Academic journal article The Journal of Baha'i Studies

Building Intercultural Community: Insights from Indigenous Bahá'í History

Academic journal article The Journal of Baha'i Studies

Building Intercultural Community: Insights from Indigenous Bahá'í History

Article excerpt

"That was my big eye opener," Tlingit Bahá'í Joyce Shales recalled, describing the international Bahá'í conference she attended with her father in Palermo, Sicily, in the summer of 1968. "I met people from Africa," she continued, "from everywhere in the world. So it was like this was the epitome of everything that I thought I believed, and now there it was, right at your feet. And it was the real beginning of the Bahá'í Faith as a global religion for me."

As a Bahá'í, Shales developed a global spiritual geography that, to paraphrase Bahá'u'lláh, viewed the earth as one country and humanity its citizens. Like other adherents, Shales activated this vision, as well as an attendant sense of world citizenship, through travel and attendance at transnational Bahá'í gatherings. And as sociological studies of the contemporary Bahá'í community have signaled, she and other Bahá'ís further forged "situated universalist" identities by working to build Bahá'u'lláh's promised "New World Order" at home (McMullen 12; Echevarria; Warburg).

Bahá'ís are charged, as a core matter of the Faith, to build community with other adherents. Where existing literature on Bahá'í community building has stressed the role of Bahá'í institutions and considered their operation in specific contexts, I focus in this article on interactions between adherents themselves and the Bahá'í community as a broader space of intercultural interaction. More specifically, I draw on interviews with Indigenous Bahá'ís to examine efforts and experiences of intercultural Bahá'í community building dating from the 1960s through the early 1990s.

This article is derived from a wider study that considers how and why Indigenous people from diverse backgrounds in Canada and the United States joined the Bahá'í religion and practiced their faith during the second half of the twentieth century (Horton). This larger study, like this article, is based on interviews with Indigenous Bahá'ís from both urban and reserve/ reservation environments stretching from Alaska to Alberta to Arizona and locations beyond and in between. Most of those whom I interviewed became Bahá'ís between the mid-1960s and the early 1980s. A number were raised with a strong sense of Indigenous identity, while they were also racialized as Indians. Others grew up disconnected from their Indigenous heritage and a few first came to openly identify as Indigenous by way of Bahá'í observance itself. I come to this study as a scholar of settler heritage who is not a member of the Bahá'í Faith. I offer the analysis that follows in a spirit of respect and dialogue.

The core Bahá'í teaching of unity in diversity was a strong motivational factor for Indigenous people who joined the religion in the decades examined here and their subsequent "deepening" in the Faith. Bahá'ís, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, came and continue to come together for regular worship and celebration and for administrative functions, teaching, and service projects. Encouraged to "live the Bahá'í life" in the everyday, many also cultivated relationships that extended beyond explicitly Bahá'í spaces or activities (Shoghi Effendi, qtd. in Compilation 1-28).

At a time when colonial policies and attitudes remained prevalent in North America at large, the Bahá'í Faith was a site of intercultural learning and exchange through which Indigenous and non-Indigenous adherents forged profound relationships of mutual respect. Building the Bahá'í community between the 1960s and the early 1990s, however, was neither easy nor automatic, and it was especially fraught for Indigenous adherents, who also confronted tensions of intercultural communication and understanding- and sometimes even outright racism. As articulated in the Bahá'í Writings and borne out in ongoing community practice, implementing unity in diversity is a gradual process. Other articles in this collection reflect on more recent efforts to build Indigenous-Bahá'í relationships, informed by currents and experiences like those considered here. …

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