Academic journal article The Journal of Baha'i Studies

A Necessary History: Teaching on and off the Reservations

Academic journal article The Journal of Baha'i Studies

A Necessary History: Teaching on and off the Reservations

Article excerpt

Perhaps the best way to know where we are going is to reflect on where we have been. While some people may find history-facts and figures, names and dates, icons and symbols-relatively unimportant and possibly dull and boring, history is the story of how we got to where we are. More importantly, history shapes our individual lives even as it shapes our cultures and our collective future.

As we are aware, history has been recorded in some form since the earliest dawning of civilization, whether on stones, cave walls, wood, leather, bones, or leaves-its authors using whatever crudely crafted instruments were available. The oldest method for recording history is the oral tradition, whereby genealogies and family or tribal histories were passed down through the generations. Narrated as stories, such history chronicles the passing of seasons, provides cultural context, and relates experiential wisdom that may help us prepare for what may lay ahead. Whatever form it takes, history is the invaluable repository of the past-our collective memory- and, when studied, one of our greatest teachers. Certainly, it is a guidepost to the future. By analogy, it is similar to the ancient muksuit, the Arctic Inuit's stones arranged in tall human forms that rise above the frozen tundra, standing solidly with outstretched arms on two widely-spaced legs. For a weary Inuit traveler, the sight of an inuksuk meant security and provided a point of reference for travel routes to camps, fishing sites, hunting grounds, and sacred places. Sighting an inuksuk often meant the hope of survival for the weary wanderer, who obtained sustenance from caches of food buried beneath the snow at the feet of these tall, silent giants-bounty bequeathed by the benevolence of previous travelers as a gift for those who would follow. Similarly, our knowledge of history can provide us with the benefits left for us by the wisdom of tribal medicine men and bards. By the same token, it is the intent of this narrative to provide a useful retrospective on the relationship between the Bahá'í community and the Indigenous peoples in North America-and possibly even a guidepost for the continuation of this noble spiritual effort at community building among peoples of diverse cultures and spiritual orientations.1

I offer this brief historical account of the Bahá'í teaching work among the American Indians in four Central States as a case study of what lessons were learned by the non-Indigenous Bahá'ís when sharing the Bahá'í concept of a new revelation with the Native people. Before beginning this account, it is fitting that we revisit a remarkable promise by 'Abdu'l-Bahá that is extremely relevant to any Bahá'í presuming to share his or her beliefs with those of such spiritual capacity and insight as the Indigenous peoples of North America.

In His "Tablet to the Bahá'ís of the United States and Canada" (1916), 'Abdu'l-Bahá said, "You must attach great importance to the indigenous population of America. . . . these Indians, should they be educated and guided, there can be no doubt that they will become so illumined as to enlighten the whole world" (qtd. in Shoghi Effendi, Citadel 16). Many years later, Rúhíyyih Khánum2 recalled her visits to several American Indian tribes, during which times she expressed deep understanding of the impacts and harms of European settlement on Native Americans, including how it interfered with culture, transmission of knowledge and history, and social well-being. She promised them that "the day will come when the Redman will study and know the history of his people" ("Message to the Indian" 6) as an affirmation of the importance of learning and knowing Indigenous histories. The White man has studied the Indians' way of life for many years, she said, collecting the Indians' cultural artifacts as "ornaments" (6) and putting them in houses "where thousands of people pay to enter and look at them" (7). She then informed her Indigenous audiences that three calls had come to them-one each from the Báb, Bahá'u'lláh, and 'Abdu'l-Bahá- and reminded them that, during His 1912 visit to America, 'Abdu'l-Bahá said to Indigenous peoples of North America, "Your mission is unspeakably glorious" (9). …

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