Ancestors play an important role in the animist beliefs of most communities in the Fifth World. Along with the shift from literacy and its focus on ontology to orality and its focus on relationship, rather than the biological progenitors that their civilized forebears meant by the word, people in the Fifth World think of ancestors as another class of other-than-human beings, defined by their ongoing relationship. They will typically think of ancestors not as an amorphous group, but as specific, named individuals, whose actions shaped the world in which they now live. The legacy left on the world, and the stories relating those legacies to specific, named individuals, make one an ancestor. If the community forgets the story or the name, the relationship finally ends, and one ceases to relate as an ancestor. As such, when speaking of one’s ancestors, genealogy doesn’t really enter into it. One claims ancestors based on relationships, not blood.

Though once human, ancestors no longer count as such, passing into the class of other-than-human persons that animists deal with. The respect due to elders gives ancestors a special pride of place, as they stand as elders even to the community’s most revered elders. In extreme cases, the respect offered to them can reach the point of what outsiders might call “ancestor worship,” though few communities would actually consider their ancestors divine in any true sense. Many communities see creation not as something completed by the gods at the beginning of time, but as an ongoing process that each successive generation must participate in. The stories of one’s ancestors tell the story of that continuing work up to your time, ending with an expectation that you will continue where your ancestors left off and continue their work.

#Ancient ancestors

The relational definition of ancestors makes intuitive sense of clans, claiming hills or rivers or mountains as ancestors, and the claim that a community has always dwelt in its territory from the beginning of time. These do not constitute metaphorical claims, but literal and true ones. They do insist, though, that relationship matters more than genealogy, which makes obvious sense within the context of their language, customs, and traditions. One’s ancestors, those who have created the world in which the community now lives, literally do include the local forces of nature themselves. Extending the bonds of kinship to other-than-human beings only reinforces this. The ancestors most revered often earn that distinction by forging those very bonds.

As discussed in the article on race, many communities grapple with the legacy of racial and ethnic divisions from their civilized past in their oral traditions and how they identify themselves. Almost everyone in the Fifth World descends from a mix of old ethnicities and “races,” such that identifying oneself with any one such group usually involves more than a little myth-making, and ignoring how many of your progenitors belonged to the other group. But this only highlights the relational nature of ancestors. When the Yukaghirs of the Fifth World call themselves Yukaghir, they keep their Yukaghir ancestors bound to them by continuing to relate to them, at the cost of their Han, Urdu, or Russian ancestors, whom they might leave out of the story. Those communities who imagine themselves as a new synthesis often have a more accurate view of their past. Stories of one group of one’s ancestors brutally victimizing another group of one’s ancestors often underlines the importance of restorative justice in the jurisprudence of such communities. The oppressors among their ancestors never faced a day of judgment commensurate to their crimes, but they have nonetheless helped create a beautiful world, in which these communities see themselves as living embodiments of the principle that repairing broken relationships matters more than meting out punishment.

#More recent ancestors

Though these ancient stories often form the basis for how communities in the Fifth World understand and define themselves, only a few, exceptional ancestors, like Martin Luther, Gandhi, David, or Mandela stand out as specific, named ancestors remembered from so long ago. Most of the ancestors remembered and revered by the people of the Fifth World lived during the time of civilization’s collapse, the Rusting Age, or thereafter. Even those communities that understand themselves as the survival of much older groups acknowledge that they passed through a massive change in their society, and credit these ancestors with facing those challenges and forming the society in which they now live. These stories often involve brave ancestors walking away from a dying and tyrannical society to return to a more-than-human world, trying to repair the ancient covenants with other-than-human peoples, and taking the first, fumbling steps towards a new way of life. Stories from the Rusting Age often feature ancestors who heroically defied warlords and slavers, or who forged new alliances with other-than-human peoples.

These oral histories do not provide a very accurate view of these periods, however. Most people who lived through the period of collapse did not become heroic ancestors. Rather, these histories illustrate survivorship bias. For example, the rampant racism and sexism of the civilized world did not simply disappear one day, but as survival became more difficult, those who would turn away help based on nothing more than their bigotries would not make it. They would die, with no one to remember them or tell their stories. Relatively few people made conscious efforts to walk away from civilization, even as its collapse accelerated, but those few who did disproportionately became the ancestors revered by the people of the Fifth World.

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