One of the most powerful forms of magick we can practice is ancestral magick. Using the people, places, and traditions of those family who came before us to inform and power our craft is a way to tie us more closely to the work. It’s incredibly meaningful to be able to choose what to believe, how to cast, and who to worship based on what’s in our very blood.
Oftentimes, ancestral beliefs will call to us without us even knowing it. We’ll feel an affinity for a certain belief structure, or way of doing something, or deity archetype; it’s in our very family tree, and that is manifesting in your life to tie to your ancestry.
Blood calls to blood.
Of course, not everyone has the privilege of knowing their ancestry, or being able to apply it to current practice. It’s in this space that we start asking the sticky questions: when is someone allowed to take a practice from a culture for their own personal use, if they can’t prove membership to that culture? Commonly, new age Pagans are taking from Celtic, Norse, or Greco-Roman myth – white conquerors who have rich, and populated, history, and the question isn’t really an issue. But sometimes we have only hints of ancestry in a culture that’s been plagued by colonization, and it becomes more complicated to practice what we feel in our hearts is the right path for us. This is true for me right now. It’s an ongoing study, and I have a lot of loose ends to follow through, but its an experiment in learning to listen to my heart, practice with honor and respect, and also a reminder that sometimes the answers come in the most unlikely places.
When I was a little girl, I had an affinity for magick and mystical things.
(It’s clearly something I never grew out of.) I had (and have) a deep connection to the earth, and I loved witches and faeries and monsters and all things magical. It wasn’t until I was in my early teens that I discovered witchcraft and Paganism, and after that, came out to my family. The important adults in my life had varying reactions (surprise to fear to dismissal), but the most meaningful reaction, and the one I’ll never forget, came from my Pepere. After the “coming out” was said and done, while everyone else was in the other room discussing god knows what gossip (having thankfully moved away from mine), he looked over at me with kind eyes and a small smile. “I always figured,” Pepere said. “You’re such a magical child. It’s in your blood.” I have never felt so loved and embraced and understood as I did in that moment.
My Pepere was one hell of a man. He had an incredible adolescence, a self made man who built his home with his bare hands while his wife was very pregnant with their second child. He was always my favorite person as a kid; we had a special bond that no one else in our family could break. “My Petun,” he called me. None of the other grandkids had special nicknames; that was an honor for me alone. I’d ask him what it meant, but he had no answers. “I just remember looking at you when you were born, and thinking to myself, That’s my little Petun. And so you are.” From all we could tell, it wasn’t even a real word, but it was a special thing between him and I, and I always wore that nickname like a badge of honor. When he passed away in July of 2015, I was sad but not broken like everyone else; I still felt him everywhere. He came to me in my dreams about a month later, letting me know he made it safely. Ours is a bond of souls.
Pepere always had stories for us kids. He’d tell me stories of the family that came before me whenever I asked – and I asked repeatedly. He was big on oral tradition; keeping the family and its memories alive by telling me stories whenever he could. One bit of trivia he loved to tell was that, although we were overwhelmingly French, we had Native American blood in our veins as well.
“Oh, Ray, don’t tell them that! Don’t listen to your Pepere, kids, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” My Memere would admonish him, but he’d smile. “We do; you don’t know,” he’d maintain. I always shrugged it off. I look very French/Eastern European, so it wasn’t hard to believe he was wrong, or just telling stories. He never could tell us where it came from, or show us proof. It was just a fun thing to tell people – “He says we have Native American in us, but who knows.” I never thought much about it.
However, I do have, and have always had, an intense attraction to Northeastern Native American culture and practice. It’s always fascinated me, in both a historical and a magickal context. Their devotion to the earth and to grounding, nature-cycle-based practices closely mirrors my own home-brewed path. And I have a deep connection to this particular land as well. I’ve never lived outside 50 miles of my hometown, and I don’t honestly have a desire to leave. While visiting other places, maybe even staying for a few years, would be an amazing adventure, I know in my heart that I’ll always come back to this area. This is my home. My roots are here. The land is magickal, and it fuels my own magick.
All of these things came together today.
I recently picked up a new oracle deck – Flowers Of The Night by Cheralyn Darcey. In
fact, it grabbed my eye and spoke to me the moment I walked into work last week. Within 24 hours, I had bought it – and I usually wait a few weeks before purchasing unique decks at the shop, to give customers the chance to connect with and purchase them first. But Darcey’s flower deck wouldn’t release its hold on my mind, and it soon came home with me.
This morning, for the first time, I cracked it open in earnest. I let my daughter help me draw cards from it, as a teaching tool. “Put your hand on the deck, close your eyes, and take a deep breath,” I instructed her. She did, and we asked what messages we needed today. Then we each drew a card – her, me, and her dad.
I pulled the Petunia.
Before we continue, here’s a little etymology:
Petunia is part of the same plant family as tobacco, and the flowers look very similar. The name petunia comes from a word used to describe tobacco.
From Urban Dictionary: “To infuse or affect the most desired flavor or aroma or to heighten the senses.” (Usually applied to tobacco production)
From flowermeaning.com, “They can … symbolize your desire to spend time with someone because you find their company soothing and peaceful. According to some sources, petunias are also a symbol of not losing hope.”
I’ve never had a strong draw to petunias, but I believe this is because they were everywhere when I was growing up and I like the more unique flowers as an adult. Plus, it doesn’t have much medicinal value, so it’s not one I study and work with currently. Not knowing what the deck would have to say, I cracked open the guidebook that came with it.
The Petunia card is all about using visualization to accomplish goals, and that those goals are rapidly realizing themselves. This is topical for my life right now, but it was a bit of history about the plant that stood out to me.
“The name Petunia comes from the Native American ‘petun’, which means ‘a tobacco which is not smoked’.”
Huh, I thought. Petun, just like the nickname my Pepere always called me. It’s actually a word! I showed Krowe and he smiled.”That’s cool. You’re sacred tobacco.” But I needed more. There was something here, just beyond my reach, and I needed to find it.
So I ran to Google and just typed in “petun”. As it turns out, the Petun (or Tionontati, in their own language) were a Native tribe located around Lake Huron that was nearly wiped out in the mid 1600s from Eurasian disease and then warriors from the Iroquois Confederacy. Defeated and dispersed, they merged with the Huron refugees and became the Huron-Petun Nation. Eventually they became known as the Wyandot. The Wyandot currently have a First Nations reserve in Quebec. Where I have family. (Thanks Wikipedia)
I felt this, heavy in my chest. My fingers started tingling. Petun – a Native tribe from Canada, heavily reliant on farming and herbalism. Petun – the nickname my French grandfather gave me out of the blue, who always maintained that we had Native blood. The timelines matched up to when we had family, and where.
This is where I sit now. When I told my Memere about my little discovery, she was shocked, but had no insight. Unless I dive further down the rabbit hole of ancestry tracking, which is notoriously hard when Native blood is involved, I may never know if I truly can claim Petun/Huron/Wyandot ancestry.
In my heart and soul, however… I feel a connection.
This is a tough situation for many conscientious American Pagans, however. At what point does an intense draw to Native traditions cross over from appreciation to appropriation? Without any physical proof or documentation, I cannot, in good conscience, claim to have Native blood, but history is on my side. It was incredibly common for settlers in this area in those days to “mix with the locals” and leave it undocumented; Native mistresses were normal and unspoken. Even with intense searching, it’s entirely possible I never find the proof I need to claim membership to this ancestry. And yet, it connects a lot of dots in my heart, and resonates with me spiritually.
How does one build a practice from a culture that deeply resonates, that they can’t prove membership to, that has a history of being appropriated, in a respectful and honorable way? Is it even possible?
It’s a tightrope walk, for sure. Native culture has been popularized lately with headdresses, smudge sticks, spirit animals, and more seeping into modern Pagan culture. While there is some pushback against appropriation, it seems that many of the general traditions of Native American people are being adopted by anyone who considers themselves “spiritual” today. (This is in itself a topic we could discuss at length – for another post, surely.) So who’s to say that I’m taking Native practices because they mean something to me, and not because it’s the “cool witchy thing to do”?
Me. I’m to say.
Go with me on this. If I truly hold a respectful appreciation for a practice, then it’s up to me to take that practice in an honorable way – and to respect the people who have blood claim to that practice if and when they say to back off. It’s up to me to speak out against appropriation in any way I can. It’s up to me to present and promote the real, unblemished practices, so as not to water down a culture that has been decimated enough. And it’s up to me to not use the practices I take in a commercial, disrespectful, demeaning way. Ultimately, it’s not appropriation if I hold deep reverence for the practice and fight for its, and its’ traditional practitioners, right to exist.
Going forward, I’ll start digging into the ancestry of my Pepere’s family, to see if I can find any connection to the Wyandot. I’ll do some research into traditional beliefs and practices of the Petun and Wyandot peoples, to see if there’s anything I can adopt. But today, I took the first step. Once I learned I may have a connection, I went right out and bought some Petunias. I planted some red ones at Pepere’s grave – red being his favorite color and a Native power color – and brought some home as well to add to my garden. I’ll make some flower essence with the petunias and add it to my meditative journey practice to see what messages I get.
As long as my practice remains personal and respectful, it gives me a connection to my Pepere I never thought I’d have again. At the end of the day, connection is what matters to ancestral magick.