I love the way Brigid’s Forge’s blog post “Irish Ethnicity and following an Irish deity” sums up what it’s like being an American in search of their roots. Or, more specifically, the cultural and ethnic roots they want to connect with on a spiritual level. As someone who is American and has “Irish DNA” (along with a whole slew of other origins and whatever genetic memory-related traumas they carry), I can identify.
While I may study Irish witchcraft and Norse Seidr work and put some of these practices into use, I don’t feel it’s necessary nor appropriate for me to claim the title of Draoí or Völva.
Personally, I like to think of my witchcraft as “informed by” the cultural and ethnic identities of my heritage. But rather than saying I am a Norse-Scots-Irish-German-Polish-American witch – and that’s probably not even covering everything – I am beginning to think of myself more as a North Country witch. Specifically, an American North Country witch.
One of my great-grandmothers, Olga, came to Minnesota from Sweden in 1912. She became an American, part of the Scandinavian diaspora who preserved connections to home and family through letters and recipes. She found her connection to this land by way of her beloved swamp, with its labyrinthine web of deer paths and Tamarack trees. So this is where we learned, the three generations who came after Olga’s arrival, about wild asters and marsh marigolds.
Hilda, my Norwegian grandmother on the other side of my family, is who showed me to hold the dull blade of a heavy silver butter knife on a fat lip, to cut the pain. She saw God in a thunderstorm when she was caught out in her boat on Lake Mille Lacs, the second-largest of our 10,000+ lakes. And she saw other things, too – things most people couldn’t – so when I saw them, I wasn’t scared, because I knew my grandma saw them too.
These are things learned here, in Minnesota. In America’s North Country. With ancestors who came over from Ireland before America was even a country to a great-grandmother who arrived from Sweden just a little more than 100 years ago, I have roots here. Even though I have never been to Sweden or Norway, the cemetery where my Norwegian ancestors are buried is marked with large stones, like an echo of the rune stones that memorialized the dead in those places. Yet these people, my dead, are here, in Minnesota. It’s a place where we have towns named Upsala and Mora. Some are named for Odin and Thor. We have rivers named Elk and Mississippi. Our lakes have names like Nokomis and Bemidji, and the recently reclaimed name Bde Maka Ska.
As our place names have become a blend of Native and European names, our people are blended, too. I have relatives who claim Native American, Latino and Pacific Islander descent. Just as the people of Ireland can’t claim any “pure” bloodline, many of us in the U.S. can’t either. Not even a large percentage of ethic minorities can claim this.
My nephew’s grandmother, who lived next-door to me for over a decade, taught me about dream catchers and their significance to her White Earth Ojibwe people. I sat with her many times, watching and listening as she wove a protective web of sinew, beads and feathers along with all kinds of tales. Weaving is a cross-cultural act, and although the patterns differ, the magic bears a common thread. My Scandinavian ancestors were weavers, too.
Beyond my ancestral family roots are the others I claim as family. Some are close friends, some are actually related by broken familial bonds. So we aren’t legally family, but I feel that we determine what makes real family; no government has the right to say who my people are.
In my time spent living on land owned by the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and working both as an employee of the tribal casino and also a native-owned small business, I made deeper connections to the people who were here before me. Jokes exchanged with the elders I knew, practical medical advice from a concerned friend about what herbs were good for a headache, or ghost stories exchanged by firelight have built these relationships. Through fishing and swimming in the lakes, or waking with the sun to walk acres of land to catch horses for the day’s trail rides, I formed friendships with the land and waters there. Playing bare-back pasture games on half-broke horses with no more than a harness and lead rope as my friend’s pre-teen daughters laughed at my attempts to keep up without falling off earned me a very close friendship with the land itself. I met the ground abruptly on several occasions, in fact.
But I don’t say these things as a way to claim any culture beyond my own; my experience with the people and the land in which I live has already formed my existence here. By simply being in this space, regardless of how we get here, makes us a part of its culture. Going forward with mutual respect is the only way to end the divisiveness that’s becoming increasingly rampant in our society. The balancing act is knowing how to appreciate and learn from those around us while still honoring our authentic roots, and for each of us that will almost always be different.
As I hand these experiences down to my own children and grandchildren, I understand that although we don’t have an unbroken lineage of witches that can be traced back to pre-Christian antiquity, it has become a family craft lineage that not everyone can claim. But anyone can learn or practice these things. It’s just as diverse as those of us who live here. North Country witchcraft might not be a descriptive enough label for some, but it’s what I have come to claim as mine. And as I continue to grow and learn I will add to it; it too will continue to transform, fluid and adapting as those who claim it as a practice.