Pat Locke - Some recent letters to the Editor have shown that there is interest and some confusion about Indians and the Baha'i Faith. So I decided to interview my friend Jaci Left Hand Bull, a Sicangu who practices the Lakota spiritual traditions and who is simultaneosly a practicing Baha'i.
Pat Locke - First, I'm curious about how you feel about being a Lakota woman in today's world.
Jaci Left Hand Bull -I'm used to strong women, in a womanly sense. The strongest women I know were my grandmothers and mother. So when the feminist movement in the seventies seemed to deny womanhood in favor of a female-malehood, I really didn't get it. My body is obviously made for bearing children, and my instincts are to nurture those children. For awhile that was put down, like a curse we had to overcome. But my brain is as good as my brother's and just about that time (the 70's), I started to teach Indian children's culture classes, and as I drew on my own cultural background I found myself repeatedly seeing male and female balance in all things, in all the teachings of the earth, so I went with it, and through teaching it came to a deepened understanding of the beauty and wisdom of male and female. Then I also learned that one of the major teachings of Baha'u'llah is equality, but not identical sameness, of the sexes. It made sense to me.
I am a feminist, but I believe that equality, especially in the spiritual realm, already exists. In the physical world it can be demanded, but unless it is also earned, or won, it leads to nothing in the end. Because Lakota women, who have protected our culture over the generations, have earned it, the traditional people do respect women as spiritual and social equals. So to use one's body AND one's mind for the good of the people is how one wins the recognition and appreciation of equality. All life is a balanced partnership. It's Lakota. It is also one of the teachings of Baha'u'llah that a necessary step in the attainment of world peace is the recognition of the equality of women and men and the full participation of women in the affairs of the world. The womanly perspective of the mothers is needed at all levels. To me, that's not a foreign, or non-Indian concept. But DOING it, will take effort, especially in the non-Indian world.
Pat Locke - How many Indians do you estimate are Baha'is in the Americas?
Jaci Left Hand Bull - There are probably over 200,000 Indian Bahai's in the Americas. Most, the vast majority are in South America, where there are very large populations of Indians, many who don't even speak Spanish. But Central America also has quite a few thousand especially among the Mayan Indians.
Pat Locke - Why do you think so many indigenous people have become Baha'i?
Jaci Left Hand Bull - I think indigenous people are initially attracted to the Baha'i faith for two or three reasons. For some, it is the fact that the teachings of the faith emphasize the importance of preserving Native cultures. We know that we, and all Indians, have been under tremendous pressure to assimilate into non-Indian ways, so it is a confirmation for many to learn that a messenger of God brought this particular teaching over a hundred years ago.
For others it is the genuine, "no strings attached" love Baha'is have for one another and for all people. It's unconditional love. Because of the abusive or exploitative "love" that so many indigenous peoples of the Americas have experienced for generations, a genuine appreciative love is like a glimpse of what life is supposed to be, respectful. For others it is various specific teachings of the Faith that attract- like the equality of all people, or the teaching that there is only one God, that His messengers - Christ, Moses, the White Buffalo Calf Woman - brought specific teachings for a time and place. But, these are only what initially attracts Indians to the Faith. Later it is the spiritual recognition of the Creator, manifested in Baha'u'llah, for this long-promised age that is now dawning.
Pat Locke Some people seem to have the impression that an Indian has to surrender his or her identity as an Indian in order to become a Baha'i - what is your reaction to this idea?
Jaci Left Hand Bull - Well, it is understandable that Indians would think that, they'd have to give up something. We only have to look at our parents or grandparents lives to see what accepting a "new" religion can do. We lost so much.
To be a Baha'i is a purely voluntary decision. We know that some imposed religions actually banned native language and culture, dances, music, etc. To see some of the music and dance festivals put on by Indian Baha'is and to listen to conferences held in languages that were nearly extinct, is inspiring. If you believe that the arts are an expression of the spirit, it is even more significant.
I really admire those whose instinct it is to protect the people's right to be who we are - to be Indian. So it is those who look more closely, with keener observation, who see that rather than doing away with Indian ways, the Baha'i teachings actually protect them.
I know a number of Indian Baha'is who still pray and maybe more joyfully and humbly than before, in the traditional ways, with the Pipe, in the sweat lodge, even in the Sun Dance. Did you know that Baha'is are strongly encouraged to arise and pray at dawn? I remember watching my grandpa doing that and watching for the morning star.
When the Calf Pipe was brought out 2 years ago, it gave us a good chance to really think about what that Pipe represents. To me, it's like the very center of the Lakota people, as well as what binds us together as a people. It's both the center of the medicine wheel, and the hoop of the medicine wheel. It's a powerful mystery, and yet there is also the tangible Pipe bundle. We are a fortunate people to still have that bundle, the physical center point of our people-hood and our spiritual history. After the Pipe, came the ceremonies, one by one, that offer spiritual guidance for us as we journey through this material life. And the White Buffalo Calf Woman said we'd go through tests and difficulties, and that she would return in the dawn of a new day. The way of the Pipe isn't dead, it's organic and it's alive.
When she said she'd return, it was a promise. Some of us believe that the promise has been fulfilled. We care a lot about our beliefs, and about being Indian. Others don't believe the promise is fulfilled, that's their right, too. One thing about Lakota ways that I'm really proud of is the respect for anothers vision, for their spiritual understanding. No need to condemn. It seems to me that to argue about spiritual belief would be most disrespectful of each other and of the Creator.
My uncle, Adam Bordeaux was a healer - he had strong medicine and to the end he was always learning, and always interested in what others understood, and yet I can never remember him ever condemning others spiritual beliefs. He always protected the people, especially the elders who couldn't speak English.
Pat Locke - Based on your travels among Indian people throughout the Western Hemisphere what have you observed about Indian Baha'is and the practice of their cultures?
Jaci Left Hand Bull - In Central and South America the pressure to give up Indian ways has been going on somewhat longer than in North America. But millions of Indians have hung on to their language and their ways. Those are the places where there are now the most Indian Baha'is. In other places, the Indians had nearly lost the language and the arts - music, dance, special clothing, but among the Indian Baha'is in those places there is an active efffort to protect what is left and to nurture it back to full blossom again. It's the only place where I've observed that actually happening.
For example, the Guymi Baha'is of Panama's mountains have built a cultural center - NOT for tourism- but as a place for development of economic and social programs within the cultural context - by the Guymis themselves, to protect what was seriously threatened by outside pressure. And this is done without politics, government funding or specialists.
To see what they are doing for families for education, for women, is amazing. They are a people like us, strong and determined. About midnight one night last winter I watched a dozen circles of 10-15 people in each circle, under a beautiful large shelter, consulting about the things that could strengthen the spiritual lives of their families, would keep the children safe and growing up loving the Guymi values. Everyone participated, men, women and youth. They had decided to consult in this way. Then later, each group shared its vision with the entire gathering and some full community decisions were made. It reminded me of many work- shops and conferences I'd attended in the U.S., but this had a totally Indian, spiritual climate. They are Baha'is, and are the only Guymis actively involved in preserving the culture as a living, functioning, organic, shelter for the people. These Guymis didn't give up a thing except hopelessness.
Pat Locke - How do you as a Lakota woman reconcile your culture and the Baha'i Faith?
Jaci Left Hand Bull - First of all our name Lakota means peace, amity - harmony - balance. We perceive the universe as being inter- related and inter-connected - that's our most significant prayer "mitakuye oyasin" - "all my relations" - we understand this relatedness in fours - the four directions, the four winds, the four elements of life (fire, water, air and earth), the four colors - red, black/blue, white and yellow, that are symbolic of the four races of humankind. This world view is sacred and is based on the teachings of the White Buffalo Calf Woman.
This Lakota world view meshes with the Baha'i world view. The same Creator that sent Moses and Jesus also sent the White Buffalo Calf Woman and Baha'u'llah - the prophet founder of the Baha'i faith. So it's not difficult for me to reconcile the teachings of the White Buffalo Calf Woman and Baha'u'llah. I see it - Baha'u'llah's teachings - as the next step of Lakota ways. Only now we take our place in the world community, with all Indian people united.
Pat Locke - Some have referred to the Baha'i faith as a 'cult', what is your reaction?
Jaci Left Hand Bull - My reaction is surprise. Is the way of the Calf Pipe a cult? Or Christianity? Perhaps the people making that remark don't know that the Baha'i faith is the second most widespread religion in the world, with nearly 6 million members, representing every race, culture and thousands and thousands of languages. Mostly indigenous people - people of the earth - bright, strong, determined, and spiritually alive. Only Baha'is themselves are permitted to contribute to its funds. It has non-governmental organization status at the U.N. and has contributed positively to many deliberations, especially in the area of human rights. It doesn't have any secret rituals. Naturally some will oppose it - perhaps because of fear or growth, or because they don't know what the faith actually teaches. But then, Jesus Christ and his followers were opposed and persecuted, for over two centuries. People rejected Him in His own lifetime.
Not all Lakota become followers of the Pipe way. The first one to encounter the Sacred Woman, not only didn't appreciate who She was, but tried to violate Her. Before making judgements or accusations, an honest investigation of the facts should happen and a respect for another's spiritual beliefs that do no harm to others should be offered.
Pat Locke - Where can one go to get answers and more information?
Jaci Left Hand Bull - Other than talking to Baha'is, there are many books, videos, pamphlets and tapes of the Baha'i faith. If there isn't a Baha'i in the area, information from the National Center can be reequested. The address is:
Baha'i National Center, Wilmette, IL 60091.
Since the Baha'i faith doesn't have clergy, ordinary individuals voluntarily go to live in areas where they can do their best to share the teachings of the faith, and where together the Baha'is old and new work to gain a better understanding of the teachings and to build healthy, culturally relevant Baha'i communities.