Dear Decaturish – An indigenous perspective for Thanksgiving
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I was born in southern Oklahoma in an Indian hospital on a Chickasaw reservation as a member of the Potawatomi Citizen Band Native American tribe. My Potawatomi and Cherokee grandparents lived in Ringling, Oklahoma, and my father worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, so anywhere we moved took us to another reservation where he served as a police officer. Of all the attributes that characterized Native American life, not many impressed themselves upon me. We didn’t engage in cultural practices, except for attending the occasional pow-wow. It was not until adulthood, until last year in fact, living in the middle of Decatur, that I suddenly realized I had a responsibility to teach my children where they came from and what my own Native blood means for my life.
There is a phenomenon called “blood memory,” which means that characteristics of a culture can be passed down through DNA without a person being aware of it. In my case, Native American culture has always manifest itself in my life, but it wasn’t until last year that I realized what was happening, that my ancestral memory was speaking something into my everyday practices and experiences. Over the last few months and weeks, the Standing Rock Pipeline protests have weighed heavy on my heart, as if for the first time all those voices of my ancestors have convened in one place to say, “Listen, daughter. Something isn’t right.”
But I am not peacefully protesting at Standing Rock, surrounded by my brothers and sisters. I am here at home, teaching my boys what it means to be advocates, what it means to be Native American in our time, what it looks like to have our hearts break and to ask what they break for.
I live in this space of deep grief over a fight that I know facts about but have a hard time spiritually and emotionally processing. Yet I have been held steady by the people around me, including my husband of European descent, who has always been an advocate for my journey and the just-starting journey of our two boys.
Even when we feel alone as Native Americans, as we have felt for generations, there are sacred spaces. And in those sacred spaces we find them—people of all races and all cultures gathering around us to say, “Yes, something isn’t right, and we will walk with you.”
I found that sacred space when my four-year-old called President Obama last week and said about the pipeline to the woman listening, “I am Native American, and it’s really important. Can you stop it?” I shared the video on Facebook and people I haven’t heard from in years stepped in, shared the video, said words of encouragement, words like “We are with you, keep going, this is it, let’s change this world.”
I found it in my Sunday School classroom at church, where I sat with my non-native friends the week after the protests at Standing Rock had become increasingly violent. I couldn’t speak, the grief had so taken over my body, so my husband talked about the lives of indigenous peoples and everyone’s responsibility to listen to them, honor them, and humbly walk beside them. I mourned, I grieved the things I did not always have words for, and my friends around me asked, “What can we do?” about the things that they do not understand.
And I realized there that movements are built by both those voices that have been silenced and are roaring to be heard, and on the shoulders of the friends and advocates who hold them up and listen as they act. Native Americans are here, we have been here, we will be here– and yet, we need each other in this fight.
The strange reality is that I have known what it means to live as a white person, and now I am learning what it means to live into my Native American heritage as a woman, Christ follower, mother and advocate. And what I see in myself is those things coming together in unison, making up the whole of who I have always been and always will be.
Thanksgiving is this week, and it is met with grief and joy, with difficult conversations and maybe a few extra prayers around the table. But this I know, now more than ever: I cannot forget who I am and who I belong to, and that means the people and culture around me are not allowed to forget, either.
One night last week I remembered the words of The Ghost of Christmas Present in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, who says it like this:
“There are some upon this earth of yours,” returned the spirit, “who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.”
The ghost and all his brothers see it. They see humanity reflected in the people around them, and charge the likes of Ebenezer Scrooge to become a protector himself, to root out his ill-will and remember that he, too, makes the human journey and must choose whether he will be an advocate or oppressor.
There will always be the ill-willed, those full of hatred and bigotry and selfishness. But as the ghost says, they carry their own reputation. They are not a part of those who bear shalom, who care for others, who walk in what is good and hold up the broken.
Scrooge found himself transformed by Christmas morning, woke to the sunrise, washed his face, threw on his clothes, and bought a brand new turkey for a friend. He rose up and became a new brother to the spirits who visited him in the night, became an advocate to and defender of those who needed him most, a stance of true humility.
And today, with every prayer vigil and peaceful protest, through every call to the president, through every tweet and Facebook share of an indigenous story, we build something sacred—voices of children, men and women, all in unison, all standing as one multi-colored, multi-cultured being.
Indigenous brothers and sisters, you are not alone.
Standing Rock protectors who have always been there, you are not alone.
And to our advocates and friends, we stand thankful for your kind presence beside us.
Do not forget we are here.
May we rise together.
– Kaitlin Curtice