Review of: Return to Tyendinaga: The Story of Jim and Melba Loft, Bahá'í Pioneers
Evelyn Loft Watts and Patricia Verge
One Voice Press; Essex Maryland, 2011
Dr. Lee Brown (Director of the Institute for Aboriginal Health at the University of British Columbia)
Review published in:
intended for JBS
, posted instead to onevoicepress.com
This academic book review differs from every other analysis I have conducted during my career in which critical thinking was applied to content. This review is of a different nature simply because I could not bring myself to criticize a volume that has moved me so deeply. How can one truly analyze or criticize another’s life; especially lives, during which, the current Manifestation of God is found. It seems to me that any life, no matter how lived, that brings one to the point and place of discovery of divine truth must be praised as it is not what happens to us or what we are born into that is of primary importance, but what we learn during the journey. Jim and Melba Loft lived very different childhoods; they were in many ways polar opposites but they not only found each other, they found Baha’u’llah. This writing will review their lives and path of discovery and then discuss several themes that emerge from the work: the theme of spiritual search; the theme of embracing poverty and hardship; the theme of extending the Good Mind and the Good Word, that is to say the teachings, to others and the theme of the re-emergence and healing of Aboriginal People.
Jim and Melba Loft: The First to Fly
The songs which the bird of thine heart had uttered in its great love for its friends have reached their ears, and moved Me to answer thy questions, and reveal to thee such secrets as I am allowed to unfold. In thine esteemed letter thou hadst inquired which of the Prophets of God should be regarded as superior to others. Know thou assuredly that the essence of all the Prophets of God is one and the same. Their unity is absolute. God, the Creator, saith: There is no distinction whatsoever among the Bearers of My Message. They all have but one purpose; their secret is the same secret. (Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 78)
Tyendinaga is the home of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte First Nation which is the ninth largest First Nation community in Canada by population, residing on eighteen thousand acres of land just west of Deseronto, Ontario and two hundred kilometers east of Toronto at the north east end of Lake Ontario. Today there are over six thousand citizens of the Tyendinaga First Nation. Tyendinaga means two pieces of wood beside each other or the meeting of two branches, a name which is derived from the spiritual name of Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant after whom Brantford, Ontario is named. The Mohawks of Tyendinaga lived in New York State prior to the American Revolution and, due to their allegiance to Great Britain, were granted the opportunity to move to the Bay of Quinte in Canada. On May 22, 1794 approximately twenty families numbering a little more than a hundred people arrived near Eagle Ridge, the birthplace of the Peacemaker, who was the great teacher and founder of the Iroquois Confederacy that continues to function as a spiritual, consultative democracy to this day. It is believed that it was a conscious decision to move to this area because of its historical significance to the Iroquois. The name of the Peacemaker is not normally used as he admonished the Iroquois not to worship him but to turn toward the Creator:
The Peacemaker and founder of the Iroquois Confederacy ... was Huron by birth and Mohawk by adoption. His teachings united many tribes under one law. He devoted his life to establishing peace. His law is the Great Tree of Peace which would be a shelter for all humankind. (p. 28)
The Peacemaker's teaching of the Tree of Peace reminded Melba Loft of the words of Baha’u’llah, founder of the Bahá’í Faith: “Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.” (Bahá'u'lláh, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 14)
Jim and Melba Loft
Jim and Melba Loft held in their hearts the light of divine revelation rekindled through the teachings of Baha’u’llah. They touched the hearts of many and lived dedicated lives. Return to Tyendinaga documents the joys, achievements and challenges they embraced during their journey together. They accepted with humility the responsibility of being the first Aboriginal believers in Canada while focusing on improving the lives of others. Watts and Verge state:
The Lofts were motivated by a truth they had embraced to return and serve among their own people. The voyage would demand both material and spiritual sacrifice and would bear fruit whose influence is only gradually being revealed. (p. 1)
Jim and Melba left a middle class home and relatively comfortable existence in Marysville, Michigan to move to more difficult conditions in Canada. Jim was a foreman for Chrysler and Melba was a supervisor at the Dow Chemical plant. They were both employed and lived in a nice neighborhood where they knew everyone. They moved to a home with no electricity, broken windows and a water pump outside the house. In fact, the movers commented, “Are your mother and father crazy? You had a nice lovely home in the States. Are you really going to live here”? (p. 2). However, when Evelyn, the daughter of Jim and Melba, asked her father what to say to their neighbors in Marysville when they asked why they were moving, she was instructed to say “to teach universal peace” (p. 2).
Evelyn commented that her father asked her when she was just learning to write, to write their story. She comments that her father expressed that his early childhood was filled with bitter memories of discrimination growing up in Canada, but that he came to believe strongly in the brotherhood and unity of all peoples, in the concept of unity in diversity. She comments:
My parents loved their people, the Native people, so much. But they just didn’t talk about their great love, to realize their dream of the brotherhood of all mankind and justice and unity for all the downtrodden peoples. (p. 3)
Melba Whetung Loft was an Ojibwa citizen of the Curve Lake First Nation near Peterborough Ontario. She was born December 12, 1912 and was raised in her home community with her mother Bella Howard Whetung, who was from the Hiawatha First Nation. Melba’s mother attended the Muncey Ontario Indian Residential School and was considered to be a woman of knowledge in her community where she was a knowledge keeper and midwife. Her father, Arthur Whetung, was a trapper and Melba spent her early years on a trapline and worked in the family garden. Melba, in speaking of her childhood, made a statement reflective of the Peacemaker's belief in the importance of a Good Mind in attaining peace and health. She stated:
We were a very happy family ... We worshipped God every day and were truly thankful for everything. We were all blessed with good health and were taught that we all were equal and all endowed with a brain and it was up to us how we used it. (p. 9)
Melba’s family had a strong belief in the importance of education. When she finished eighth grade it was necessary for her to leave the reserve to continue and her mother arranged for her to stay with the Soden family in Peterborough so she could attend high school. During Melba’s youth, the wisdom she received from her mother and father and grandparents became a careful weaving of culture, knowledge and Native teachings that provided a strong foundation for the Bahá’í principles that she would eventually embrace.
Jim Loft had a very different childhood. He was born on the Hiawatha First Nation on July 13, 1908, also near Peterborough. His parents were Agnes Rachel Howard Loft and Newton Loft. Agnes was an Ojibwa Native from Hiawatha First Nation as was Melba’s mother. Jim’s father was a Mohawk from Tyendinaga First Nation and it was Jim's aunt, Irene Loft, who deeded Jim the land that they lived on when they moved to Tyendinaga.
Jim’s father, Newton, lost one of his legs in a train accident which made it difficult for him to work. The family moved frequently and never owned a home. In fact, Evelyn commented that they were like gypsies and often camped near the roads as they travelled looking for work (p. 13). However, Jim was a spiritual youth who “would talk to God, asking for help and praying for knowledge and to help his people” (p. 13). Jim was a city Indian who became street wise. He experienced a great deal of racism. Jim acquired very little formal education but possessed a superior intelligence, a quick wit and a well-developed sense of humour. He was an avid reader. He loved music and played the saxophone in a band.
Jim’s earliest childhood memory occurred at age four in the summer of 1912 when Abdu'l-Bahá was travelling across North America. One day as Jim sat on a fence post in Oshawa, Ontario, he saw a man in a long white robe wave to him from one of the trains he was watching. The moment was so filled with power that Jim fell off the fence. It was nearly forty years before he would learn that the identity of the man who waved to him was Abdu'l-Bahá, the son of the founder of the Bahá’í Faith. If we put this in historical perspective, how unlikely would it be that the son of a Prophet from Iran would wave to a young man who was not only a descendent of the first people who embraced the major prophet of Canada, the Peacemaker, but who would also become the first Bahá’í among his people. This event, early in the life of Jim Loft, would be the first of a number of events connecting the life, teachings and prophecies of the Peacemaker with the life and teachings of Baha’u’llah.
On October 23, 1931, during the time of the Great Depression, Jim and Melba were married in Windsor, Ontario. There were some obstacles between the families owing to the fact that Melba had been raised traditionally but Jim was a “city slicker” as he was called by Melba’s father. Jim also had Mohawk ancestry and there had been some rivalries in the past between the Mohawk and Ojibwa peoples. But love overcame all. It is interesting to note that Jim’s grandfather, Solomon Loft and Melba’s grandfather, Joseph Whetung were Chiefs serving their people at the same time.
Jim and Melba’s marriage was blessed with children. Their two sons were James Gordon Loft, known as Sam, born on January 19, 1933 and Arthur Edwin Loft born on November 8th, 1934. Their third child Evelyn Irene Loft was born on June 11, 1938. Evie, as she was known, was also known at the tumor baby because Melba had a fifteen pound tumor removed during her pregnancy.
Finding the Faith
Not long after Evelyn was born, Melba met Emma Lenk, who lived a few homes down the street in Marysville, Michigan. Melba believed strongly in Aboriginal ways but was conducting a spiritual search in her life and explored a number of beliefs in regard to “God and religion” (p. 29) while also attending church. Jim believed in “the Longhouse religion of his ancestors” and studied Native history (p. 29). During this time, Emma Lenk found the Bahá’í Faith through a teacher, Edna Ketles. Edna held many Bahá’í firesides in her home that were deepened discussions examining the principles of the Faith in relation to current events and world problems. Melba began to attend and explore the Faith through readings as well as discussions with Emma. On July 18, 1947, Melba declared her belief in Baha’u’llah and her intention to be a Bahá’í with the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States. At this time Jim was not involved in Bahá’í activities but eventually was attracted to the spirit of unity in the faith and the friendliness of the Bahá’ís he met through Melba. On April 7, 1948 he declared his faith in Baha’u’llah. It was the same year that the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Canada was formed. The seventh Hidden Word of Baha’u’llah in Arabic was especially meaningful to Jim and helped precipitate his declaration of faith:
If thou lovest Me, turn away from thyself; and if thou seekest My pleasure, regard not thine own; that thou mayest die in Me and I may eternally live in thee. (Bahá'u'lláh, The Arabic Hidden Words, 1994)
The Return to Tyendinaga
Melba Loft was the first Canadian First Nations Bahá’í and Jim followed soon after. It was Jim’s idea to return to Tyendinaga and teach the Faith. On September 2, 1948 Jim wrote Shoghi Effendi introducing himself and asking if he should return to Canada. On October 2, 1948, Jim received an answer written by Shoghi Effendi’s wife, Amatu'l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum, in which she stated that Shoghi Effendi would “greatly welcome your returning to your own tribe” (p. 37). The letter had an addendum written in the hand of Shoghi Effendi in which he stated:
Your most welcome letter rejoiced my heart and I hasten to assure you of a most hearty welcome into the Bahá’í fold ... May the Beloved bless, protect and sustain you always and aid you to realize your heart’s desire. Your true brother, Shoghi. (p. 38)
Jim immediately called the real estate agent and put their house up for sale. Melba was not totally happy with the decision to move as she was well aware of the hardships her family and children would endure. Melba stated, “I didn’t want to go, but once I made up my mind, it was probably where I was meant to be” (p. 3). Despite her concerns, she realized a sense of gratitude that that they were “spiritual minded” and not too materialistic (p. 39). The move home was a change of worlds from luxury and convenience to sacrifice and dedication. Evelyn remembered:
The first few years were very very difficult, because we did come from a middle-class American way of living, and we didn’t lack for many comforts. Once we moved here, we found it wasn’t such a picnic. We had to carry water, chop wood ... there was an outhouse, which my mother called the outdoor convenience. (p. 43)
Jim eventually acquired employment at Trudeau Motors in Belleville and there met his first Bahá’í student Bert Curtis. Bert and his wife Elizabeth became Bahá’ís on December 22, 1949. The friendship between the two families sustained the Lofts through the years. Russell and Mae Hill were the first Aboriginal people at Tyendinaga to become Bahá’ís through the teaching of Jim and Melba. For the remainder of their lives, Jim and Melba would continue to live at Tyendinaga and touch the lives of many with the teachings of the Faith and the disciplined conduct of their lives.
Jim and Melba were very active in the Bahá’í community in Ontario. They attended regional conferences as well as National Conventions. However, while enduring extreme poverty during this time, they relied upon their faith and reached out for advice again to Shoghi Effendi. His response was for them to seek the guidance of the National Spiritual Assembly and that they would hopefully find work to sustain the family that would allow them to stay in their community. In 1951, the family was forced to move to Windsor, Ontario and find work, but after a few months the plant where Jim was working was closed and they moved back to Tyendinaga.
Jim could not find work and at that time it was impossible for an Aboriginal person to get a loan from a bank for a reserve based business. However, through their friendship with Roger White, then a new Bahá’í, Jim was able to get a loan and establish an auto body shop, the first commercial business on Tyendinaga. The shop prospered and they were able to fulfill Shoghi Effendi’s hope that they would be able to continue living in their own community.
At that time Jim and Melba were living within the context of discrimination while carrying the teachings of the oneness of mankind. They were living with the violence of the world and yet holding in their hands the return of the Great Law of Peace that holds the promise of unity for all. Melba and Jim strove to extend the healing of the knowledge of the teachings they had found while experiencing, in countless ways, the discrimination and harshness by the society around them. Their example in enduring these conditions created a higher level of vision for those they touched. Evelyn spoke of legacy left to her by Melba and her grandmothers that created a strong foundation for her faith:
My vision is world-embracing. My thought is unity of mankind, the oneness of humanity and respect for all peoples and to truly understand what Unity in Diversity is. These are the teachings for the New Day, the New Age. (p. 85)
This world embracing view was reinforced by Shoghi Effendi in one of the last letters to the National Spiritual Assembly of Canada, in which he emphasized the importance of Aboriginal believers and the Tyendinaga First Nation specifically. In another letter he emphasized the importance of the establishment of Local Spiritual Assemblies in Aboriginal communities. Jim and Melba carried a hope for a Local Spiritual Assembly in the Tyendinaga community but Jim did not live to see it achieved. The first Local Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Tyendinaga was formed in 1979 after Jim had passed but Melba did live to see their hopes come to fruition. Peggy Ross wrote of the formation of the Assembly:
It was this love and Melba’s deep understanding of human nature and her strong faith in Baha’u’llah, combined with her and Jim’s unfaltering loyalty and obedience to Shoghi Effendi, which paved the way and opened the doors for the eventual formation of the Bahá’í Spiritual Assembly on the Tyendinaga Reserve, thus bringing to reality the trust placed in the keeping of Melba and Jim by the Guardian when he called them to active service in Canada ... (p. 162)
A few days after the formation of the assembly, a celebration was held at the Mohawk Community Center to honour the efforts of Jim and Melba. It was attended by Marguerite Sears and Jamie Bond who were guest speakers as well as members of the Mohawk communities of Tyendinaga, Six Nations, Kahnawake, Akwesasne. John Sargent commented on Melba’s role in the assembly:
She was a supporter. She was the anchor around which things were built, the rock of the Assembly and family. She was open to new ideas. Local people depended on her okay and support. (p. 163)
In 1971 Jim and Melba celebrated their fortieth wedding anniversary. Two years later Jim died of a heart attack at the age of 65. The first man he taught the faith to in Canada, Bert Curtis, gave his eulogy. His sons and grandsons were pall bearers. It was Jim who brought the renewal of the Peacemaker’s teachings through Baha’u’llah to the birthplace of the Peacemaker, the community of Tyendinaga; this was an act of honour and sacrifice that only Jim could have accomplished. Some of his relatives accused him of being too religious and criticized him for giving up a comfortable life with good employment and income to return to Tyendinaga. But viewed in a broader historical context that includes the life of the Peacemaker and Baha’u’llah, this was not only an honorable act but a fulfillment of prophecies left by Peacemaker and fulfilled by the appearance of Baha’u’llah. In many ways it is astonishing that the first Native believers in Canada would facilitate such a strong connection between the Peacemaker and Baha’u’llah, but it is also an appropriate connection and acknowledgement that built upon the foundation of the progressive revelation of the prophets.
Jim was so full of spirit, life and laughter that he left behind a tremendous void for his family and Bahá’í friends. The clergy of every church at Tyendinaga paid their respects and felt a loss as did members of the traditional Longhouse. Although he was a Bahá’í, the spirit of unity that he walked with was so strong that Church bells rang from churches in Tyendinaga to announce his internment. Jim’s life had touched everyone, Bahá’í, Christian and traditional Longhouse believers alike. Jim’s funeral stone bears the carving of the Thunderbird to represent the Longhouse teachings as well as the nine pointed star to represent the Bahá’í faith. The inscription on the stone reads: “Bahá’í Pioneers, Alfred “Jim” Loft 1908-1973, Melba Whetung Loft 1912-1985, The Guardian’s obedient servants.” Jeannie Seddon, a friend of the Lofts, wrote of Jim: “He is a Canadian hero whose life will be an inspiration to future generations as it has been to his family” (p. 120).
After Jim’s spirit took flight toward the divine, spiritual realm to take his place on the concourse on high, Melba turned to an even higher path of service to the Faith. Melba’s faith was deep and she felt closeness with Jim even after he had passed. She stated in an interview that she was not “lonesome or unhappy” because of her strong belief in the Bahá’í teaching that souls that know each other in this world will recognize each other in the next world (p. 120).
Melba became friends with Hand of the Cause William Sears and his wife Marguerite. She attended the annual gathering that William and Marguerite held each long weekend in August and it was at this gathering that she was deeply moved to dedicate the rest of her life to a higher level of service and to the request of the Universal House of Justice that she be enabled to continue teaching the Faith.
In 1976 Melba went on Pilgrimage to the Bahá’í World Centre in Haifa, Israel. She stated that this trip was one of the highlights of her life and she felt the entire area was afire with spirit. One of the highlights of her trip was the mansion at Bahji where Baha’u’llah lived during the last years of his life and in which she spied a picture of the first Native American Local Spiritual Assembly in the United States that had been formed in 1948 on the Omaha Indian Reservation near Macy, Nebraska. The picture had been placed there by Shoghi Effendi in the doorway to his room. Melba thought “it was so wonderful that Shoghi Effendi had placed a picture there” of the first nine Native American men and women who arose during a time of darkness to embrace light (p. 137).
After returning from Pilgrimage, Melba and Evelyn were more determined than ever to extend the healing message. In November of 1976, she wrote Chief Brant and the Council of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte to advise them of the existence and reality of the faith and asking that the faith be more respected by the leadership of Tyendinaga. The letter included a newspaper clipping that mentioned the Peacemaker as an advocate of “international peace” and that Baha’u’llah had established the institutions to extend this peace to all the nations of the world. After the letter was written, Melba met with Chief Brant and he agreed to send a message to the international Indigenous gathering she was attending in Mexico and invited her to speak to the Band Council. During this presentation Melba connected the teachings of the Peacemaker and the Great Law of Peace to the teachings of Baha’u’llah and the Bahá’í movement toward the Most Great Peace. She quoted the words of Baha’u’llah:
... That all nations should become one in faith and all men as brothers; that the bonds of affection and unity between the sons of men should be strengthened; that diversity of religion should cease, and differences of race be annulled — what harm is there in this?... Yet so it shall be; these fruitless strifes, these ruinous wars shall pass away, and the 'Most Great Peace' shall come.... (Bahá'u'lláh, The Proclamation of Bahá'u'lláh, p. viii)
As a result of Melba’s presentation, Chief Brant sent a wonderful greeting to the International gathering. He stated:
Whatever concerns you have, (you) may rest assured that we share them as well. We may also take comfort that we give you our support if not in the physical sense then certainly in the spiritual. (p. 142)
It is interesting to entertain the fact that the Peacemaker, who brought The Great Law of Peace that established the Iroquois Confederacy, was a significant Prophet and that it would be near his birthplace that the first Aboriginal Bahá’ís in Canada would choose to settle. When we entertain the idea that Baha’u’llah is the return of the Peacemaker it is clear that this was truly a historic event: to have the teachings of Baha’u’llah quoted and connected to the teachings of the Peacemaker in a presentation to Chief Brant and the Council, not far from the Peacemaker's birthplace. Baha’u’llah and the Peacemaker must have been ecstatic that their messages were being connected in this place among the Mohawk people and appreciative of the Melba’s courage to stand before her husband’s people and share these words.
Melba believed in the importance of having good thoughts and that one shaped their life through their thoughts. She dwelled on the writings that relate to a good mind and agreed with Abdu'l-Bahá’s statement that, “the reality of man is his thought ... if these thoughts never reach the plane of action they remain useless: the power of thought is dependent on its manifestation in deeds” (Abdu'l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 4).
The beautiful focus of her mind led Melba to many accomplishments. Melba’s travels and teaching were not limited to North America. She also travelled in the summer of 1978 to Europe with a Bahá’í teaching team. She was honoured in many ways, one of which was the use of her Indian or spiritual name for the Gathering room in the Yukon Bahá’í Center. Her spiritual name was Kinaaj-Kwe which can interpreted as good, kind and gracious lady.
When the Peacemaker established the Peace among the Iroquois, he planted the Tree of Peace at the center of the chiefs. Toward the end of Melba’s life, a pine tree was planted in her honour along with a second tree to honour Emily General, at the driveway that leads to the Bahá’í Centre at Six Nations First Nation.
On November 22, 1985 at 5:45 in the morning, Melba’s spirit took flight. She had wanted to have as Bahá’í a funeral as possible and had requested that her daughter Evelyn and her granddaughter Susan Siwik buy five sheets of white fabric for her burial shroud. Melba was so concerned that the funeral would be done properly, that she practiced being prepared and wrapped in the five sheets of fabric twice before her passing.
Melba’s life was exceptional. Her grandson Bob Watts Jr. comments that she was born in the small village of Curve Lake, grew up on a trap line with her father, suffered the horrors, tribulations of an Indian residential school but overcame these adversities to become a person whose vision was world embracing. Bob comments that there was a steady stream of all kinds of people to their remote, small house, with more holes in roofs than they had pots to catch the rain. This was because Melba and Jim’s vision embraced all the people of all the four directions of the world. How remarkable an accomplishment to rise above the hurt, find her Faith and extend the hand of kindness to all with “generosity in her heart and forgiveness in her soul” (p. 188). In a reference to her maiden name, Whetung, which means heart of the oak, Bob Watts Jr. wrote:
Granny Mel became the first Indian Bahá’í of Canada and traveled to many parts of the world sharing her story and her love. This tiny oak tree from Curve Lake has roots in many countries and memory of her love for mankind resonates in the hearts and soul of all who knew her. (p. 188)
At her funeral, Chief Earl Hill, the Chief of the Tyendinaga First Nation, was a pall bearer. Her granddaughter Linda Loft Pappenberger wrote a tribute to her that stated:
Granny Mel – wrapped up in uprightness, hard work, finesse and eloquence, a kind heart, and most of all her love for Baha’u’llah; one knew she was exceptional with a mind so full of life experiences and spiritual enlightenment. (p. 187)
In 1986, a Native Council was held in Iqaluit, Nunavut. A special ceremony honoured Melba’s memory and life. Amatu’l-Bahá Ruhiyyih Khanum attended and stated that she found the ceremony the most moving part of the occasion, which unified everyone present. At the gathering she urged Aboriginal people to stay in touch with culture and tradition as a foundation for faith as Melba had done. Evelyn later wrote commenting on a trip to Papua, New Guinea that, “Traditional Native spiritual teachings and wisdom were seen within the continuum that leads to the spiritual teachings and principles of the Faith” (p. 204). Culture holds the continuum of the teachings of the progressive revelation of the Creator to humanity from the days of the Peacemaker to the day of Baha’u’llah. Melba understood that culture was the context in which the deepening comprehension of humanity's understanding of the Creator’s teachings can take root in the hearts of the people.
John Sargent, who is related the Loft family through marriage, met Melba in the 1970s and described her and Emily General from Six Nations as two Bahá’í Grandmas that anchored the faith in their area (p. 131). John commented that Melba attracted people to the “healing message of the Cause” (p. 131). Melba was able to extend spirituality, counseling and understanding to others. She was a counselor and supporter of many who came to her for help and healing. She reflected Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi's advice to Bahá’ís to “learn from the Indian believers” stating that Aboriginal people possess an abundance of spiritual wealth (p. 131).
There are several themes emergent in Return to Tyendinaga including: the theme of spiritual search, the theme of embracing poverty and hardship, the theme of extending the Good Mind and the Good Word, that is to say, the teachings, to others and the theme of the re-emergence and healing intertwined through the lives of Jim and Melba. They were the realities of their lives that they embraced as individuals in their childhood and together as a couple united in their search for meaning and understanding of the realities of their own lives, the realities of their life experiences in the context of Native history and oppression, as well as the reality of their search for sacredness and understanding of truth.
The Theme of Spiritual Search
Jim and Melba, even before they were Bahá’ís, were searching and living lives that reflected Baha’u’llah’s teaching that each human soul is responsible for their own spiritual search which will eventually bring them to the Creator.
Melba spoke of her spiritual search for truth in a talk to Loyalist College in Belleville, Ontario in 1975. Because she was ill, her friend Charlie Jardine delivered the written speech. In the speech, Melba had written that each person should “search for truth and when you have found it, share your knowledge because true knowledge is the knowledge of God through His Manifestations” (p. 130).
Melba explored many spiritual and religious paths including dream interpretation and spiritualism (p. 29). She studied Christianity deeply, knew the Bible well and attended church with her children. She was looking for answers to the spiritual questions she asked herself and felt a sense of confusion. The explorations she made did not bring her to a sense of peace and oneness with all people and all religions, including her Aboriginal tribal beliefs, as well as an understanding of the Aboriginal significance in relation to the belief systems she was exploring.
As stated above, Melba’s search continued until she met Emma Lenk and was introduced to the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith through the firesides of Edna Ketles. Melba found that the firesides focused on “the unity of the people and the races” which warmed her heart and which she was not hearing elsewhere. Melba attended firesides and studied the writings and gradually the door to understanding opened as her questions were answered.
Jim had also been on a lifelong search for understanding. He believed that all people were equal and the same but had not been treated equally as he endured the racism he was exposed to in his youth. Jim explored Native beliefs and read The American Indian and Christian Missions by George Warren Hinman (p. 28). Being Iroquois, Jim had deepened his knowledge of Bahá’í teachings but also the teachings of the Haudenosaunee, the Longhouse of the Iroquois Confederacy founded by the Peacemaker and based on the Great Law of Peace. Jim was attracted to the nature of the Bahá’ís he was meeting through Melba. They were more accepting and respectful to him than he generally experienced. Jim found in the Bahá’í Faith the teachings that allowed him to take his place as an equal member of humanity, which he had been searching for all his life. For Jim and Melba, the Bahá’í teachings brought them to a place of harmony and wholeness; harmony with all religious beliefs and understanding the place of Aboriginal belief and the place of the Peacemaker among the prophets that have appeared.
The Theme of Embracing Poverty and Hardship
As stated above, the Lofts left a relatively middle class life in Maryland, Michigan to embrace hardships to bring the Faith to Tyendinaga. Melba remembered the time in relationship to Baha’u’llah's words that, “Poverty is my Glory” (Baha’u’llah, The Seven Valleys, p. 37).
Struggling up the hill waist deep in snow, we arrived at our post, the first Indian believers in Canada We came at great sacrifice to Canada in answer to the Beloved Guardian’s call. How we lived through the first winter, God only knows. Our nearest Bahá’í friends were in Toronto and Ottawa (the nearest Bahá’ís were 120 miles away). Only faith, prayer and love sustained us in these first years and that was critical for there was no work to be had and soon we were in dire poverty materially. (pp. 42-43)
As time went by, with the difficulty in finding and sustaining work and living on the reserve, the Lofts slowly sold off most of their good furniture that they had brought from the States to buy food and necessities. When the furniture was gone, Melba applied for welfare but Jim refused to allow the family to accept it. Evelyn states:
Our money was gone and the cupboard was bare! My mother went to the Band Office. My proud and wonderful mother asked for welfare. This beautiful woman who only two years earlier was a supervisor at the plant where she worked, a woman who had a dressmaker make her clothes and mine, this proud woman who later scrubbed floors so we could remain on the Reserve, gave this $12 cheque to my father. He made her return it uncashed. It then hit him, he said, how he had impoverished his family to this degree. He was so proud, too! He would never take that type of charity. He worked since the age of 12 years and never asked anyone for a hand-out! (p. 50)
Peggy Ross spoke of staying with the Lofts during a bitterly cold snow storm and having to shake the snow, that had made its way through the wall of the substandard housing in which the Lofts lived, off her blanket in the morning. However, the Lofts held to a “solid reliance on spiritual teachings” and continued to love and embrace others as a path of life (p. 50). Melba wrote to her friend Emma Lenk from Marysville, that she had deeply reflected on Abdu'l-Bahá’s words that “until Love is in the heart we can no wise grow spiritually” and that this enlightening of heart combined with following the laws and teachings was something that needed to occur before Baha’u’llah’s prediction that a new race of men would emerge (p. 51) became reality. Melba wrote:
To Love means to Love God, then when we love God we love our fellow man, as they are attributes of God, that’s the way I feel. Regardless what [has] been done to us, we love them, for if they knew different they would do different. (p. 51)
Melba and Jim’s understanding of this principle and the Bahá’í teachings enabled them to embrace poverty while living a life of service to the Cause and teaching the Faith to others. In fact, Roger White wrote that the Lofts were to him the physical evidence of Baha’u’llah’s claim that his teachings were for all mankind. He wrote that this was, in part, responsible for his acceptance of the teachings and becoming a Bahá’í. Roger wrote: “One did not come to the Lofts by degrees and there were no thresholds and barriers – to meet them was to have access to their inmost beings” (p. 64).
The Theme of Extending the Good Mind and the Good Word to Others
The Authors state that through the tests and difficulties the Lofts experienced they continued to “reach out with the healing message” to all the people in their ever expanding circle (p. 66). Their efforts dovetailed with an expanding Bahá’í presence in Canada as pioneers began travelling to every corner of the country. With the increasing movement of Bahá’ís, more and more visitors visited the Loft home and the Tyendinaga community which was an “oasis” of Bahá’í firesides with a stream of speakers, combined with Jim and Melba’s assertion of the reality of Aboriginal Prophets, including the Peacemaker (p. 66). Their home became the meeting place of the hearts and minds of Native and non-Native Bahá’ís and seekers. Jim and Melba believed that Baha’u’llah was the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Peacemaker regarding his return. Their home was the first home to bring these two great rivers of thought and knowledge together. One might even say that through Jim and Melba, it became the place where the Tree of Peace sprang forth again in the Iroquois territory; the place where the tree of peace and unity blossomed again among the people with sincere hearts. Jim and Melba realized from the beginning that, “acceptance of Baha’u’llah’s teaching of unity in diversity meant the recognition and protection of Aboriginal cultures and languages” (p. 68). And they extended the faith to others with a countenance firmly rooted in knowledge and pride of their historical and spiritual inheritance as Aboriginal believers.
The affirmation that Native spirituality and prophets are true and were from God can, in itself, be tremendously healing to tribes and nations that have had their knowledge and beliefs suppressed and nullified through generations of the Canadian Indian Act and residential schools. Jim and Melba’s ability to rise above historical pain, embrace a newly founded living religion that fulfilled the words and predictions of the Peacemaker was a healing accomplishment which they extended to others. Audrey Robarts, in a telephone conversation with Evelyn, stated that Melba not only accomplished the ability to reach beyond the limitations of racism and disunity but was able to do it with “magnanimity” (p. 73). Evelyn points out that magnanimity means to be “nobly generous” and not petty in feelings. Melba was adept at overlooking negative comments that believers sometime make with regard to Aboriginal people; she achieved detachment that allowed her to continue to give to others and build unity and community. Abdu'l-Bahá, in a tablet to the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, counseled American and Canadian friends to embrace magnanimity. He stated:
O ye kind friends! Uplift your magnanimity and soar high toward the apex of heaven — so that your blessed hearts may become illumined more and more, day by day, through the Rays of the Sun of Reality, i.e., His Holiness Bahá'u'lláh; at every moment the spirits may obtain a new life, and the darkness of the world of nature may be entirely dispelled — thus ye may become incarnate light and personified spirit, become entirely unaware of the sordid matters of this world and in touch with the affairs of the divine world. (Abdu'l-Bahá, Bahá'í World Faith, p. 424-425)
Jim and Melba, who had both conducted a careful and focused spiritual search in their lives, believed that they had found a “solution to humanity’s problems” and strove with every ounce of courage and strength to extend that to others to uplift their lives (p. 74). Their words and actions were a healing medicine to those around them. In speaking of her parents Evelyn said;
Dad was the fire; let’s go, let’s help unite the world, make it one, free up this prejudice and all this stuff. And my Mother was the easy water, flowing, calm, always there for you, and they balanced that out. (p. 82)
In 1971, the first of a series of Native gatherings, called Native Councils, was held at Tyendinaga. Again, it is prophetic fulfillment that this first gathering for the promulgation and sharing of the message of Baha’u’llah was held so close to the place of the birth of the Peacemaker. That the words of Baha’u’llah, which are so resonant of the words of the Peacemaker, would be spoken forth from the Bay of Quinte where the Peacemaker spent his youth, holds the confirmation of being prophetically appropriate. For those unfamiliar with the Great Law of Peace articulated by the Peacemaker or with the words of Baha’u’llah, this may seem to be an unusual assertion, that a Prophet from Iran could speak so reminiscently of a Prophet from Turtle Island, North America. As an example of the closeness of their words, we can look a statement from the Great Law of the Peacemaker and a statement from the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, the Most Holy Book, the promulgated law of Baha’u’llah, both of which define the sacred relationship between the heart, mind and voice that portray the essence of Jim and Melba. In Paragraph Sixteen of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, Baha’u’llah wrote:
Adorn your heads with the garlands of trustworthiness and fidelity, your hearts with the attire of the Fear of God, your tongues with absolute truthfulness, your bodies with the vesture of courtesy. (Bahá'u'lláh, Synopsis and Codification of the Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 24, Italics added)
In Article Twenty Eight of the Great Law of Peace, the Peacemaker addressed the Chiefs of the Confederacy saying:
Your heart shall be filled with peace and good will and your mind filled with a yearning for the welfare of the people of the Confederacy ... and all their words and actions shall be marked by calm deliberation ... (The Great Law, Article 28, Italics added)
Those who have a knowledge of the Great Law can clearly hear the words of the Peacemaker echoing in the voice of Baha’u’llah. And that voice began to move upon the land in the form of Native Councils as it once did when the Peacemaker, as a young boy, left the camp of his Mother and Grandmother, in a carved white stone canoe and began his journey of speaking, teaching and bringing the Great Law of Peace of the Iroquois. Through the Law, the Peacemaker established peace among the Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy and through the Law, the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, Baha’u’llah will establish peace among all the Nations of the earth. This yearning for peace, especially among Native people, so long assaulted by the bitter winds of colonialism, was felt again in the birthplace of the Peacemaker in the hearts of Jim and Melba. They became the first Aboriginal ambassadors bringing this blessing to the Native world and to all humanity through their sacrifice and efforts. Jim and Melba had the knowledge of mind to the see the relationship between Baha’u’llah and the Peacemaker and the pure hearts to accept the sacred teachings and, most importantly, had the volitional courage to speak forth in fulfillment of the sacred mind, heart and voice.
When the vision came for the Native Councils through Auxiliary Board member Carol Bowie and Jeannie Seddon, who served on the National Teaching Committee of Canada, it was Melba who was called for advice. She gave her commitment of support without hesitation. On the Sunday morning of the first Native Gathering, the prayers of Baha’u’llah were uttered forth at the monument to the Peacemaker and at Jim Loft’s grave. Melba spoke of how the gatherings grew in spirit and the spirit manifested in Aboriginal communities. In reference to the seventh Hidden Word in Arabic that Jim so valued, Melba stated:
The Writings of Baha’u’llah tells each and every one, to die in self that He may live in us, because His love can in no wise reach us. When we learn this, these outside forces we all have will not affect us as much. We have our prayers He has left for us and we carry on every day in service to our fellow men for then we are in service to God. (p. 147-148)
The Reemergence and Healing of Aboriginal people
In the Foreword to the book, Bob Watts Jr., the grandson of Melba and Jim, articulates the historical reality that Canada has suffered because of the suffering it has imposed on Aboriginal peoples and because of the nullification of Aboriginal knowledge and history. Watts states, “Our country suffers because the energy, the love of the land, the genius and the sacred knowledge possessed by the Aboriginal people of Canada are overlooked in the business of nation building” (p. viii). Canada, as a nation that so fervently endorses cultural diversity and inclusion, has yet to achieve the unity that waits for the day when Canada finally accepts, with truth of heart, its own Aboriginal populations. Watts points out that the conditions in which many First Nations people live today are deplorable. It was in this context, of disunity enforced by poverty, that Jim and Melba Loft found the promised one of the Iroquois. They returned to Tyendinaga to establish the first light of the dawn of a new age among the Mohawk people. They returned to bring the message of the Peacemaker's return. When the Peacemaker was born at Eagle Ridge centuries ago it began a time of great enlightenment for the Iroquois; when Jim and Melba Loft established their household in Tyendinaga that light flickered forth again. Their grandson points out that Jim and Melba were well aware of the gifts held in the minds, hearts and history of their people and that they believed that these gifts, as promised by the Peacemaker, will become stronger and more enlightened than they were before the eclipse of colonization. They believed that the Bahá’í Faith, the return of the sacred teachings, would “release the spiritual potential” hidden from sight under the cover of historical oppression, and that the Aboriginal people will take their place among the nations and peoples of the earth through the achievement of the unity and oneness of mankind (p. viii). When Shoghi Effendi asked Jim and Melba to move to Tyendinaga, he expressed a similar sentiment saying that by bringing the light of the Bahá’í spirit to Aboriginal people, they could lift “their brethren from the obscurity” of current conditions (p. 49).
Peggy Ross speaks of a time when Melba addressed these issues in a way that prevented bitterness from taking root in her daughter Evelyn’s heart through the use of the Bahá’í teachings (p. 67). This is one of the healing balms of the Faith that can free oppressed peoples from the hurt that can sidetrack and destroy lives. Roger White wrote that Melba’s “tranquility of spirit created an atmosphere of healing” (p. 65); a tranquility that can only be achieved when one arises above and lives beyond the hurt and oppression of colonialism. The steps of this stairway that allow one to rise above the hurt are the Bahá’í teachings that Melba and Jim embraced as a path of healing and well-being for themselves. And more importantly, they arose with sincere desire to extend these teachings to their family, their people and all people.
Melba and Jim created a home that was a place of healing for many and that turned the tide of assault against the Native family that was perpetuated by Indian residential schools. The first Indian residential school in Canada was in New France in 1620 and the modern day residential schools started in 1879, with the last one closing in 1996 in British Columbia. The United Nations has condemned Indian residential schools with the harshest criticism possible as a cultural and racial genocide (Haggart, 1998, p. 1). Residential schools were an assault on the Native family, but Jim and Melba Loft fought hard to uphold Aboriginal family values within a developing Bahá’í tradition. And more than that, they believed in Baha’u’llah's injunction that it is a blessing to raise the children of others. Melba stated that:
Our home was a home of laughter and joy and sharing; many children we cared for in our blessed poverty and gave them love, shelter and education. It is true that bringing up someone else’s child is like bringing up one of God’s own. (p. 95)
Melba and Jim’s family was an example of the healing possible in a joyful home. They created a home that was safe for children. A major aspect of bringing healing to Aboriginal communities is the re-establishment of the family as a place of well-being through strong marriages that raise and educate children. Jim was a magnet for children and they followed him everywhere. Their granddaughter Susan shared her memories:
Pa loved kids and they loved him. He had charisma, he was like the “Pied Piper”; we would follow him anywhere. Sometimes he would invite the kids from the neighborhood into our home and we would all gather around him and he played Bahá’í songs on the record player. (p. 110)
Melba and Jim lived to see the re-awakening of Aboriginal people. Their granddaughter Jackie commented on the achievement of sobriety for the majority of the population at Tyendinaga and stated that the youth:
... have been given a purpose again. Unlike their parents and grandparents, they can freely practice traditional ceremonies, freely hunt and fish, be actively involved with all of our historical, inherent native rights and way of life. And what a blessing this is for our people! (p. 123)
The Peacemaker during his last days of life said that he had brought the Great Law of Peace to the Iroquois Nations and that he would return and bring the Great Law and the Peace to all nations. Mad Bear, a Tuscarora Iroquois, spoke of the prophecy of the return of the Peacemaker as a light that would come from the east to the Iroquois at a time when Native people are in great difficulty. The Peacemaker predicted that upon his return Aboriginal people would become stronger than before. Mad Bear states:
The light will be coming from the east to the west over the water.... Deganawida said as this light approaches that he would be that light, and he would return to his Indian people, and when he returns, the Indian people would be a greater nation than they ever were before. (Peterson, Native American Prophecies, qtd in Buck p. 16)
Jim and Melba were the first among the Aboriginal people of Canada to perceive the great light that came from the east. Evelyn wrote of the coming of a new age. Melba and Jim Loft played a significant role in the transition from the old age to the new age. They were the ones that were the connection between the teachings of the Great Law of Peace and the return of those teachings through Baha’u’llah. They were the connection between the knowledge of peace held and practiced by the Six Nations Iroquoian Confederacy for centuries and the extension of that peace to all the nations and peoples of the earth. They realized that peace is possible and that it will come when the teachings are firmly rooted in the hearts and souls of mankind. Evelyn commented:
The Bahá’í Faith teaches that ‘the time of the end’ means the end of an old age and the beginning of a new age ... based on a new message from God. The Bahá’í Faith teaches that these days have appeared. All the peoples of the world will learn to live and work together in peace. In this new age the native people have a great spiritual destiny. (p. 199)
Through Return to Tyendinaga, written by Patricia Verge and Evelyn Loft Watts, the lives of Melba and Jim will continue to inspire and encourage generations to come. Their words will live on but more importantly their actions, their sacrifices and courage will be known as an inspiration for those who wish to dedicate their lives to the path of service and the healing of humanity. Their healing work will continue to be a blessing and they will continue to touch hearts and educate minds. Peggy Ross commented on their place in history saying:
Melba and Jim Loft were two of the greatest soldiers Baha’u’llah ever had and as we know, good soldiers never die but live on in our hearts, continuing to inspire, comfort and assist us from the Concourse on High. (p. 173)
Roger White attended his first feast at Jim and Melba’s home and considered them as royalty. In 1974 wrote to Evelyn saying:
... although I have been to many Feasts since then, never have I been to one where the spirit of Abdu'l-Bahá was more vividly present. When I met your Mom and Dad, I knew I had met a king and queen whose kingdom was spiritual, and whose wealth was the wealth of the heart. (p. 118)
In the Poem Illumination Roger wrote of Jim and Melba:
Your arrows of truth
Will pierce the hearts of those who hunt for love;
Your fire will grow bright,
The sick and sorrowful
Will be healed in your camp
It is evident that the law has come again. It is evident that the great light has come from the east. It is evident that Jim and Melba Loft were the first to raise their eyes toward the eastern horizon of creation and be touched by this light. And, above all, it is evident that they dedicated their lives to blessing others with the light and teachings they embraced. Their lives were as that first ray of light that makes itself known above the horizon that hails the end of the long dark night. We are blessed that they lived as they chose to live.
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