The Discovery of My Ancestors
We can never reach the end of exploration in this life—not of earth, the universe, each other, or ourselves. There is always something new to learn, some previously unknown fact or aspect of reality to discover. But what do we do with newly gained knowledge? How do we let contact with the unknown affect us? Change us? Shape us?
In 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, sixty-four of my 15th great-grandparents were living their lives in the so-called “New World.” This continent wasn’t new to my Mi’kmaq ancestors, but simply home as it was for countless generations over millennia—although each little baby born into the world marveled at the wonders and newness of this place, breathing in the fragranced air of pine and northern seas, pure and free. Some of my antecedents were already grandparents, while some were still young, learning to hunt or build wigwams in Mi’kma’ki, which the French would call l’Acadie, and the English, Nova Scotia.
I didn’t discover any of this until about 2012, when my addiction to genealogical research led me to a woman who was born and raised in a Mi’kmaw village near present-day Pubnico, where, in 1678, she married the son of a French-born baron: my 8th great-grandparents. Before 2012, I neither knew that she existed nor that I wouldn’t exist without the native peoples of Mi’kma’ki.
But the truth had always been true.
On Columbus Day, we honor a man who was determined to find a new, lucrative trade route to India, willing to set sail across an unknown expanse of ocean on behalf of whatever country would pay his way. He was a great explorer, no doubt. But he didn’t discover a continent previously unknown to Europeans, only some islands in what we call the Caribbean. That’s one reason why it’s inaccurate to call his exploit “The Discovery of the Americas.” The other reason is that it puts Europeans as the subject, which means that it is not an objectively true statement: the Americas were not universally discovered by humankind in 1492, or even at the turn of the first millennium when Leif Erikson spied Atlantic Canada. The enormous landmasses that would come to be called North and South America had been discovered by human beings thousands of years earlier, and were home to the hundreds of thousands of people who inhabited them, like the Mi’kmaq. The indigenous people had always been here, had always been important, whether any Europeans knew it or not.
The truth had always been true.
Many descendents of the original inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere, including the First Nations of Canada, call this time of discovery by a much more accurate term: contact. Two very different cultures discovered the existence of the other when the two made contact. And what would the results of the contact be? Well…mixed. The first peoples of the western tropics who discovered the existence of a whole new tribe of human beings, when boats full of strange-looking people landed upon the shore of their homeland, did not fare well from the contact. Christopher Columbus was a great explorer, but a terrible governor. Explorers and settlers sent across the ocean from various European nations varied in their success of cohabitating humanely, from acts of violence and downright cruelty to, well, marriage. There are certainly many factors that contributed to this difference, but I’m no historian.
I have become, however, something of a family historian, that person in the family that other members turn to for facts and tales about our ancestral past. In my family, my French 9th great-grandfather chose to name the piece of land assigned to him by King Louis XIII a name that was used by the people who had always known it as home: Pobomcoup. Two of his sons married the daughters of the King’s appointed governor, while his youngest son, my 8th great-grandfather, married a native woman whose name is said to have translated to either White Coyote or White Wolf. In a historical record, however, the name of my 8th great-grandmother was Marie Indian or Sauvagesse Micmac. That’s telling of French attitudes in general, but the marriage itself tells of something greater.
Neither culture, French nor Mi’kmaq, saw anything negative in the uniting, in the combining, of two very different tribes of people, as there were many marriages between the French and the natives of the land. Some may say that, looking back, the Mi’kmaq should have done things differently and not allowed such marriages. But I hope not.
Because then I wouldn’t be here.
I’m not naïvely romantic enough to think that Philippe and White Wolf were so deeply in love with each other that they defied expectations in marrying (though they were rather young when they married). I know that there was probably a political element to the marriage, something that both cultures thought would be beneficial for the present and future. That’s the history of marriage itself, after all. Intercultural marriage means that two different cultures are not at war against each other and can see something beneficial that they can build together. This young couple, one French, one Mi’maw, stood upon this land and leaned against each other, like the two sides of a triangle pointing toward the future, toward their children, grandchildren, and unknown great-grandchildren—toward me. They were not thinking about the vast ripple effects of their union. They didn’t know.
But I do. Now. And it has made me think more personally about intercontinental migration, the changing of traditions, cultural appropriation, and national pride, and has even affected my concept of culture and nation. We are all part of one human family, children of God, learning from one another’s unique perspective, created to receive from and give to each other in goodwill. Tribes, traditions, nations will blend, adapt, change irrevocably. No human culture is eternal. There is no language or way of doing things that will last forever, except for one—love.
I pray that we may all discover this everlasting truth, and in coming into contact with divine love, be made new. Happy exploring, everyone!
© 2018 Christina Chase
Photo of petroglyph and recreation of a Mi’kmaw woman’s form of dress from the website Mikmaw Spirit, www.muiniskw.org
Christina Chase View All
Although crippled by disease, I'm fully alive in love. I write about the terrible beauty and sacred wonder of life, while living with physical disability and severe dependency. A revert to the Catholic faith through atheism, I'm not afraid to ask life's big questions. I explore what it means to be fully human through my weekly blog and have written a book: It's Good to Be Here, published by Sophia Institute Press.
I’m sure you enjoy your ancestors’ stories, even though there may not be much more personal details to be found on White Wolf’s side.And I enjoyed the reading of it. Back then, most of mine were illiterate Welsh and English, though one 19th Century type was a Baptist preacher. I’m sure he would agree that the truth will set you free – in unexpected ways!
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A good chunk of my ancestors were English, too. Maybe we’re cousins, hee hee. Of course, all humans are cousins to some degree.
A Baptist preacher, eh? I do wonder what he and my 17th-century Puritan minister would make of us today… Might be a future post 🙂
I too have gotten caught up in the past which clearly effects each one of us. It is interesting to learn about your ancestry as we both have the same great great grandparents and your great grandmother Joanna Ellis Ellen is my great aunt. The world is a far smaller place than we realize and certainly we are all one in a divine creator. Your faith and hope inspires me.
I’m so glad that you found me here, my Irish cousin! Yes, the world truly is a far smaller place than we realize, and we are all connected in a myriad ways. Thank you for reflecting with me!