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This writer shares the right (and wrong) ways to honor Indigenous spirituality

Patty Krawec at a Wet'suwet'en solidarity event at the Canada-U.S. border.
Patty Krawec
Patty Krawec at a Wet'suwet'en solidarity event at the Canada-U.S. border.

I'm figuring out through this series that much of a person's spiritual identity — and by extension a person's spiritual community — has to do with a sense of belonging. Where do we feel welcome? Where do we feel recognized and understood?

Sometimes we find that belonging in the most unexpected places, in cultures or traditions that we are not born into, but that fill us up with a spirit of generosity and acceptance. Sometimes, we find it buried deep in our own histories — in our own family legacies.

The cover of Krawec's book, <em>Becoming Kin</em>.
/ Broadleaf Books
Broadleaf Books
The cover of Krawec's book, Becoming Kin.

That was the case for Patty Krawec. Her book is called Becoming Kin: An Indigenous Call to Unforgetting the Past and Reimagining Our Future.

Krawec's mom's side of her family is German and Ukrainian. They migrated to the Niagara region in Canada in the early 1950s, and Krawec was raised in a white evangelical Christian church, while her father's family is Indigenous, from the Ojibwe people.

Her parents split up when she was really young and she didn't have a relationship with her dad growing up. Then, in her 20s, she heard that her father was working as a cab driver in a neighboring town.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Patty Krawec: So I started calling cab companies and asking for my father by name. One of them said he worked there and I left my number. And then he called me.

Rachel Martin: Can you tell me about seeing him for the first time?

Patty Krawec.
/ 1517 Media
1517 Media
Patty Krawec.

Krawec: After about a month of calls and letters he decided to drive down, and when I opened the door, there was an Indian there. It was my face. I wasn't used to seeing my face looking back at me from anybody. And so in that moment, things suddenly become very real. This intellectual thing that I had always known, that I was native, that I was Ojibwe, this obligation that other people had always put on me, became very real.

Like all through school people would ask me dumb things like, "Do you speak Indian?" And "What do Indians think about this?" These dumb, stereotypical things that I didn't have any way of answering. Because I didn't know. I learned about Indians the same way everybody else did from watching Little House on the Prairie and Bonanza.

Martin: Right. Me too.

Krawec: But meeting my father, it all became very real. And then I realized that if he's real, then my cousins are real, then those people in those photographs are real. And I can talk to them. I can meet them. I can make friends with them. And I can learn more about how we exist in Canada. And I started going to the native center in Toronto and I started going to powwows. My father took me home and I met my granny and I met some cousins and it opened up this whole world for me.

Martin: What did you learn about being Ojibwe? How did that start to take shape in your consciousness?

Krawec: So the Ojibwe are bush Indians. We live in the forests, follow the caribou, follow the rice. Depending on the time of year you're living in different places and it's a very decentralized kind of governance, which made a lot of sense to me.

There's very little sense of hierarchy in Ojibwe communities. It's much more horizontal, much more collective focused, and the connection with the world around me made a lot more sense to me. Understanding that everything is alive. And my mom will always say, you know, "As long as you're not worshiping it."

Martin: Oh, what was that about?

Krawec: People have that misconception about animist type religions. That we worship the trees, that we worship the rock.

Martin: Is that so bad? To do that?

Krawec: Well, it's not a matter of worship. Like, if I say I love my spouse, am I worshiping him? No. I'm just caring about his well-being, and if I care about his well-being and he cares about my well-being, then together we have a good relationship.

So when I'm acknowledging the fact that the trees and the rocks and my dogs are all spiritual beings with their own relationship to the creator, I'm in relationship with them. They take care of me, I take care of them, and together we build a world that's worth living in.

Martin: So as you are learning about your identity as someone in the Ojibwe community and getting to know your father's side of your family, how is that sitting with you as a Christian, as an evangelical? Because you described this very diffuse leadership structure in Ojibwe communities. That's totally different from how evangelical churches are structured, obviously. And even just the difference when it comes to how you treat and interact with the land. What was going on inside you?

Krawec: I started to feel very disconnected in both places because these two things, like you described, are very different. And there came a point where I was sitting in church one Sunday and I had a very clear sense that I was going to have to choose. That I couldn't continue to straddle these two worlds. That I would have to pick one and commit to it, and that there was no coming back from this.

There was no wrestling. I think perhaps the wrestling had been happening over the previous several years because when I had that very clear thought that I was going to have to choose, it was, "Well, how do I choose anything but being Ojibwe?"

Martin: So you made that decision in the pews.

Krawec: In the pews of church. I couldn't tell you what the sermon was about that day, but sitting in the church, I thought, "How do I not choose being Ojibwe? That's who I am. That's who I've always been."

And if that's not compatible with the things that this church is telling me, then that's too bad. That's what's going to have to get cut off, because how do I turn my back on this much more expansive way of looking at the world and being in relationship to it? How do I turn my back on that? How do I turn my back on this community that I'm building?

Martin: You write in your book, and this really grabbed me, that Christians are "unmoored, landless people." Can you say more about that?

Krawec: Yeah. Christians have this focus on the afterlife and getting there, and they're not thinking about the impacts on the world around them which disconnects them from land and from the trees and from the water. It means it doesn't matter how we treat those things because they're just there for us to use and we will use something else when that's used up.

And then this rapture theology that I grew up with, that Christians are all going to be raptured out of here, it's their get out of jail free card in the end times. That's even more disconnection from this world. Why should we care if it's just all gonna get flattened anyway?

Whereas the Anishinaabe and Ojibwe belief system is you have to care. Yes, we're passing through this world, there is an afterlife, but this world matters. Sarah Augustine has this wonderful line where she says, "They never asked if we had good news for them."

Martin: Meaning Christians didn't have a monopoly on the gospel, the "good news."

Krawec: Right. They never asked if we had good news, and I thought, what a remarkable practice that would be. To ask the Indigenous people of your area what good news they have for you, and how can you find rootedness in that place by listening to that good news? And then it becomes a reciprocal relationship.

It would be like, "Well, I have these stories that teach us how to be human and how do they connect with your stories? And how can we put these things together?"

Martin: So we need to talk about a phenomenon called "race shifting." Can you explain what that is in a native context?

Krawec: Yeah. So race shifting is when somebody who has lived white their whole life, their family has lived white, their mom and dad are white, and somehow they either find a native ancestor or they make one up. Or they'll say that they're native in their heart or that we all "bleed red" or some kind of nonsense like that.

The thing is, if your family has lived in Canada or the U.S. for more than 200 years then there are chances that you do have an Indigenous ancestor. You might. But if you've got four or five generations of people who have lived white, married white, then you're white. You haven't lived among the Cherokee and been part of that community. That's not who's claiming you, and why would that one ancestor out of dozens of others get prime position in your life?

Martin: Why do you think that is? Like, what is responsible for that phenomenon among white people, especially in the West? I mean, I'm from Idaho, so many people from there have stories like that.

Krawec: So many people do. And in that area that is probably related to the allotments. So Andrew Jackson moved all the Indians west and they called it Indian Country. But then the settlers wanted that too, so they decided to break it up. They broke up a lot of reservations and if you had any Indian blood, if you were a quarter or half Indian or full Indian, you were entitled to land. You didn't have to participate in one of those land rushes. You just got it.

So people would make up ancestors and say, "Oh yeah, I'm obviously Cherokee." Or they would take control of a native child. And it really shouldn't surprise us that a society built on colonization would feel itself entitled to becoming the people.

So instead of pretending to be native, what if white people acknowledged that they benefited from displacement? What if they work with Indigenous people to honor that distant relative by working with Indigenous people to prevent further displacement? Rather than trying to concoct a whole new identity that makes them feel better about themselves for whatever reason.

Martin: What do you make of, I don't know if spiritual appropriation is right, but there is this reverence that a lot of non-native people have for the spiritual traditions of Indigenous Americans. There's a real hunger for the spiritual ritual and religious traditions of native people. How does that sit with you? How do you make sense of it?

Krawec: Yeah, so there are some people who go in whole hog. They build the community and then they participate in the ceremony as an expression of becoming part of that community.

I belong to a hand drum group and we have non-Indigenous members who come to moon ceremony. But it's still our ceremony, they're not taking it and going off and holding their own moon ceremony with the things they learned from Indigenous people.

And I think the real difference is who's holding the authority in that room? Are you coming in order to learn how to connect with this place and how to become part of our community, or are you just taking parts of our spirituality because you've realized that your own belief system is somehow empty and bankrupt, and this speaks to you.

You know, some people get it out of book or by watching YouTube videos and maybe attending a couple of ceremonies, but they're not investing themselves in other aspects of that community as well, because it's not like going to church or converting to Christianity.

It's becoming part of a community, which means that our political needs also have to be part of that. That means that you're also part of Land Back and Children Back, you know?

Martin: These political social movements that are intrinsic to native communities.

Krawec: Yeah. It's not just, you know, burning some sage and wearing a headband and clearing your space of negative energies. It's about who is maintaining authority.

Martin: Which is what so much of modern spirituality is about. As people become untethered to these mainstream institutions, religious institutions, they're kind of picking and choosing from a bunch of different traditions, I think native traditions in particular are something that people look for.

But then it becomes almost this self-indulgent thing where it's just about me and like my own self-care, and there's no widening your aperture to look at what responsibility I have to take what I'm learning from this tradition and apply it.

Krawec: Yeah. People disconnect this spiritual practice from its roots and its community and make it mean something else. And as soon as you do that it's no longer that thing. It's no longer communicating the things it's supposed to be communicating. It's just another thing that we put on our shelves, another ritual that we do that really doesn't connect us to anything.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.