Talking to My Ancestors

I had a conversation with my ancestors last night. Well, to be clear, it was a one-sided chat, and I did all of the talking. But I consider it a conversation nevertheless and a good start - given my cluelessness with such things. It wasn't the anniversary of a loved one's passing nor was it a spooky night with curious friends and an Ouija board. It was just another night, though an important one, because the words of a native Hawaiian kapuna (elder) were reverberating through my head.

"The Westernized system places value on money," this revered and soft-spoken man told me one afternoon as we sat inside his home on Moloka'i with a Japanese soap opera on the television in the background. "Money, money, money. Hawaiians' value system, on the other hand, at least traditionally, is based on our connections to our ancestors," he explained, as he pointed to a box on the table. "Right there, that's my brother. I talk to him all the time. Sometimes he answers, sometimes he doesn't," he laughed. "But he always hears me. He is always guiding me, along with the rest of my family."

To my amazement, which hadn't diminished no matter how many times I had seen this done, he then began to recite his mo'oku'auhau (genealogy). It was no short process. (One graduate from a Hawaiian-language immersion high school on Maui told me, "At graduation, it took 45-minutes to recite my mo'oku'auhau!" which linked her family to the "Hawaiian equivalent of Adam and Eve.")

Flashback to my Pastoral Care class last year. I was trying to fill out my genogram (a detailed family tree), and I could not go one generation back from my grandparents. My grandparents. I did not know my great-parents' names or how many children they had, let alone their countries of origin or occupations. I asked my parents to enlighten me on some details of our family members - not simply because I needed to fill out the family tree for class but more so because I was genuinely curious...where did I come from? - only to find out that they weren't connected to our ancestors either.

Needless to say, I came out of the experience feeling pretty pathetic and slightly guilty. Were my ancestors rolling over in their graves witnessing the travesty? "Have our own families forgotten us? We were alive just 70 years ago!" I could hear them wailing. What did this mean for me and for the multitudes of people like me who were disconnected from their genealogical lines? Did it mean anything?

Ka wā mamua and ka wā mahope are the Hawaiian terms for the past and the future. Yet ka wā mamua (the past) actually means the time that is in front, forward, or before, while ka wā mahope (the future) literally means the time behind or after. Thus, as some native Hawaiians understand it, we face the past, interpret the present, and back into the future. What I find fascinating about this system is that in it, we are ever mindful of our past; we cannot turn our back on our personal histories or those who have come before. While we gaze into the past, we are encouraged to open ourselves up to the reality that we are constantly being guided. For it is our ancestors - those in our direct family lines and those outside - who stand in relationship with us in a continuous link, binding it all together, leading us carefully into the future.

Bearing this in mind (and still carrying the guilt from my failed genogram incident), on that special night a few days ago, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and started my conversation with my deceased family. Slowly and methodically, I began greeting those I had once known, then moved to those whom I knew by name but had never met, and then I introduced myself to all those whose names, faces, and histories were unknown to me but whose genes I carried. Once I got over the initial awkwardness, it seemed not just normal, but right. Why shouldn't I be connecting with my family? Today and every day?

Perhaps this ongoing and continued relationship with one's predecessors is a critical spiritual connection to explore that I've previously been missing in my research. For now, as I try to ascertain whether or not this is the case, I'll continue my one-sided conversations giving thanks that I am always being guided, whether I am aware of it or not.