Celebrating Our Roots, Expanding Our Relations

We have forgotten who we are, we have
alienated ourselves from the unfolding of the cosmos.
– Author Unknown
 “Aho Mitakuye Oyasin” is a simple yet profound statement.
It comes from the Lakota Nation and means all my relations.
Understanding this simple statement and contemplating it,
could change your outlook on life forever. If you love and honor your relatives,
you would be loving and honoring most of what is on this earth, if you lived
by this meaning of “relative.” What a different world we would be living in!
– Silver Wolf Walks Alone
 Learn to look with an equal eye upon all beings, seeing the one Self in all.
– Srimad Bhagavatam

This past week was an annual time of focusing on my heritage. On my mother’s side, my grandparents immigrated to the United States from the Dingle Peninsula of Ireland. This year my heritage week began with my birthday on Sunday, the 14th, and then moved to my “feast day” on Wednesday, the 17th. My mother told me that when she was pregnant with me she knew my name would be either Patrick or Patricia, given her March due date so close to the feast of St. Patrick.

As I write this, it is now Saturday, and we are celebrating the first day of Spring. In our Western culture, we mark the date at the equinox, but in the Celtic calendar the Spring Season arrives on February 1. A few years ago, I had the precious opportunity to visit Newgrange in Ireland. A small group of us slithered our way deep into the heart of its prehistoric, earthen cavern, where for thousands of years the light of the rising sun has pierced the darkness in an annual rite of Spring.

Also on that trip, I made a rather shocking discovery about my Irish heritage. As I grew up, my mother did her best to engender in her children a love of their Irish roots. This time of year, the house would fill with shamrocks and the sound of Irish music. One year, we even joined a neighbor in making mutton pies, something my mother remembered fondly from her own childhood.

As I got older, and became more interested in my roots, I always was a little conflicted. I was confused about how I could reconcile the Irish part of me with the English genes that came to me through my grandmother on my father’s side of the family. Then, too, there is the part of me that comes from my dad’s father, who we know descended from members of a French family that immigrated to America from Canada. Historically, there never has been a lot of love between the English and the French.

To make things even more confusing, I had more than one experience of being with my Irish relatives at a restaurant in my hometown when family friends who previously had never met me, looked at me and declared, “Now, there’s an O’Connor.”  Once as an adult I was in a tavern with one of my mother’s friends and had a gentleman ask straightaway upon meeting me if I was related to a certain O’Connor uncle of mine.

Yet, these experiences were coupled with another time when a perfect stranger I met in an elevator at a conference looked at my last name on the name tag I was wearing and declared aloud in a very French accent, “Ah, Bombard!” He followed that up with, “You look very French.”  I thought, “Hmmm. That’s funny. Up until now, I thought I looked very Irish.”

All this feedback about my ancestry had me quite stumped, until one day I attended a workshop on Celtic spirituality. The presenter showed us a map of the expanse of European territory covered by the ancient Celts. It took in Ireland, England and parts of France. I thought, “That’s it! I look both Irish and French because I am really “Celtic.” I finally could reconcile the Irish, English, and French blood flowing through my veins. At last, I felt integrated, drawing together the disparate parts of who I am.

That insight was very helpful for me in defining my sense of self. But despite the relief drawn from surmising that all my ancestors might be Celtic, and therefore acceptable, there was still the matter of the historic conflict between the Irish and English. Deep down, that issue still rankled me. According to my mother, who had never been to Ireland and only knew her parents were born there, we children were half-Irish, and only a quarter English. It was clear where our allegiance should lie.

Then, a few years ago, I made my first visit to Ireland. It was then that I learned a shocking detail about my genetic past, that apparently my mother never knew. According to a second cousin, whom I met through a friend of a friend, the story goes like this. My great, great-grandfather, when a young man, felt the local Catholic priest had wronged him, and decided to give up his faith and turn Protestant. A few years later, he went even further and married an English woman. Her very English name was right there, printed boldly  in the genealogy drawn up by my second cousin. There was no disputing it. Turns out I am not half-Irish. I am in fact English on both sides of my family tree! What would my mother have thought about that!

The new realization of my duel English ancestry got me wondering how many of us unknowingly have actually been warring against our own distant relatives. I thought the same thing as I looked at an image of the human body in Mary Conrow Coelho’s book, Awakening Universe, Emerging Personhood. The image illustrates the origins of the various parts of the human body. It explains that the very cells of our body are directly descended from ancient single-celled organisms. It shows that we inherited our triune brain from reptiles and early mammals. Our eyes use remodeled chlorophyll molecules developed by early microorganisms. Our rotating shoulder blade is courtesy of our arboreal ancestors. Our bilateral form is inherited from ancient sea creatures. Even the water in our body contains primordial hydrogen, formed in the early seconds of our Universe!

If we were to keep this view of our common ancient origins before us at all times, I wonder if we would be so quick to destroy so many of the plants and animals who share this planet with us. Through the grace of such an image, perhaps we would regain our sense, one the Native Americans always have had, that Earth’s community of life is indeed “all my relations.”

Silver Wolf Walks Alone. retrieved from http://www.wolfwalkercollection.com/AHO_MITAKUYE_OYASIN.html  Accessed 3.20.10

Bhagavatam, S. As cited in Backes, D. (Ed.) (1992). The wilderness companion: Reflections for the backcountry traveler. Minocquo, WI: Northwood Press. p. 55

Conrow Coelho, M. (2002). Awakening universe, emerging personhood: The power of contemplation in an evolving universe.  Lima, OH: Wyndham Hall Press.

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