New Mexico Initiative Combats Indigenous People’s Erasure

March 23, 2023
New Mexico Initiative Combats Indigenous People’s Erasure

By Layli Miron

Indigenous people worldwide have rich spiritual traditions. Historically, these beliefs have been challenged, erased and sometimes tragically lost, especially during times of cultural conflict. 

The Baha’i Faith requires a different approach by recognizing the truth of the oneness of humanity and the contribution of all people and cultures. 

A number of indigenous people find that the Baha’i Faith accepts, complements and advances traditional beliefs. Drawing on their Native cultures and the Baha’i teachings, they have made significant contributions to the various communities to which they belong. For instance, in the United States, the late Kevin Locke (Lakota) and his late mother Patricia Locke (Lakota) were important heritage workers, human rights activists, and spiritual giants.

Sandpainting prepared by Mitchell Silas (Diné) showing the Bahá’í ringstone symbol: the worlds of man (the hogan), the Holy Spirit or mediator between man and God (the smoke rising from the hogan), and the Twin Manifestation (two stars). Credit: S. Michael Bernhard

Yet, much work remains to better understand the connections between Indigenous and Baha’i teachings. A new task force based in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, is among those diligently carrying out that work.

In 2021, new research and disturbing reports were released about the deaths of Indigenous children whom the governments of the United States and Canada had forced into boarding schools from the late 1800s through the mid-1900s. For Alice Bathke, a Baha’i in Rio Rancho, this history was personal. 

Bathke belongs to the Diné (Navajo) people of Fort Defiance, Arizona; she had been sent to boarding school in the 1950s, just as her mother had been in her youth. “We weren’t allowed to speak our language, and we were only allowed to go home once a month,” Bathke explains. “So when I read about the children in Canada and the United States, I didn’t want it to just be a sensation in the news for one week. I talked to some friends here in Rio Rancho, and all of them were so committed to the idea.” 

That idea was to build a memorial to the lost children in a local park, a project that is currently being planned in consultation with the Rio Rancho Parks and Recreation Department. But the group—a task force with nearly a dozen Baha’is from Rio Rancho and neighboring Albuquerque—quickly undertook other initiatives, too. The Indigenous Task Force realized “the need for more education and truth seeking to learn more about Indigenous brothers and sisters, [in order] to build a more peaceful world moving forward,” says Jerry Bathke. From 1998 to 2016, he and his wife, Alice, directed the Native American Baha’i Institute, which serves Indigenous communities in and around the Navajo Nation.

Since September 2021, the task force has been hosting monthly devotionals/discussions on Zoom. The programs begin with prayers, some in Indigenous languages, dedicated to the children lost in boarding schools. Then comes a talk, with speakers often from Indigenous backgrounds such as Diné, Yukon, Lakota, Isleta, Apache or Hopi. Topics have included the boarding schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the prophecy of Crazy Horse, the significance of frybread, and Native connections to the Baha’i Faith. These gatherings have attracted some attendees from beyond the Four Corners region. “A lot of other people elsewhere have started their own meetings, teaching their Indigenous friends, making connections,” says Jerry Bathke.

Internationally known sandpainter Mitchell Silas (Diné) prepares to begin a sandpainting at the home of Alice (Diné) and Jerry Bathke in Rio Rancho, NM, in June. Credit: S. Michael Bernhard

The task force has also begun hosting in-person events in Rio Rancho called “Gatherings of the Hearts.” These are intentionally kept small to create an intimate, trusting atmosphere. The first one, held in Rio Rancho in June 2022, celebrated a sacred Indigenous art form, sandpainting. 

Betty Fisher, a New Mexican by birth who serves as the task force’s secretary, recounts that the diverse gathering represented “a microcosm of the Southwest.” As the participants reverently watched, the Indigenous sandpainter Mitchell Silas crafted “an amazing portrait of life connected to the Creator.” His painting evoked the three-tiered Baha’i ringstone symbol, with the human world represented by a hogan (traditional Navajo structure), the mediating force by smoke, and the divine world through two stars. 

A second “Gathering of the Hearts” was held in October 2022, featuring Verna Morgan (Diné), who was part of the team that translated and narrated the Diné version of the film Exemplar. She discussed the many similarities between Indigenous and Baha’i consultation principles.

As another project, to encourage praying for Indigenous people, the task force started Prayers in Parks in 2021. They selected four parks each in Rio Rancho and Albuquerque representing the four cardinal directions sacred to Indigenous people.

The task force plans to expand its efforts to build further bridges between the Baha’i Faith and Indigenous communities. In this process, they recognize the centuries of ongoing injustice. As Jerry Bathke explains, “after hundreds and hundreds of years, there’s a lot of doubt when somebody comes around who’s not from their community. That lingers and is passed down generationally.” Further educating Baha’is in this history, paired with showing appreciation of Indigenous lifeways, is an important step in planning outreach, which is well underway, he said. 

With all these endeavors, the children lost to the boarding schools remain the task force’s focus. Jerry Bathke says the task force’s activity is helping give rise to community building and outreach. “So, there are many results happening in this year and a half—and it’s really about these children.”

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