Ancestor Work When You Don’t Know Your Heritage

There are so many reasons you might not know where your ancestor are from. Adoption, the trauma of the enforced-forgetting of assimilation, the fact that for much of the history of this country the only people about whom records were kept were white people. On top of all this there’s folks who’ve been estranged from their birth families. And none of them disqualify you from doing ancestor work!

Black and white image of lit pillar candles before a gilt altar
Photo by Alem Sanchez

Even if you have absolutely no idea where your ancestor hailed from you can do ancestor work. It doesn’t require expensive research or fancy DNA tests, either. That might sound a little hard to believe. How can you connect with your ancestor when you don’t know who they were?

Let’s dispel a few ancestor work myths!

  1. Ancestor work requires genealogical work.
    Ancestor work is not genealogy. ANCESTOR WORK IS NOT GENEALOGY! I could scream this from the rooftops.
    Genealogical practices can supplement and provide do important information for some people’s ancestor work practices, but it is not at all necessary. In fact, the U.S. obsession with genealogy (which is one of the reasons so many of my primarily U.S.-based clients conflate ancestor work with genealogy) is a a hobby that has historically been influenced by white supremacy. And let’s be real: because of the institutional nature of racism most of the easily accessible genealogical documents are only of white people with origins in Northern Europe. Even the white descendants of Italian immigrants struggle to access genealogical information for their ancestors.
    But the good new is that working with your ancestors does not require any factual, materialist justification. Ancestor work is, first and foremost, a spiritual practice. As a spiritual practice, it is operates in the realm of the mystical and magical, NOT the material documentation of a white supremacist institution!
  2. I have to work with my blood lineage.
    It would be nice if we lived in a perfect world where no one was disconnected from their family of origin, but that’s just not the case. If you are disconnected from those who birthed you, whatever the reason, you are not alone. Whether through adoption, estrangement due to homophobia/transphobia/etc., or even because the people in your family just don’t talk about their ancestors, whatever the cause of the disconnection I want to first acknowledge that that alone can be incredibly painful. Ancestor work may not be for you for that reason, and that’s totally cool! Not everyone has to do ancestor work.
    But, if you still feel called to working with the ancestors, there are SO MANY other options for ancestral connection. You can connect with your ancestors of affinity (queer ancestors, mad ancestors, disabled ancestors, radical ancestors, and more!). You can connect with plant ancestors. You can connect with anyone who nurtured you who has passed on. You see the word lineage signifies a line of connection. That line of connection doesn’t have to be blood. It could be the shared dream of a better world. You could try connecting to your queer ancestors. Who wrote the book that saved your life? What is that plant that lights up your day every time you see it? Who were the trailblazers you look up to? You could work with any of these ancestors.
  3. The stories of my ancestors who my family doesn’t talk are lost forever.
    If the above feels like a poor substitute, you can still honor your blood lineage, even if you can’t name them. You might not know who your ancestors were, but your ancestors absolutely know who you are. Offer to them, open up to connection with them and they will show up. Do that for a while and you might find something strange happening: your parents start to be willing to talk about their parents. A distant cousin steeped in genealogical research suddenly turns up a breakthrough document that answers years of questions. A long lost relative reaches out.
    I can’t promise that this will happen for you, but I can say that I have seen that these types of revelations do occur AND I have also experienced them myself!
  4. If I can’t find it in a book, I’m making all this up?
    This is a perennial concern in the spiritual space. How can I trust my intuition? How do I know I’m not making it all up when I visualize?
    The ability to double check the information you receive in meditation is nice and it can help build your trust in your intuition. It is not necessary, however. AND it can be counterproductive to developing a spiritual practice that is truly rooted in the spiritual.
    The spiritual does not require validation by the material. And yeah, we’re living in a material world (cue music) and validation by historical fact or by science eases the fears that spring up as you begin exploring the spiritual. But that anxious need for validation by the authorities of this material world, that is the product of a capitalist worldview that wants you to cede all of your agency to external authority.
    This is YOUR spiritual practice. What business does any external authority have coming between you and your inner knowing? By all means, be skeptical! In fact, PLEASE DO BE SKEPTICAL! (See my post on the importance of skepticism in spirituality!) Skepticism, curiosity, questioning and discernment are essential skills. But that doesn’t mean you need to read about it in a book. That doesn’t mean science needs to prove it. That doesn’t mean you need a paper trail for it to be a part of your personal practice. (And of course this all gets more complicated should want to begin teaching or sharing publicly, but for the purposes of your personal practice YOU are the authority, not materialist fact.)

Ancestor work does not require you to know who your ancestors were. You are alive now. You have ancestors simply by that fact. You have ancestors of blood lineage, whether your know them or not. You also have non-blood-ancestors. And all of these ancestors are eager to connect to you! So if you’re feeling called into ancestor work, know that this is absolutely a practice for you! Check out this post for getting started with ancestor work in 4 steps – none of which require you to know where your ancestors were from!

Ready to go deeper into ancestor work? Stay tuned and make sure you know when the next ancestor work post drops by subscribing to the FREE Liminal Letters newsletter! Or if you can’t wait to get started download the FREE Journal Your Ancestor Journey journal prompts to help you get started establishing your practice! If you’re ready to jump right in book an ancestor tarot reading with me and get one-on-one guidance for beginning your ancestor work journey!

Other Posts in the Ancestor Work Series:

  1. Finding Magic and Healing Through Ancestor Work
  2. Ancestor Work Helps You Find Authentic Magic and Spiritual Practices
  3. Ancestor Work is Easy – 4 Steps to Building Community With Your Dead
  4. How To Do Ancestor Work When Your Ancestors Were Assholes
  5. Destroying White Supremacy Through Ancestor Work: An Authentic Spirituality
  6. Finding Your Path Through the Spiritual New Age Bullshit
  7. Ancestor Work Will Heal The World
  8. Radical Ancestor Work is for the People – Including You!

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