A couple of weeks ago, I visited Wichita, Kansas, where my son is doing musical theatre productions for MTWichita. While there I visited the Mid America All Indian Center. It was listed in a Wichita tourist guide and sounded like something fun to see. It was.
I’d never been to Wichita before and was interested to see the important sites in the area. This center was established in the 1970s at the confluence of the Little and Big Arkansas rivers. I was charmed by the exhibits in the center which happened to include a tapestry weaving display and art by Francis Blackbear Bosin. His paintings are striking in their gauche (opaque watercolor) illustration design. They captivated me. There are several paintings on display there including an 80+ foot mural
he painted as a commission for one of Wichita’s banks. To see it in person was thrilling. He also designed a large steel statue that stands at the actual confluence of the two rivers called “The Keeper of the Plains”.
I’ve watched a video on his life and have been reading a book by his step-brother, David Simmonds, and find myself thinking about my roots and the heritage I come from.
Thanks to my Aunt Muriel, who spent years researching my family ancestry (the old fashioned way with correspondence and pouring over books and public records. No computers existed), I know that in my father’s side of the family came from Massachusetts at least as far back as the late 1600s. I’ve been able to verify her work, but she wasn’t able to verify the ancestry further back than that. I suspect that it would involve finding birth records in England, but I have yet to accomplish that.
My mother’s side is more challenging. She was adopted, and we have no information on her birth parents. But we have plenty of information on her adopted parents, although I have only just begun that research, enough to know that there is much Scottish ancestry on both the paternal and maternal sides.
All this got me thinking about what it means to know and honor your heritage. Many years ago, we visited Plymouth, Massachusetts and the Plimoth Plantation. As a kid, I learned about the Mayflower and the colony at Plimoth, and all the trouble they had establishing themselves in the New World. I thought I knew that history pretty well (after all that’s where we get Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday), and had a kinship with the New England stock of Pilgrims. The visit to the Plantation, which now has a portion devoted to the Native American “side of the story” and the reading of Nathaniel Philbrick’s book called “Mayflower” left me with an uncomfortable feeling. History, it is said, is written by the victors, but might not represent the whole story.
I started to be disappointed that I come from stock that was arrogant enough to “plant our flag” on the soil of this continent, and call it ours, regardless of the impact our being here had on the indigenous peoples. I believe, however, that my direct ancestors were good people, often upstanding citizens of places like Weston or Salisbury, Massachusetts. They ran hotels, farms, and were involved in the government of those early colonies. More recently, my grandfather worked in a woolen mill in Massachusetts and New York. (I knew my love of yarn came from somewhere).
The romantic in me is interested in learning more about my mother’s adopted family roots. The names McKenna and MacDonald figure prominently. She might not have carried their DNA, but she was brought up in the environment of their traditions and their heritage. It makes me wonder about the whole nature vs. nurture thing.
Why is it so important to know my “roots”? I don’t know. I want to honor my heritage. Maybe the best I can do is to know that the British Isles is the likely source, and that’s enough. My immediate ancestry is from “good New England stock”, stubborn as a rock, industrious and creative.