Kaitlin Curtice

Kaitlin B. Curtice is an award-winning author, poet-storyteller, and public speaker. As an enrolled citizen of the Potawatomi nation, she writes on the intersections of spirituality and identity and how that shifts throughout our lives. She also speaks on these topics to diverse audiences who are interested in truth-telling and healing. As an interspiritual advocate, Kaitlin participates in conversations on topics such as colonialism in faith communities, and she has spoken at many conferences on the importance of interfaith relationships. She also writes online for Sojourners, Religion News Service, Apartment Therapy, On Being, SELF Magazine, and more. Her work has been featured on CBS and in USA Today. She also writes at The Liminality Journal. Kaitlin lives in Philadelphia with her family.

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Screenplay Award Category
Drawing on her Native American heritage, Kaitlin Curtice shares her journey toward a better self-understanding, showing how her sense of nativeness both informs and challenges her Christian faith.
Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God
My Submission

Chapter 1: Land and Water

Indigenous bodies are bodies that remember. We carry stories inside us—not just stories of oppression but stories of liberation, of renewal, of survival. The sacred thing about being human is that no matter how hard we try to get rid of them, our stories are our stories. They are carried inside us; they hover over us; they are the tools we use to explain ourselves to one another, to connect. We cannot take away the experiences of others, but we can learn from them. We can take them and say, What’s next to make the world better? What’s the next step in recognizing the sacredness of this place we’ve been given?

I often wonder if we underestimate the power of epiphany. Many Indigenous cultures seek wisdom, the Great Spirit, or even the spirits of our ancestors, those who have gone before us, through visions, dreams, and prayers, through the gifts given to us in this world. This idea of longing for a vision or learning to listen to our ancestors is often lost in American society, within modern American Christianity, but what if God still speaks in dreams and visions? What if Mystery still comes to whisper to us while we are still, while we are begging for a new beginning?

Some of us might call such moments revelations, times when the lightbulb turns on and we suddenly see what we did not see before. Perhaps those revelations are spiritual, and we are just recipients of sacred whispering, heard simply because we are longing to know more.

That’s how it happened for me, at least, one cold January day in Atlanta, Georgia. I currently live on land traditionally inhabited by the Muscogee Creek and Cherokee peoples. If you hike at various places throughout Georgia, you’ll see tiny signs along the trails pointing to the original peoples who spent generations on the land. And in the grace that only land can give, she has held me, a Potawatomi woman, and has reminded me of who I am. After living here for a few years, our family went hiking at Sweetwater Creek, a spot of land with a long, steady stream of water surrounded by rocks and the ruins of an old cotton mill that was burned down by Union soldiers in 1864. Before that, before a history of African enslavement and years of white supremacy encroaching on this sacred land, Southeastern tribes inhabited the space, living along the shores of the creek before they were forcibly removed from Georgia during the Trail of Tears.

While hiking with my partner, Travis, and our two sons on that cold January day, I had an epiphany, that moment when the lens of my life zoomed out and I saw, truly, for the first time, what Potawatomi people once experienced—a history of forced removal from Indiana into Kansas with the Trail of Death. In that moment I was reminded of the women who walked, nursing their babies along the way (some 660 miles), just as I stood there nursing my one-year-old son in the middle of a wooded area, the trees breathing over and around us. There, standing over crinkled wet leaves, I suddenly understood what it meant to be Potawatomi. Growing up we said, “We are Potawatomi,” but these words did not carry weight in our lives. We didn’t name ourselves as Indigenous people or as citizens of a nation, living into our resilience. But that changed as I got older, and I have more fully come to understand that I am Indigenous. I belong to the land, as others belong to the land. I felt the weight of my entire body center down in my feet, as if my steps were slow motion, engaging the pulse of the earth with every movement. I suddenly understood that ancestors sometimes come to us in the oddest ways, and Mystery speaks to us when we are least expecting it. There, with one son by my side and one at my breast, I knew that the journey ahead of me would be different from the one behind me—that is how epiphanies work, after all.

We got back into the car that day and drove away from Sweetwater Creek. While Travis drove, I pulled my journal out of my bag and wrote. I wrote about those women who spoke to me. I wrote about what it might mean to embrace a part of me that had been silenced for much of my life, silenced by a culture and a country that says being Native doesn’t really matter, or that all Native Americans disappeared from the face of the earth like the dinosaurs. I wrote for my own children, out of a desire for them to know who they are at the young ages of one and three, so that being Potawatomi might define something in them. I wrote about hope and about that new beginning birthed along the edge of the creek on a cold winter day, a hope that transformed the entire world right before my eyes and brought me to myself in a way that I’d never known was possible, that brought me to the reality of a God who sees and gives us the gift of seeing.

We have to remember that physical places are spiritual places. We cannot disconnect the physical from the spiritual, because the spiritual is all around us, often moving like a light wind, without us even noticing. Just so, we cannot say that the earth is not speaking, teaching, leaning in to whisper something to us at any moment that we are willing to listen. Potawatomi plant ecologist and writer Robin Wall Kimmerer says, “If all the world is a commodity, how poor we grow. When all the world is a gift in motion, how wealthy we become.” In America we view the land as a commodity, giving it labels like “parcels,” cutting it into pieces and selling it to the highest bidder. This in itself is a refusal to listen to the land. It is a refusal to hear the voices of the earth calling out, not only to one another but also to us in a spirit of kinship and belonging.

When I was young, I loved playing with grasshoppers because they became like friends. When you are a young child living in poverty, you don’t have much choice but to become good friends with the creatures of the earth because they are simple, and they will always make room for you. I played with my siblings and creature friends in the red dirt of Tishomingo, Oklahoma, in the desert of New Mexico, and in the tall grasses that grew in my father’s backyard in Tahlequah when he moved there after he and my mother divorced. The earth is always speaking, but over time, we lose the ability to listen. If we are lucky, we return again. If we make room inside of ourselves for childlikeness, we will make room for the ability to learn again, to be small, humble people who ask questions instead of making demands, who listen to the land instead of carving it into pieces for profit. This is the way of being Indigenous. This is the lesson learned again and again.

Lisa Dougan, president and CEO of Invisible Children, says in an essay on innocence, “Lasting change comes most assuredly when the oppressed are central agents in addressing the problems they face.” When it comes to the earth and the creatures around us, we should be listening. Because we, as humans, have oppressed them, we should be listening to their voices as they tell us their stories. We should pay attention to the way the birds chatter on the power lines or to their migration patterns in the winter. We should watch the ants work and remember that we are called to pick up heavy things and move them for the sake of community. We listen to water as it runs in the creek, and we listen when God whispers through tree branches on the wind. And if we desire to be people who love one another well, we have to begin with our creature kin, with the ones who crawl and slither and swim and fly, the ones who are different from us but who hold deep knowledge and incredible stories about this earth we live in.

We talk about things like climate change as if they matter, not just to us but to this earth we inhabit. As adults, we can return to the canopy of trees and rejoice in feeling small, because that is where we find the humility that grounds us in our place. We can be like children, and we can be like the dust. We cannot outrun the voice of Segmekwe, Mother Earth. She will always be reminding us of the dirt we were born from and the dirt we will return to. May we listen in the meantime.

I grew up being really afraid of water, and yet we have always had a fascinating relationship. When I was very small, I waded into a pool that was too deep for my tiny body, and I fell under. I watched as the glossy surface hovered above my eyes, and I saw the outline of my sister’s body come in for me. I was lifted out in time, and I was fine, but a fear was instilled in me that I couldn’t shake for many years. I didn’t learn to swim until I was thirteen, and after I had children, my worst nightmares were of a child’s death by drowning, by currents that are too strong for my little ones to fight against.

Water can be a dangerous thing, but water is also the lifeblood of us all. It is why flood stories are so powerful and so sacred; the earth gets destroyed by water, and it gets rebuilt by that same water as it gives life to everything again. So we must hold great respect for the water, because her power is fierce, yet humble. But so often, because we do not see water as a living being, we use her, monetize her, and, in essence, lose our ability to see her as sacredly created at all.

In 2018, thirteen-year-old Autumn Peltier (from Manitoulin Island in Canada) shared her wisdom and experiences with world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly, reminding them of their responsibility to protect the water, to treat the water in a way that reflects a sacred creation, as Anishinaabe people believe. Autumn represents the future generations of our children and grandchildren who are inheriting a world that is tired (yet resilient) and has been abused for centuries. Indigenous peoples, who practice kinship with creation, can help reorient all of us to the importance of caring for the earth’s water, our lifeblood.

In Western thought, fear and a mentality of scarcity distort our reality. This makes everything an enemy, instead of reminding us that all creatures of the earth, all parts of creation, have roles and abilities that can be manifested to hurt or to heal. How do we view a flood as it destroys everything we hold dear? How do we view a drought, and what is our place in it? Human beings have been destroying the earth’s natural ability to make her own decisions for centuries, and she is beginning to let us know that our actions have harmful consequences.

Climate change manifests in ravaging earthquakes and tsunamis; harsh winters claim our homeless populations because our systems do not support them; insects are disappearing and crops are drying up; people go hungry in droughts that last for months on end; and we continue to poison the waters for future generations with oil pipelines. We care more about our capitalistic profit than about protecting the creatures of the earth. How do we expect Segmekwe to react when we treat her this way? How do we ask Creator to forgive us when there is nothing left of the earth to care for?

In Potawatomi culture, women are water protectors. To be women who are water protectors means that we know that the water that runs through our bodies is connected to the sacred waters that give sustenance to the lands around us. We lay tobacco down on the water’s surface and pray. Potawatomi women in the Great Lakes region practice water ceremonies to protect the water from poison, from pollution, so that our children inherit something better. In New Zealand, the Māori tribe of Whanganui fought for the legal recognition of the Whanganui River as a person, as a part of the tribe. It’s a beautiful story of overcoming colonial systems, a story of recognizing the rights of the water and of the people who care for those waters.

What if our stories of baptism in the church were rooted in that same idea of new beginnings, of personhood, just like the new beginning after a flood, after everything is drenched and overcome? What might we learn from the water? What might we learn if we listen, if we wade in—unafraid, untethered, and uninhibited—ready to become the ones we were created to become?

Chapter 2: Journeying Stories

No matter who we are or where we come from, we are people who journey. We long for community; we long for oneness with the sacred. We long to be seen and known and to see and know the world around us. Part of the human journey is knowing what it means to grieve, to celebrate, to get lost and be found again and again. If it weren’t so, we wouldn’t be human.

And to be human is to know the journey of transformation, to know what it means to change and become, and often to step back into who we were before. In my life, journeying has meant telling the truth, coming to terms with the trauma in my own story, and leaning into the trauma and pain of others with honest listening so that, together, we learn how to be people who walk alongside one another in order to heal.

One rainy January afternoon a few years ago, I received an email from a Diné woman, thanking me for my online presence: “I have grown up in the church, but it was very much influenced by a dated missionary and/or colonial mindset. So much so that for much of my life I stayed away from engaging my Native community outside of the church. I have learned the value that comes from acknowledging and learning my culture and how those teachings can affirm my faith in a way that, I believe, God intended when he created me.” She continued, “I know now that I was not created a Navajo woman to conform to a majority culture way of life but to allow my heritage to shape my faith and help and encourage other Native people, especially women. However, it has been very difficult to communicate that balance of culture and faith to those who are ingrained with an Americanized or colonized view of Christianity.”

A thread runs through the history of America, a thin line that connects people, places, moments, cultures, and experiences. This thread started when Columbus arrived and deemed Indigenous peoples savage and unworthy of life, a thread that continued as African peoples were enslaved and forced onto this continent. We see it today in hate crimes against people of color and religious minorities. It is a thread of whiteness, of white supremacy, that aims to erase culture, to assimilate those deemed “unworthy” of humanity. It is the greed of white men who have stolen land and committed genocide against Indigenous peoples and have for centuries suppressed our cultures. The thread of white supremacy did not end there; we continue to see its effects today, not just in KKK rallies but in everyday experiences, in systems of oppression that leave out the most vulnerable among us, that ignore and seclude Indigenous peoples and pay no mind to what justice might actually look like.

This email reflects my journeying story and the story of so many of us—people who have lived in colonized Christian circles throughout our lives and are working to decolonize, to dismantle systems of empire and colonization around us. Instead of living into a colonized version of Christianity in which my Indigenous self is villainized, I choose to live a life of constant decolonizing, the process in which my spiritual Potawatomi tradition enhances the celebration of God as liberator and the person of Jesus as a partner in that liberation. Nick Estes, citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux tribe, in his book Our History Is the Future, says this: “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.”

So we send each other emails to remind each other who we are. We write books so that the truth of the Indigenous experience is not forgotten. We tell our stories so that no one forgets that we are still here and that we’ve always been here. In a world in which white supremacy still holds power, we remain because our words remain, just as our stories remain to tell us who we have always been, and all of that is political because our very existence works as a larger narrative of liberation, freedom, and peace.


Ruth Millingto… Tue, 16/08/2022 - 00:40

What a fascinating book. I really enjoyed this. Your voice and writing is strong, yet the subject matter is approached in a gentle manner which isn't easy to achieve. Congratulations.

Roslyn Franken Wed, 28/09/2022 - 18:11

Your writing style is wonderful. It is extremely engaging. We have so much to learn from you and your stories. Congratulations on your book!

Flowering plants grow up from the ground against a yellow sun on a white background. A muskrat and turtle hover above the sun.