Native

Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God

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Kaitlin B. Curtice
  • Ada, MI: 
    Brazos Press
    , May
     2020.
     208 pages.
     $17.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781587434310.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Kaitlin B. Curtice’s Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God, is a more-than-academic text. In fact, Curtice’s work has less of a thesis and more of a central task. The book aims to recount her process of rediscovering and honoring her Potawatomi ancestry and identity while reckoning with her white-coded appearance, European descendancy, and background as a white evangelical Christian in America (xiii). As she shares her story, she invites readers to interrogate their own understandings of their self, ancestorial roots, and present role in ameliorating peculiarly American practices of injustice. She states in the introduction that one need not be “Native in the way that [she] is Native” to take this journey with her. However, she suggests that every reader ought to recognize that they “belong to a people”; for reconnecting with one’s origins can help cultivate greater self-understanding and a deeper connection to the divine and our communities (xiv).

While I do not consider myself particularly spiritual, I found accepting this invitation from Curtice easier than I anticipated. Working through the pages of Native, I felt for the first time an urge to know where my family originated. For some time now, I half feared, half accepted my ancestors were most likely colonizers—and thus have never had any real inclination to learn more about them. Yet, Curtice convincingly makes the case that understanding the historical colonial violence that our ancestors either perpetuated or fell victim to is valuable for better understanding our present-day social and ethical positionality. I have since begun unearthing where my people come from, and I feel deeply indebted to Curtice for sparking the newfound desire.

Each reader will have to decide for themselves whether Curtice achieves her central interpersonal task. However, Native undoubtedly provides several valuable resources for introducing beginners to the academic study of Native American cultures, religions, and histories. It is particularly useful for Christians or undergraduate students who wish to learn more about Native American culture and spirituality. It references figures throughout who hold great weight and authority for evangelicals and post-evangelicals, such as Richard Rohr and Rachel Held Evans. Because Curtice comes from an evangelical background, she instinctively knows how to navigate the language games of this group, and as one reads Native, it becomes increasingly apparent that this demographic is her primary audience.

Among the critical questions raised by Curtice, one directly concerns indigenous identity. Mainly, “what makes an Indian an Indian?” She rightly notes that contrary to how the US government and public often judge the authenticity of an indigenous person, most tribal bodies challenge the notion that DNA tests are adequate for determining a person’s indigeneity (46–49). Curtice even argues that it is a deeply racist and disturbing practice. As a friend of mine from the Chemehuevi tribe once put it, “dogs, racehorses, and Indians: these are the only three groups Americans demand DNA tests from to prove authenticity.” Instead of DNA, most tribes in my experience determine tribal affiliation by answering the following question: does the community that the individual claims claim them in return?

A second essential problem introduced in Curtice’s work is the widely held notion that Indians are no longer with us; that Indians were once here but now have disappeared (52–59). This is, of course, demonstrably false and a form of colonial erasure. She encourages her reader to fight against this harmful stereotype since it keeps indigenous people and their particular challenges invisible to the public. Last and subsequently, modern American Indians, writes Curtice, have valuable teachings and ideas for solving pressing ethical issues which have long been ignored. Indigenous groups, in particular, she argues, possess tools and teachings which can help others address the global problem of climate change (5–11). Thus, she appropriately encourages her readers and the church to seek out and engage these ethical ideas and principles more routinely.

This work is inarguably valuable, well written, thoughtful, and edifying. Truthfully, I have only two minor complaints. First, because Curtice’s primary audience is evangelicals and post-evangelicals—a group notorious for over-spiritualizing concrete issues and dilemmas—I would have liked to see her address the economic material conditions and policies that allow the ongoing oppression of Native Americans. Specifically missing is any detailed critique about the disproportionate rates of Indian poverty and illness (on and off reservations) and subsequent recommendations for how the church might help change those policies and conditions in America. While I realize such an examination might rest outside Curtice’s interpersonal goals or expertise, she seems uniquely situated with her dual identities to make such an analysis and corrective. Thus I was saddened to see such a move omitted from the manuscript. Perhaps in her next book?

Second, while Curtice does an exemplary job wrestling with her white-coded Christian identity and privilege in nuanced and insightful ways, she left me wanting more on how the Potawatomi or other indigenous groups navigate the moral complexities and challenges of communal life. Some insight into how tribes navigate diversity and individuality in relation to group identity could have deepened Curtice’s exploration of her Potawatomi heritage and given her non-indigenous Christian readers a more enlivened portrait of modern Indians. For example, she mentions throughout Native the difficulties of being an indigenous woman among white Christians; but what are the dynamics of claiming Christianity as a white-coded person in indigenous spaces? Surely fraught power dynamics and questions of identity abound in such situations. Native’s exploration of Curtice’s dual identities could have benefitted from such an assessment. 

I especially recommend this book to individuals with evangelical backgrounds and to those interested in Native American culture, religion, and current ethical issues. It was a delight to read, and Curtice is a charitable, charming, and contemplative guide from cover to cover. I plan to assign portions of Native to my undergraduate students for my Native American ethics and religion course next fall and bought a copy of Native for my evangelical mother.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James W. Waters is a PhD candidate in religion, ethics, and philosophy at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
July 15, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kaitlin Curtice is a poet, author and public speaker.

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