By Gigi Coyle and Jack Zimmerman, Spring 2018
The English word or term “council” itself has a wide variety of meanings and applications today. The dictionary’s definition is an assembly of people summoned or convened to consult, deliberate, or make decisions. A council may function as a legislature, especially at a town, city or county level. Although most governments have multiple branches (executive, legislative and judicial), in some situations, a council can effectively represent the entire government. A board of directors might also be described as a council. Many contemporary church organizations have either pastoral or lay councils in their structures, including councils of elders. Because many schools have student councils, this is the form of governance with which many people are likely to have their first experience as electors.
The word for us, however, has roots that go much further back than what is found today in Webster’s dictionary. When, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, European settlers arrived in North America, they encountered the sophisticated governing ways of the Haudenosaunee people that were centered around a form of circle communication referred to as council – a way that was held sacred by these First Nations people. As this indigenous culture evolved into the League of the Iroquois, that nation was governed by what was called the Iroquois Great Council. Each Iroquois tribe sent several leaders to the Great Council, where they made political decisions through storytelling, discussion, and even voting. Although these leaders were called chiefs, they were actually chosen by the clan mothers (or matriarchs) of each tribe. The individual tribes also had their own council to make local decisions, and many continue to do so today.
Some sources say that the US founding fathers were significantly influenced by this form of governance in the creation of the original States and the formation of the various branches of the initial American government. If, in fact, the Iroquois Confederacy was one of the examples of representative democracy used as a model by America’s founding fathers, it is important to note that, sadly, these early Americans did not include the key role of women and the fundamental role of council in adopting Haudenosaunee practices.
Since the beginnings of time, peoples have gathered in circles around the fire to share stories and honor the cohesion of their clans or cultures. A deep intention of listening and respecting all voices, seen and unseen, can be found throughout human history. We encourage all to find and explore the roots of councils within their own traditions and culture. Council appears in Western Civilization as well as throughout the worlds of indigenous tribal peoples. In Quaker meetings the tradition of standing up when someone is moved to speak follows the spirit of council. In Hawaii, the ancient circle way is called ho’o pono pono. The sacred circle appears in Celtic and other traditions, sometimes quite tangibly, as evidenced by the famous and still mysterious circle of huge stones called “sarsens” at Stonehenge. For another example, there is a reference to a council that uses a talking piece in the Iliad, one of the iconic tales of Greek literature. Over the centuries of European history that followed, the term was also used to describe an ecclesiastical assembly for deciding matters of doctrine or discipline in the evolving Catholic Church. When we shared the practice in other countries, people started to uncover their own roots, as they translated the words and forms into Hebrew, Arabic, German and Czech. We continue today to learn of council’s life and lineage through the experience and stories of each council carrier.
Over the years we have sat in many councils, as well as what some call listening or “talking stick” circles. We have been blessed to learn the ways of First Nation and Metis peoples. We have prayed in circle with the contemporary Native American Church as well as with Jesuit priests. We have shared in circles in Indonesia, the Pacific, the Middle East and Africa… continually discovering the roots of circle ways in other countries and cultures, as well as in our own Western roots and lineages.
Those of us who came together at The Ojai Foundation (TOF) in the late 1970s were devoted to restoring and building healthy relations across cultural lines, class, gender, race and with all forms of life. In serving these intentions we became convinced that we needed to learn more about the circle ways inherent in many cultures. Needless to say, we were horrified as we learned more about Turtle Island, and how the circle way and ceremonies of many kinds were originally forbidden in the attempt to eradicate the culture of First Nations peoples. Since then, many of us have been frequently invited into the circle by those whom our ancestors had so brutally excluded. We have accepted the invitation with the intention to always include others and live as a circle. As our circle experience deepened, we developed a contemporary practice of council with special focus on devout listening and speaking openly, honestly and authentically. This practice emerged with the encouragement and appreciation of elders from various traditions that were committed to be part of the “large circle,” including Christian, Buddhist, Jewish and Native American.
During the past forty years our practice has also been influenced by other traditional and contemporary mindfulness practices such as, Non-Violent Communication, Bohmian Dialogue, sound and movement practices, the evolution of contemporary therapy practices, and the connection (beyond words) with Nature. Yes, although some circle ways have been destroyed and almost certainly others have not yet been shared, the healing power of being heard and seen, the visionary impact of working in community, the wisdom and real communication arising through a devout listening to self, others and this earth – all are essential for survival.
Not surprisingly, the issues of cultural appropriation arose in the very early days of circle practice at Ojai. Now as various forms of council practice have spread around the globe, these essential questions arise even more frequently. We were, and are, aware of the possible abuse, misuse or lack of understanding around the powerful essence of circle ways. This is why we do our best to educate people during trainings about cultural sensitivity and why we hold council as an essential practice. If a talking or listening piece is used in our practice, we share the story of its history. In addition, whatever is used to introduce the circle practice, be it song or lighting a fire or a resonance of hands, we emphasize why we offer such opening practices and share our knowledge of their sources.
Our emerging circle practices were explored with great historical and contemporary respect for, and acknowledgement of, the First Nations people of North America, as well as the circle practices of indigenous peoples in other parts of the world. We trust and pray that this will continue and these ways are part of restoring and building new relations. We felt, and still feel, we were learning “contemporary circle practices” inspired by and on the shoulders of indigenous cultures, rather than any direct adopting of the sacred practices of First Nations peoples. This respect and understanding was and is an inseparable part of the circle way trainings that are offered “in the Ojai Foundation tradition.”
We that are experienced in the circle work continue to ask all those trained to know this commitment, as well as the history of their own ancestral and circle ways. We ask for the sharing of these roots as part of the authenticity of council itself along with encouraging carriers to participate in the healing of relations and reparations with indigenous peoples. It is essential that every carrier of council know why they sit, why they share a practice and why they name things the way they do. May we continue to learn what is appropriate, rather than appropriating sacred traditions.
Was or is this devotion of ours to communicate free of the rigidity of hierarchy and turning into the wisdom of the circle, an instance of cultural appropriation, then and/or today? It is important to continue to live that question and face these profound challenges, when they arise, in order to gain further understanding. For now, whatever we name our circle, we will continue to work to keep the spirit of council alive in every way we can, as we continue to be guided by the practice itself.
The reality that circle ways are universal does not mean the issues of cultural appropriation have been settled. Such considerations are an ongoing part of council practice. And there is still much understanding to be gained, as we discover continually when we join in council with other cultures. In TOF’s early days, when we sat with the teachings and ceremonies of different peoples, our councils gradually became a natural way of not only being together but also a way of staying together through all the ups and downs of integrating the various doctrines and teachings we were gifted. Many teachers came saying their way was the way. Inspired by our council practice, we responded then as we do now by embracing both the similarities and differences in the various paths in an attempt to find common ground. Too many continue today in a binary world of right and wrong. We invoke a lens of “yes, and” by thinking like a circle as best we can. Ultimately council gave us and continues to give us the challenging opportunity to know our own way, our own voice, our own lineage, our own roots and our own path, individually and together. We embrace all this while staying in the circle of life with other individuals, circles and traditions.
It should be noted that at TOF and a few other communities we know of council became a way of governance to the degree that the roots and larger implications of council – respect for all of life and the interdependent wisdom of Nature – were honored. Perhaps we are finally listening to the original wisdom offered on Turtle Island. Without mutual respect for the roots of circle practice, governance through council inevitably falls short of building cohesive cultures – as the evolution of Western Culture is showing us dramatically at this time. The very nature of the circle is crucial now as we hopefully make the transition from individualism into truly collective wisdom-consciousness. Full respect and understanding of the sacredness of the circle practices of our ancestors is essential for this evolution to occur.
Our focus continues to be on listening and learning from the circle – perhaps even more than talking. Some of us have come to call the talking piece, a “listening piece,” to remind us to focus on our own and many of our contemporaries’ need to learn how to truly listen to ourselves, as well as to others, our ancestors and the children. Council continues to take us, time and again, beyond individual intelligence into the power of community and circle ways of knowing. Perhaps most important of all, the gift of council creates a window for grace and a place for the ultimate “Mystery” to be part of the dialogue.