The Wisdom of Your Ancestors - Great Mystery: Touching the Soul

Kindling the Native Spirit: Sacred Practices for Everyday Life - Denise Linn 2015

The Wisdom of Your Ancestors
Great Mystery: Touching the Soul

In many native cultures, the role of ancestors takes the place of angels. Ancestors are thought to be messengers between the earth and the heavens, and can act as a conduit to the Creator, in a similar way to the Christian view of angels. Since ancestors once lived on the earth, it’s thought that they can intercede more easily on behalf of the living. They know what it’s like to live on the earth, and they understand human challenges and human frailties. Establishing your connection to your ancestors helps instill a sense of continuum that gives you a greater understanding of who you are and where you’ve come from.

Westerners often think that native people are worshiping their ancestors, but this isn’t accurate. Worship implies an adoration of a deity or divine being. In earth-based cultures, it’s more of a veneration or gratitude for those who have gone before because of the sacrifices they made in their life so that our lives may be better.

In tribal traditions in Africa, the belief in the importance of the goodwill of ancestors cannot be overstated. Some Africans believe that it was Nelson Mandela’s ancestors who helped him maintain peace in South Africa. It’s said that when Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he went back to his ancestral home in the Transkei to tell the ancestors he was on a mission to liberate the country. It was believed that because he’d paid homage to his ancestors they were helping him, and this was the reason things went so well for him and that his “power” increased.

Another culture that deeply reveres ancestors is the Maori. When I visited New Zealand, it wasn’t uncommon for members of the marae to stand up and repeat their lineage. There was pride in being able to trace one’s bloodline back in history. However, when I was called to stand up and repeat my lineage, I realized I didn’t know much about my far ancestors. I could recount some about my parents and grandparents and a bit about the Cherokee Tribe, but that was about it. I come from a dysfunctional family background, so at first I couldn’t understand honoring deceased family members. I wanted to put as much distance as I could between my predecessors and myself. This is not an uncommon sentiment. Anyone who has suffered a dysfunctional childhood can understand how important it can be to separate oneself from family relationships in order to heal.

However, as I saw how important ancestors were to the Maoris, I began to slowly explore what it meant to connect with my ancestors and how it could benefit my life. I came to realize our ancestors don’t only dwell in the past; they also live inside of us in every cell in our bodies. Whether we’re aware of it or not, our lineage is continually influencing us, and our life destiny is often determined by the things that we aren’t consciously aware of. When I honor my ancestors, I also respect that place inside of me where they dwell. And as I explore my ancestry and revere those who went before me, I notice that my sense of self-worth expands.


A woman once told me that her ancestors did some cruel things. She said, “How can I honor them when what they did was so horrific?” To honor your ancestors, you must first forgive them. If you can’t forgive the deed (for some acts are unforgivable), then try to forgive the individual. Forgiving your ancestors helps you release negative legacies you may be carrying within you . . . and can keep negative family patterns from being passed down to the next generation. So even if your ancestors were less than stellar, you can still revere them. (For more information on the ancestor syndrome, see my book Four Acts of Personal Power.)

In native traditions, it’s not uncommon to believe that once a being enters into ancestral status, he or she becomes wiser and more benevolent. When my Cherokee grandmother was alive, she was stoic and stern. She wasn’t the warm and comforting grandma I would have liked. However, after her death, I could feel her presence; it seemed that she was changed. She was gentler and kinder. It’s a common belief, particularly in cultures that revere their ancestors, that the forebears fundamentally become their best selves once they’ve passed on.


Calling on ancestors isn’t unique to just native cultures, as people in many Asian cultures light incense at the site of the ancestral altar and then ask for help from their forebears. This is something that anyone can do. An exercise that can be of great comfort is to communicate directly with the spirit of an ancestor whom you admire and ask for his or her guidance. This is a very traditional practice in many cultures. Do not be concerned if you’re adopted or don’t know your ancestry. There’s a subconscious place within you that knows. (In addition, adoptive parents and their lineage can be as much your ancestors as your blood relatives.) Before giving a seminar, I often call on my Cherokee grandmother and ask for her assistance. After I’ve done so, I’m always filled with a sense of calm and confidence. I’ve gained as much spiritual guidance calling upon my ancestors as I have from my angels and guides, if not more.

Your ancestors are a largely untapped resource of blessings and support. Even if you don’t know your specific ancestors, you can put out a general call. When you’re calling on your ancestors for assistance, you can tell them about whatever challenge or problem you’re facing. Your ancestors love to be asked for help . . . call upon them!



Ancestor Altar: The ancestor altar is a time-honored tradition. The creation of altars is so endemic within our subconscious that even some of the earliest cave dwellers formed altars on the cave ledges with bear bones. Human beings have always made altars as a way of communing with the Divine and honoring what’s important to them, which included their ancestors. In present days, the gathering of photos on the piano is a kind of subliminal ancestor altar, but there’s power in a consciously created ancestor altar. Simply designate one small part of your dwelling to your ancestors; it can be a shelf, a ledge, or a coffee table. The kind of items on an ancestor altar varies from culture to culture; the best items to use are things that give you a loving feeling when you see them. You can use photos, fruit, flowers, incense, candles, alcohol, or mementos—anything that makes your heart sing. Your ancestors will feel your love.

Ancestor Circle: Embark on a meditation journey and imagine that you’re in a beautiful grove of trees. In the grove is an ancient stone circle. This is the sacred circle of the ancestors. It’s a place of power and wisdom. You can hear a soft hum that seems to emanate from the earth. A mist forms that heralds the arrival of your ancestors. One by one they appear in a circle around you. Each brings blessings and advice. Even if you can’t see them, imagine their presence.

Calling Your Ancestors: Simply say this: “Ancestors, wide and far, I ask you for your blessings, wisdom, and grace. I give thanks for all that is received.” They will come. The lessons they learned in life are absorbed into the collective soul of your ancestors and by accessing one, you access all their wisdom. The blessings of your ancestors may come in your dreams, in the signs around you, or simply in an insight that emerges.


Many people seem to have lost the realization that we’re all part of a hallowed legacy, a sacred continuum. We are both the descendants of our own ancestors and, in turn, the ancestors of those who will follow us. As you honor your ancestors and listen to their call, you honor yourself . . . for the ancestral soul dwells within you.