A Review of Becoming Kin

I live near the western shores of Lake Michigan. At my son’s high school this year, his homeroom class brought out a corn hole game with an image of an Indigenous man’s head drawn in profile, adorned by a feathered headdress. The image was in use as the school’s mascot for about 20 years, starting in 1962. A teacher pointed out the inappropriate use of an Indigenous person as a mascot and the class painted over the image. But did the class take this as an opportunity to learn about the tribes that lived on the land where the school is now located? They did not. It was an opportunity for unforgetting, instead it was just plain forgetting.

Patty Krawec’s book Becoming Kin: An Indigenous Call to Unforgetting the Past and Reimagining our Future uses the term “unforgetting” instead of “remembering.” Krawec makes a distinction between remembering and unforgetting because, “Remembering is fun and builds community. Unforgetting suggests a process of deliberate forgetting, of burying.” In this, her first book, she takes the reader through Indigenous history in the United States and Canada, followed by three chapters on where we go from here toward building relationships between settlers and Indigenous peoples. Beginning with origin stories, she explains how the creation story of Western Christianity has been written on top of Indigenous creation stories. This is consequential because, “Forcing us into a different creation story begins our disconnection from the land.” And disconnection from the land is the through-line of the whole book.

When the Spanish, English, Dutch, and others arrived on the American continent they brought with them the Doctrine of Discovery, a “legal framework of various papal bulls and secular laws that developed over hundreds of years, beginning in the twelfth century.” The Doctrine assumed that Christian nations were entitled to land and because they understood its “correct” use. It is the basis of dispossessing Indigenous peoples and it gave rise to the current situation in which tribes within U.S. borders are “domestic dependent nations.” Krawec provides a clear and compelling history of how Indigenous sovereignty was swept aside and continues to be undermined, with many resources for further reading along the way. 

Following colonization, settlers pursued the removal, replacement, and eradication of Indigenous people. Krawec explains the horrors of residential schools through her lens as a social worker and an Indigenous person. She writes of the destructiveness of the allotment system, which was invented by American senator Henry Dawes. His assessment of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, decades after their removal from Appalachia under the Jackson administration, was that they were too socialist. He said there was “no incentive to make your home better than that of your neighbor,” and “no selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilization.” Collective ownership was un-American and it had to go. His answer was the Dawes Act, which broke Indian land into allotments and ended up impoverishing communities transferring more land into the hands of settlers. 

Patty Krawec is of the Lac Seul First Nation. She is Ojibwe Anishinaabe and lives in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Her mother is Ukrainian and her father is Ojibwe. I live in the suburbs of Chicago and I am a settler. My ancestors were settlers. As Krawec writes, “Settlers are not immigrants. Immigrants come to a place and become part of the existing political system.” My ancestors, most of whom came from Great Britain in the nineteenth century, joined a political system that was well into the process of displacing Indigenous people who had lived in North America for thousands of years. It’s uncomfortable to call myself a settler. As a white person, I often find myself caught between guilt over the horrors of settler colonialism and a sense of helplessness in being able to do anything to make meaningful change. As a Christian, I feel the call of repentance and restitution for the wrongs of the past. I understand that restitution isn’t easy. But what can I offer that could possibly matter against wounds so old and deep?  

This is where Krawec’s book is so useful. At the end of every chapter she includes a section called Aambe, an Anishinaabe word that can mean “attention” or “come on, let’s go!” The Aambe sections give action items that will lead the reader to learn more and do more, working toward building relationships that foster kinship. The idea that building relationships can be restorative was powerful to me. The first step is learning, as we do in the first five chapters of the book. The next steps include action and organizing, with humility: “I offer Anishinaabe stories and Indigenous knowledge not so that you can claim them as your own but so that they can provide a lens through which you can see your own stories differently.” Krawec isn’t talking about rushing in to “save us.” She’s talking about finding groups that are led by Indigenous people and joining in the work. 

Krawec is a member of Chippawa Presbyterian Church, and I was very curious about her insight into how Christianity might factor into unforgetting and reimagining, given its history in dealing so badly with Indigenous peoples. Without excusing or glossing over Christian settler colonialism, she writes that “the original instructions as recorded in the Bible are frequently disregarded or redefined in service to settler-colonial ideas.” She writes that “Christianity has the potential to liberate, to actually help us reject those colonial ideas.” She does not quote the Bible or provide an exegesis on how it rejects colonial values. As a white Christian with settler colonial roots, it is my job to study what it is saying in that regard. One thing I know is that the Bible has a lot to say about how we treat our neighbors. I do not have deep roots here on Chicago’s side of Lake Michigan. But I’m here now. I am someone’s neighbor and I appreciate Becoming Kin for giving me some tools for finding my Indigenous neighbors and unforgetting our collective past. 

Around here, land acknowledgements at public events mention the Potawatamie, Ojibwe, and Odawa Tribes. Land acknowledgements show up in email signatures, too. Not far from where I sit is the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, which my family has visited. But other than these superficial points of contact, my life has virtually no intersection with tribes in my area. Lack of such relationships is probably what made it so easy for my son’s high school class to paint over the image of their old school mascot but not go any deeper than that. I would like to move away from being a settler and toward becoming kin. Krawec’s framework spoke to me in this regard, and, best of all, her book gave me some tools for how to do it.

Emily Updegraff

Emily is a Reviews Editor at Great Lakes Review.