Saturday, January 12, 2019

What Does Your Ancestral Homeland Mean to You?

Plane in flight

If when you have your DNA tested for ethnicity and you find where your ancestors were from, does this make you want to travel there? Would you like to win a trip for two to your ancestral homeland?

  There’s a company called momondo (lowercase m) whose slogan is “Let’s Open Our World.” On their website it states: “momondo was founded on the belief that everybody should be able to travel the world. Travel opens our minds and the door to a world where our differences are a source of inspiration and development, not intolerance and prejudice.”

  A couple of years ago, momondo recorded a serious of videos called, “The DNA Journey Feat.” It can be found on YouTube and is very entertaining to watch. I would suggest starting with the one about Ellaha from Iran and then the other videos in the segment should que up. There are a few that are short segments of some candidates in the study,  but it is far more interesting to watch the full videos of each individual, such as the ones about Jay, Carlos, and Aurelie. Momondo tested 67 people, but there’s maybe only a dozen videos to be found on YouTube. With cameras capturing their every expression as they look at their DNA results for the first time, their initial reactions are fascinating to watch.

  At the beginning of the study of these 67 young men and women of varying nationalities, they were one by one brought before a panel of two and asked questions like, “What ethnicity do you think your ancestors were,” or “How do you feel about taking a journey based on your DNA?”

  It was interesting to hear the answers to who they thought they were ethnically. Most were sure of their ethnic heritage, but the DNA results told them differently. Many who stated what they hoped they were not, were actually from that ethnicity.

  An Englishman who thought he was 100% English, said he didn't like the Germans due to the conflicts between the two countries and his ancestors serving and defending England. Through his DNA, he learned he was 5% German. Did the information soften his heart? His responsive expression seemed to say it did.

  An Icelander said, “I am more important than a lot of people.” He said he was from the best country in the world and that he was stronger and better than any other ethnicity. When he opened his DNA results, he found his family was from Eastern Europe, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece. He then said, “Iceland has definitely moved closer to Europe now.”

  A French woman said all her ancestors were from France. When asked, “If you could be any other nationality, which would you pick?” She chose Italian and British. Her results showed she was in fact, 32% British and 31% Italian. No French ethnicity at all showed in her DNA. She said, “I’ve never really felt at home in my own country—in France.”

  All candidates were asked if they wanted to travel to the places their ancestors were from, and they all answered in the affirmative.

  The slogan of #letsopenourworld is: “An open world begins with an open mind.”

  At the end of the study, a candidate commented (and I second the sentiment), “Who would be stupid enough to think there’s a pure race?”

  Two years ago, I blogged about visiting my homeland in Ireland in a post called “Are Our Ancestors in Us?” I discussed that unusual phenomenon of feeling like you’ve come home when you travel in your ancestral homeland that you’ve never been to before. I’d like to update that post with an interesting piece of information. My initial autosomal DNA test stated that I was 7% Irish, which didn’t sit well with me. I “felt” more Irish. Well, as has accumulated a bigger database, their results have changed. I am recorded as 21% Irish and Scottish (the two are now grouped together). The results narrow it down further to pinpoint where in Ireland my ancestors were from, which is Southern Connemara and the Aran Islands of County Galway. A small area, maybe just 1/32nd of Ireland.

  I wonder how much more our DNA will teach us in the coming years?

  If you want to travel to learn about your ethnicity, you have the opportunity to win a trip for two to your ancestral homeland! RootsTech is looking for videos of people stating what connections with their ancestors mean the most to them. Your video will need a title and short description. Use your imagination—and good luck!

Thursday, June 21, 2018

How Do We Know Our Ancestors Narratives are Accurate?

Can you trust your memories? Can you trust memories of family members who have left behind their stories?

I recently read the memoir, Educated, by Tara Westover. It was a grueling read and depressing to the end. I struggled through learning about Westover’s disturbing rural “survivalist” childhood of abuse and neglect. The stories were intense, emotional, and left me exhausted. But Westover’s alluring writing kept me reading. It was like staring at a bad car accident when you know you should look away. I will never forget the book yet can’t decide if I could recommend it to others.

Westover sometimes started a scene by explaining how she remembered the past, but then added that a sibling remembered it differently and told what those differences were. She would even occasionally ask herself if her memory was to be trusted, which then gave her the drive to find evidence of past experiences to back up her memories.

When I looked online at reviews and what people were saying about Educated, I realized the book has become controversial. Some of Westover’s siblings and family friends are claiming Educated to be all lies. Perhaps that is to be expected—and I am making no judgement here.

How do we deal with remembering the past differently than others who were part of that experience? If those others can’t accept our reality, they may try to change the past by denying it. As Westover put it, “reality becomes fluid.” Educated may be an extreme example, but most of us know memory can be fickle. In grad school, I learned that because memory is not reliable, you can only represent an event. There are as many versions of an event as there are people who took part. We were also taught to approximate dialogue that we no longer remembered word for word.

Memories can be fragmentary and sometimes influenced by how we want things to have been. Mary Karr, the author of The Liar’s Club, said, “To minimize regrets and justify our behaviors, we sometimes convince ourselves of alternative explanations.”

But how else do we learn, but from our memories or the experiences of others? Even if our memories are not fully formed with all the facts, they often capture our motivations and desires. They may create an image that is consistent with what we felt an experience meant. There is much to be learned by examining our life. And when we write of emotional truth—no one else should argue.

There’s no need to analyze all writing coming from memory for accuracy, but it doesn’t hurt to understand how memory works. Stories are usually written in hindsight—understanding and reflecting on experiences. And there’s no question that by writing about our lives we become more aware and gain clarity and knowledge. 
 If we are writing about ancestors from stories that they handed down, how do we know their narratives are accurate? Is there a concern that we might be twisting the reality of the past? Like any good researcher, we need to look for the evidence. You may find that the dates don’t line up, or that the third-great-grandfather who didn’t believe in slavery did in fact own slaves. Interview relatives, read diaries, letters, documents, newspaper accounts, and check public records such as census, vital, court, taxes, municipal registry of deeds and land, or books on local history. If you can’t authenticate something, use attributions such as: I believe, or it stands to reason, or it’s possible that…

My family holds hatred for a man who lived in the mid-1800s. It was said that he took land from my ancestor, a poor widow whose husband owed just one more mortgage payment when he died. Because the mortgage was not fully paid, the entire mortgage was forfeited and the house and land taken from the widow. When I did the research, I found there was no record of that “hated” gentleman ever owning the land to begin with.

Not everything is in a record. When oral history is passed down, details are lost or separate experiences are woven together. The telling may become distorted, amplified, and move further from the truth. Many have been guilty of romanticizing the past.

I’m convinced some of the best stories aren’t documented because they were meant to be kept secret. To tell a good story, we need the details that probably aren’t available. This is where the decision may be made to write the story as historical fiction rather than biography or creative nonfiction.

Nowadays we read memoirs of harsh realities and best sellers that often tell of dysfunctional families and squalid childhoods, but it wasn’t long ago that families kept these things secret at all costs. To keep quiet was a loyalty to the family or a way to keep the peace. Now it seems we are ready to arrive at a larger truth about families and all their defects. On social media many “tell all” and don’t seem to miss the loss of privacy. Even then, perhaps it’s not all truth.