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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Solving an Ancestor Mystery with DNA

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

Asatru is one of the paths that includes ancestors among the beings we honor. That doesn't always have to be one's own personal literal biological ancestors, as explored in a prior post. However, many heathens go in for genealogy, and for those who have done so and hit a wall, or for adoptees and others who don't know anything about their ancestors, the corner where modern science and capitalism meet has provided home DNA tests.

My brother has extensively traced our family genealogy and uncovered some interesting things, but there was one mystery the paperwork could not answer for us. We had been told that we were part Cherokee. The summer after I graduated from college, which was about a year after my father died, I went looking for my Cherokee roots and drove across the country, all the way from California to the Qualla Boundary reservation in North Carolina. I utterly failed to connect to the land spirits, the people, or even the artifacts in the museum. I went camping nearby in the Great Smoky Mountains and did not connect to the land there either. I tried looking for records, and whether I approached via writing or in person, I hit a wall of silence everywhere I went. I tried to connect spiritually, and decided that was not the path for me. I had already been following a heathen path at that point, but that was about when I found a local California Asatru organization, and when I went there I felt right at home, welcome and connected, so I was affirmed on my path. But the unsolved mystery of the elusive Cherokee ancestors stayed in the back of my mind.

In the past few years, due to the internet, I got access to more Cherokee history, and more information about current events concerning the Cherokee. I began to suspect that my supposed Cherokee ancestors might actually have been Cherokee Freedmen. But I didn't see any way to prove that one way or the other, at the time, so I let it go again.

Then a few years ago my best friend and her family participated in a National Geographic study about Neanderthal DNA. They found out what percentage Neanderthal they were, and other interesting ancestry information. I became curious to find out what percentage Neanderthal I was. That was just idle curiosity, and I didn't have a lot of money to spend on luxuries, at the time. For the past few years I stayed home from work to take care of my mom. I had been doing OK between my writing, a job working from home as an acquisitions editor at a small press, and my fabric dyeing, and various odd jobs, and then after the publishing company was sold and then shortly went out of business, it was about the time I started doing property management / life management, so I wasn't totally broke but there wasn't a lot of give in my budget. Finding out about Neanderthal DNA wasn't a high enough priority to overcome that obstacle.

Then recently, after mom died, I set up a really serious ancestor altar for the first time, and I came to understand what a powerful experience honoring the ancestors could be. And I was alone, really alone, as my state went into lockdown shortly after her wake. All alone but for my cat, the gods, the landwight, and my ancestors, and people I connected with via the internet and phone, for months. It would have made sense for me to escape into fiction writing but I found I just couldn't get into it.

For a few months, I barely scraped by, as final expenses and deferred maintenance bills rolled in months ahead of access to the assets and death benefits, delayed by the pandemic related closures of local banks and offices, including government offices. I couldn't go back to work because everything was closed. I still had my property management / life management income but it wasn't enough to pay for everything. But eventually that pressure was eased. Offices started reopening and the papers I needed started arriving in the mail. I started trying to reconnect with live human beings in person, but after we had all spent months trying to avoid everyone, and knowing that the state entering phase 2 did not suddenly mean anything was actually safe, I found I was still alone more than I wanted to be. I had always thought of myself as an introvert, but this was too much alone time even for me. I found myself trying to connect with people and suddenly actually being able to afford to spend $100 on a pure luxury that served no survival purpose, and right at that time my brother's genealogy efforts reconnected us with cousins on our dad's side that we had lost contact with after his death in the 80s. And one of our first cousins had a DNA test and discovered she was part African. As a first cousin on dad's side, she was as much descended from our purported Cherokee ancestors as I was.

This was the moment I decided to get my DNA tested, too. I wanted to finally solve the mystery. Were my "Cherokee" ancestors actually Freedmen? If so, they would have African DNA, not Native American. And so would I. I ordered the test. I was still curious about the Neanderthals, too, so I chose the one that would report that percentage as well. A few weeks later, my results came in, and it was as I had suspected. I'm 2% African.

Coincidentally, I'm also 2% Neanderthal. The test website gave me a lot of really cool info on my personal Neanderthal traits, and also some that are not so great. I received 2 copies, one from each parent, of the Neanderthal gene for "bad at directions." lol. I appreciated that moment of humor in what was otherwise a serious experience.

The test gave me more information about my the African DNA than just generally African. It narrowed it down to specific countries and ethnicities. Mostly in West Africa, but also some in North Africa. Suddenly, the genealogy information that had ended in "maybe Cherokee Freedmen" rocketed back hundreds more years, to specific places of origin with names and cultures. Clicking on those results on the site suddenly brought up photos of actual people in those countries. And recipes, and photos of fabric, and architecture.

And an offer from a short term rental site to go live in these places for a while. Haha, no. No travel. I'm not even going on a book tour, at least not yet. And that's something that would legitimately count as work, for making money. I will eventually go on a belated book tour but I'm not haring off across the globe for fun. Looking at the photos was interesting, though.

There was a tiny bit of DNA from India, too but such a small percentage that it left me wondering how excited I should get about that and what was the test's margin of error. I also wondered how recent the India DNA was; was that was something that just came along with European ancestry? The name of the language family was Indo-European, after all. I went back to the site to explore how long ago various ancestries entered my family line, and the India DNA wasn't listed on the timeline, but I saw that both the West African types, the .9% Ghanaian, Liberian, and Sierra Leonian, and the .3% Senegambian and Guinean, entered my family tree in the 1700s.

The other possibility is that North African and Egyptian ancestry. I read that there was a genetic study on members of the Cherokee Tribe and they tested out as Middle Eastern. My North African and Egyptian DNA could actually have been from a Cherokee person.

Most of my results were not a surprise, of course. I'm almost half German and French, with the biggest part being specifically Rhineland-Palatinate. No real surprise there, except that I would have expected at least part of the German to be specifically Austrian. There is no question I have some DNA that I know came from my grandfather who was from Austria; the test told me what I already knew, that I inherited 1 copy of the hazel eye gene from my mom, who had hazel eyes. (And 1 copy of brown, from my dad.) Perhaps their specific German areas need a bit of adjusting. I know from seeing some of my friends reporting on their DNA results that their reported percentages can change when new info comes to the test company. So perhaps eventually mine will say a percent Austrian.

Of course, DNA is a crapshoot. It's not like genealogy where I can confidently say "my grandfather was from Austria therefore I am 1/4 Austrian." It's literally rolling the dice on every trait. It seems unlikely to me that I don't have any Austrian DNA and I think that may be a mistake on their part. But I'm not surprised at all the the other Native American ancestry my genealogy says I'm supposed to have, from the Shawnee, didn't show up, because that was from a long time ago, before the American Revolution. So, it would have been a small percentage even if it was there. Or, considering that I have two distinct West African ethnicities that both overlap the time period when my Lale ancestor supposedly married a Shawnee woman, maybe she was African too, genetically.

The records say Henry Lale was captured by the Shawnee at the Battle of Ruttles Station and that he later married a Shawnee woman, but in the 1700s tribes didn't care about blood quantum yet. She could have been an African woman whom the Shawnee considered part of the tribe. If they considered Henry Lale, who was Pennsylvania Deitsch, part of the tribe after they adopted him, then there's no reason she could not have been adopted too (or enslaved, and/or freed, obviously.)

Of course, as it says on the 23andme site itself, just because one does not test out as possessing Native American DNA does not mean one does not have a real Native American genealogical ancestor. Especially since we are talking about an ancestor from the mid 1700s, it is entirely possible that Painted Dove Lale was a genetically Native American woman and I just didn't inherit anything from her. 

None of this information changes who I am culturally. It does change how I will identify myself on some demographic forms. I already considered myself mixed race. I have enough visible cues of mixed ethnicity so that I've been mistaken for Mexican many times in my life. I've had many experiences in which someone new sees me for the first time and they try to speak to me in awkward high school Spanish because they assume from my looks that I don't speak English. That's been a frequent enough experience in my life to influence how I see myself. I've had some other experiences of being perceived as not really American, or as baffling, or exotic, or as a random wrong ethnicity-- some European and some not-- and I never know which it's going to be. So "mixed" captures my life experience.  I've considered myself mixed race since I became aware of what race was, even during the time before "mixed" or "more than one" started appearing on demographic forms. The other checkmark besides European is now going to have to be African instead of Native American. But culturally, I'm still the same me I was before.

The tidbits of Native American culture passed down to me by my dad reference corn and other American things rather than African things, so were culturally Cherokee as far as I can tell.  Years ago, when my genealogical interest started and I had a list of countries from which my ancestors came, although it did not yet include any African countries, it was already a long enough list that when people asked me about my ancestry I usually said "American mutt" or "Heinz-57." So I'm still the same, culturally, as I was before I knew this new knowledge. But it does mean something to me. I have barely begun to explore what exactly. I'm going to be processing this new knowledge, and seeking out more new knowledge based on this knowledge, for a long time to come.

I'm going to have more musings to talk about later as I process what all of this new knowledge means. One thing stands out, though. Although I did explore a lot of generally Native and specifically Cherokee things in my life-- more about that in a future post, this one is already getting too long-- and I continue to practice things my family taught me because they are my family's way, I never formally walked the path of Native American religion. All my formal commitments to gods and spirits and my religious titles have come from Asatru, and I thank the gods for steering me right. If I had been practicing a Native path for 30 years at this point, this new knowledge would call my faith into question, because Native traditions are for Natives. But the gods of Asatru guided to onto their path, where it doesn't matter what DNA I have. Asatru is not a closed tradition. Anyone can be Asatru. Thank the gods.

Image: Screen capture of the map of my DNA results.

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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.


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