Carrying Ancestral Guilt

This isn’t an apology.

An apology would be useless now if I do not also act to repay what is owed, or in some small measure make amends.

This isn’t an indulgent confession.

I do not expect forgiveness for the sins of my forebears, or how the massacre of the Americas granted me these many privileges.

This is merely a statement of truth–a reflection–that I hope resonates with anyone who reads this post. It is also a small departure from a series of posts I’ve been laboring on lately. Not because I have run out of steam or I have nothing to say, but because I watched a spectacular piece of cinema that left me moved and revealed.

I’m speaking about the movie Hostiles, starring Wes Studi, Rosamund Pike, and Christian Bale. You can see the trailer here, for all it’s worth, and then head to American Netflix to watch the movie itself.

The problem with watching this movie is context: the filmmaker does not pause to neatly explain the context against which much of the brutal action and the drama unfolds. It is written between the lines and into the scenery. It is acted out in the long journey through the American West of 1892, less than a year after the Wounded Knee massacre. You can see it best when “American” cultural materials clash against native scenes and bodies (bullets, chains, square tents, clothing), and how it eventually overtakes them entirely in the final, train station scene. All the symbols of these clashing cultures are present on their own, retelling what white settlers called Manifest Destiny and what the First People called genocide.

If you know only a little of this context, do your research first and deeply. It is important that your eyes are open enough to see what others might miss, because it reveals the essential forces that shaped the (early) American psyche. This is a story of our foundations for all Americans, not just the white European settlers.

And here is the gist of it: Whether our ancestors were indeed the settlers who moved West, clashing with native populations already decimated by “Euroterranean” plagues and systematically displacing them via a cycle of violence, culminating in genocide that persists in many forms to this day; or whether your ancestors came “after these horrors” had soaked into the parched soil to fertilize our Bread Basket; or whether your ancestors were freed, black slaves who sought opportunity in the Union Army (during the Civil War and afterward); they all twisted our human nature to justify survival in a corrupt, capitalist system of empire.

This was passed down the generations–only five or six since Wounded Knee–and warped our families, our ways of life, and ourselves into cogs for a monstrous machine that consumes all and thinks of nothing as sacred.

My ancestral guilt comes from Cuba, where the Spanish conquistadores virtually wiped out the native Taíno and Arawak people through enslavement. When they returned the blood of Cuba’s people to its soil, they brought in African slaves and continued to feed the horrendous colonial beast. The “white Cubans” I look so much like fared best in social standing and economic opportunity, even if my family only managed to have a meager farm as of 4 or 5 generations ago, or serve in the Royal Army with little distinction. Nevertheless, they perpetrated the same systems of oppression that saw the massacres–multiple ones–of hundreds of thousands of people because of rebellions in the island. What did they think of a mestizo army general taking over the country in the name of racial equality, before becoming yet another bloody tyrant? I will have to ask them. I know what they thought of the communists, and their bloodletting sweeping east toward Habana, and I know they came to regret returning to Cuba, and yearn to escape after the dreams of equality faded.

So, here I am. A product of their history, written in my upbringing and DNA.

There’s but one silver lining to all this depressive realization: The wounds of the past can be healed now, through us. We can do the difficult work of looking within and into the past, uncovering the pain that still haunts us, and settling the debts still unpaid. Justice is ever within reach of the present moment and all future moments to come.


(October 3rd Addendum)

How does one repay what is owed? I cannot tell you how your accounts may be settled. Your ancestral story is unique to you and everything depends on your willingness and ability to give reparations to descendants still embroiled in the lingering trauma of colonization and imperialism. I can only say how I am willing to repay the past debts for which I benefit:

  • Support the rise of the Taíno/Arawak Nations, wherever they may rise;
  • Support the continued survival of the remaining Floridian native peoples;
  • Fight for the equality of access of traditionally oppressed peoples;
  • Protect the traditional homelands and ecologies of indigenous people;
  • Replace our mechanistic understanding of the universe with agency/spirit;
  • Resist capitalism by promoting the inherent majesty of Nature’s harmony;
  • Heal the damage I carry with me and within willing family members;
  • Promote the healing of others, leading by example;
  • Resist the imperialistic tendencies inherent in the West;
  • Speak out, even if no one is listening–especially if no one is listening!

Some folks better learned than me call this process de-colonization for European descended folks. Everyone is included because everyone is, to some extent, colonized.




** I used the word “Euroterranean” for the first time in this post, meaning Europe+Mediterranean. It refers to the peoples, cultures, and beliefs of that region. Adopt it and use it as you please. **

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