Excerpt from Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God by Kaitlin B. Curtis
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?
The sacred thing about being human is that no matter how hard we try to get rid of them, our stories are our stories.
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.
They are carried inside us; they hover over us; they are the tools we use to explain ourselves to one another, to connect.
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.
I suddenly understood that ancestors sometimes come to us in the oddest ways, and Mystery speaks to us when we are least expecting it.
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.