What Is Heritage? Discover Your Family Identity

November 6, 2019  - by 

Defining what is your heritage means understanding your inherited sense of family identity. Explore these questions and activities to strengthen and better express your own sense of heritage.

Defining Your Heritage

Man plays an instrument

The word “heritage” brings to mind different ideas for different people—and it should. Heritage is a person’s unique, inherited sense of family identity: the values, traditions, culture, and artifacts handed down by previous generations. We absorb a sense of our heritage throughout our lives as we observe and experience the things that make our family unique. Although not every inherited trait, tendency, or tradition is positive, we generally consider heritage to be the positive and meaningful elements of our family’s identity that we incorporate into our own lives and pass along to succeeding generations.

Heritage can express itself in many ways. Some families define their heritage primarily as their ethnic, cultural, or national identity. Other families can point to values that have been passed on, such as a love for education, participation in community life, a strong work ethic, or religious devotion. People may feel that an inherited aptitude—such as for music or mechanics, athletics or art—is part of their heritage.

How to Discover Your Heritage

Some people have a strong sense of their heritage. They can point to a flag hanging proudly nearby or repeat stories and traditions shared by their parents or grandparents. Some have a confident sense of the unique interests, occupations, or values found in their family.

Others may have to look a little more closely to identify traces of heritage in their lives. Asking the following questions may help people discover elements of their family’s unique legacy in their lives:

Girl and grandmother make noodles together and explore heritage together
  • How would I define my ethnic, cultural, or national identity? How does this identity shape my sense of who I am?
  • What traditions or rituals do I observe, either in everyday life or on special occasions? Where do those traditions come from?
  • What are my most prized values, hobbies, or interests? Did my parents, siblings, grandparents, or other relatives share these?
  • What positive traits, tendencies, or aptitudes would I use to describe my family in general? How do these traits manifest in my life?
  • What values, traits, interests, or hobbies do I have that I see in my own children or grandchildren or that I would wish to see manifested in younger generations in my family?

Another approach to discovering heritage is to search your family tree and family stories. What nations of origin or ethnic backgrounds are most prominent? If you participate in the FamilySearch Family Tree, it is easy to create a fan-chart view that highlights your ancestral birthplaces, such as the one shown below:

Screenshot of family tree with country origins to show what is your heritage

As you explore your family tree, identify patterns by asking these kinds of questions:

  • Do historical records show patterns in your family’s occupations, especially jobs relating to certain values, interests, or skills?
  • Do you see traditions or traits echoed in the kinds of photos your family takes or what objects they have chosen to keep?
  • What values or feelings do your most important family stories impart?

If you can attend a family reunion or meet with relatives, consider asking others what is meaningful to them about your shared heritage.

Some who seek a stronger sense of cultural or ethnic identity turn to DNA testing. Ethnicity percentages, while not always reliable or specific, may help you discover your ancestral places or cultures of origin.  Connecting with DNA matches can reveal heritage that has been passed down through other branches of the family.

What You Can Do to Honor Your Heritage

A boy participates in a tribal dance

For many people, the most meaningful way to honor their heritage is to include elements of it in their own lives. They live the positive values they were taught and pass them on to others. They may choose activities or traditions that help them feel connected to their loved ones. Heirlooms, family photos, and other tangible reminders of their heritage may be displayed in their homes. They may also create new traditions that communicate the values they hope will outlive them.

Many who want to honor their heritage spend time learning about and expanding their family tree. They may interview relatives, label old photos, gather family recipes, and write down the stories they discover so as to preserve a more lasting legacy. Some even travel to ancestral hometowns or homelands to learn more about their heritage and feel more connected to past generations.

Start or explore your family tree for free on FamilySearch.org.

Sunny Morton

Sunny Morton teaches personal and family history to worldwide audiences. She's a Contributing Editor at Family Tree Magazine, past Contributing Editor at Lisa Louise Cooke's Genealogy Gems, and the author of How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records (co-authored with Harold Henderson, CG); Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy; "Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites," and hundreds of articles. She has degrees in history and humanities from Brigham Young University. Read her work at sunnymorton.com.

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