New Mexico Initiative Combats Indigenous People’s Erasure

Sandpainting prepared by Mitchell Silas (Diné) showing the Bahá’í ring stone 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).
A sandpainting by Diné artist Mitchell Silas. Photo by S. Michael Bernhard.

Indigenous people worldwide have rich spiritual traditions that emphasize the oneness of humans with each other and with Mother Earth, a tenet shared with the Bahá’í Faith. Recognizing this commonality, some Native people have become Bahá’ís, making enormous contributions to the community—for instance, in the United States, the late Kevin Locke (Lakota) and his mother Patricia Locke (Lakota) were spiritual giants.

Yet, much work remains to strengthen the connections between Indigenous and Bahá’í teachings. A new task force based in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, is diligently carrying out that work.

A Personal Perspective

In 2021, fresh revelations emerged about the deaths of Indigenous children whom the governments of the United States and Canada had forced into boarding schools. For Alice Bathke, a Bahá’í in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, 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 Bahá’ís from Rio Rancho and neighboring Albuquerque—quickly undertook other initiatives, too.

Educational Mission

The Indigenous Task Force realized “the need for more education and truth seeking to learn more about Indigenous brothers and sisters to build a more peaceful world moving forward,” according to Jerry Bathke, who, with Alice, directed the Native American Bahá’í Institute on the Navajo Nation from 1998 to 2016.

Since September 2021, the task force has been hosting monthly devotionals/discussions on Zoom. The programs begin with devotions, with prayers, some in Indigenous languages, dedicated to the children lost in boarding schools. The devotions are followed by a speaker, many of whom have represented Indigenous backgrounds including Diné, Yukon, Lakota, Isleta, Apache, and 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 Bahá’í Faith.

These gatherings have attracted some attendees from beyond the Four Corners region. Effects are already being seen. Says Jerry Bathke, “A lot of other people elsewhere have started their own meetings, teaching their Indigenous friends, making connections.”

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 at 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 evokes the three-tiered Bahá’í ring stone symbol, with the human world represented by a hogan, the mediating force by smoke, and the divine world through two stars. 

An Indigenous artist kneels in front of a work area with colored sands laid on the ground.
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. Photo by S. Michael Bernhard.

A second “Gathering of the Hearts” was held in October 2022, featuring Mrs. Verna Morgan (Diné), who translated Exemplar into Navajo and narrated the Diné version of the film. She discussed the many similarities between Indigenous and Bahá’í consultation.

Prayers in Parks

As another project, to encourage prayers 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 bridges between the Bahá’í Faith and Indigenous communities. In this process, they recognize the centuries of injustice these communities have survived. 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.” Providing Bahá’ís with education in this history, paired with appreciation of Indigenous lifeways, is an important step in planning outreach, which is well underway. 

With all these endeavors, the children lost to the boarding schools remain the task force’s lodestar. In Jerry Bathke’s words, “Core activities are arising because of the task force, traveling teaching teams, lots of support, genuine support. So, there are many results happening in this year and a half—and it’s really about these children.”


This article originally appeared in The American Bahá’í (vol. 54, no. 1, Jan./Feb. 2023, p. 5).