A Feature Review of
Native : Identity, Belonging and Rediscovering God
Reviewed by Katie Karnehm-Esh
“Here is the world. Terrible and beautiful things
will happen. Don’t be afraid.” –Frederick Buechner
Today is the last day of June 2020. Civil rights protests are overturning laws and statues, and after three months of erratic quarantine, the global pandemic is escalating across America. Buechner’s words have never felt so timely. Kaitlin Curtice didn’t know what 2020 would bring when she wrote that quote in Native: Identity, Belonging and Rediscovering God (Brazos Press, 2020), or when she told the Potawatomi Flood Story as a way of talking 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 simply an alternate flood myth or a cute animal story; it is an essential way of understanding our co-creation of the world. “I wanted to write a book that would bring together my own reality as an Indigenous woman and the reality that I belong to the people around me, to humanity,” she writes in the introduction. “We are responsible for the way we treat one another.” In the midst of 2020’s global pandemic and civil rights activism, this responsibility feels urgent. If we are able to re-create 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 making appearances in the five parts of Native: Beginnings, Searching for Meaning, The Struggle for Truth, Working, and Bearing Fruit in a New World. Each section starts with an element of the Flood Story, followed by a short poem by Curtice. Each section ends with a summary and more questions, allowing a pause for readers to process their learning. For example, in part I, Curtice asks, “What does it mean to know that we have begun, that we have asked questions of our own history, of the collective history not only of our humanity but of all creation?” After several more questions, she answers herself: “We ask more questions. We honor where we have come from and where we are going, and we own our place in the story of all of us.”
“Owning your place” is essential, and painful. I shuddered when I read the Potowatomi translation for America: kchemokmanke, “white person with long knives.” Whether by “Pocahottie” Halloween costumes, Sephora “witch kits,” Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test, or Native school mascots, Curtice shows how America has long pretended Natives are either myths or costumes, making it that much easier to run an oil pipeline through Native water supplies or ignore COVID-19 death rates on reservations. Microaggressions like “I never met a real Indian” or “You look just like Pocahontas” or “How much Indian blood do you have?” contribute to damaging stereotypes and erasure of Natives. Curtice rightfully calls out these examples of white supremacy, imagining them as weeds with very, very long historical roots. Readers hoping for an apolitical book will find this is impossible for Curtice. She quotes a Sioux writer, Nick Estes who says, “Indigenous peoples are political by default. They continue to exist as nations when they are supposed to have disappeared, and they have to fight, not only for bare survival but also for accurate representation. They incarnate the inconvenient truth that the United States was founded on genocide and the continuing theft of a continent.”
For Curtice, the church is a complicated part of white supremacy. Growing up, it was a place where “you participate, you oblige, and you don’t cause a fuss.” This assimilation is a long part of our history; native peoples only received freedom of religion in 1978. Before then, their religious ceremonies, many of which Curtice describes in conjunction with her Christian faith, were illegal. This cultural suppression complicates the Christianity of Curtice’s childhood, where, “My life became about pleasing an Americanized God who really cannot be pleased.” With so much focus on preventing individual sins, the church makes no space for addressing systemic ones. Curtice argues decolonization must begin with the church so we can create a system that is much more just and equitable. “Decolonization is not just for the oppressed,” she writes. “It is a gift for everyone.”
Much of Curtice’s work of decolonization is simple: pay attention, and be willing to be visible. In her chapter, “Fighting Invisibility” she writes of choosing to fly her with tribal ID rather than her license. While TSA recognizes this as a valid form of ID, not every agent knows this and for her it might mean extra time in line or a tense conversation with the agent. I mention this to point out my reaction. I felt myself beginning to feel tense like I was in line behind her at the airport, waiting for something to go wrong. Kaitlin, just use your license! I felt myself thinking, then questioned why I instinctively wanted her to blend in. That moment showed me how much I need decolonization myself. White America routinely forgets the Indigenous are not confined to history and costumes, and we tend to bristle when reminded.
Native is a book with space around it. It is contemplative, full of walks in forests in Georgia, a sojourn to Lake Michigan, and memories of childhood. Curtice points out empty spaces where there used to be natives, and whole cities where there still are. She writes “I find that we must learn what it means to live in an integrated way that honors the cultures and the people around us so that we can, together in solidarity, learn to go home.” This sounds lovely, but what does it mean practically? It means “we do not steal” for this perpetuates colonization. Curtice draws attention to the words of Jesus as they align with the Seven Grandfather Teachers of the Potawatomi tribe: humility, honesty, wisdom, bravery, truth, love, and respect. Because of these teachings, Curtice cannot compartmentalize herself. All of what she believes goes on the journey with her. Care for the earth is bound up in justice, equality, welcome, and representation. Curtice routinely brings all marginalized people into the light—Black, incarcerated, poor, immigrant, LBGT—and affirms their dignity.
“The work of returning is communal work and we must all lead one another,” Curtice writes towards the end of Native. Many of the topics in this book can put readers on the defensive and make us who are white hyperaware of how much we are doing wrong. Curtice doesn’t absolve, but she does continually welcome. She keeps inviting readers to ask, learn, and grow. The third word in her subtitle is rediscovering: rediscover God, rediscover each other, rediscover the earth, rediscover yourself. “We do this because we are human,” she writes, “because we are dust-to-dust, and since there is no way to ask a question wrong, let us lean in and hold space with ourselves and one another.” Rediscovery is the first step towards recreation. I invite fellow readers to pick up Native, hold space for this work, and begin on the journey.
Katie Karnehm-Esh earned her MA and PhD in creative writing at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, and currently teaches English at Indiana Wesleyan University. Her writing interests include travel, yoga, holistic health, and forgiveness.