Ancestry, History, and Meaning in the 21st Century Classroom
Migration, a central point of world history analysis, has never been more relevant regionally and globally, than in recent years. Within the narrative of world history, migrations connect people, integrate, assimilate, and advance culture, and facilitate the exchange of all things human. In the classroom, the study of migration builds routes of instruction along which these historical activities travel. With these issues in mind, I developed a student assignment and published it as Project 16 in the second volume of my World History Workbook.1 The assignment asks students to describe "migrations which brought you here" to show migration as a universal, connecting human experience. Even those students who have lived in only one place or who know nothing about their direct family lines could find in the textbook examples of past migrations that are part of everyone's history, beginning with early wanderings out of Africa. In my own classrooms, over the years, students have used this project not only as an opportunity to write about migrations, but to confess intimate narratives of their families, their tribes, and their identities; to advance in their own idiom, myths and lore of their ancestral pasts. The project seems to be a relaxed and refreshing change of pace for them, for here is a subject for which they are the authorities and in which they hold an organic interest. This essay offers an analysis of 465 student responses to this exercise and is offered in the hope that it may be of assistance to teachers at all levels of instruction who seek to engage these increasingly significant issues in world history.2
The idea of ancestry that emerges from the narratives is complex and dynamic, more expansive than genealogy, and collectively constructed, with a student's own telling representing but one of many narrative sources. The body of responses shows a student population connected to a great part of the world's people through thousands of family lines that have shared in humanity's history. Yet responses also show students who are not well informed about history and ancestry, though there are notable exceptions. At the same time, students relate traditional family myths and ethics in carefully—if not always accurately—constructed historical and social contexts and use historical events and circumstances to explain the behaviors and identities of their ancestors. For the most part, the 465 student narrators accept ancestral stories as they inherited them from parents and grandparents. In fact, many students seem pleased for the opportunity to perpetuate their ancestral stories. Naturally, narratives emphasize people of the past, but students build ancestral identities from other elements as well, including events and places. Specific representatives of these three aspects of ancestry appear to be selected for their symbolic significance, with only partial consideration given to their relationships to family trees. Finally, these students find the idea of ancestry important to their own identities, and commonly include themselves in their narratives, securing personal places among their ancestors.
The setting for these assignments, Southwestern Oklahoma State University, is in many respects a typical American regional, public institution. Set in a small town in western Oklahoma, around 70-80% of our students come to us from the Sooner State or nearby Texas. We average around 5000 students, mostly undergraduates, with a faculty of over 200, including six historians. We are more or less nationally typical in our student age and "ethnic" composition, according to our Registrar's surveys, with the exception of a comparatively high proportion of students coming from Native American backgrounds.3 Over the semesters in question, around 10% of SWOSU students self-identified as primarily Native American, which roughly reflects the western Oklahoma population at large.4 Southwestern's "international student" population (attending on a student visa) averages between 100 and 200 students.
Written responses to "You, the Migrant" run typically between 50 and 200 words in length.5 In addition to describing relevant migrations, nearly all responses identify ancestors either by name, nationality, or tribe. Most students who cite their sources say they interviewed family members, with Grandmother apparently the most trusted name in family history. The tone of the narratives tends to be spontaneous and personal, and at times passionate, tragic, and humorous. Because of this personal and informal quality, project responses represent genuine descriptions of students' understanding of their ancestral identities and offer more complete information about personal identity than information gathered from census forms, for example.
For the purposes of this analysis, the 465 records are divided into two main groups: those in which authors do not self-identify ethnically or nationally and those in which authors self-identify ethnically or nationally. The former is the larger group, representing around 60% of all responses. The obvious genealogical connections notwithstanding, narratives in the larger group do not explicitly say, for example, "We are Celto-Germanic" or "I am an Indian." A typical example of a record that does not self-identify reads,
Although it is clear the author descends from the migrants in the account, Narrator 1 (N1) does not offer that he shares Irish Roman Catholic, German, or any other personal identification with his ancestors. This particular record therefore does not self-identify.
Records that self-identify on the other hand, name the narrator as a member of a specific group or groups, usually organized around a family, nationality, tribe, or, as often described "a people." Such statements connect ideas of ancestry to identity, on narrators' own claims. The 40% of students who self-identify, do so in several ways, most commonly through the adoption of the first person to include the author as one of the people of the past.
The adoption of the first person is common among the 188 self-identifying narratives and as with the following two entries, sets "We" apart from other people, places, and groups, and might even set the ancestral group outside frameworks of time. "We" in other words, exists in its own time and space.
The use of the first person not only links these two authors to people of the very distant past, it identifies each author as one of those people. No great expanse of time diminishes the descendant's relation to the named groups; in fact, past and present are joined as if they exist contemporaneously. In a genealogical sense Narrator 4 is of course correct, as she, like all people, most likely descended from ancient African ancestors. But the ironic use of the first person to events thousands of years past, subordinates time to family declension rather than the more conventional reverse.
The "We" that self-identifies narrators most commonly refers to a family, a term that students ordinarily do not define.
The family of Narrator 5 that migrated two and a half centuries ago is named as if it is the same group that migrated one hundred years later and is presumably the same family today.
Narratives that self-identify do not all refer to ancestors in the first person. Some simply declare who "I am", and refer to ancestors in the third person.
Bi-national hyphenated identities are less common among the 465 records than are more complex constructions but the use of national references such as "Vietnamese" or "American" is very common.
A remarkable wealth of national identifications evident from the narratives reveals truly global connections among the ancestral populations of this small university community. From the 465 records there are over one hundred singular countries, regions, tribes, or other ethnicities identified from around the world, and of combinations there are hundreds more (i.e., "Anglo-Irish," "Choctaw, Chickasaw, and German", "Vietnamese-American", etc.) [see the Table below]. German ancestors are the most frequently mentioned, appearing in half of all records. Native American references (including all tribes) are the second most frequent ethnic or national identifiers, appearing in one-third of the records, and followed in order by Irish, English, Scot or Scottish, Mexican, all French, and all African-American.8 Though six continents receive mention, barely 10% of records identify ancestors from countries or people of Asia (Vietnam, India, and Japan represent half of these) and, not including Mexico and the United States, barely 5% identify ancestors from the Americas.9
Among narrations in which authors self-identify, the frequency of national references follows a similar ranking. There are so many combinations mentioned however, with narrators commonly describing elaborate intermarrying of people from many places, and some students expanding ancestry to include the entire human community, classifications are often more complicated than practical. Yet there are interesting trends worth noting. From 188 self-identifying narratives, authors cite 95 different national, ethnic, tribal, or other groups as principal identities of authors. "German," "Irish," "Cherokee," "German-Indian," and "Indian," in that order, appear the most frequently, followed by references to "Mixed" without specifying national identifications. Among the European nationalities there are few major people or regions that do not appear as a primary group at least once. Among Native American groups presented as principal markers, and apart from generic "Native American", there are fifteen named tribes and many more combinations. Though the university sits closer to the seats of the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, Comanche, Caddo, and Apache nations, the most frequently mentioned tribal identities are Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw, in that order.10
TABLE SHOWING THE OCCURRENCE OF NATIONAL AND ETHNIC REFERENCES IN SELF-IDENTIFYING AND IN NOT SELF-IDENTIFYING NARRATIVES
The Table reveals something of the complexity of students' constructions of ancestral identities. Column II shows that from 188 records identifying the author as a member of a primary group, the nine most frequently mentioned groups account for only 64 records, or fewer than one-third, and with the exception of German, no single group is identified as primary more than nine out of 188 times. Out of these 188 narratives, one out of three (sixty three) primary ancestral groups named are unique. These singular occurrences include combinations such as "German French-Indian Irish" and "Proto-Germanics".
History, Myth, and Genealogy
These ethnic and national numbers should not be mistaken for historical fact. They are the narrated memories of students' families, summarized for the most part from conversations students had with family members. At the same time, the intimate style and informal character should not suggest the 465 narratives are in any way inauthentic, or less "true" than any set of historical documents. While many students relate details that are historically inaccurate, narratives—simplified though they are—nevertheless truthfully represent family constructions of ancestral identities and carry the significance and authority of any myth. An excerpt from Narrator 7 provides an example of a family myth told in an inaccurate historical context. The Narrator describes families that settled in the Volga region in response to Catherine the Great's famous invitation to the Germans.
The myth of N7's account is more cogent than its history. Her family's story contrasts the bad life and heavy-handed government in the Old World with the promise of freedom and opportunity, common themes of both histories and national myths of the New World. Communism betrayed what the Oklahoma frontier delivered: opportunity, family unity, stability, and fidelity and the narrator contrives the history to fit the myth. Catherine the Great held the throne from 1762 until 1796 and could not possibly have been "overthrown by Communists." But the story serves as metaphor for the character of N7's ancestry and their way of life, and an accurate chronology is a small sacrifice for a great moral.
Narrator 8 similarly offers an account of ancestors built more from myth than from history when he writes, "My family came here on the Trails of Tears during colonial days. . . ."[N818 Myth again forms in a pseudo-historical context as no Trail of Tears to Oklahoma was contemporary to colonial days. But dating events is mere detail. A causal relationship between colonialism and N8's family's Trails of Tears is more to the point of this student's story. "Colonialism" signifies the arrival of Europeans, which in this narrative led directly to the expulsion of Native families from their homes, in N8's case from North Carolina. The connection between colonialism and Trails of Tears is neither academic nor oral history, it is a mythical construct, conveying ethics more than facts.
Other narratives gloss over historical details but are not necessarily factually incorrect. The priorities of these narratives nevertheless also show fidelity to myth, rather than to the history.
Historical frameworks are mere vessels for precious contents, N9's ancestral myth. The story conveys a message of entitlement, as N9 names his ancestors an original group of European Americans. Of course, Viking heritage adds a quality of glory to the family's past as well. At the same time, the narrative would be difficult to verify. Most problematic historically is N9's omission of any ancestry besides Viking, given the many generations that must have passed since his ancestors arrived to North America. A thousand years after settlement, the family's genealogy would have a far larger Native American than Scandinavian composition. Yet the narrative accounts only for Vikings.
Narrator 10 traces his ancestry to an event similar to N9's though from a different perspective. N10's story also parallels N9's in its historical ambiguity. Here again, the authority of the myth is preeminent over historical details.
N10 describes his father's people as the parent family to those who were welcomed and eventually assimilated. His ancestors held a moral authority, admitting into the native community only those who were religiously deserving. The brief narrative is tightly packed with motifs and idiom leaving a clear impression of the goodness and power of N10's father's people. It might be historical, it might not be historical, but its meaning lies not in the history at all but in the myth.
N10's narrative generalizes the history, while it particularizes the myth and its meaning. This pattern is very common among the narratives.
The second half of this family story has a reliable historical basis and contains irony not lost on most western Oklahomans. The family of N11 fled oppression in one country only to find it in another, this time based on their German identity. In the first part of this story on the other hand, we see again that myth drives narrative. The ambiguous phrase, "to flee from oppression" is not necessarily unlikely but abridges the history to emphasize lessons of persecution.
Narratives can be as vague about the identities of people in an ancestry—particularly those previous to grandparents—as they are about historical events and circumstances. Obviously, no narrator can name every ancestor in a family's past, which leaves story-tellers and re-tellers to choose to include some names over others. Choices appear to be made on various criteria. Uncles and aunts, cousins, and personalities of unnamed relation to authors appear as part of communities of ancestors. The composition of an ancestry is therefore more complex than a simple reconstruction of genealogy and is further complicated by the fact that hundreds and thousands of direct-line ancestors disappear from oral and written records over time. In short, the composition of ancestry is fluid and dynamic, and does not include all direct line ancestors, yet expands beyond the genealogical group.
Selections of whom to include in an ancestral narrative must occur at many points in the multi-generational life of a narrative. Some students provide details of this process. Narrator 12 describes her grandmother who "claimed" the inheritance of the culture of one of her family lines over the other. Her narrative retains both lines, even three generations later, but her claim nevertheless secured in her ancestry the preeminence of Caddo over Sioux lines.
N12's narrative provides no more information on the "claimed" line than it does on the line not claimed yet her act assured the preservation of the Caddo heritage and reveals an individual's own input into the process of selection.
In other instances, students make evident their own influence over narratives. Narrator 13, whose family has apparently documented a large body of genealogical research, abridges her story to highlight an historical identity.
N13 reduces information to generalities of family, rather than to individuals. It would not be within the scope of Project 16's assignment for a student to list 200 lines of ancestry. Yet her decision to abridge leaves what she finds most important, the suggestion of aristocracy. The individual once in line for the throne may have been a direct ancestor but N13 doesn't say. She identifies her family with the idea of the royal line, perhaps more than with the individual actually in position for the throne. Of the 200 surnames the one near-royal line is the only one that warrants specific mention.
Narrator 14 also constructs his ancestry more around a myth of nobility than from genealogy.
Unnamed, the "Lords and Ladies of Ireland" stand as a tribute to the ancestral dignity. But the memory does not identify a direct line, and indeed it seems unlikely all the referred nobility could have been direct ancestors to Narrator 14. However, without more explicit information, these personages become symbols, or metaphors for the character of the ancestry.
Some narrators name specific individuals from the past who were known to not have been in the family line but who represent in the family great symbolic importance. Narrator 15 writes,
In a biological sense, the lost cousin is not a direct ancestor to the narrator, yet the cousin is important to the family's story, and is treated as an ancestor. In fact, her story honors not only the girl's sacrifice, but also all those who have disappeared along the family's way. By naming the narrator after her, the cousins who never met remain linked forever.
Over time, the population of any ancestry incorporates greater numbers of people and events, yet the "size" of a narrative does not necessarily increase along with it. In fact, many students make it clear the narratives their grandparents knew were more complete, or larger, than the narratives they know, though many promise to learn the rest of their stories, thus preserving the "entire" narrative. In theme and principle however, a family's narrative might only change very little.
A narrative might exclude individual ancestors for many reasons including a sort of natural attrition. But a narrative also might symbolically banish an individual from the family group. N16's narration internally banishes the "slave master", denying him a place among the family, while admitting his genealogical status.
The narrator describes the slave master as a relative yet grammatically she constructs him or her as an outsider. The author's ancestors are those with whom the slave master had sex, while the master came into that group from the outside. Thus, the shape of the ancestry appears constant even through this genealogical, ethnic, and criminal disruption.
It is safe to conclude that neither historical accuracy nor specific information about direct line lineage is essential to the construction of these ancestral narratives. In fact, history provides narrative settings that are often not factual at all, and the direct line status of named ancestors is commonly incidental to their prominence and good standing among the ancestry.
The Authority of the Narrative
One of the primary goals of Project 16 has been to help students connect their own stories, through the perspective of ancestry, to a larger narrative of world history. The project's question is more personal than are many more conventional college assignments as it invites students to reach beyond a simple historical timeline, to assign personal meaning to intersections of ancestry with the "outside world." In many cases, that which defines an ancestry's relationship to the world is that which also defines the ancestry, and students embrace who "I" am or "we" are on the basis of their ancestors' struggles with society and history. Narrator 17, a descendent of slaves, constructs his ancestry almost entirely from an appreciation of their social status and their connections to external institutions.
N17 shows a self-conscious skepticism for the objective, historicist tone of Project 16's question. His answer is idiomatic and ironic, again, more myth than history. N17 finds it sufficient to identify his ancestors as people who were "brought…into slavery," thus defining his ancestors not by ethnicity, nationality, or name, but by class and circumstance. Their identity comes from their unfortunate position within the culture of the Atlantic slave trade.
Narrator 18, also a descendent of slaves, provides a reason for an absence of genealogical or national details in his own family's narrative, which parallels that of Narrator 17's.
N18 makes explicit what the previous narrator only implied. After they were kidnapped and their identities erased, all that remained was the name "slave". While acknowledging this tragedy, however, N18 does not despair.
The narrative traces T—'s people to triumph, accomplished through free migrations as much as the tragic chain of events had begun with forced migrations. Thus the family, nearly destroyed, rose again to create an identity and narrative of their own. There are larger political and social suggestions to this triumph, which intersect the personal significance of the story and events for the people of the extraordinary son named T—.
Absolute distinctions between good ancestors "We" and immoral outsiders "They" are common in the 465 narratives but are not universal, not even among narratives of slavery or violence. Some accounts are more morally nuanced than the previous two and likely more historically honest at the same time. Narration 19 for example, describes an ancestry that provided both victim and perpetrator of the crime of slavery.
Narrator 19's family story also serves as a myth of caution to not persecute your own people. A family's memory survives!
Students cite other causes besides slavery for gaps in ancestral information. While N17 and N18 describe outsiders who decimated the families' identities, Narrator 20 describes deliberate manipulations of ancestral records coming from within his own family. As already shown, those who attempt to corrupt the records can themselves become part of the narration.
There occurs here not only a single episode but also a pattern of corruption of the family's story. Early groups attempted to eliminate immoral behavior from the ancestry by eliminating it from the narrative, while later others tried to cleanse the family of particular ethnicities, by cleansing the language of the narrative. Yet the narrative somehow superseded disgruntled efforts and not only retained ostracized thieves and Native Americans, it exposed as liars and hypocrites those who would have falsified the family's identity. The narrative, like the family, is transcendent, defying both time and treachery. The narrative is itself a mythic force, and part of the ancestral identity.
In addition to stories of deliberate corruption and deletion, many narrators acknowledge that names, dates, people, and places have simply been forgotten or lost from records over time. Indeed, around 5% of students plead complete ignorance.
This student intends to maintain this empty record, establishing herself as an accomplice in the closing of her own narrative. Yet her ironic choice of words shows recognition of the impact of her decision, not only for the narrative, but for the narrator as well, whose identity will "remain a mystery."
Very few students share N21's attitude however, with most promising to explore and learn more, rather than less. A typical sentiment comes from Narrator 22, who added this personal note to a description of her "German, Caddo, Cherokee" ancestry.
Around one in five students claim a limited knowledge prior to the project, and resolve this in one of three ways. First, like N22, some ask relatives about the family. These students commonly learn of and adopt existing narratives.
A second option for students who knew too little was to construct a small narrative from what they could already deduce, a family name, skin color, or an apparent ethnicity.
N23 and N24 construct narratives from observation. Should they build on these conclusions after Project 16 is handed in and the class is over, they will make choices of their own regarding ancestors, inclusion and exclusion, and family myths.
The third and most common option for students lacking an existing narrative was to combine observation with information from the World History course, forming particular accounts from general historical situations. Narrator 25, knowing already his ancestors are European and Native American, incorporates information from class discussions and readings to construct a poetic, if succinct narrative.
Narrator 25 participates in the creation of his own narrative, which might represent the beginning of a persistent family story, an identity, a myth.
Some students express skepticism about their own narratives and show concern their stories might appear to romanticize or mythologize. Yet narrators almost without exception accept accounts and faithfully repeat them as inherited. One student, after titling his narrative, "Native American Migration. The Creation" which he writes he learned from his "Ojibwe teacher in Canada," concludes,
Another student, who identifies himself as "descended of the Seminole and Creek tribes" begins his account with an admission he does not know the historical truth of the migrations he is about to relate.
N27 admits his understanding of the myth of his people is greater than his knowledge of the history, but the inherited narrative takes precedent over the "true" account. He uses "here" vaguely; it might refer to the Americas, to the United States, to Oklahoma, or even to a local mountain of tribal significance. But within his oral tradition and belief, his people have always been "here," conveying idiomatically a powerful moral: where we are, is the place of our ancestors. N27 adopts, repeats, and perpetuates the narrative despite his own skepticism. This assures his place in the story, and among his people.
Narrator 28 perpetuates a similar myth, again in a Native American context.
While admitting to migrations in his people's past, N28 denies them at the same time. He appears to use the verb "to migrate" to have two different meanings, one to apply to Native Americans, the other to non-Native Americans, or perhaps the first to apply to immigrants, the second to other migrants. Narrators 26, 27, and 28 adopt the family stories as they have inherited them, apologetics notwithstanding. The narrative carries the voices of ancestral memories, which grant to the descendent an identity within the kinship community; this is something academic historians cannot do.
Narrators' relationships to narratives are perhaps similar to those of the "native speaker" in the adage about correct and incorrect language, "A native speaker is never wrong." The narrative belongs to the family memory in the (social, if not biological) way a language belongs to native speakers. Some students seize this native authority with confidence when defining their ancestries. Narrator 29 stridently challenges what he asserts is an unacceptable convention in American ancestral narratives, as he articulates his right to define his own ancestry.
Narrator 29 seems unable to resist naming pre-American ancestors, even while he sets a "statute of limitations." But he understands his right to name the ancestry he claims, on the principles of his choosing. His argument, self-contradictory or not, is perfectly reasonable, despite the fact that it is, as he points out, unusual. It is not for outsiders to tell this descendent and heir how he should or should not construct his own ancestry. For in the end, most narratives are not only personal, they are exclusive.
Narratives convey exclusivity through personal references belonging only to the narrative's heirs, in particular, proper names of ancestors. Narrators also make speech exclusive through the use of idiom as an "insider's" language. Family idiom closes a narrative to outsiders who are ignorant, and perhaps skeptical. In order to secure a personal place within the narrative, and therefore among the ancestors, narrators adopt the narrative's unique speech. Narrator 30 for example, does not offer his family's story to be scrutinized or questioned; it is for him to adopt, to repeat, and to perpetuate.
While historically it is perfectly plausible the narrator descends from the Celtic people he describes, some of the details and terms he mythologizes by adopting peculiar family meanings. N30's reference to "druidic peoples" for example, would not correspond to the way historians use the term. The student is less concerned with historicity than he is with memory however, which belongs to him and his ancestors, and carries its own internal meaning. N30 perpetuates this meaning by repeating the narrative, the mythical truth of which in turn identifies the narrator. By perpetuating their story, N30 perpetuates the virtues the ancestors embodied, gives himself their names, values himself by their values, and invents himself in their image as he and the narration together invent them in his own.
The language of the 465 narratives is rich with idiom, as students adopt regionalisms, family and tribal speech, and some terms and phrases of simply mysterious source and meaning. As already demonstrated, terms such as "colonialism," "migration," or "druid," might carry specialized meanings. The same can be said of "Black Dutch," and various ways of expressing senses of "full-blood," terms that appear without uniform usage and usually without definition.
Outside of these responses, "Black Dutch" is not conventionally used to describe the ethnicities of people before they arrived to North America. But students adopt the term for such a great range of meaning that it sometimes extends to a European definition.
It is not clear if Narrator 31 understands the family meaning of the term he uses, as idiom can remain a mystery even to those using it. This may enhance the power of the narrative, which knows things the narrator does not.
The narrative's authority is here endorsed by the narrator's willingness to adopt an important term or identification without question.
Some better informed narrators explain insider's speech.
The term "Black Dutch" is thus variously defined but is in all events a term that sets the family apart because of its secrecy and its unique meaning.
Terms students use to describe ethnic "purity" among ancestors also vary in the documents though the term "full-blood" is the most prevalent. While most students who claim purity, claim it for ancestors, a few claim it for themselves, obviously therefore to include all predecessors in the "pure" line.
The narrator's assertion demonstrates again a mythic quality that defies history and science, as "black" is left undefined and unqualified except in its contrast to "mixes." This radical racial purity might build an identity that is whole, complete, completely known, or uncorrupted. The term is used as an emphasis of these qualities, if not a deliberate exaggeration. No other people have diluted or usurped the identity of the pure descendent. The pure blood is a super-identity, bearing a pure ideal.
Other claims of purity apply to other ethnic groups.
Narrator 35's claim is similar to the previous "100% black" student in that his pure blooded ancestors, "celts," are a historically large, multi-ethnic group, and could not in any reasonable cultural or genetic sense be described as isolated. The historically heterogeneous nature of these two groups shows the two claims to purity to be matters of faith and symbolism.
Most claims to pure blood identify groups more specific than Black or Celtic though the scientific and historical complications remain. The greatest numbers of references to "full-bloods" among narratives refer to German or Native American ancestries. There are also claims to "full-blood Italian," Irish, and others.
Terms such as "white," homestead, "Indian papers," "Black market baby," and "black Russian" also appear as parts of the speech of the exclusive narrative. Narrators rarely define such terms, adding to the mystery (or confusion) of their value. The term "black-Russian" for example, appears in two records and is defined in neither.
N36 might have invented the term "black Russian" or he might have learned it from a relative. But historically its meaning is unclear, nearly unique in this context. It means something to the author however and possibly to his family in that the term provides an identity and meaning to his story that excludes outsiders.
The term "white" tends to refer broadly to people of European descent and is used almost exclusively by narrators who self-identify as something other than White. The term might be used to refer to individual ancestors,
Or it might be used to refer to outsiders.
In both these examples, the exclusivity of the term "white" comes not from its mystery, but from its Otherness. Its use effectively distinguishes the outside group from the family of the narrative.
The terms Black Dutch, full-blood, and white, are part of the larger idiom of race, ethnicity, and nationality. While the idea of "full-blood" precludes ethnic diversity, most narrators indulge differences and varieties, rather than singularities in their ancestral pasts. Narrator 39 describes his great great-great grandfather's migration to Arkansas.
N39's emphasis on the cultural multiplicity of his ancestry is more typical than are claims to "purity." A person is no more biologically descended from one great grandparent than from another. Yet even here, where multiplicity defines the student's ancestral identity, the descendent chooses to mention one ethnicity over another.
Origins, Transitions, and Other Struggles
Many narrations open with a "beginning" event, of the family or ancestral group in question, and many close with expressions of hope for the future. In between narrated beginnings and futures, students offer stories of all kinds, with the family or kinship group always seated at center.
To identify an ancestry's origins, many narrators describe or establish something like a family's "first memory," a significant psychological marker in any case, no less emblematic in a family than in an individual's narrative. Family's first memories describe origins, or significant transitions, that typically represent new beginnings. Narrator 40's phrasing is representative.
The first memory of Narrator 40 is clear though its time frame is vague. Narrator 41 identifies family beginnings at a specific point in time.
Narrator 41's family has a precise beginning: the joining of the two lovers. Before their meeting, the two individuals appear disassociated from the author, afterwards, her family is conceived.
The number of generations back to an earliest memory ranges widely though an undefined distance is also common. Narrator 42 begins his family in the eleventh century.
Narrator 43 begins much earlier,
Narrator 44 describes his family's origins in prehistoric Africa.
The family in all three of these narratives remains constant, moving through time and space, along many paths, even from the beginning of humankind. Indeed, there is a suggested subordination in Narration 44 of "African" and "German" to the L— family, which enters in and out of those larger groups without altering its character. N44 describes a family eternally recurring.
The earliest individual identified in many narratives often corresponds to the first family migrant coming to North America.
The personality of individuals named in a first family memory helps define the modern family's identity. An "indentured servant" on the Mayflower suggests a family early to the continent, thus entitled, hard working, and honest, perhaps oppressed in the Old World, eventually liberated in the New World.
Several first memories identify groups of traveling brothers.
This motif appears in around a dozen records or in about one-third of records naming first ancestors. Brothers groups are usually described as fraternities of hearty adventurers, explorers, innovators, or fighters.
If the Brothers motif suggests patriarchal origins, there are some narrators who might balance this interpretation by recalling to the story one additional, important detail: brothers also come from somewhere.
N48 does not describe the origins of the family but the origins of the family's westward migration. Still, the regular appearance of women at defining junctures in narratives offers a response to possible misogynistic interpretations. Others introduce women earlier including Narrative 49, which opens with the figure of a young girl.
Youth seems like a good place to begin any story and there are several narratives or transitions that open with children or babies, whether the first generation of immigrants, of Oklahomans, or the smallest migrant on a Trail of Tears. The youngest people in these stories are more often female than male, which places women within individual records in passive and possibly diminutive roles. But again, from the larger perspective of the 465 narratives, women appear to be more or less equivalent to men in their prominence, their work, and their places among the ancestors, even when they are children.
A potential exception to the equality of men's to women's ancestral significance might be that women in narratives migrate more often with or towards family, while men move together, or alone.19
Maria moved, presumably with her parents but of course family is also made up of women.
While stories recount struggles of many kinds, several students show female ancestors being raped or taken advantage of. Narrator 53 describes a union that leaves more to the imagination than it reveals, yet suggests hardships peculiar to women.
Women might have had peculiar danger or suffering that drove them into the safety of families or, in the case of N53, into marriage, but narratives show ancestors who struggled enormously regardless of gender. In fact, struggle, and the lessons that come out of struggle are two of the predominant themes of narratives.
There are few narratives that do not describe some great hardship that befell ancestors whether native, slave, immigrant, or other. Struggle is so essential to these ancestral stories, it sometimes occurs almost gratuitously, as if required.
Immigrant stories are commonly filled with suffering, sometimes as an explanation for the immigration itself and sometimes as experienced during dangerous travel. So the claim that N54's grandfather went away to "escape something" seems logical enough. But the narrative's lack of information also shows how a story dissipates over time, leaving in this case nothing but the generic message of "escape" from some unnamed threat or danger.
Other accounts of struggle are of course more specific. Narratives 55 and 56 offer moving accounts of the experiences of European immigrants.
Persecution of the V— Family explains not only migrations but also religious practice, and eventually the narrator's family's permanent residence and choice of college. A second account narrates a lifetime of struggle.
While this narration shares themes with conventional American immigrant myths, it contains a note of despair uncommon among the 465 records. There is nothing told but suffering and when the grandparents make a move to improve their lives, things only seem to get worse. More commonly, students assign morals to the ancestors' struggles, including opportunities not realized until the author's own generation.
Descendants of Native American people describe the same struggles as others but with some particular circumstances.
While persecution of Native American ancestors are often framed in racial terms, as with N57's grandmother's story, the ancestry most students describe is racially mixed and narrations reflect this complexity. Many students self-identifying as Native American also mention for example, ancestors participating in Land Runs.
As shown in N58, narratives describe in the first generation of "the landrush," Native people and new arrivals intermarrying, linking those contrasting historical settlements into common family legacies.
The Oklahoma Land Runs of the late nineteenth century appear in many records as primary determinants of migrations to Oklahoma and might at first glance appear to represent an exception to the pattern of ancestral struggle and suffering. But behind the excitement, hope, and new opportunities evident in Land Run narratives, lie stories of grueling physical labor, occasional bad harvests including the Dust Bowl, and other hardships.
The Ancestry of Place
Land Runs, Potato Famines, and Trails of Tears are all migratory events that relate the circumstances of struggle and suffering of ancestors while also introducing the significance of "place" to ancestry. "Place" appears in narratives most commonly as simple locations of origins or migrations and in this way, represents an important influence. But there is an irony to this importance, as many student narrators could apparently not locate the places they name on a map. Students' ignorance of geography is widespread, evidenced by frequent misidentifications, misspellings, and misuse. Yet at the same time, narrations rely heavily on awareness of interdependence between ancestral places and people. Students offer "place" as a family's provider, a homeland, or as the land of the formation of ancestors. In short, students often construct "place" as not only the location of the family, but as the guardian of the family.
N59 not only identifies her family with Vietnam, she names it the "cradle" of the family, signifying nurture, protection, and comfort. Her affection for Vietnam stands in stark contrast to the violent circumstances she later describes around her family's eventual departure from that country.
Around 10% of all narratives associate the identity of the ancestry closely to its ancestral "place." N60 writes,
N60's parents moved to a small town in western Oklahoma to work in a meat packing plant. They built a house on their ranch in Mexico and visit only occasionally but the author still calls the ranch her parent's home.
N60's ancestral land is part of the identity of the family and her words seem carefully chosen when she says her family "belongs to" the land.
N61's family arrived to Oklahoma during the Land Run and her narrative describes a love for the family land similar to N60's. The wholesome permanence and faithful bounty of the family's farm contrasts with her ancestor's previous transient, undependable way of life. The land sustains the family, while land and family sustain one another.
There is an eternal relationship suggested between the land and N61's people. She and her husband intend to hold both together through the cycles to come.
Hope and Sacrifice
Narrator 61's expression of hope for the future represents a recurring theme of the narrations: gratitude to those who preceded them. Many students even express hope to live up to their ancestors' sacrifices.
The Narrator connects the suffering of the past with her own hard work and future plans not only through the flow of the narrative, but by identifying herself as "the first generation" to graduate college. Her haunting phrase, "many hardships" finds justification in the student's own life and work. She and those who suffered so greatly are mythically joined, suffering and struggling each for the other, and in the union of the older and the younger ancestral communities, the migrant N62 is becoming a contributing member.
Like Narrator 62, many students relate the narratives with humility. Stories they select show intimacy, respect, and affection for those who came before them.
It should be clear from N63 as well as from many of the previously cited narratives, students hold the idea of ancestry and their understanding of specific ancestors in high regard. Ancestry is important to them. Students express gratitude to ancestors as they look to them for identities, personal examples, and a native base on which to build their own families, beliefs, and futures.
Ancestry in its many rich historical and mythical contexts, is a theme that has been neglected in the education of our young people. But professors and teachers might consider introducing discussions of ancestry into various curricula, in order to demonstrate that students are more than abstractly connected to the world and its history. Humanity's history is the inheritance of the humble as well as the elite, of our students and their families as well as of great leaders and institutions. This inheritance can be discovered in the world history classroom, demonstrating the shared fate and responsibility of all people in the age of globalization. At the same time, discussions of ancestry can dignify the individual, provide insights into the peculiar backgrounds of the many people represented in the classroom, and demonstrate graphically that history matters, and it matters to students and their families. Their own narratives testify to this.
Project 16: You, the Migrant
Two hundred years ago the author's Hertzel ancestors were south German people who emigrated from Switzerland. In the eighteenth century, some of that family migrated to Ukraine to a Lutheran town where the family remained for less than a century. To avoid persecutions by the Russian government, they migrated to the United States where they met immigrants from Ireland and individuals from the two families married. One of their children married into a family descended from Norwegians and Austrians and that family moved from Missouri to Illinois then Minnesota. The author then moved to Seattle to work and study, to Oregon to study, and eventually to Oklahoma to teach. The author is also the descendent of Indo-European and Germanic people, as well as migrations from Africa thousands of years ago.
Almost any person could describe similar events from the past. Some better known American migrations include Native American "removals," forced and voluntary migrations across the Atlantic from Africa, nineteenth and early twentieth century migrations from Europe and Asia, and more recent migrations from Mexico into Texas and the southwest, from Southeast Asia to the Midwest, between Pacific islands, and so on. Furthermore, each one of us has ancestors who migrated out of Africa, across Asia, or who participated in other migrations. And this has not unique to the people of North America; it has been going on as long as humans have been human.
Outline your own migrant heritage. What migrations brought you here?
David Hertzel is a Professor of History at Southwestern Oklahoma State University where he teaches modern European as well as World History. He is currently Faculty Sponsor to the Southwestern International Student Association (SISA). He can be contacted at email@example.com
The author would like to thank the editors of World History Connected, in particular Marc Gilbert, and those five readers who were kind enough to review the paper and offer helpful corrections and criticisms, Laura Endicott, John Hayden, T. Benjamin Hertzel, Philip Holley, Sunu Kodumthara, and Mark MacDonald.
1 David Hertzel, The World History Workbook, (Rowman and Littlefield, 2009).
2 "465" represents the complete set of preserved projects. Some few books or projects were returned to students, at students' request, while some few others were recycled. The set of 465 represents 85% of all projects completed from Fall, 2007 to Spring, 2009. Research was conducted during the spring and summer of 2009, independent of SWOSU facilities and resources.
3 This latter statistic would be true of any Oklahoma university as Oklahoma was the destination of multiple Indian "removals" in the nineteenth century and remained Indian Territory until statehood in 1907, and that Native legacy is alive and evident today.
4 This percentage suggests more than twice that number of respondents have Native American family associations, as our survey will demonstrate.
5 "You, the Migrant" is the last of thirty-five written projects assigned to the class and some responses are apparently informed in part by the course or the textbook itself. Around half of students include in their answers that they are ultimately the descendents of early migrations out of Africa, for example.
6 Student entries are handwritten. Misspellings, grammatical errors, and otherwise peculiar phrasings are common. Submissions appear in this article as they were written, with anomalies only rarely noted.
7 Authors' (and some other ancestral) names have been reduced to first initials for purposes of anonymity.
8 Not all terms narrators choose to identify nationalities occur in the records exactly as they appear in this simplified list or in the Table. "Indian," "Native," "Native-American," "First People," for example are all counted under "Native American" in this section. Similar variety exists for other nationalities, etc.
9 For purposes of this tally only, records listing more than five separate nationalities were generalized by a single, predominant group (ie, "European," "Indian," etc.) where possible, and as "mix" where such an inclusive group could not be summarized.
10 The latter groups represent the numerically largest Oklahoma tribes.
11 Many records identify multiple ancestral nationalities, ethnicities, etc. Column I shows the total number of records that include the national reference. It does not tally more than one reference to the same nationality within a single record (i.e., "both my parents were German" is counted as one German reference, not two).
12 Records using generic names, other than national (i.e., "family," "all people," etc.) are not counted here.
13 Whereas Column II tallies the exact name of group as it appears in a record, Column III includes tribal references that are multiple while counting the single predominant group. This explains the discrepancies between the number of records identifying Cherokee as the predominant ancestor in Columns II and III.
14 When counted separately from other Native American.
15 "German" identified as the leading nationality of a "mix," variously described as "mix," "mixed," "mutt," etc.
16 Not including original "out of Africa" references.
17 Land Runs were federal grants of land offered on first-come, first-serve bases.
18 The term "Trail of Tears" is used by Native Americans of many Oklahoma tribes to refer to the forced migrations that brought their ancestors to Indian Territory, known today as Oklahoma.
19 Much has been made of the so-called "Cherokee Princess Syndrome," in which a predominantly "white" individual feels a need to include a diminutive, but honorable Indian in his or her genealogy and so "invents" a generic Indian, often a Cherokee, who is diminutive, Princess, female, and submissive to a male of European ancestry. There is no reasonable evidence for this or any other Indian-specific gender, titled, or tribal bias in the 465 records overall. More Indian "chiefs" than "princesses" are named, but European kings and queens appear at a higher frequency than do Native "titles." More male Indian ancestors are mentioned than female, though the difference is very slight, and Cherokee are mentioned proportional to state and university population numbers. Further, European national references are as frequently vague or uncertain to narrators as are Native American references. Finally, the predominance of any one ethnic group over another appears to arise most often from the identity of the most available family acquaintance, rather than from racial prejudices. The so-named "single-drop rule" also does not appear to apply well to these records, as students with African ancestors claim various ethnic identities, or none at all.
20 Used with permission, Rowman and Littlefield.
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