Two Indigenous thought leaders to inform students’ identity and belonging

Roslyn Hernández | Nov 5, 2021

To begin, I want to acknowledge as I write this from my birthplace, the Central Valley of California, that the land now known as the Stanislaus, Merced, Fresno, Madera, Kings, Tulare, Kern and San Joaquin counties is the stolen ancestral land of the Yokuts people. This land was taken from the Yokuts people by settler colonizers from Spain, México, and Britain, and by their descendants.

I recognize and honor the existence and contributions of Indigenous peoples and their relationship with the lands of what we now call North and South America.

I write as a descendant of the Indigenous Nahua and Mixteca peoples of Puebla, México. At the same time, I also write as a descendant of Spaniard colonizers.


Have you ever felt a longing for ancestors, for origins, for parts of yourself you haven’t fully known?

I had the fortune of being born in California, and I lived in México City from the ages of five to eight. This afforded me the lived experience of learning about and inhabiting a culture that has incorporated Indigenous knowledge, practices, and folklore. I learned Aztec myths in grade school, I visited the pyramids of Teotihuacán, I visited my parents’ birthplace and heard about the health benefits of a Temazcal sweat lodge, and I speak a Mexican Spanish pregnant with the Nahuatl language. Despite the richness of that experience, I felt a deep longing. “Somethings” and “someones” were missing, which felt like part of me was missing.

What I realize now is that the simplified Mexican-American identity I grew up with was keeping me from truly connecting with my Indigenous heritage and ancestors. While this identity is by no means “simple,” it was simplified for me—its nuances, history, and deeper meanings stripped away.

I was taught to identify as Mexican-American. And although that meant that Indigenous heritage was part of my upbringing, it was always distant. It was in México, in the past, and disconnected from my origins, peoples, and roots. The colonized Latina Pentecostal theology I grew up with also did not acknowledge these aspects of my identity and my heritage. In fact, the few times it spoke of indigeneity it demonized Indigenous history and cultural practices without actually trying to understand them.

Interestingly, it was the disruption of a global pandemic, a DNA test, continuous hours of research, and long conversations with my maternal grandfather that helped me continue this forming and decolonizing of my identity and belonging. Amidst the upheaval and extra time that accompanied stay-at-home orders, I was able to search for parts of myself, my ancestors, and learn from others with similar Christian-Indigenous backgrounds.

Ethnically-diverse and socially-aware young people are navigating similar journeys. Opening conversations that encourage them to learn and think about how their ethnic identities are divinely created and shaped can inform their identity formation process and show them that they are not alone in those journeys and questions.

Introduce Indigenous perspectives in your youth ministry

Here are only two of the many Indigenous theologians and thought leaders students can learn from. Their perspectives on God, diversity, belonging, and identity have not only been incredibly helpful to me in this journey, but can benefit us all—regardless of ethnic heritage.

Kaitlin B. Curtice

Kaitlin B. Curtice is a Potawatomi woman who grew up in the Christian faith. She is a public speaker, author and poet who writes about the intersections of faith, justice, Indigenous spirituality, and decolonization. In addition to contributing various articles for publications like Sojourners, Relevant Magazine and OnBeing, she has written two books; Glory Happening: Finding the Divine in Everyday Places (2017) and NATIVE: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God (2020).

To introduce Indigenous-influenced discussions about ethnic identity and belonging with students, you can use Chapter 2: “Journeying Stories” and Chapter 4: “My Own Beginning” from Kaitlin’s book NATIVE: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God and consider the following questions with your students.

  • What thoughts come to you as you read Kaitlin’s reflections on her Native American identity?
  • What ethnic heritage is important to your identity, and why? Are there any parts of your ethnic heritage you might want to recover?
  • As you think about the Indigenous understanding of belonging Kaitlin presents, how does this inform your sense of belonging in the place where you live or the places you’ve lived?
  • What made you feel like you belonged, or didn’t belong, in the places where you have lived, or where you spend a lot of time?
  • Thinking on Kaitlin’s story, what effect do you think the recovery of heritage and culture have on our relationship with others and with God?
  • As you think about your beginnings and journey so far, what parts of your story and identity do you feel changing?
  • Is there anything you find challenging about Kaitlin’s story and perspective? Why do you think that is? What did you find helpful, and why?

Randy Woodley

Rev. Dr. Randy Woodley is Keetoowah Cherokee. He is both a Distinguished Professor of Faith and Culture and Director of Intercultural and Indigenous Studies at Portland Seminary. He is ordained through the American Baptist Churches in the USA and holds an MDiv from Palmer Seminary. Dr. Woodley is a prolific writer and speaker. In addition to several books, he has contributed to publications like Sojourners, The Huffington Post, Time Magazine, and Christianity Today, and he co-hosts the podcast Peacing It All Together. He and his wife Edith (Eastern Shoshone) co-founded and co-sustain the Eloheh Indigenous Center for Earth Justice and Eloheh Farm & Seeds.

To discuss diversity, ethnic identity, and belonging with your students, you can use Chapter 1: “Understanding Diversity,” Chapter 2: “The Origins of Unity in Diversity,” and Chapter 3: “Choosing Jesus Over Cultural Christianity” from Dr. Woodley’s book Living in Color: Embracing God’s Passion for Ethnic Diversity.

  • What comes to your mind after reading some of the ways in which Native Americans have been treated throughout US history? What thoughts about belonging does this history bring up for you?
  • Dr. Woodley presents a reading of the stories of Cain and Abel and of the good Samaritan in chapter one. Was there something new or different in his understanding of these stories from interpretations you have heard before?
  • In what ways can we see God’s design for diversity in the Bible? What do these stories teach us about how we should relate to others who are different from us?
  • Think about the communities you are a part of. What traditions, rituals, or ceremonies mark those communities’ identities?
  • After reading chapter 3, what thoughts do you have about what cultural Christianity might mean in your context?
  • What did you find challenging from these chapters? Why do you think that is? What did you find helpful, and why is that helpful for you?

Finding others and finding ourselves

Finding and learning from others who are farther ahead in the journey of identity has been incredibly helpful and healing for me. There may be some young people for whom, like me, it is very necessary to go beyond any simplified ethnic identities they might have been given. And there are others who do not have Indigenous heritage and the journey that comes with it.

Indigenous voices have a lot to teach us whether we share their background or whether our ancestry looks very different. Our identities, sense of belonging, and faith become fuller and stronger as we understand ourselves, those who are—by divine design—different from us, and the ways in which we belong with one another.

Tweet this: Diverse young people can benefit from diverse theologies. Learn from two Indigenous thought leaders who can help inform your students’ identity and belonging.

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Photo by Warren Wong
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Roslyn Hernández

Roslyn Hernández is Project Assistant and Podcast Co-Producer at the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI). She co-produces The FYI on Youth Ministry podcast, and provides a range of support for the LABS and CVDYM research projects. Roslyn lived in México City as a child and grew up in the Central Valley of California. She holds a BA with majors in Film & Media Studies and Spanish, and a minor in Art History from the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), and an MDiv with an emphasis on Youth, Family and Culture from Fuller Theological Seminary. She is passionate about pop culture, culinary traditions, and tea.


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