The peacebuilding power of learning where we come from

Family history or genealogical research may seem a long way from peacebuilding, at first glance. But anyone who has been watching the television programs, Who do you think you are?, which helps famous people trace their ancestry, may have noticed that often the result is to link people in different parts of the world.

Many families, especially in North America, came from somewhere else – voluntarily or involuntarily. And there is an increasing interest on the part of many people to trace their family history. I know this, because family history is one of my interests. Such research, however, can go beyond just helping a particular person find their roots.

In the 1990s, as a result of my electoral knowledge, I was appointed by the Government of Canada to join the body that was running the voting process on the Gwich’in comprehensive claim settlement, between the Gwich’in people of the Mackenzie Delta in Canada’s Northwest Territories, and the Canadian government. The claim was approved by the Gwich’in voters, and then an enrolment commission was created. I was appointed to that body as well.

Our task was to enroll all eligible Gwich’in people in the claim. To be enrolled, people had to be able to trace their ancestry back to 1921, when Treaty 8 was signed. But over the years, there had been many changes in how the Gwich’in lived. Children had been sent to residential schools far from home and consequently, many of them did not know who their grandparents were. And the Mackenzie River Valley had lost many of its elders during the terrible flu epidemic of 1918.

Researching family history
When we began asking people to complete the application forms, we found that people often could not list their grandparents or great-grandparents, which would take them back to 1921. So the enrollment board began a project to carry out research that would help people identify their ancestors. This project traced the Gwich’in families and used the knowledge of elders, like the late Sarah Simon, who was always known as Jijuu or grandmother, to put together a picture of Gwich’in genealogy. This was a complicated process as in the early days, the Gwich’in did not use surnames. People were known by individual names, that often were derived from a particular characteristic or a particular event.

I served on the enrollment board but I also got involved in this project because the person who had begun writing up the history could not finish that work. As I also was a writer, the board asked if I would complete the writing project. I was quite nervous about doing this as I did not feel I knew enough. But I agreed, as it was such an important project.

Once the writing was complete, the board organized a workshop with the Gwich’in elders to review the text. I still remember it vividly. I sat and listened as Elizabeth Crawford, a Gwich’in-born adult educator, read the text in Gwich’in. Periodically, the elders sitting around the table would laugh. I was so focused on my fear that I had not done a good job on my part of the writing that this laughter at first made me nervous. So during a break, I asked Elizabeth – why are they laughing? Did I make mistakes in the writing?

She smiled at me. They were laughing because it is so funny, the stories of how people got their names, she said. And so I relaxed, and was able to listen fully to the rest of the workshop.

Learning who she was
While there were elders around the table who were knowledgeable about the history and could add information or correct mistakes, one of the biggest impacts was on the younger people who were present. I remember one young woman saying that at last, she understood who her people were. She knew where she fitted into her peoples’ history now. It was something she had never learned.

And that was when I learned that one impact of many of the residential schools run by churches with funding from the Canadian government was to cut young people off from their family history. If they had been at home in their communities and continued to speak their language, their grandparents could have told them their history. But during their school years, many of them were far away from home and being taught in English. One result was that they did not know their own ancestry.

It was not just the enrolment process that helped reconnect people with their history. The Gwich’in people lived in the Yukon territory and in Alaska as well, but over time, these families had grown away from each other. One year, however, there was a major forest fire in the Yukon and many Gwich’in people were brought into Inuvik for safety. That gave people an opportunity to reconnect at the community level.

I saw a similar instance of this power of community connection on one episode of Who do you think you are?, when American actor Blair Underwood was tracing his roots. His ancestors came from Africa, but he had – like so many others – no idea of where in Africa they had come from. Genealogical research and DNA testing linked him with a cousin in a small village in Cameroon, and he and his father then visited that village, reconnecting family that had been separated so long before.

The creation of states, and boundaries, and borders, has often divided people in artificial ways. One of the great impacts of genealogical research, I think, is to show how interconnected our world is. And that changes how we see our world, and creates links that go beyond the states in which we live.