In This Episode
Our national revisionist-history holiday is upon us, so Phill has a special guest at his Thanksgiving table. Kaitlin Curtice is a citizen of the Potawatomi Nation and also (wait for it) a Christian. She and Phill talk about balancing conflicting identities, decolonizing her faith, and rethinking, reimagining, and relearning our history.
Phillip Picardi: From Crooked Media, this is Unholier Than Thou. I’m your host, Phillip Picardi. Next week, maybe you’re observing a little holiday known as Thanksgiving, and that’s cool. I hope you get full, drink lots, and are merry with friends. I also hope you stick it to any Trump supporting relatives if you so choose. Thanksgiving is, as you know, a pretty complicated holiday. It is effectively a day that elevates revisionist history about American genocide. What is less well known, even in the modern, more accurate retellings of Thanksgiving is religion’s deliberate and explicit role in colonization and just how much Christianity was used to justify the murder, rape, torture, and marginalization of indigenous peoples. Of course, we are all still living with the remnants of that legacy today. This complicated legacy is part of the backdrop to a recent book called “Native: Identity, Belonging and Rediscovering God” by Kaitlin Curtice. Kaitlin is a faith leader and storyteller who has worked to help decolonize Christianity, even if, as she’s come to realize, she’s not sure that’s entirely possible at all. I got to speak to Kaitlin about her relationship to Christianity, how it evolved when she tapped more into her indigenous roots and what it means to be a good Christian in our modern world. I hope our talk gives you something to think about as many of us head into our own celebrations next week. Oftentimes, when we talk about Thanksgiving in this way, people get the wrong idea that maybe we’re saying that you shouldn’t celebrate. And let me just say, you can do whatever you choose. I’m not here to tell you one way or the other or to pass judgment. I just hope that this conversation helps give you a better context for the holiday and maybe it will even inspire you to take some action you normally wouldn’t. Now for some ads.
Phillip Picardi: Kaitlin, thank you for joining me.
Kaitlin Curtice: Yeah, thank you for having me.
Phillip Picardi: I was reading an interview that you gave fairly recently which described you as, quote, “a Native American Christian.” And I know that there are many listeners who may be surprised to hear that these things coexist in one person. So to get us started, can you talk to me a little bit about your faith journey and what brings you close to your God?
Kaitlin Curtice: Yeah, so I am a citizen of the Potawatomi nation. So my tribe is an Oklahoman. I grew up I was born in Oklahoma and grew up in Oklahoma, and my family is also Southern Baptist. So I had you know, my father is Potawatomi and has a very religious family, and then my mother is not Native, but also has a religious family. And so we were deeply entrenched in the church, but also knew we were Potawatomi but it wasn’t, you know, something we talked about all the time. And so for me, you know, I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition, was in the purity movement, like in high school. I did it all. I was like, I was going to be a worship leader, you know?
Phillip Picardi: My gosh, Kaitlin, this is, this is really something.
Kaitlin Curtice: And then and then, you know, in my mid 20s started sort of deconstructing that and at the same time realizing like there’s a part of me that I haven’t been listening to for a long time. And that was my Potawatomi self and who I am as an Indigenous woman, and so those things converged. And, you know, I’m still asking what that looks like and that, you know, the phrase Native American Christian has so many connotations because I know people who are conservative Christians who are Native, who are Trump supporters. And then I know, you know, Christians who are Native who it’s a very different story and they’re working to sort of decolonize. And so I’m in that place more, you know, but it’s complicated. And I will just say that it’s a lot of liminal space and gray area. It’s a lot of questions more than answers. And, you know, that’s hard. But it’s also just part of being human, I think. And so I’m navigating that and trying to have that conversation with people.
Phillip Picardi: Part of being faithful top, right, like I think more faithful people need to be comfortable with that gray area and those liminal spaces. Don’t you agree?
Kaitlin Curtice: Yes, absolutely.
Phillip Picardi: I want to dig into the gray area specifically, because obviously in your book Native, you talk a lot about decolonizing Christianity. And I don’t know if a lot of folks understand the central role that Christianity in specific played in colonizing America, that this wasn’t just a politic, right? This wasn’t just about expanding a kingdom, but it was also about expanding a kingdom under God. And so there is a deep history of how Christianity has forced conversion and also the suppression of Indigenous faiths and cultures for centuries. Can you talk to me a little bit about what you learned on your journey to understanding more of the Potawatomi side of your heritage and maybe how that applies, especially as we are approaching a holiday, for example, such as Thanksgiving here in America, which is riddled with lies about indigenous people?
Kaitlin Curtice: Yeah, you know, I think so many of us grew up with this image of America that’s this, a good one, that it’s just beautiful, you know, land of the free, home of the brave, and we don’t talk about our history, you know? To say out loud, like we are a nation that was built on genocide, you know, people don’t want to say that. And so it’s kind of hard when you first realize that. I think it involves a lot of grief. You know, even for me it did, because I grew up loving Columbus, I thought he was awesome, you know, learned about him in school. Like I didn’t think anything different, even as an Indigenous kid, I was taught the same thing everyone else was. And, you know, now, like actively trying to learn history, you know, learn things like, people should learn about the doctrine of discovery that, you know, colonizers, Europeans, literally got to come here in the name of God and if they thought we are heathen, if they thought we weren’t Christian, savage, they had power of God, you know, in their mind to wipe us out and to do what they wanted with the land. And that built America, you know, that foundation. And we don’t talk about that. And so for me to have these conversations within the church and say, you know, the white American church is complicit, its history is complicit and we are still complicit, and we have to have these conversations because oppression doesn’t just stop in the past, like oppression is something that is ongoing. And we need to have those conversations to understand that even today, you know, we are still seen as heathen. We are still seen as something other. And the only time we’re really brought up is in November for Thanksgiving when people want to tell that story. And then, and then we move on, you know, and it’s just, it’s sad. You know, it’s sad that that’s the reality. And I want, I want more for all of us than that.
Phillip Picardi: And this suppression of Indigenous faith, too, is something that has existed in America long after our initial colonization, right. It was really only in the past 60 years or so that Indigenous people were, quote unquote, “free” to express their religion and free to express their faith, right, that freedom of religion was not extended to indigenous cultures under American law.
Kaitlin Curtice: Yes. And even so today, you know? You have you know, I’ve heard stories about Indigenous children who want to smudge, or they want to wear regalia with their graduation outfits in high school and they’re not allowed to, you know? So there are these policies, or their hair is cut, they’re not allowed to have their hair long or have their braids. Like there are policies that are still happening and I don’t think people connect that to a spiritual identity or a cultural identity. They just think it’s, you know, a rule and they broke a rule, you know? But not understanding that these are, these are parts of our culture and that they’ve been severed from us, you know, through the government and Christianity kind of working hand in hand.
Phillip Picardi: It also, it calls to mind the Standing Rock protests and various other protests that have been led by Indigenous youth and also in concert with Indigenous elders, of course, in an effort to preserve and save our land, and to therefore preserve and save our environment, and help to further curb the effects of ongoing climate change also brought on by this Christian imperialism, right? That the police, when they were interrupting these protests, were trying to hurt the morale of these protests, they went and dismantled the sweat lodges, right? Or they would hurt people while they were dancing or mock them while they were dancing, because this mockery of faith was rooted in this white Christian supremacy, too.
Kaitlin Curtice: Yeah, absolutely. You know, we have our history of boarding schools where, you know, Indigenous children were taken from their families and forced into these schools that were run by the church, and the goal was to, you know, kill the Indian, save the man. It was to strip us of our languages and our cultures and our memories even. And as soon as they did that, they had succeeded. And that’s, you know, that gave us generations of our grandparents who didn’t know how to talk about our cultures, you know, and it’s time, it’s a time for us to be reclaiming some of these things that were stolen from us. And, yeah, it’s still a struggle because we still have our Standing Rock moments and we still have the struggle to exist within the church, you know, and that’s my situation, to exist within society. And it is, it’s really hard. It’s really hard.
Phillip Picardi: Yeah. Well, let’s dig into that a little bit, because I think within the book and also in the context of your teachings and what you talk so much about and choose to raise your voice so much about, you’re often talking about uplifting Indigenous people and uplifting that history that’s been so erased or kind of pushed to the side. And yet you’ve made a conscious kind of effort to also show that you’re modeling a different kind of Christianity that is willing to reckon with that history. And I think that that’s interesting because, you know, as someone who also had to reckon with their Christianity as a, as a gay person, I chose to turn my back on Christianity and chose to turn my back on the church. I just am wondering if you can share with me a little bit about what kept you close to Christianity, and what you see in Christianity that is redemptive. Like, what is it about it, you know? I’m curious.
Kaitlin Curtice: It’s a great question and I asked myself this a lot, too, so don’t be—
Phillip Picardi: I know you do! That’s the premise of the book. Yes.
Kaitlin Curtice: Yeah. Well, yeah. You know, it is a time when we should be asking that question. Where so many people who grew up in, especially the white, you know, American church are asking, can it be anything different than that? Like, can Jesus not be white? Like, can we accept an actual Jesus who isn’t who we think he was, you know, things like that? And it’s really hard. And we have been so, so trained to imagine God in this very patriarchal way and imagine the white Jesus and imagine our relationships have to be a certain way and our spirituality has to look a certain way and we have to be pure enough. And all these you know, all these ideas that were that were pushed on us that, you know, I think are abusive in a lot of ways. You know, now there’s so many of us who are asking if it can be different. And some days I think, yes, we can do it and it can be different. And then some days I think there is no way that this is ever going to change because America is what it is and the church is what it is. And I struggle. And then and then I’ll have a conversation with someone who’s really trying to learn and trying to, you know, understand the history of the church and the history of America, and having, you know, reading my book, reading books by people who are trying to start these conversations. And when I have those conversations, I do have hope, but it’s hard. I mean, it’s hard and I ask myself these questions all the time, you know, I say, even in my book I write, Christianity is a journey and one day I might not be a Christian anymore, but one day I might be, you know? Maybe I am now. Maybe I’m loosely a Christian. I think there’s this fluidity that it should be allowed in our spirituality, in our faith, in our legends, to ask those hard questions, and to sometimes say, like, I don’t really know. But for me, like, I’m not, I’m not going to church. I’m not part of an institution or a denomination and I’ve never really felt connected to any denomination. And so I know that makes a lot of people uncomfortable because we like our labels and we like to know what box we’re in. And so even that, like the gray area of of saying I don’t belong to a denomination, but I’m going to come speak at your church or come speak at whatever, I know that makes people uncomfortable, but I think there is power in that fluidity and in that not knowing sometimes. Like, I think that allows for an expansiveness of God when we enter into those spaces.
Phillip Picardi: Well, I mean, yeah. And the more people that I talk to, especially through this podcast, who identify as Christian but who are advocating for the same or similar concepts of justice, you know, and they believe that Christianity is rooted in justice. They feel very similarly to what you feel. And in a way, it’s kind of like, well, if you’re a good Christian in America, you know, wouldn’t you be asking these same questions? Wouldn’t you also be skeptical of the church institutions and what their role is and what their complicity is in this genocide, and in ongoing racial injustice? You know? And so maybe we need to redefine what the hell it means to be a good Christian.
Kaitlin Curtice: Yes. And that’s so tricky because these labels in these terms have been around for so long that how do we how do we begin to do that? You know, how do we begin to shift the narrative? And that’s hard. It is hard.
Phillip Picardi: I feel that. And to what you were saying before, you know, where you’re talking about, how there are so many good people. There are many good Christians, but there aren’t many good churches, you know? And how do we differentiate the community from the institution? How do we focus on each other rather than these structures and these institutions of power, right?
Kaitlin Curtice: Yeah. I mean, you know, we were going to a church last year and it came down to the fact that I could show up on a Sunday and I knew that I wasn’t showing up fully who I am as an Indigenous person. And I knew that if I wasn’t, you know, my queer friends weren’t showing up fully as who they are, and maybe women weren’t showing up fully as they were. And anyone who is asking hard questions could not show up fully in that space, in that particular space. And I knew that. I knew that in my bones. And so eventually we decided to leave and it was hard. It’s the first time in my whole life I’ve not been in church. But it was so freeing to, you know, decide I need a break from this space, and to be able to ask these questions. And so, you know, that’s what we’ve been doing for the last year or so. And that’s a different kind of Christianity, you know, to be able to say maybe I’m not part of a church or a congregation or this institution in the way you think I should be, but I am still trying to find God or to understand mystery. And I know that makes a lot of people uncomfortable, but that’s OK. It’s OK to be uncomfortable.
Phillip Picardi: You know who else made people uncomfortable? Jesus!
Kaitlin Curtice: That’s right.
Phillip Picardi: You know?
Kaitlin Curtice: That’s right. Yes.
Phillip Picardi: That’s what I’m kind of interested in learning more from you about, is you talk in the book about the, quote, “colonized version of Christianity” that you were taught even as a young Indigenous person. And so if you were to like, let’s say you’re going to start the church of Kaitlin Curtice, right? And you want to un-colonize—or decolonize, I should say—Christianity, what does that look like? Like what parts of the scripture are you talking about? What s that calling, you know, people towards who want to be better Christians?
Kaitlin Curtice: You know, so I’m a storyteller. That’s what I do. And I have long thought that a church space should be a space for people to tell their stories. Because, you know, Jesus was a storyteller. He used those parables, he told stories, and he centered people that no one expected or he centered the earth, or he centered, you know, an idea that no one thought was coming. And it turned everything upside down. And that’s what I think we do when we share our stories with one another, in a way that, like we’re really listening and paying attention. That’s what I thought a lot about, because storytelling is, you know, is this tool that has been around for centuries. It’s always been part of us as humans and I’ve always thought about using it in that way because it helps us break down our labels or our, you know, our ideas of each other. You know, when you enter into the experience of another person, it changes you. And that’s where I would start. That’s where I would start, I think.
Phillip Picardi: That’s beautiful because so much of our church experience orients around the expertize of the clergy who are often composed of older white men, you know, and it makes it really complicated to seek the humanity in this religion or in this faith tradition. And, yeah, that is ultimately what turns a lot of people off or makes them feel like they’re not being heard or seen enough, even by God.
Kaitlin Curtice: Or like the, you know, when I was young, we would have these times in our Sunday school classes where it was like, OK, it’s time to write your testimony. So everyone think back to that moment when you know you found Jesus or Jesus found you or whatever. Think back to that moment and let’s write that down so that we can practice it to tell other people. And I remember even as a kid being like, OK, so I was bad before this moment when I was supposed to have found Jesus.
Phillip Picardi: Right.
Kaitlin Curtice: But I don’t really think I was that bad, actually. But, I was supposed to be. So I guess I was. So I’m going to write down this story and then you, you’re creating a story that takes away your humanity. Like you’re creating some myth about how you are a horrible child until you got saved and that stays with you your whole life. You know that’s not story telling.
Phillip Picardi: Yes! It sets you up for constant failure. To think that because Jesus entered your life, that now you are saved. It’s like, but what about how much I’m going to mess up in between, constantly?
Kaitlin Curtice: Yes. Totally. I know. Yeah. So things like that. Like we are not, you’re right, we’re being told what story to tell, and that’s not that’s not being human. That takes away our humanity.
Phillip Picardi: On the flip side, and I think the more valuable question for me to be asking you is, is what really Christianity has to learn from Indigenous cultures. And I know that there’s about ten thousand million things that you could mention. What strikes you as the most relevant, especially right now in this moment of our immensely complicated, vile, polarized political landscape and with the ongoing effects of climate change wreaking havoc on our earth, that still is not ready to reckon with the facts that are plainly in front of them.
Kaitlin Curtice: Right. I think that is definitely one is, is our connection back to the land, and to the earth, you know? I’ve been reminding people ever since COVID happened, like reminding my friends, like, make sure you’re drinking water. Even like remembering that water is our medicine, that it’s something that gives us life, you know, even just like your water from your sink, like staring at that glass and understanding like I am connected to this thing. I am connected to the land that’s outside my window. I am connected to the people who tend to that land, like that is a lesson that it gets stripped away from us I think as children, when we start to learn what capitalism is and what it’s about, I think that we become disconnected from the land, that we’re naturally curious about as kids. And I think kind of returning to our child likeness is a lesson that I’ve learned as an Indigenous person in my decolonizing process. And then the second thing is idea of community, because we are so, we are such individualists, you know, that’s what America is, is we say we’re all one and we’re all connected and even the church, we say that, but we’re not, you know? And we’re seeing now with mask wearing alone. How do we care for each other as community, as kin, you know, like how do we practice relationship with each other, not just for ourselves, but, you know, because we belong to each other? That’s our, that’s our job here. And I think Indigenous communities practice that, you know, and that’s what I write about, is how we belong to each other and how we call each other home, to ourselves and to one another. And I think that we we overlook the importance of that a lot.
Phillip Picardi: I wonder, you know, there’s a lot of of really well-intentioned white folks, myself among them, who are going to make mistakes and who are going to maybe be confronted with some harsh feelings towards what you’re saying. Do you think that white people in America can and should decolonize themselves? And what does that look like?
Kaitlin Curtice: Yeah. This is what I’m learning because I am I’m Potawatomi and I’m white. I’m mixed. I’m mixed culture, mixed ethnicity. I think that everyone has to decolonize in the way that fits who they are, you know? So if, white supremacy affects all of us, but it affects us in different ways and so I know from my story the ways that I need to decolonize myself. I need to learn my language, you know, but I also need to make sure I’m paying attention to things like. anti-Blackness in my communities, you know? I’m needing to make sure that I practice solidarity with my friends who are of different faiths or different religions, you know? Those are ways that I know I have to practice that. But I believe that wholeness for all of us, you know, that has to come through however we choose and figure out what decolonization means for us. But I, I think it has to be different for each person. I mean, we have these, we have our large goals of equity and justice. Right? But it looks different for each of us based on who we are, I think. And that’s kind of an individual journey that everyone needs to go on. And it’s hard, but it’s good.
Phillip Picardi: Yes. There’s a story that you reference about the Potawatomi flood story, and I was struck by the resonance of this story, the parallels even within Christian and Jewish flood stories, right, the metaphors that exist here. And even when you just said, you mentioned the connectedness to the Earth and how that is so important and how that’s connecting to, you know, those childlike qualities that we had, which was part of your own decolonizing process. And I think all of it kind of wraps up what you’ve been talking about so beautifully. I was wondering if in closing, you wouldn’t mind sharing the flood story with us and telling us about some of the lessons you’re taking with you, and you’re still learning from that story?
Kaitlin Curtice: Yeah, I would love to. Yes so my new book is kind of themed around this Potawatomi flood story. And of course, I grew up with the Bible. And so I learned one flood story. I had no idea cultures had other flood stories. You know, how could I have known? So as an adult realizing this beautiful connection between cultures all over the world, that we have our our flood stories. And I think that that’s such an amazing, again, the power of storytelling that connects us. So the Potawatomi flood story is the creator has flooded the earth and so the earth is gone. There’s water everywhere. And kind of the scene that we come upon in my book is Original Man, who was the first man, and some of the animals are all sitting on a giant log. So they’re like sitting on a tree just floating in the middle of the water. And, you know, they’re realizing that they want to begin again. They want to start the land again. They want Earth again. And so they begin to dive down into this water. They don’t know how deep it is, but it’s very deep, to try to get some dirt so they can have something to go off of. And animal after animal, they dive down. They try. The strongest animals, you know, everyone’s trying and no one can reach the bottom. And finally, the little muskrat who is, you know, a member of the rodent family, like not an animal that anyone would think is a hero, which I think is amazing, just says, I’m going to do it. I’m going to go down. And I’m imagining the other creatures are like, OK? You know, good luck. And he goes, and he’s gone for a while. He’s down in the water. And eventually he comes up and he has died. He’s died along the way. But they look in his paws and there’s dirt there. And he made it to the bottom and he got dirt and he sacrificed his life for everyone. And so they pry the dirt. They honor his life. And then the turtle says, you know, I will, I’ll volunteer my shell. And so they take that dirt and they lay it on the turtle shell. And that’s why we call this Turtle Island. That’s where a tribe calls this Turtle Island. And, oh, that story, I couldn’t have known my book would come out during COVID. There’s no way I could have known. And when it came out, I knew right away that this is exactly what we need in this time because we’re sort of in a flood right now. Like, we don’t know what’s coming. We don’t know what kind of world is waiting on the other side, but we know it won’t be the same as the one that we’ve had. And, you know, can we allow ourselves to dream of a better way, a better way forward? And can we work together, you know, to build this thing with solidarity kind of at the forefront of our minds, and community at the forefront of our minds. And so that story couldn’t have been planned for a more important time. And, and so I just come back to it even more now because it reminds me that we have so much like dreaming to do together, all of us. And that we can’t stop yet, even when it’s hard. Like we have to keep dreaming together and hoping for a better future for all of us.
Phillip Picardi: Well, speaking of a better future and of this pandemic and our interconnectedness, which you so beautifully pointed to, it is apparent that Indigenous nations are being disproportionately impacted by this pandemic, and that they are being left behind by our health care institutions and by our government’s inability to properly care for and plan for this pandemic. In wake of that, I’m wondering what we all can be doing to better support Indigenous communities in our day to day lives. Especially now, as you point out, that we are working to dream and imagine for this new world.
Kaitlin Curtice: You know, it’s interesting because we’re so underrepresented in the media and everything and it’s so hard to, like, get the conversation started, because when people want to go and find out what’s happening, they can’t find anything. You know? It’s just so hard. And so, you know, following Indigenous news sources like Indian Country Today on Twitter—like hearing from us from within our communities, I think is really important. And then at the basic level, like find out whose land you’re on. That’s what, every November we’re like, it’s Native American Heritage Month, like Thanksgiving’s coming, whose land are you on? You know? And that’s, but that should be like an everyday reality is, is find out whose land you live on. And find out, you know, if they are still there, how they’re still tending to the land. Find out the history. You know? I know people who pay rent to the tribe that’s near where they live every month. They pay them rent every month as a way to sort of acknowledge these historical grievances and wrongdoings, you know? Make sure that you’re reading books by us, by modern day Indigenous people, so that you understand that we’re still here, because there are still people who think that we are gone, that we don’t exist anymore, and that we’re just part of these history lessons. And we’re not. We’re still here and we’re politicians and we’re writers and we’re academics and doctors. We’re normal people, you know, we’re just doing the things and people need to know our stories. And so begin at the basic level of just knowing we’re here and knowing our stories and then follow what’s happening in our communities. I think that’s all I can ask is, is just that we’re seen, you know?
Phillip Picardi: Yes. Kaitlin, thank you so much. This was a beautiful and illuminating and challenging conversation. I really appreciate you taking the time.
Kaitlin Curtice: Thank you so much.
Phillip Picardi: Well, folks, that’s all for our show today. I hope you have a great and restful time with loved ones. And don’t forget, you can pick up Kaitlin’s book Native, wherever books are sold, but maybe buy it at your local bookstore. We’ll see you next week.
Unholier Than Thou is a Crooked Media production. Brian Semel is our associate producer and Sydney Rapp is our assistant producer, with production support for Reuben Davis. The theme song is by Taka Yasuzawa, and the show is executive produced by me, Lyra Smith and Sarah Geismer. Thanks for listening.