Kaitlin Curtice – Native – Id, Belonging and Rediscovery of God
The work of return
A functional check by
Native: identity, belonging and rediscovery of God
Paperback: Brazos Press, 2020
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Reviewed by Katie Karnehm-Esh
"Here is the world. Terrible and beautiful things
will happen. Have no fear. "- Frederick Büchner
Today is the last day of June 2020. Civil rights protests overturn laws and statues, and after three months of unpredictable quarantine, the global pandemic is escalating across America. Büchner's words have never felt so current. Kaitlin Curtice didn't know what would happen in 2020 when she wrote this quote in Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God (Brazos Press, 2020) or when she told the Potawatomi Flood Story to talk about reconstruction. In this story, a muskrat and a turtle sacrifice themselves to create a new world after a flood. For Curtice, this is not just an alternative flood myth or a cute animal story. It is an essential way to understand our co-creation in the world. "I wanted to write a book that brings together my own reality as an indigenous woman and the reality that I belong to the people around me and to humanity," she writes in the introduction. "We are responsible for dealing with each other." In the midst of global pandemic and civil rights activism in 2020, this responsibility is urgent. If we are able to recreate the world we want, a book like Native has the potential to show us the way forward.
Muskrat and turtle first appear on the cover of Native, drawn by Chief Lady Bird (Rama First Nation, Toronto). They continue to appear in the five parts of Native: beginnings, search for meaning, struggle for truth, work and fruit in a new world. Each section begins with an element of the flood story, followed by a short poem by Curtice. Each section ends with a summary and other questions so readers can take a break to process their learning. For example, in Part I, Curtice asks: "What does it mean to know that we have started to ask questions about our own history, about the collective history not only of our humanity but of all creation?" After a few more questions, she answers himself: "We are asking further questions. We honor where we came from and where we are going, and we have our place in the history of all of us. "
"Having your place" is important and painful. I shivered when I read the Potowatomi translation for America: kchemokmanke, "white person with long knives". Whether with “Pocahottie” Halloween costumes, Sephora witch kits, Elizabeth Warren's DNA test or mascots from the local school, Curtice shows how America has long pretended that natives are either myths or costumes, which makes it much easier to do one Oil pipeline through natives to guide water supply or ignore COVID-19 mortality rates on reservations. Microaggressions like "I've never met a real Indian" or "You look exactly like Pocahontas" or "How much Indian blood do you have?" contribute to stereotype damage and indigenous annihilation. Curtice rightly names these examples of white supremacy and imagines them as weeds with very, very long historical roots. Readers hoping for an apolitical book will find that Curtice cannot. She quotes a Sioux writer, Nick Estes, who says, “Indigenous peoples are political by default. They continue to exist as nations if they are supposed to be gone, and they have to fight not only for survival but also for an accurate representation. They embody the inconvenient truth that the United States was founded on genocide and the continued theft of a continent. "
For Curtice, the church is a complex part of white supremacy. Growing up it was a place where "you participate, commit and don't cause excitement". This assimilation is a long part of our history; Indigenous peoples were only granted religious freedom in 1978. Previously, their religious ceremonies, many of which Curtice described in connection with their Christian beliefs, were illegal. This cultural oppression complicates Christianity in Curtice's childhood, which was about "pleasing an Americanized God who really cannot be satisfied." With so much focus on preventing individual sins, the Church makes no room to address systemic sins. Curtice argues that decolonization must start with the church so that we can create a system that is much more just and just. "Decolonization is not just for the oppressed," she writes. "It is a gift for everyone."
Much of Curtice's decolonization work is simple: take care and be ready to be visible. In her chapter "Fighting Invisibility" she writes that she would rather fly with a tribal card than with her driver's license. While TSA recognizes this as a valid form of ID, not every agent knows this, and for them this can mean additional time in line or a tense conversation with the agent. I mention this to indicate my reaction. I felt tense as if I was standing in line at the airport behind her waiting for something to go wrong. Kaitlin, just use your license! I felt thoughtful and then wondered why I instinctively wanted her to fit in. That moment showed me how much I have to decolonize myself. White America routinely forgets that indigenous peoples are not limited to history and costumes, and we tend to resist when we are reminded of it.
Native is a book with space around it. It's contemplative, full of walks in Georgia woods, a stay on Lake Michigan and memories of childhood. Curtice points to empty rooms, where locals used to live, and entire cities, where locals still exist. She writes: "I think we have to learn what it means to live in an integrated way that honors the cultures and people around us so that we can learn to go home together in solidarity." That sounds nice, but what does it mean in practice? It means "we don't steal" for this continued colonization. Curtice draws attention to Jesus' words, which are compatible with the seven grandfather teachers of the Potawatomi tribe: humility, honesty, wisdom, bravery, truth, love and respect. Because of these teachings, Curtice cannot divide himself. Everything she believes goes on a journey with her. Care for the earth is associated with justice, equality, greeting and representation. Curtice routinely brings all marginalized people into the light – blacks, detainees, poor, immigrants, LBGT – and reaffirms their dignity.
"The work of return is teamwork and we all have to lead each other," Curtice writes towards the end of Native. Many of the topics in this book can put readers on the defensive and make us whites unconscious of how much we're doing wrong. Curtice does not graduate, but she always welcomes her. It always invites readers to ask, learn and grow. The third word in its subtitle is rediscovery: rediscover God, rediscover each other, rediscover the earth, rediscover yourself. "We do this because we are human beings," she writes, "because we are dust to dust and because there is no way to ask the wrong question, we lean back and keep space with ourselves and each other." Rediscovery is the first step to recovery. I invite followers to pick up Native, make room for this work, and start the journey.
Katie Karnehm-Esh earned her MA and PhD in creative writing from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, and is currently teaching English at Indiana Wesleyan University. Her writing interests include travel, yoga, holistic health, and forgiveness.