Gnosis Diary: Life as a Heathen

My personal experiences, including religious and spiritual experiences, community interaction, general heathenry, and modern life on my heathen path, which is Asatru.

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Thoughts About My Ancestor Mystery

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

I've been cogitating about my previous post, Solving an Ancestor Mystery with DNA, and what the new information means to me. Firstly let me state that the Cherokee Freedmen were culturally Cherokee regardless of DNA, so when I talk about the revelation that my supposed Cherokee ancestor was "really" African, I'm not implying that anyone else's Freedmen ancestors were not "real" tribespeople. I'm only talking about me, and my personal ancestors.

There must have been a good reason why my dad's family were not living in a Cherokee tribal community at the time of the earliest living memories to which I was exposed growing up, and the stories I've previously heard about why that was are now suspect. It seems likely that my Freedmen ancestors left because they could, because they were freed. My dad's early spiritual teachings to me were Native American in character, not African, referencing the corn spirit and other spirits native to this continent. His teachings set me on an animist spiritual path in harmony with the land spirits, which I continue as an Asatruar. He never specifically stated what tradition he was, though.

In addition to the corn maiden and other agriculture related spirituality, my dad's family also believed in various folk practices from Missouri, including the tradition of naming the oldest son only initials officially, although each one had a real name known only to the family until after their deaths. This folk tradition was supposed to magically protect him from having his true name used against him. Since they're both dead, it's safe to reveal that both my father and his father were named after Abraham Lincoln.

I know it's safe because I asked them. This was the first time I'd spoken to either of them as dead ancestors, but my ability to talk to gods seems to have carried over. As soon as I mentally asked them, they were there, and I heard them easily through my godphone. But then, there they were. Still there. I told them I didn't want any harm to come to them in the afterlife because of revealing their real names, and that was true. But I didn't want them around, and I had no idea how to politely get them to leave. Without my having to ask, at that point, the goddess Hel appeared, grim and efficient, and not at all the shy and gentle goddess I usually see when I sacrificed to her. She grabbed them by their collars and hauled them away, and I saw them growing smaller and smaller with distance until they vanished from my inner sight. Later that day, I raised a grateful toast to her with Patron tequila, mixed with tonic water, and infused fresh limes and ginger root.

So, Abe Lincoln, freer of the slaves. I had always thought that was kind of weird given that as far as I knew Missouri had been a Confederate state. But it makes sense if whoever named my grandfather knew he was part African. If whoever named my grandfather knew one of his ancestors had been a slave. When exactly was this knowledge lost? Or, not lost, but deliberately withheld? That's a question a DNA test can't answer for me. Which of my ancestors made the decision to tell his children he was part Cherokee, not that he was descended from a Freedman? Did my grandfather know? Or did he just name his son after himself?

Did my dad, himself, know this? There are compelling reasons why a man who married a white woman in the 1950s might have chosen not to admit to being part black. Starting with, there was no such thing as part black. Race is a social construct, and at the time the category with which I identify, "mixed," was not a thing. The One Drop Rule was that one drop of "colored" blood made you "colored." This was during the time when it was illegal for blacks and whites to marry in the USA. Without a valid marriage, my parents could not have stayed together in a hotel room or bought property, and almost certainly would never have gotten jobs as public school teachers. Even long after that was no longer illegal, the fact that it was illegal in some places at the time of the marriage might have made his children legally bastards and thrown questions of inheritance into a legal limbo. Why continue that charade into the 1980s, though? Even into the 90s I personally know of places in the USA where blacks were not allowed to use the public pool, but my parents lived in California from before I was born til I was in college. He died in 1989 while I was in college, so it's not like I ever had a conversation with him as a truly equal adult. What had been the rules about blacks serving in the Navy back when he joined? Could he have feared the revocation of his veteran status, on which he depended for medical care? Or would that not have mattered retroactively?

If he knew, what was he thinking when he told me, talking about Cherokee blood quantum, that "by the standards of the Old South" I am not white?

Or did he just not know?

That's a further mystery that cannot be solved by objective facts. I have reached the end of what I can learn by any means other than magic and communication with the dead. That seems like a good topic for Gnosis Diary, but it isn't something I wish to explore.

I'm still processing my own feelings about this, and even if I wanted him in my life as the sort of spirit one speaks with regularly, which I don't, I still would not be ready to start playing therapist to him right now. And I never want to be ready, because there is a good reason he's not in my life, and it's just as good a reason as the reason his family in Missouri wasn't living with the Cherokee tribe, though obviously, not the same reason. Those who are just joining my blog here and don't know the backstory, if you scroll all the way back to my earliest few posts it's all there, I started this blog by telling the story of my life in order. Not only do I not want my father in my life, the gods don't want him in my life either. He was dead within the year of my dedication to Freya back when I was in college. I just didn't realize the connection at the time.

One clue in favor of the conclusion that he may have known: he was not only named after Abe Lincoln, he wore an Abe Lincoln beard. He embodied Abraham Lincoln through his beard style. He was not heathen and as far as I know had never heard of the idea that a piece of a someone's soul can be reborn into a baby named after them, and he never indicated that he considered himself to be a reincarnation of Lincoln, but he was dedicated to that beard style. The only times in his life when he wore a different style were when he was cleanshaven, in the Navy and shortly after. I'm not going to ask him. I am curious, but not enough to call him to me and start a conversation.

Regardless of how the family half-truth came to be, I didn't question it until recently. I say half-truth, not lie, because what I was told was not a lie. It's customary among many peoples for slaves to be adopted into the tribe or community. So what I was told was not a lie, it was just very incomplete.

Over the years I put a lot of effort into trying to learn Cherokee ways, and wrapped a lot of my identity up in my supposed heritage. I studied "the Cherokee language of my ancestors"-- a phrase from the speech I gave at my college graduation.The language is called Tsalagi, and the people Aniyunwiya, meaning Real People. Lots of peoples' names for themselves mean Real People. There is also a hand sign in "Indian Sign Language" as it was called when I studied it-- I don't know if the name has been changed since then-- that indicated a Cherokee person as "Tree People," which makes some sense as the sign dated from after the Trail of Tears, so the trees would mean the forests of the Eastern seaboard that were nowhere in sight in Oklahoma. I learned to make that hand sign. I learned to first point my thumb to my chest to say "I" and then open and spread my fingers upward like leaves openings to say "Tree" and then rub the skin of my arm to say "People."

I made myself powwow dance regalia and danced at local powwows here in Nevada. I painted Cherokee writing on it 30 years ago. I will never wear it again.

After I learned to drum at a folk music and folk dance festival in California (where I had gone because my mom wanted to dance) and came home from there with my first drum, I made myself a Native American style frame drum. My first drum is a gourd drum and I use it for healing, but the frame drum is really loud and so I use it for leading drum circles and for teaching dance and drum circle workshops. When I laced up the elk hide drumhead with wet elk rawhide spiral cord I had cut by hand and named her Grandmother Elk I had thought I was discovering my heritage. Both drums are alive. I'm not about to give up either of them up, and yet, I haven't touched my drums in months.

There is a framed print of southwestern style pottery made by a local Native artist hanging in the room where I'm writing this, which I won in a raffle at my local Native American Chamber of Commerce meeting. That was a great day. I have a photo of myself with the chairwoman. We kind of look similar. I find myself mentally reclassifying the art as a local southwest art reference rather than a symbol of my connection to the local Native American community. I'm losing a part of my identity and I honestly didn't expect this.

That Chamber endorsed my campaign when I ran for city council. How should I feel about that now, looking back with my new knowledge? I told them up front that I'm not a tribe member, but they didn't care about that, they cared that I was there to listen to them. They cared about what I had to say about what I planned to do for the community. But they also accepted me as Native the moment I walked in based on looks alone. (Most local candidates seek various groups' endorsements and it is not at all unusual for the same candidate to be endorsed by local Black, Asian, Hawaiian, etc. Chambers of Commerce, but the Native one usually got overlooked. Candidates usually flock to the larger Chambers candidate interviews because they get to give a speech, even if they don't think they'll get the group's endorsement.)

I learned how to make fry bread. That has nothing to do with Cherokees -- and nothing to do with Shawnees either, though that doesn't have the same emotional impact because I didn't see them in my family tree until my brother traced our ancestry on the internet. I was in my 40s then. But it does have to do with my thinking I was Cherokee because it became a favorite meal because I went to powwows to dance. I never entered the competitions, I just did any grand entries and intertribals that the MC announced as open, meaning anybody could go in and dance those. I was convincing enough in my regalia for other dancers to ask for help with their fastenings and for advice on how to make the tied not stitched deerhide stuff I was wearing, as distinct from the more colorful and modern-influenced cloth-based regalia most dancers chose. I am absolutely confident that I was not being a pathetic outsider trying to culturally appropriate what wasn't mine. Yet now with my new knowledge I don't think I could ever dance there again. Now I would feel like I no longer belong.

The ancestry website itself tells people that just because they don't see any Native American DNA doesn't mean they didn't really have a Native ancestor. I know about the study that says Cherokee DNA registers as Middle Eastern / North African, and I have some North African DNA. I know that the slaves of Cherokees were counted as Cherokees. And yet I feel that I can no longer claim that heritage, and that I can no longer do the things I did because I thought I was of Cherokee descent.

In my book Asatru For Beginners, I put my Native American ancestry front and center, in the introduction, to signal to people of color that they are welcome in Asatru, and to signal to racists that they had better change if they want to read my book. I included that in the new version of my book, Asatru: A Beginner's Guide to the Heathen Path, too, close to the front in the Frequently Asked Questions section, as part of the response to the question of whether all Asatruars are white. Even though I know a more complete truth now, and my first thought was to find the incomplete truth to be somewhat embarrassing now that I know more, I feel that the statement can stand, for two reasons. Firstly, it's still serving its purposes. Secondly, as I pointed out in the beginning, the Freedmen were actually part of the tribe at one point even if they aren't now, so the statement is not false, just incomplete. Thirdly, I may actually still have Native ancestors. As the DNA site itself points out, just because no Native DNA shows up doesn't mean I had no Natives in my family tree. Cherokee DNA can show up as Middle Eastern, and I have some of that. The Shawnee woman in my traced genealogy was from before the American Revolution and it's entirely possible it was just too small a percent to show up. The exact same historical document that established that my ancestor Henry Lale was Pennsylvania Deitsch also established he was captured by the Shawnee during a battle between Georgia State Militia and the British, and his later marriage to a Shawnee woman indicates that Henry himself, being 100% German by birth, was accepted as a Shawnee at the time. From a tribe membership perspective it doesn't even matter if she was 100% African, they were both Shawnee, because that was how it worked back then. (No, that doesn't mean I can be a tribe member, because it doesn't work that way anymore and that would basically be like expecting to become a citizen of Germany because Henry's parents were.) My point there is just that DNA is not the whole story of my ancestry. 300 years from now if someone tried to run a DNA test on my bones to determine if I were an American citizen it wouldn't tell them anything useful because citizenship does not equal DNA.

I have lost something, but what I lost was an illusion. What I gained was knowledge. I'd like to casually assert that Odin approves of knowledge, since he famously spent a lot of effort gaining it, but in the Havamal he also cautioned people to be "middling wise." I think I know from experience the sort of thing he was talking about, though. He wasn't cautioning people about knowing the truth about their ancestry, even if it made them temporarily sad while they adjusted. I think, from my experience, he was trying to caution humanity against attempting to become gods, or to see the true nature and form of the gods, because we were not designed to handle that. This isn't that sort of knowledge. This is purely human knowledge, and I'm glad I have it.

I want to learn more. I'm not going to stop at "no more powwow dancing," I'm going to find out more about my African ancestors and the cultures from which they came. I'm not going to seek community or spirituality or religion there-- firstly it's only 2%, secondly I already have Asatru-- but knowledge, yes.

When I first announced to my friends on social media about my West African ancestry, one of my friends asked me if I was going to study Vodoun. No. That is a closed tradition and finding a tiny bit of DNA in a DNA test does not entitle me to entry. I might learn the sorts of general knowledge about it that are available publicly but I'm not planning to change my religious practices. I have long-standing relationships with gods and the land spirit and the animal spirits of the bersarkr tradition, deep knowledge about Asatru and its magical forms, and the respect of my religious community as a leader, as a writer, and all the various priestly, magical, and visionary modes of which I write here. Asatru is my path for life.

Image: me playing my drum Grandmother Elk


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Erin Lale is the author of Asatru For Beginners, and the updated, longer version of her book, Asatru: A Beginner's Guide to the Heathen Path. Erin has been a gythia since 1989. She was the editor and publisher of Berserkrgangr Magazine, and is admin/ owner of the Asatru Facebook Forum. She also writes science fiction and poetry, ran for public office, is a dyer and fiber artist, was acquisitions editor at a small press, and founded the Heathen Visibility Project.


  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham Monday, 31 August 2020

    When you mentioned that you call your drum Grandmother Elk I immediately thought of Finland.

  • Erin Lale
    Erin Lale Friday, 04 September 2020

    Oh, cool! Does Finland have a tradition about that?

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