The Native talking circle
...a gift to the interfaith movement
North American interfaith leaders learn to dialogue the Native way
By Paul McKenna
At the 2001 North American Interfaith Network (NAIN) conference held in Winnipeg, Cree elder Myra Laramee conducts a Native ritual that includes the participation of interfaith activists from across North America.
Not all First Nations have the tradition of the Talking Circle, but for almost all Indigenous peoples, the circle is itself a central symbol. The circle pervades most aspects of Native thought and life because it represents a vital connection between the individual and creation.
"The universe is circles within circles, and everything is one circle, and all the circles are connected to each other. Each family is a circle, and those family circles connect together and make a community. And the community makes its circle where it lives on the Earth. It cares for that part (of the Earth), but cares for it as a circle-which is to say in a co-operative way and an egalitarian way, where everybody is cared for and everybody is respected." (Black Elk, a well-known Sioux elder)
Native elders speak of the Talking Circle as a gift for healing relationships and healing the world. The Circle teaches values such as respect, reciprocity, balance and inclusion. It is also an excellent environment for learning patience and listening skills.
The interfaith movement is discovering that the Native Talking Circle is an ingenious tool for doing interfaith dialogue. In the 1990s, some Native elders in Canada conducted Talking Circles that included the participation of members of various religions. These Native elders felt that the Circle would be a good model for structuring conversations between people of different faiths.
This historic development in Canada inspired the decision to hold the 2001 North American Interfaith Network (NAIN) conference in a United Church Native ministry training centre north of Winnipeg.
Interestingly enough, the birth of NAIN came as a result of the 1986 multifaith prayer service in Assisi, Italy-the brainchild of Pope John Paul II. The first NAIN conference took place in 1987 and was titled "A North American Assisi".
The closing ritual at the NAIN conference takes place in and around the tepee where the sacred fire burns.
In North America, as throughout the world, the international interfaith movement is flourishing. And NAIN (www.nain.org) now links interfaith activists across Canada, the United States and Mexico. The focal point of all NAIN activity is its annual conference, which Scarboro Missions has participated in for the past several years.
A very different conference
The 2001 gathering was a conference with a difference. Native leaders conducted the entire event within the context of the Talking Circle.
In steamy August heat, 40 people representing numerous faiths from all over North America spent four days together. It was a full-blown immersion in the Native reality.
Four Native elders led the Talking Circle. They used the themes of the four directions and the four elements (air, earth, fire, water).
The Talking Circle is an environment in which only one person speaks at a time and everyone else listens. The person speaking holds a sacred stone and may speak for as long as he/she wishes. The speaker can share on any topic or topics. When the person finishes speaking, there is no discussion or questions about what was said. The individual simply hands the sacred stone to the next person in the Circle. No one speaks unless they are holding the stone. The process then begins again and continues around the Circle until everyone is heard.
The Circle may not be an easy experience for some non-Native people, and I found it challenging. However, it proved to be an excellent environment for learning respect, patience and listening skills.
Conference participants shared in a number of other rituals including the smudge and the sacred fire. Many of us participated in an intense sweat-lodge experience in which we not only purified our bodies, but also sang, prayed, and reflected on our ancestors and families, our spiritual journeys and commitments.
The circle is an excellent symbol for interfaith cooperation. The circle is the most universal of religious symbols. In fact, it is found in virtually every religion and culture across history. The circle is first and foremost a symbol of unity and interconnectedness-in the circle, everything is connected and everything is one.
Indeed, in the year 2001, bathed in the brazen summer heat of Manitoba, 40 interfaith travellers sat together for four days learning the way of unity and interconnectedness by way of the Native Circle.
Paul McKenna is on staff at the Scarboro Missions Interfaith Desk