Reconnecting to her roots, a descendant of settlers reflects on the legacy of colonization that her ancestors both endured and perpetuated.
Darcy Ottey and Sharon Shay Sloan, with members of the Re-Calling Our Ancestors team
“While it may be a gift or a burden, a heritage is always a responsibility. Something to be dwelled with — to be honored and acknowledged, even if not always avowed — placing us in relationship, perhaps under obligation, to those who have come before as well as those who will follow after.”
— Thom Van Dooren
In 2017, I had the opportunity to witness six Ukrainian friends describe the occupation of their nation by Russian troops in a war in the eastern part of their country that was largely ignored by the global community — and that has since expanded to put their whole nation under attack.* As they spoke, I felt overwhelmed by my desire to sit with them, to feel a part of their circle, to connect with the lineage that I share with them.
Three generations ago, my great-grandmother and great-grandfather fled a small village in Western Ukraine in hope of peace, prosperity, and a life free from oppression. They gave up their extended family, language, and traditions as they traveled across the world to settle in the eastern United States in an early twentieth-century steel town built on Lenni Lenape lands, long-ago seized to make way for waves of European immigrants. Three generations are scarcely a blink in the eye of human history, yet the connection with my lineage feels almost irretrievable today. At that moment, I felt the profound loss of my cultural heritage and shame that my ancestors abandoned their responsibility to their people, land, and culture, leaving others to fight while becoming the oppressors on the other side of the globe.
This encounter was part of a larger journey of ancestral reconnection, initially guided by questions such as “Who are my people?” and “Where do I belong?” and later, “What are my responsibilities to my ancestors and on behalf of them?”
These questions took decades for me to even know to ask, but seeds of them were planted back in my childhood. As a middle-class, White American girl growing up in Seattle in the 1990s, I was blessed with early formative experiences in nature. None was more significant than my rite of passage journey at age thirteen: three weeks in the mountains and on the coast with strong ceremonial elements designed to support the transition from childhood into “youthhood.” For me, as a spiritual seeker from a nonreligious family, this experience provided the ritual and ceremony I had been yearning for, one rooted in Indigenous traditions devoid of their cultural, ecological, and political context.
As I grew older, I began to recognize the culturally appropriative elements of my experience and how this was part of the legacy of colonization my ancestors had both endured and perpetuated. Understanding both the colonized and colonizing contexts of these experiences led me to focus my work on helping dismantle cultural practices that harm and regenerate liberatory practices for healing and accountability. This, in turn, led me to understand how destroying a people’s ways of educating and initiating their young is a critical tool of colonialism and how reclaiming, restoring, and regenerating rites of passage for people of any ancestral background is, therefore, a radical, anti-colonial act. Liberatory rites of passage help to recontextualize our lives, our people, and our lands.
I began to recognize the culturally appropriative elements of my experience and how this was part of the legacy of colonization my ancestors had both endured and perpetuated.
In The Colonizer and the Colonized, Albert Memmi wrote that once colonizers realize that they are colonizers, they have two choices: leave the colony and return to the lands to which they belong or retreat from the knowledge because it simply is too hard to reconcile. When I first read those words, while living on Hawai‘i Island (commonly referred to as “the Big Island”) in 2011, they awoke both a curiosity and, to be honest, a fear in me.
Was Memmi right? I wondered. What did this mean for me, the White descendant of settler colonists from way back, with (at the time) literally no ties to her European ancestral lands? Isn’t there a third option: to stay and join the work for Indigenous sovereignty? Could that be sustainable? And what might that mean for me?
I have walked with all these questions, at times with curiosity, at times with excitement, at times with fear, at times with heartache. I believe that they are important questions for settlers to live with each day, challenging the complacency, entitlement, and comfort that are the bedrock required for colonialism to persist.
In my recent book, Rites and Responsibilities: A Guide to Growing Up, I assert that every young person (and every person of any age, really) has a right to a rite of passage and that this right to a rite is coupled with our responsibilities — to ourselves, to our ancestors, to future generations, and to the lands that we have loved, left, settled, and imagined. As I wrote the book, I tried to follow the lead of Indigenous Peoples and activists who speak about the danger of emphasizing rights as a way to win their struggles for self-determination and sovereignty and who instead highlight the significance of their responsibilities to protect and uphold the health of their culture, their language, and their traditional lands. It’s been a powerful teaching for me to receive, as a White American who has been spoon-fed the primacy of rights all her life.
At first, the notion of Indigenous Territories conjured colonial frameworks, as if they were asserting their rights to a certain piece of earth, a “property,” rather than sharing their knowledge that in order to fulfill their cultural responsibilities, Indigenous Peoples must be able to provide for the well-being of their ancestral homelands. I started to understand that this is fundamentally different from ownership or assertions of dominance. The emphasis on reciprocity helped me understand that invoking rights without responsibilities completely misses the point.
This realization brought up a new question for me: What are my responsibilities, as a White American settler? What I understand now — and I know this will continue to evolve and change — is that my responsibilities include imagining a post-assimilation phase of Whiteness and living into it.
My responsibilities include imagining a post-assimilation phase of Whiteness and living into it.
I don’t claim to know how to do this, and certainly haven’t done it, but the more I engage with the possibility and try, the more I move along a spiral of learning, unlearning, and relearning the gift that responsibilities actually are. They give me both purpose and clear action steps, as well as a way to move through the overwhelming sense I have faced trying to reckon with the complexity of my ancestral inheritance. The way of life I was acculturated into — one that centers rights without responsibilities — was part of an assimilation phase that I am finding my way out of, as I (clumsily) de-assimilate and co-create a post-assimilation culture of co-liberation and belonging.
With each act of remembrance — earth-cherishing traditions, harm endured, harm caused — I grow into my responsibility and my potential as a post-assimilation member of a broader multicultural family. I join the legacy of my ancestors who resisted and persisted along the way, fulfilling the wishes they had for me: a life of opportunities, rites, and responsibilities, bringing each of these into my day-to-day life.
There are some things that I now know to do, some efforts toward repairing what’s been broken and returning what’s been stolen from Indigenous Peoples and our more-than-human relatives. These include participating in Indigenous-led Land Back and Land Tax / Honor Tax efforts as pathways for settlers to work within existing systems to return ancestral lands to Indigenous Peoples and contribute directly to Indigenous communities for the continued occupation of their lands — lands that were removed from the commons and placed instead on the speculative market.
I also know to reach out, develop relationships, and show up in big and small ways — engaging in my efforts not in isolation but in community. This means deepening ties across lines of race, nationality, and culture, where I can learn, grow, untangle, and hopefully contribute. It also means engaging deeply with other White settlers. In some ways, turning toward this work of building culture and shared reality with other White folks has been the hardest part, perhaps the most challenging of all the responsibilities.
In February of 2022, as bombs began to drop on Kyiv and a new scale of war broke out in Ukraine, I again found myself reckoning: What is my responsibility to the lands of my ancestors — and to the people who stayed behind and fought on those lands? That first morning of the bombing, I was in the final session of Re-Calling Our Ancestors, a short-form course for White settlers committed to building healthy, anti-racist, and anti-colonial culture, rooted in the diverse practices of our ancestors.
I took solace in a shared community of seekers asking questions about what lives of responsibility look like today. Though not a rite of passage, this course is initiatory and offers folks an opportunity to plant seeds of de-assimilation and take steps on that path. It is a step toward future rites. At that moment, as I feared for the safety of my friends and ancestral lands that I was just beginning to know, I felt my rage and my helplessness. I was able to move through these feelings toward deeper resolve, buoyed by the imagination awakening in that circle of White settlers committed to untangling our complicity in the structures and systems that harm.
Activist and artist Lilla Watson, a Murri Indigenous Australian, made famous the quote, “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” This reminds me that my task isn’t to help other people mitigate and heal from the harms of colonization but to help myself and my people. Responsibility is a key attribute of a healthy adulthood—responsibility for oneself, one another, one’s ancestral legacies, the ecosystem one is a part of, and the future one is stewarding forward into the world. This is what rites of passage have the potential to cultivate in each person. A right to a healthy rite of passage has the power to bring about a mature and just orientation to our true responsibilities as citizens — for people, legacies, and places.
A right to a healthy rite of passage has the power to bring about a mature and just orientation to our true responsibilities as citizens.
If you are a settler reading this article, I am curious: What do you imagine? What does de-assimilating look like in your life, given your ancestors, what they gave up for you, what they hoped for, and the contexts they walked into and co-created? What seeds of wholeness did they plant for you that are ready to be harvested? What responsibilities are waiting to be claimed, adding to the wholeness of your life?
*Note: In this co-authored piece, we utilized a first-person voice to tell this story. As settlers who have been taught to emphasize our uniqueness, part of our work together is exploring nuances of “I” and “we” — what truly is individual and what is collective? While some of the particularities may be the story of one of us, the trajectory of our experiences and the writing of this piece were shared.
Darcy Ottey, a descendant of Quaker settlers, British coalminers, and Ukrainian peasants, is a cultural practitioner, facilitator, network builder, and guide for Re-Calling Our Ancestors. Rites of passage have been part of Darcy’s life since her youth. In 2022 she published her first book, Rites and Responsibilities: A Guide to Growing Up.
Sharon Shay Sloan is a White American descendant from northeastern Ireland, where the land meets the sea. As a student of justice and equity, she is committed to healing and reimagining social fields. Whenever possible, she gets mud-covered in the ceramics studio or the garden with her son, Kian.