Tag Archives: identity

Who Am I? (On Genealogy and Genetic Ancestry)

by Matt McKinnon

Who am I?

I have long been pestered by this question, seeking the answer not in a litany of likes and dislikes or the self-obsessed perspective that modern Western consumerist culture offers me.  But neither in the personal history of myself—where I’m from, where I’ve been, and so on.  Or even less in my career, my “profession,” what I do to make enough money to live comfortably and raise a family.

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No, my interest in identity has been more in my genealogy, my distant past, and what we now call “deep genealogy”—the history of my DNA, that mysterious code I have no control over but that dictates much of who I am.

2The more I have sought answers in these two areas, the more I have come to realize that they are decidedly different—that my genealogy (the relatively recent history of my family and ancestors) and my “deep genealogy” (the origins and history of my DNA) offer two quite different portraits—even though the latter, after tens of thousands of years, ultimately leads to the former.

But that’s the key: after tens of thousands of years.

I remember my first dabbling in genealogy when I was in high school: I had always known that my name, McKinnon—or rather MacKinnon—was Scottish in origin.  I had been told by my family that we were mostly “Scots-Irish,” a term which, I came to find out later, is basically an American invention used rarely if ever in either Scotland or Ireland.  It can denote the Ulster Scots whom the English used to colonize Northern Ireland in the 17th century (and are thus not “genetically” Irish at all), or Lowland Scots and those of the Borderlands between Scotland and England.

3But a little research soon proved that the MacKinnon name is Highland, not Lowland or Border, and certainly not “Scots-Irish.”  The Highlands and Islands of Scotland are mostly Gaelic, and hence Celtic in origin, while the Scots of the Lowlands are a mix of Celtic, Roman, German, English, Scandinavian, Irish, and Scottish in varying amounts.  And since our most recent Scottish ancestor was a MacKinnon who left the Isle of Skye sometime in the late 18th or early 19th century, my Highland ancestry was confirmed.

So I spent the rest of my high school days donning plaid scarves, Shetland wool sweaters, and Harris Tweed caps and playing records of bagpipe music at home that frightened the cat and annoyed my parents and siblings to no end.

But deep down, I knew that this was not answer enough.  Indeed, ethnic identity continued to elude me and offer more questions than answers.

And it still does, even after countless hours spent researching family history and genealogy, and hundreds of dollars spent on research and DNA analysis.  Perhaps my developing awareness of the fragmentary and somewhat arbitrary nature of what we call “history” has made my search one of exponential questions instead of hard and fast answers.

For what we call “Celtic” is in fact a linguistic designation, like (and related to) “Germanic” or “Balto-Slavic.”  These are first and foremost language identifiers and not “genetic” ones.

So MacKinnon, being a Highland name, at least designates my ethnic identity as Celtic, right?

Perhaps.  At least to some extent.  But what does that really mean?

After all, these groups—Celtic, Germanic, Balto-Slavic, Italic—are only Indo-European linguistic identifiers with origins in a shared Proto-Indo-European population of tribes who inhabited Europe most probably during the late Neolithic Age (circa 4000 BCE).  Only then did these peoples begin their various migrations north and west as they differentiated into the more well-known (if often mistakenly applied) names like the Celts, Germans, Slavs, Romans, etc…

4The point being that, any location of one’s ancestry as “Scottish,” or “Highland,” or “Gaelic,” or “Celtic,” or, for that matter “Germanic” or “Balto-Slavic” is rather arbitrary in that it assigns prominence to one moment in a wave of modern human migration that began in Africa some 70,000 years ago and arrived on the Pontic-Caspian steppe in what is today Eastern Europe about 30,000 years later.  From there, these various groups migrated into all directions, as wave after wave of tribes populated Europe, developing different cultures and languages, though all sharing the same not-too-distant Indo-European past.

(It is interesting to note as well that these folks only started to look “European,” i.e., “white” around 11,000 BCE.)

5So that Highland MacKinnon ancestry I was so sure about?  Well, it turns out that a deep DNA analysis confirms my paternal lineage (the Y-chromosome of my father’s father’s father’s father’s father…all the way back to its beginning) to be that of Haplogroup (I won’t even get into it) I2, subgroup a2.

Haplogroup I began 30,000-40,000 years ago in Eastern Europe, with I1 and I2 diverging about 6,000 years later.  I2a arose about 11,000 years ago in the Balkans and is still today concentrated in Eastern Europe and Russia.  I2a2, that of my Highland Scots paternal DNA, only emerged some 7800 years ago, also in the Balkans, before starting its migration north into Central and Eastern Europe as well as Russia.

And, at some point, as the DNA of a male member of a Celtic or perhaps Germanic tribe who ultimately made his way to Scotland.  And then passed it along to me.

So my Highland Scots DNA is actually Baltic in origin, and is shared by more Serbs and Croats and possibly even Russians than it is by my “fellow” Highlanders.

But if that’s not confusing enough, this only represents one line of grandfathers on my father’s side, going back roughly 8,000 years.  If we consider that there are approximately 400 generations between me and my Neolithic “European” ancestors, then the number of my direct relatives from present day all the way back to the New Stone Age is considerably large [nerdy editor's note: large enough to need scientific notation: 2.58 x 10120].

But we need not go back that far to make my point: much of an individual’s “ethnic identity” is relatively arbitrary and tells precious little about their deep genetic makeup.

In calculating the rather complex mathematics of our ancestry, scientists have concluded that all modern humans are related to each other in the not too distant past—within a few hundred years in fact.  Steve Olson, writing in The Atlantic in 2002, reported that

  1. Everyone in the world is descended from Nefertiti and Confucius, and
  2. Everyone of European ancestry is descended from Muhammad and Charlemagne.

Grandma?That would be everyone.

Which means that all modern humans alive today are related to each other—and related to each other rather recently, considering that modern humans have been in existence for about 100,000 years.

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Indeed, everyone reading this post is probably at most my 20th cousin.

But you’re not invited over for Thanksgiving.

And I’m guessing you’re not all Highland Scots.

Re-Membering

by Ann Millett-Gallant

Re-Membering coverI began teaching for the BLS Program in Spring 2007.  I taught my “Photography: Contexts and Illusions” class and was developing another BLS course, “The Art of Life,” as well as an Introduction to Art class.  I was supposed to begin teaching full time the next Fall, but life interfered.  While traveling with a friend in San Francisco in May, I had an accident and suffered from traumatic brain injury.  I did teach Photography again Fall of 2007, but it would be another year before I could resume all my teaching.

Bob Hansen was kind enough to cover my “Art of Life” course for me until the Fall of 2008.  When I first began teaching it, it was all new to me, because my accident had caused significant memory loss.  I did not recall how the class was conceived or why I chose the specific examples and readings for it.  However, I felt an eerie sense of fate or destiny teaching a course based on the idea that art emerges from everyday life, and that specifically art may be considered, ultimately, as an accident.  Much of the subject matter of the course surrounds how accidents can lead to insight and inspiration, and I began teaching it while I was still struggling with the physical and psychological effects of my accident.  One of the writing assignments my students had to complete was an essay on the theme of loss and discovery, which resonated with a lot of what I was going through – dealing with my own losses (of identity, memory, time, etc.), as well as discovering new aspects of myself.  I felt inspired to write a response to my own assignment about my accident and its effects on my life, both its consequential losses as well as its discoveries.  This is the essay I now post each semester that I teach the course:

For most of 2007, my existence may best be characterized as lost.  I had lost weight, lost hair, lost part of my skull, lost much muscular movement and fluidity, and lost my mobility.  I had lost my memory, my history, my sense of security, and my identity.  I had lost my mind.

Backing up…In May of 2007, I was vacationing in San Francisco with my friend, Anna.  We were exiting a café and for some unknown reason, I shot ahead on my travel scooter and fell off the high curb of the sidewalk into the street.  According to Anna, I was not drunk, sick, excessively tired, or otherwise impaired before this.  It was unexplainable.  I hit my head, began to bleed, and an ambulance was called.

This was all told to me later, as I have no recollection of the accident, any of the trip, or even planning it.  I have blocked the whole experience out.  I have blocked a lot of experiences out.  Even as my memory congeals, much of my life takes place in stories and photographs, but not in the sensations of being there.  I don’t have any flashes of being in the San Francisco hospital for 6 weeks, much of the time in a coma, and I recall very little of my time spent in a rehab hospital in Columbus, OH (where I grew up and my family lives).  I only remember grueling therapy sessions there and one kind nurse, who let me have the whole container of chocolate pudding that was used to help me swallow medications.  I moved in with my mother at the end of the summer, in a place she had rented, but that I thought was her home I didn’t remember.  Slowly, my strength and endurance came back.  I exercised, read, wrote in a journal, and began to re-member – to put mind and body back together.  Yet, I was content to rarely leave my sanctuary.

"Self-Portrait with Hemicraniectomy," 2011

“Self-Portrait with Hemicraniectomy,” 2011

In a couple months, I had surgery on my skull to reconstruct the amputation, after which, I had been told, I would improve drastically.  Unfortunately, I had to endure a week in the hospital before I had the surgery, after an anesthesiologist punctured my lungs trying to put an IV in my chest.  But I digress.  I did feel better after my skull was intact, and in just a few weeks, I began teaching an online class, one of which I was supposed to be teaching full time that Fall.  My knowledge of art history, the humanities, and how to teach came right back and, likely, got stronger.  I was able to concentrate and exert authority, more and more over time.  I soon moved back to my home in North Carolina and to my boyfriend, whose name I could now remember.  As 2008 progressed, so did I, and I was determined to no longer put anything off.  I proposed to the man I love and got married, taught full time, and began to write scholarly articles and to paint again.  But I was still lost.

Backing up further…I have been physically disabled since birth, and I have incorporated disability studies as a discipline, as well as my identity as a disabled woman, into my teaching and writing.  I know how to teach myself to do things and how to adapt to do anything I want to do.  I am (was?) independent.  I have traveled internationally, lived in 3 cities, and gotten my PhD.  I was, for better or worse, fearless.  Now I feel anxious taking my scooter to the grocery store.  But the anxiety about injury lessens over time.  The anxiety over being lost is still, and may always be, unbearable.  I can’t sleep through the night, my moods oscillate from high to low without warning, and I can’t remember people, places, and personal things.  I sometimes have to laugh, as, for example, I realize that not everyone looks oddly familiar because I have forgotten them, but that people just look alike.  I can laugh at my loss, at times, while at other times I am consumed by feelings of emptiness and the desire to know what happened, and why.

I have learned many, countless things from my accident, about myself and the world I live in.  But the main thing I have learned is that “lost” and “found” are not absolutes.  They are states of being, always in flux.  They collide, overlap, and intertwine.  Sometimes, they make it a chore to get up in the morning.  And sometimes, they produce accidental masterpieces.

Art Therapy Collage, 2010

Art Therapy Collage, 2010

The responses of the students to my essay were ones of admiration, respect, and identification.  Many shared with me similar experiences of their own or of others they knew.  I believe students also felt more open with me and shared more of themselves with me and with fellow students in their writing.  They also encouraged me to write more.  I did.  Over the next few years, I drafted four more essays or chapters about my experiences in hospitals and with multiple channels of recovery, including physical, craniosacral, and art therapies.  Eventually, I had a book – a memoir that incorporated research as well as personal narrative.  The structure and range of subjects in the book, I felt, echoed how my brain works; in it, I switch between various subjects of interest to me and forms of writing, I go off on tangents, and often I compose text from fragments of information and memory.

Once I felt the book was nearly completed, I submitted proposals to publishers and got many respectful and complimentary rejections, as I was repeatedly told that they simply did not publish memoirs.  I wanted to see my work assembled and distributed, to complete the project so that I could share my story with others, and to perhaps provide them with hope.  I chose to self-publish with CreateSpace through Amazon.com.

Here is a link to its listing.

I did all the formatting of the manuscript myself, which was, admittedly, a pain; I hired my sister who was a journalist to edit; and I paid a professional to design a cover.  I am proud of the project and hope readers of this blog will be interested in it.  It really epitomizes the intersections between art and life, as well as the various intersections between life and online education.

Ann Millett-Gallant at her computer

Dr. Millett-Gallant at her computer