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Why I created One Ancestor At A Time

Kia ora I’m Suitauloa Simon Young and this is One Ancestor at a Time, where I’m seeking to understand the world we now live in, through the lens of family history. 

And it occurred to me that you, the viewer, may well want to ask why? Why am I doing this? And there are many reasons. 

Let’s get into them. 

The first reason is intensely personal.

My wife and I, and our siblings, are to all intents and purposes, a genealogical cul-de-sac. No kids. And yet, lots of knowledge and insight to share. We have a legacy, but it’s not biological. 

I never felt this so strongly as in the months after my mother’s death, when we had a huge sorting table in the living room of Mum’s house with all the documents and photos from previous generations. Talk about overwhelm! This is an AI artist’s impression, but it’s not too far from the reality. 

The big and small moments, all with something to say, to the right people focusing on the right thing. 

Wouldn’t it be nice, I said to myself, if I could write a book or something for the children of my cousins. This is their story as much as mine. 

But then, the more I looked into history, and at the overarching themes, I realised, there is a story in here that is relevant to everybody. And this is how our legacy is formed - not through descendants but through the way we steward our stories.

I love history, always have done. But I haven’t loved the traditional way history is taught.

While I was getting low grades in social studies at high school, I was busy creating - completely on my own initiative - a magazine all about history.

I still love the premise: history, but in the style of a modern magazine. So instead of just reading a dry history about Richard the Lionheart, you’ve got an exclusive interview with him - featuring, of course, actual quotes from actual historians. 

Look at this, I painted the first cover. That was before I discovered the magic of the photocopier. Oh, those days of high-tech innovation… 

But anyway … I guess my idea is still the same: that history is as fascinating and vibrant as a magazine, or a talk show, because it’s full of people and their motivations. Sometimes it just takes a different way of looking at things to bring out the key drama implicit in the story. 

So that’s reason 1 and 2. First, non-biological legacy, and second, a new approach to history. 

My third reason is very specific to my country of birth, Aotearoa New Zealand.

Aotearoa New Zealand is currently in the midst of a debate that really cuts to the heart of our identity.

This debate is ostensibly about Māori, but I feel like it is calling into sharp relief the kind of unfinished-ness of pakeha identity. We are not indigenous - much as some would like to claim so - and yet, this is our only home. That is psychologically difficult, especially if we don’t know our roots. And so, I believe this rootlessness is behind a lot of the defensive, offensive attitudes I’ve seen from some pakeha towards Māori. 

And yet, if I just come out and say what I think like that, I’m not going to persuade anyone.

Those already on the same side as me will feel vindicated, and those who feel defensive will continue to feel defensive. Lose-lose. So I need to back down off my high horse, and humbly and simply share my story, and how I reached some of the conclusions I’ve reached. 

Because there was a time when I might have agreed with those who are saying "we are one people, everybody should be treated the same", and so on. That’s because I had not really heard and understood the perspective of Māori. And I had not reflected on my own culture, because it was too dominant and didn’t invite reflection. Like the famous Palmolive commercial of the 80s - I was soaking in it

And it’s not just a New Zealand thing. Colonisation is a spectre that rises over the whole world, and I don’t think a lot of pakeha know that. Not really. Again, we are soaking in it.

People from indigenous cultures know about colonialism - it’s unavoidable. Most people of European descent know of it, know that it’s a bad thing, but don’t quite know what to do with it. I’m in this group. We feel generally bad, bordering on guilty, but … then what?

And so I want to help us confront those feelings head on and try to resolve them into a sense of compassion and purpose. Because there’s nothing good about having ongoing second-hand guilt hanging over you. But there is everything good about being motivated to right the wrongs of the past that still remain. 

Of course, some people of European descent go the other direction, parroting outdated ideas that say colonisation was good for the colonised because, look at all this technology you get to use. That’s a really dodgy argument for two reasons. Firstly, it assumes that the violent subjugation that comes with colonisation is the only way to acquire said technology; it isn’t. Second, it assumes that all this great technology is objectively good, yet from climate change to social media addiction, there are negative unforeseen consequences from all of these things. 

Anyway, I’m ranting… better for me to show, not just tell, the impact of colonisation. And that’s why my journey takes me around the world: New Zealand, Australia, India, Ireland, Scotland … there’s a pattern of colonising behaviour that makes me feel uncomfortable, and I want to explore that, not avoid it. 

The reason I want to explore it is that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. 

One huge thing I have come across on this journey is that life is complicated. It is very seldom black-and-white, and there are not always clear “good guys and bad guys”. 

Some of my ancestors were part of organisations I am not proud of. And yet, to their thinking, and the prevailing thinking of their time, nothing was wrong. The lesson for me today, is to reflect: what is socially acceptable now, that will be abhorrent to future generations? Or what is taboo now, that will be amusing to future generations? 

My ancestors worked in the East India Company, the world’s first giant multinational corporation, which facilitated the British Empire’s takeover of India. Most British people have forgotten this company, and most Indian people know it as the tool of imperialism. And yet, to my ancestors, it was probably seen as a good thing, despite maybe having a few bad apples. 

What this does is give me pause about my world, right now. What am I being part of, that history may frown upon. Consumer culture? Eating meat? Capitalism? I honestly don’t know fully, and that’s ok, it’s not about knowing but about being willing to know. And willing to admit when I don’t know. 

There’s far too much certainty in the world today, about really nuanced things. What happened to our humility? We are cut off from one another, isolated into our echo chambers, reinforcing our beliefs more and more strongly. I want to be one of the dissenting voices that reminds us, we do not know everything, but we do know some things. Let us look, and listen, and hold our conclusions lightly. 

I intend to get others on this channel, too. Sometimes they’ll be subject matter experts, historians and the like. But also I’ll be speaking to relatives - near and distant - about our shared ancestors. It will all be done in the spirit of learning. No doubt some of the people I have on here will not agree with me on all points. That’s ok. We’re family. We can work it out, if there is respect. 

So those are the reasons so far:

  1. Non-biological legacy

  2. A new approach to history

  3. Combatting historical amnesia and creating a hopefully safe space where we can actually explore and learn instead of reinforcing our positions with sound bites 

And finally

Number 4

I want to travel the world and take you with me! 

In fact, somewhere between “I want to write a book for my cousins’ children” and this channel, was the idea that this could make a cool TV show. Travelling from New Zealand to Australia to the UK to Germany to Turkey to India … 

But then I remembered hey, we are in 2024, and one makes a TV show by first getting a following on social media. 

So instead of hitting up the TV networks with a proposal, I thought ahead - they’re going to want to see how many people are interested in this. As a matter of fact, so do I! 

So here I am. Putting it out there. And finding out. 

God willing, the plan is to explore all those places - and more - as I trace the tree back to its various roots. But the great thing about this format is, it will flex and evolve as I do. As new information comes to light, and new connections. I am really excited to be able to share this with you. 

So those are my four reasons for developing One Ancestor at a Time. I would love to hear from you about this. Do these reasons resonate with you? 

This is One Ancestor at a Time, I’ve been Suitauloa Simon Young. See you next time.  

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