KAITLIN B. CURTICE, Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God, Grand Rapids, MI: Brazen Press, 2020. Pp. 192. $17.99 (U.S.)
Kaitlin Curtice—a citizen of the Potawatomi Nation and author, daughter and mother, questioner and storyteller—describes herself as “a woman who is a Christian and yet who fights against systems of Christian colonization” (xiv). She is a woman on a journey who asks “what it looks like to be Potawatomi and a Christian” (32). Following her earlier book on finding the divine in everyday life, this spiritual autobiography is one that challenges much Christian expression of white America, particularly that of the evangelical world of her youth. Not simply an indictment, the work is also a narrative of spiritual deepening as she reclaims Indigenous sacred practice.
Born in an Indian Health Services hospital in Oklahoma in 1988, Curtice’s father was Potawatomi and her mother of European descent. Her early years were ones of mobility. When she was nine, her world dramatically shifted with her parents’ divorce. Her mother struggled to make ends meet and, in time, married a Baptist minister. Thus, Curtice came of age in “Midwest, conservative Christian culture” (30) while maintaining a relationship with her father. College opened new worlds. By this book’s publication date, Curtice was living with her husband and two young sons in Atlanta, a base from which she writes prose and poetry, travels, and speaks.
This spare biography is interwoven with a spiritual awakening to “connectedness to God, Sacredness, Mystery, and to our identity . . . in the land” (26). The book emerges in five parts titled “Beginnings,” “Searching for Meaning,” “The Struggle for Truth,” “Working,” and “Bearing Fruit in a New World.” Running throughout the sections is her work of deconstructing white supremacist and patriarchal Christianity and of reconstructing an inclusive spirituality that draws on her Potawatomi and, more broadly, Indigenous roots and on many other faith traditions. The latter includes the questioning Christian voice of the late Rachel Held Evans. This dismantling and reimagining Curtice does with passion and descriptive power.
Readers are getting, she notes, “the Kaitlin of her thirtieth year of life” (181) enmeshed, as her narrative makes clear, in the years that many evangelicals supported the campaign and Presidency of Donald Trump. Curtice’s pace matches that of her surroundings, sometimes leaving me with a wish for more of the poetry between sections or for more attention to an idea or a pronoun. But Curtice is working on a big canvass, experimentally and experientially. She provides much that is relevant to readers interested in Brethren in Christ life and thought, intimately connected to missionary efforts among Indigenous people and to evangelical traditions in North America.
Her dedication to her “ancestors and the One they always knew” reflects her growing understanding that Indigenous religious traditions sought wisdom and truth in approaching “Creator–God–Mystery” (xiii) available to all humans and, indeed, to the entire created order. This stands in contrast to much of American Christianity—progressive as well as evangelical—embedded in patriarchy, empire-building, and structures of colonization, which devalue what is not European and dominate other peoples, lands, and water. Much of the book considers this dichotomy in the past as well as in ideas about baptism, prayer, the communion table, and evangelism.
As examples, Curtice notes Potawatomi history is one of forced migration in 1838 from the Great Lakes region to what would become Kansas and then in 1861 to what would become Oklahoma. For all Indigenous people, religious freedom was not protected in the United States until 1978. Despite oppression and erasure in many narratives of the American past, Curtice sees in persistent Indigenous spirituality possibilities for Christian renewal. Might Potawatomi women, as protectors of water, have insights for the Christian ritual of baptism? Might land acknowledgements provide a path for difficult conversations? Might the Indigenous goal of harmony parallel that of the Hebrew shalom? Might listening to water over rocks or wind in pines be prayer that “tune[s] our souls back to the land” (63). Could such prayer help Baptists to pray better?
Might the work of evangelism be “a listening relationship” (161) rather than proclamation and filling pews? “One of the church’s biggest blind spots is ignoring the stories of those on the outside” (66). Those are not only Indigenous people but women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, in fact, a large swath of humanity. Listening to those stories, Curtice suggests, might help white American Christians see the commonality of the communion table and the powwow dance, the reality of “the earth, Segmekwe, our mother,” who makes clear human dependency (107-108). Listening to Curtice’s pain might help the church to welcome her as a critic, not only as a worship leader.
While the book may be disorienting for those who understand racial, sexual, and gender critiques as secular projects, Curtice confounds that division. She describes her sons schooled in Potawatomi ceremonies and in Sunday school Bible stories. At a “Why Christian?’ conference, she served on a panel that responded to the question, “Why am I still a Christian?” (125) Curtice joins a sustained tradition of Indigenous challenges to Christianity. Those challenges often included an insistence on a common humanity and an Indigenous ability to blend older spiritual traditions with that of various strands of Christianity. Records of that “interspiritual dialogue” (151) are voluminous. They reach back to the filtered but clearly critical Indigenous voices in the seventeenth-century Jesuit Relations.
In the early twentieth-century, Yankton Dakota Sioux Zitkala–Ša’s carried on that conversation with her essay “Why I Am a Pagan.” So too did the White Roots of Peace, a traveling educational group from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy at Akwesasne. Visiting Messiah College when I was a student in the mid-1970s, one speaker noted their pleasure at being on a campus where there would be shared spiritual values and their disappointment at being greeted with a war whoop by one of my peers.