastern Siouan Saponi. There was never a question whether we were real or not because our heritage/culture was kept alive in our customs i.e. foods, herbal remedies, artifacts and traditional spirituality.” Moreover, “Blood quantum was never spoken about in the household or stories of my Ancestors; whether enrolled or not, we were Indigenous Indians and there was no need for validation with cards or birth certificates - our validation is in our way of living as well as our DNA. The Elders knew from where they came and who they are.” For Lynetta, technology and websites like ILA has enabled her to embark upon genealogical treasures, “Even my mother, grandmother or grandfather never knew about.” She adds, “I have recently started writing my own genealogy book to leave my children and grandchildren, and to share that knowledge with extended family members interested in their history.”

It is our stories and shared experiences that bind us, an undivided or unbroken chain of completeness as American Indians. “It’s our responsibility to honor and understand the nature of the struggle for freedom and self-determination of the First People of this land” says Adrian Hackstall, “In fact, I believe this is the responsibility of every American citizen,”

I Love Ancestry’s website can be found here.

Other social media profiles include:

Facebook.com/iloveancestry

YouTube.com/iloveancestry

Instagram.com/iloveancestry

Julianne Jennings (Nottoway) is an anthropologist.