(RNS) — Kaitlin Curtice grew up Southern Baptist and now attends an Anglican church. She doesn’t necessarily identify herself with either denomination, she said, but she does call herself a Native American Christian.
Then she watches a look of confusion cross people’s faces.
“They don’t understand what that means,” Curtice said.
The popular 29-year-old worship leader has been working that meaning out in her writing — including a blog, titled “Stories,” and a well-reviewed book published this month by Paraclete Press, “Glory Happening: Finding the Divine in Everyday Places.”
When she isn’t traveling around the country to speaking engagements, Curtice is in Atlanta with her husband, two young sons and two dogs. She home-schools the boys, she said, and with them, she is learning their Potawatomi language and culture.
This first book of Curtice’s is full of stories about everyday moments infused with meaning, the books that “opened something up” in her and reconnecting with her Native American heritage. She talked about all these things earlier with RNS.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Early in the book, you mention your journey to learn more about your Potawatomi heritage. What set you on that path, and what has that journey looked like for you?
We live in Georgia, and there are a lot of Native historic sites here. It’s Muscogee Creek land and Cherokee land — there are areas you can go hiking, and there will be a plaque that tells you who lived there. We went hiking at one of our favorite places, Sweetwater Creek, and my youngest son was 1, and he was hungry, and I had to breastfeed him. I was like, well, I’ll just try and feed him while we walk because there’s no place to sit down.
It was just this moment where God stopped me and time stood still and God was like, “This is what your ancestors did on the Trail of Death. This is what your great-great-great-grandmother did.”
It was that moment where somebody points at you and says, “This is who you are, and this is who your children are, and this is what you’re called to be.” It was just really beautiful, and it just switched on this light for me. From then on, it was just constantly reading and writing and processing and trying to learn as much as I could and having these memories of childhood come back to me that I had forgotten.
What are other Christians’ reactions to you as a Native Christian?
In the church, it’s been really interesting. I have fair skin, so it’s not like you look at me and you think, “Um, she’s a Native American.” I just look like a white person. If I don’t say anything about it and no one knows, I’m just like everybody else. But when I mention it, I can tell that there’s some discomfort or people trying to understand. Am I an immediate threat to the institution?
Because I have grown up in the church, I love the church but also criticize the church. I think we have so many of these conversations happening with people of color, and I want indigenous people to be part of those conversations, too, so that the church understands there’s this foundational problem that started at the very beginning of our country with empire and Christianity and the treatment of Native people. And I think we have to be able to come to the table and talk honestly about it, and the church needs to be ready to listen — just be quiet and try to understand what that has meant for indigenous people all this time.
Where do you think Christians’ confusion over your identity comes from?
To the church, it’s like Native American and Christian — those are two things that cannot go together because of what we’ve been taught: “You’re a Native American. You worship trees, and you worship nature” — all the stereotypes.
I’ve met other indigenous Christians who say, “They do go together in my life,” and some Natives do not practice Christianity (because of its association with colonialism). I’m certainly trying to decolonize my faith.
I get asked a lot: Your Native faith and your Christian faith — do they go together? My answer is always, yes, of course, they do. They do go together. There’s nothing that hinders them. It’s the American colonial version of Christianity that hinders them.
How do you see the Christian and Native parts of your heritage fitting together?
I didn’t grow up in the culture a lot. I knew I was Potawatomi. We went to powwows and stuff like that, but it wasn’t us sitting down and learning our language or learning our culture in a systematic way or a way that was every day in our lives. When I was 9, my parents got divorced, and it kind of disconnected me from my culture for a while.
I’m kind of learning it again as an adult. It’s only been a few years. I feel like a child again — I’m curious and I’m trying to understand things that are hard to understand. It’s been amazing to see how beautiful it is, that I can engage my culture, that I can see God in nature and I can see God in the land and I can read Bible stories differently now. I can read the Bible from a non-Western perspective, even from an indigenous perspective. I came see those stories differently.
I learn something about my culture, and I see how it ties to everything I’ve been taught as a Christian. The seven grandfather teachings are these ideas of love and humility. These are the same things we’re taught in church, but we say that those could never go together because one is from a Native tradition and the other is from the church. That’s not true.
Do you think the church and Americans, in general, are becoming more aware of Native history and misperceptions about Natives since the action at Standing Rock made headlines? Is this a turning point?
From my small bubble, yes, because I talked to people who were affected by it. But if I look outside that, there’s a huge portion of the church that probably doesn’t even know Standing Rock was a thing.
I want to say yes. Standing Rock was a huge movement. It brought Natives and non-Natives together — and the church — in a huge way. And the church did respond. There were clergy members who went. I think it did open up some conversations.
We’re almost to the year anniversary when people were blasted with water hoses. I think the conversations have died down a lot. I think the thing now is trying to keep them going. That’s why I write. Indigenous People’s Day was awesome because there are a lot of people responding and trying to listen. But then the day after Indigenous People’s Day, we’re still here. Remember that. We’re still doing the same thing we did the day before.
Your book is a series of short meditations — what you’re learning from your dog, your kids, your garden, your everyday life. What do these things from everyday life have to do with glory?
I love looking up words. One day, I looked up the word “glory” because I was wondering, what if the glory of God is something simpler? When I looked up the definition of the word, it was “magnificence and great beauty.” That, to me, is something I can grasp pretty easily.
The glory of God always felt like something far off. God is way up in heaven, and if we’re lucky enough or work hard enough, we can see it. That’s not how it is. It was this shift to wondering if glory was all around and we’re just missing it, to truly seeing and paying attention and noticing things.
To look at it through the lens of a tangible story helped me to see it better, and what I wanted was for people, if they read my story — to have it remind them of something in their life that is tangible, that speaks that God is there.