When Amber asked me to share about my experience with Ancestry, Death and Psychedelics on her new podcast Medicine Stories, it sparked a desire to release a bit of what I have been keeping within for the last seven years. I also found myself inspired to speak publicly outside of Spirit Weavers because these subjects are something I find truly fascinating and over time have grown to look at through a new lens. Medicine Stories is a podcast that speaks to my heart and I give thanks to Amber for allowing me to reflect on my past and into the future.
What I learned is that there is only so much you can cover in an hour or so and when I listened back to the podcast there was so much more to the story I wanted to share. Especially around my experience and understanding around death and what I learned through Cheree’s death. One of the most important teachings that has come through lies in the question of whom I was grieving for? As I shared in the podcast, I had to make a conscious decision to dive into the heart of it all and surrender to the knowing that life and death are one in the same. Would I choose to lose myself into the pain that I could be experiencing? Or could I look a bit deeper, and give thanks that I even got to spend a tiny thirteen years with this incredible human? The fact that we were placed into each others’ lives at such a potent time and space is something that I will always celebrate as one of the great experiences of this lifetime.
This isn’t to say that grieving isn’t a most valuable and needed emotion and tool, because it is! And I often wonder what would have happened if i would have given into the tragedy of it all? As we are now remembering, grieving is a beautiful, beautiful thing and one that we must embrace and allow ourselves a relationship with.
1996 the year we met, 18 years old
I believe that a great part of my grieving possibly took place the year before Cheree’s passing. The year before, my partner Agustin and I were working weekly with the San Pedro cactus and I often found myself knees to the earth in deep guttural sobs. I couldn’t understand where it was all coming from because here I was in a foreign land, living on a beautiful community with a new and inspiring love by my side. But this cactus brought forth grieving like I had never experinced before. Time and time again I would return back to the cactus and back to my knees I would go. It is important to add that this was only one part of the journey, because as many of you may know, he is pure heart medicine. So in each meeting with the cactus, after this intense grieving phase would pass, I would always find myself in the depths of my heartspace.
At the time, I felt that I was experiencing a sort ‘collective grieving’ and that a lot of these emotions I was processing were well beyond me — and I still feel that may be true. But after Cheree passed I realized I was grieving for her too, or for my future self, perhaps knowing subconsciously how difficult it would be to lose her in the months ahead. Perhaps the path was already laid out, and because there was a soon to be born child lingering around my partner and I, my grieving process had to happen pre-death, pre-child.
When Cheree passed it was if I had already understood what was taking place, and the previous year all started to make sense. Here I was seven months into my pregnancy dancing within life and death. There wasn’t any space within my being to mourn because I had let so much go already. I wanted to protect Naia and I found that talking to her within the womb was the greatest support system I had.
In the podcast I shared how in the year prior to Cheree’s passing that ‘death’ was a big part of the conversation between my partner Agustin and I. Not just physical death, but death of the ego, death of the self, death of all we have ever known. Learning to live and die in each moment. We dove deep into the contemplation, and when Cheree passed, I never expected the grieving process to be as it was. But in my heart the truth became clear that if I mourned the loss — it wasn’t for her. She came through quite strongly sharing, “Do not grieve for me woman, for I am free. If you need to grieve for yourself, please do.” And in that moment I remembered her departure from this planet was never about me. This was her journey and I was just a sister to be witness to it all. I also thought a lot about death and how it is a subject we always hold in the future with the question of “What happens after death?” But the real questions I began to ask were “What happens before death?!” and “Are we ever truly living?!”
2000, Cheree visiting me in NYC
2007 living together in Los Angeles
At my blessing way with Naia. Our last time together.
The Wind Lyrics by Alela Diane
Woman of the island, please send me light
Put it in an envelope, post it to L.A
‘Cause I’m on the wind, I can’t go back
I am a dream on the wind
The organ cried out in the night
A phantom song of notes in time
It is I, pounding out the chords
From the still, of the unknown
Cause I’m on the wind, I can’t go back
I am a dream on a wind
Too late darling, it was too late
Too late mama, I’ve gone to the sky
How can we learn, learn to lose
How can we learn, learn to lose
Death is a hard act to follow, ooh
Death is a hard act to follow
Now I give grace to you and yours
From this bright new home of silver moon
Sweet sister, I am with you forever more
La, la la, la la, la, la
La, la la, la la, la, la
When I moved to New York in 2000 Cheree made me this journal with photos of us and words of love.
I want to first acknowledge that because I am a white woman I have a huge advantage and privilege on being able to research my Ancestry. This is something I have thought about a lot and I understand that for many POC it is not an easy task to trace back for many reasons. A few being their language and heritage has been destroyed by colonizers, scarcity of slave records, identifying slave owners, and many records only show first names. Growing up my family always talked about my father’s side being “Black Dutch”. None of us really knew what that meant until I started studying our Ancestry and learned that some Native Americans, particularly those of Cherokee decent identified themselves as Black Dutch in order to avoid being sent to reservations. Giving themselves this designation also allowed them to buy and own land, something that was only permitted to those of European descent at the time. These Natives denied their ancestry, sometimes for generations, because they were concerned their land would be taken from them. Today, though, most Natives who identified as Black Dutch have become open about their ancestry.
When I shared about this with my Papa he said that growing up they received benefits and that they were to never to speak of having any sort of First Nations relation. It was something that they were to keep within the family and this is possibly where the term Black Dutch came in. In the podcast I mentioned my Great Grandfather Billy Powell. His mother was of European decent and his father was Choctaw and Cherokee. I haven’t shared much about this because I only carry a small amount ( 1/16th) of Native American decent but my Grandpa Powell has come to me so many time thoughout my life and I am learning to celebrate his life and all that he experienced as a child and beyond. When he was a young boy, his father Thomas Powell was working on a ferry in Southern Oklahoma and was shot by Federal men. His family fled to back to Choctaw Territory to keep from also being killed so my Great Grandfather Billy lost his father at a very young age.
Though my roots feel more connected to the lands here, I am really looking forward to journeying through Europe again to discover more of my European Ancestry. My last name Woodruff is European and is a sweet herb that is grown all throughout the lands there.
My Great Grandfather Billy Powell (top middle) with his brothers, about 1898
My Great Grandfather Billy Powell, (about 1977, the year I was born)
I just completed mine and Agustin’s full 6th Generation family tree for Naia after twelve years of research! If you are into researching your Ancestry you will know that there is a lot of time and effort that goes into this. It feels like one of the most important gifts I can offer to my daughter, Naia. If you are curious in hearing more about why I became interested in Ancestry and some helpful tools on how to begin your Ancestry work, I invite you to listen to the patreons part of the podcast in which I share a bit more about this path and why it is so important for us to know where we come from. The patreons page helps to support the podcast and always includes bonus interviews and lot of good info.
Family Tree with handwritten names, birthdates and birthplace by Kith & Kin
Images from our Ancestry wall
So many stories within these walls
My parents were never really helpful in the homework department, but they have always supported my visions and wild ideas, and for that I am continually grateful. It was never about financial support, though they have always been available if I was really struggling. The support that I have found most useful is their encouragement in opening my belief system to what is possible and what is truly important. They showed me unconditional love throughout all of my journeys of self-discovery. Being raised on the land and with the earth is a priceless education that is forever within me.
Growing up with Green
1988 with My Papa on our Farm in Norco
My first true friends, baby goats!
Below is a photo of what happens when nine children from the Ozarks of Oklahoma follow their oldest brother to hair school in California in the 70’s. Eventually a few of my Uncles opened several hair salons “Her Hair, His Hair” in Los Angeles. All eight brothers and the two sisters went on to go to hair school and become stylist except for my Papa! All children were born at home caught by my Grandpa except for my papa and his younger brother. My Papa is in the drivers seat.
I look forward to sharing some dirty nursery rhymes around the campfire on the Oregon land this summer! I promise to share more tales of frog legs and okie noodling with you all as well! Thank you for taking the time to learn a little bit more about my roots and story. Opening up about these experiences and more has been very healing for me. Thank you Amber for offering these most important conversations, and most importantly, thank you to my dearest sister Cheree and my Ancestors for being the Angels by my side.