Native (Kaitlin Curtice) -- A Review

NATIVE: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God. By Kaitlin B. Curtice. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2020. Xv + 192 pages.

I live in Michigan, the original home of the Potawatomi people. I once lived in Kansas, where a county is named after this tribe, which was forced to move from the land around Lake Michigan to Kansas. As was true of many tribes, the Potawatomi people would be forced to move once more to what was Indian Territory, and what is now Oklahoma. I grew up in southern Oregon, the home of the Klamaths and the Modocs, and I will confess that our Indigenous neighbors were not held in high regard by the white community. That perspective influenced my views of Native Americans. While these views were tempered over time, as I became more aware of the stories of America’s Native peoples, including the story of the Trail of Tears, it is difficult to cast off stereotypes and perceptions that were reinforced by a culture that is reflected in the Westerns I watched growing up, which rarely portrayed Native peoples in a positive light.

Native peoples in this country still live with the legacy of the efforts to subjugate and even exterminate them from the land I call home. As I write this review, the Navajo people have the highest death rate from the Covid-19 pandemic, another insult added to the injury suffered by America’s Indigenous people. So, when we think of white privilege and white supremacy, we should not forget American’s native daughters and sons. Therefore, we must hear the stories of those who seek to reclaim their heritage, who remind us that America’s Indigenous people deserve to be accorded equality.

One who is telling that story is Kaitlin Curtice. I first heard her name after she had a bad experience as a chapel speaker at Baylor University. I decided to follow her on Twitter and when I saw that her book Native had come out, I asked the publisher for a review copy. I wanted to know more about her story and what that story might mean for me as a white male who has tried to be self-aware when it comes to matters of race, gender, and economic opportunity. That she deals with the question of identity, something I’m also interested in, intrigued me, especially as it pertains to the concept of intersectionality. I must say, Curtice, who at the time she wrote this book, was only thirty, has provided an insightful, provocative, and important read for the church and the nation, especially during this time of trial, when the United States is as polarized as I’ve seen it in years. This is not an easy read, but a necessary one. When I say it's not an easy read, I don't mean that's not well-written or inaccessible, because it's both well-written and very accessible. Curtice is a gifted storyteller, and the stories she tells are compelling. They draw you in. So, what I mean is that this book, if we take it seriously, will make us uncomfortable and perhaps lead to changes in the way we view others as well as ourselves.

Curtice is the child of two different worlds. She was born in a tribal hospital in Ada, Oklahoma to a father who is Potawatomi and a mother who is white. For much of her life, she lived as white, and she speaks of herself as being "white-coded." In other words, she can pass for white, and did so for much of her life. At the same time, she grew up knowing little if anything about her Native identity. She didn't know the stories of the Potawatomi people, because they weren’t shared with her. Religiously she grew up Southern Baptist. It was only as she entered adulthood that she began to ask questions and learn the stories of her people. As she did so she began to reclaim an identity that had always been there, as her father had registered her as a member of the tribe as a child. She just didn’t know the stories, including the spiritual ones that define her people.

The book is divided into five parts, each of which is prefaced by her poetry telling part of the story of her people. She begins with the creation story in Part One, which is titled “Beginnings.” She explores stories of land and water, of place and time. She takes us into stories of the Indigenous people of this nation, including the challenges faced by them, since the advent of the European presence in their lands. She also introduces us to the creation stories of her tribe and other Native peoples. She tells us how the Potawatomi people were transported from their homeland around Lake Michigan to Kansas and from there to Oklahoma. After telling these important stories, she begins to tell her own story in chapter four.

“The next part of the story falls under the title “Searching for Meaning.” In these chapters, Curtice deals with the challenges to Native peoples from whiteness, along with stereotypes, language (she speaks of here of the heart language of her people and the attempt to suppress Native languages to save the Indian by killing the Indian in them), and finally the gift of prayer. In this chapter on prayer, she reminds us of the attempts to suppress Native practices, including the dances of the people. What she had learned was that there are ways of praying that express Native understandings of God that she finds illuminating and helpful, and wishes to reclaim, even though many Christians frown on what appears to them to be syncretism. The possibility of hybridity is challenging for Christians, especially for more evangelical Christians, a community of which she emerged and still has roots in. It was this attempt at expressing her attempt to bring together her Christian faith and the traditions of her people that led to efforts on the part of some white students at Baylor to suppress her voice and witness.

As we progress through the book we come to the “Struggle for Truth,” which introduces us more fully to ceremony, ancestors, the self, and finally "the pain of Church Spaces." This last chapter of Part Three is a challenge for those of us in the church who want to believe that the church, including its buildings and institutions, can be welcoming. But as I've learned over the years, especially from my LGBTQ friends, the church can be a painful place. It represents memories of oppression, and what is true for my LGBTQ friends is true here as well.

From there we move in Part Four to what she calls “Working.” In this section, she shares ways in which change occurs. She speaks of wake-up calls. She talks about when the church gets to work and begins to address the realities faced by people who have been marginalized. She reflects on her sense of calling to help the church change by acknowledging the past and making room for a true expression of faith. She speaks of keeping watch and fighting invisibility. For her, that means making sure the Native part of her doesn't get lost in her whiteness. It also involves advocating for Native peoples. Here again, is where the church must take heed of the burdens we place on those who don't fit the mold we tend to create for others, assuming that what is “normal” for a white middle-class Christian is normative for everyone else.

Finally in Part Five, titled "Bearing Fruit in a New World," She speaks in the chapter on "Finding One Another" about the importance of intersectionality, a concept that I've begun to work with, as a means of acknowledging the complexity of our identities. She offers a challenging word to those who want to make American great by making white in a chapter on the "Future of Decolonization." Here she especially addresses the issue of spirituality and how whiteness has been imposed on peoples. She also expresses here the need to find liberation from the shackles of a Christianity that is buried in whiteness. She writes that "because the Indigenous story has been buried under the white story, it will take a lot of work to uncover it. It will take more than Indigenous peoples to do the work—it will take all people" (p. 161). While we may not be able to undo the past, we can make way for the future. So, in a chapter titled "Returning," she shares how she has embraced her heritage and passed that on to her children in ways that were not shared with her. Finally, she speaks of "A New World for Our Children." This is a hopeful conclusion to a difficult story, suggesting that a new future might emerge for the children, so they might know the full truth of their identity and the history of their people, and of all the peoples that make up a nation.

I believe that Kaitlin Curtice has provided us in her book Native a foundational text to address questions that we as Christians have struggled to deal with. She reminds us that when we talk of people of color, it's not just one or two colors. She also reminds us that people were living on these lands long before European colonists arrived and took the land from its inhabitants. We want to believe that we live in the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” but there is a lot of baggage that we struggle to deal with. So, we need voices like Kaitlin Curtice to remind us of that baggage, so we can unpack it and change the realities of this land. So, thank you Kaitlin for the courage to write this story, and thanks to Brazos for bringing it to light.


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