The Native American Talking Circle

Introduction The “Words and Violence” Curriculum identifies well the ways in which words are used to harm or bully others. What is needed to transform a culture of cynicism and divisiveness is to infuse the elements of a humane narrative. In what ways to we communicate with and in kindness? What methods are used to … Continued

“talking in circles” mixed media collage, Lynne Medske


The “Words and Violence” Curriculum identifies well the ways in which words are used to harm or bully others. What is needed to transform a culture of cynicism and divisiveness is to infuse the elements of a humane narrative. In what ways to we communicate with and in kindness? What methods are used to evaluate the “temperature of what is being said or written?

When one comes from the viewpoint of “community” it changes the dialogue and interjects a sense of unity, of family, of life being an interconnected web where all the members are of equal importance. All of life is held as sacred in such an ecosystem.

In the modern world of technology, and in particular at the Internet, people are anonymous and in that environment sometimes “anything goes” because the individual “speaking” cannot be traced or identified. That does not always make for compassionate or civil discourse. As a result, some sites that invite commentary are now requiring identification and are tracing IP addresses of those who post comments. Some sites use electronic moderation along with human moderation to ensure that communications among participants remains civil.

There are cultures that have established patterns and methods that incorporate kindness and civility into their interactions. The cultures that revere life, and especially all life, seem to have less conflict and war. “Words and Violence” hopes to borrow from those cultures and present alternative methodology that supports reverence for others and incorporates it into its general affairs.

One such culture that recognizes community and family, is the Native American tradition. The native cultures seem to infuse a general attitude of gratitude and a reverence for all life. Chief Seattle exemplifies this philosophy best in his message to the Dakotas in 1854:

Chief Seattle’s Message to the Dakotas

‘The Great Chief in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land.

The Great Chief also sends us words of friendship and good Will. This is kind of him, since we know he has little need of our friendship in return. But we will consider your offer. For we know that if we do not sell, the white man may come with guns and take our land.

How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us.

If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?

Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. The sap which courses through the trees caries the memories of the red man.

The white man’s dead forget the country of their birth when they go to walk among the stars. Our dead never forget this beautiful earth, for it is the mother of the red man. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters; the deer, the horse, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the juices in the meadows, the body heat of the pony, and man — all belong to the same family.

So, when the Great Chief in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land, he asks much of us. So, the Great Chief sends word he will reserve us a place so that we can live comfortably to ourselves. He will be our father and we will be his children. So we will consider your offer to buy our land. But it will not be easy. For this land is sacred to us.

This shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you land, you must remember that it is sacred, and you must teach your children that it is sacred, and that each ghostly reflection in the clear water of the lake tells of events and memories in the life of my people. The water’s murmur is the voice of my father’s father. The rivers are our brothers, they quench our thirst. The rivers carry our canoes, and feed our children. If we sell you our land, you must remember, and teach your children, that the rivers are our brothers, and yours, and you must henceforth give the rivers the kindness you would give any brother.

The red man has always retreated before the advancing White man, as the mist of the mountain runs before the morning sun. But the ashes of our fathers are sacred. Their graves are holy ground, and so these hills, these trees; this portion of earth is consecrated to us. We know that the white man does not understand our ways. One portion of land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother, but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on. He leaves his father’s graves behind, and he does not care. He kidnaps the earth from his children. He does not care. His father’s graves and his children’s birthright are forgotten. He treats his mother the earth, and his brother, the sky as things to be bought, plundered, sold like sheep or bright heads. His appetite will devour the earth and leave behind only a desert.

I do not know. Our ways are different from your ways. The sight of your cities pains the eyes of the red man. But perhaps it is because the red man is a savage and does not understand.

There is no quiet place in the white man’s cities. No place to hear the unfurling of leaves in spring or the rustle of insects’ wings. But perhaps it is because I am a savage and do not understand. The clatter only seems to insult the ears. And what is there to life if a man cannot hear the lonely cry of the whippoorwill or the arguments of the frogs around a pond at night? I am a red man and do not understand. The Indian prefers the soft sound of the wind darting over the face of a pond, and the smell of the wind itself, cleansed by a midday rain, or scented with the pinion pine.

The air is precious to the red man, for all things share the same breath — the beast, the tree, the man; they all share the same breath. The white man does not seem to notice the air he breathes, Like a man dying for many days, he is numb to the stench. But if we sell you our land, you must remember that the air is precious to us, that the air shares its Spirit with all life it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also receives his last sigh. And the wind must also give our children the spirit of life. And if we sell you our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, as a place where even the white man can go to take the wind that is sweetened by the meadow’s flowers.

So we will consider your offer to buy our land. If we decide to accept, I will rank one condition: The white man must treat the beasts of this land as his brothers.

I am a savage and do not understand any other way. I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairie, left by the white man who shot them from a passing train. I am a savage and I do not understand how the smoking iron horse can be more important than the buffalo that we kill only to stay alive.

What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected.

You must teach your children that the ground beneath their feet is the ashes of our grandfathers. So that they will respect the land, tell your children that the earth is rich with the lives of our kin. Teach your children what we have taught our children, that the earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. If men spit upon the ground they spit upon themselves.

This we know. The earth does not belong to man. Man belongs to the earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family, all things are connected.

Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

But we wilI consider your offer to go to the reservation you have for my; People. We will live apart, and in peace. It matters little where we spend the rest of our days. Our children have seen their fathers humbled in defeat. Our warriors have felt shame, and after defeat they turn their days in idleness and contaminate their bodies with sweet foods and strong drink. It matters little where we pass the rest of our days. They are not many. A few more hours, a few more winters, and none of the children of the great tribes that once lived on this earth or that roam now in small bands in the woods will be left to mourn the graves of a people once as powerful and hopeful as yours. But why should I mourn the passing of my people? Tribes are made of men, nothing more. Men come and go like the waves of the sea.

Even the White man, whose God walks and talks with him as friend to friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all; we shall see. One thing we know, which the white man may one day discover: our God is the same God. You may think now that you own him as you wish to own our land; but you cannot. He is the God of man, and his compassion is equal for the red man and the white. This earth is precious to him, and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its Creator. The white too shall pass; perhaps sooner than all other tribes. Continue to contaminate your bed, and you will one night suffocate in your own waste.

But in your perishing you will shine brightly, fired by the strength of the God who brought you to this Iand and for some special purpose gave you dominion over this Iand and over the red man. That destiny is a mystery to us, for we do not understand when the buffalo are all slaughtered, the wild horses are tamed, the secret corners of the forest heavy with the scent of many men, and the view of the ripe hills blotted by talking wires. Where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone. And what is it to say goodbye to the swift pony and the hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival.

So we will consider your offer to buy our land. If we agree, it will be to secure the reservation you have promised. There, perhaps, we may live out our brief days as we wish. When the last red man has vanished from this earth, and his memory is only the shadow of a cloud moving across the prairie, these shores and forests will still hold the spirits of my people. For they love this earth as the newborn loves its mother’s heartbeat. So if we sell you our land, love it as we’ve loved it. Care for it as we’ve cared for it. Hold in your mind the memory of the Iand as it is when you take it. And with all your strength, with all your mind, with all your heart, preserve it for your children. And love it . . . as God loves us all.

One thing we know. Our God is the same God. This earth is precious to him. Even the white man cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We shall see.”


Talking Circle

The traditional Talking Circle is rooted in ancient, Native teachings. There is great healing that takes place when sitting in the Sacred Circle.

Many things in Nature and naturally occurring earth phenomenon of Creation are circular—the Earth turns in a circular motion, the seasons are cyclic, the solar system and the galaxy are wheels. The earth, the moon, the Sun are round. The bird makes her nest in a circular fashion.

The Talking Circle is a traditional way for Native American people to communicate and to even solve problems. By allowing people free expression in the Sacred Space of the Circle, those in circle are empowered to find their voice—and to feel heard and supported.

The ceremony is considered sacred and is begun by smudging the space—using sage, cedar or sweet grass, all considered Native medicines. Smudging involves placing the medicine in an abalone shell and burning the medicine and using the smoke to cleanse and purify the space—not unlike the incense used by a Priest to cleanse the altar and space in a church.

The smoke is spread using a feather or bird’s wing as a fan to smudge the circle participants. The space is made sacred and the people receive a kind of blessing from the Creator by this act. The four directions—East, South, West and North are considered sacred as is up as in Father Sky and down as in Mother Earth. These elements of nature are called into the circle as well as earth, air, fire and water in some fashion. Often the ancestors are invited.

Tobacco is considered a sacred substance and can be used in ceremony as well as fire and objects representing earth—feathers, stones, pine cones, cedar branches that are often placed in an altar in the center of the circle. A drum may also be used to set the tone or move participants into an altered state of consciousness that supports speaking from the heart.

In the Women’s Talking Circle, a Sacred object from the earth is passed clockwise around the circle. That object might be a feather, a stone, stick or a bough of Cedar. Whoever holds the Sacred object—holds the floor. That person is encouraged to speak for as long as she wishes on any topic and is met with attentive listening without judgment from the group. Those who wish may offer feedback or input to other group members—before speaking what is in their own heart.

This aspect of the Talking Circle has proven to be extremely valuable to the Sisters in our Circle at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship meeting room in Wisconsin. Wisconsin is known for its many native tribes and early settlements. The Oneida, Iroquois, Winnebagos Menomonee, Chippewa, Ojibwe, Lenape, Potowotomi, Annishinabe are a sampling of native settlers to the region. Many Wisconsin names of cities and places are named for Indians—Oshkosh, Manitowoc, Milwaukee for example.

In the Talking Circle, when another Sister shares her joys, challenges or personal pain—it is brought to the Circle—and, often, without hesitancy. The Circle has become a place of safety—a refuge, for all who enter there.

Participants often reveal that they do not know what they are going to say once it is their time to speak. But, it is believed that the Sacred Object—loaned from the Earth, is ALIVE. And, because it is of Spirit—the words that need to come out, will flow… like the river’s current.

If by chance, a person does not feel moved to speak, they may pass the Feather to the next person. Once the object returns to them, they may be ready to speak what’s in their mind and heart. The timing is usually perfect and supports spiritual growth.

Once the Feather has gone around once, perhaps twice—even more if it is needed, then the Circle will be finished. A cleansing and letting go ritual will follow. The Spirits, Ancestors, elements and directions are thanked and released.

The Sisters who have participated in our Talking Circle, have expressed a profound feeling of harmony and kinship within the Circle that often lasts well into the next day or days.

The Talking Circle reminds us of the tribal teaching of the Web—the web of life. It is the interconnectedness of the Sacred web that binds us together. What we do to the web—we do to ourselves. What we do to our Earth—returns to us. If we pollute, litter, exploit our Earth’s resources—it will affect us for the next 7 generations. If we hurt our brothers and sisters with words called “talking crooked” we hurt the earth, all of life, and ultimately ourselves.

If we respect, celebrate and love our Relations—and that means all beings in our lives, it will come back to us—tenfold. The hurt of one, is the hurt of all. The Joy of one, is the joy of ALL. Interconnectedness. That’s what the Old Indian teachings are about. In Indian tradition, we are all considered part of the whole—of the Creator. You are my relative so I say, “Mitakue’ Oyasin” which acknowledges that you are family and we are all relation; we are the web.


The Native American way of life was a way for the peoples to live their spirituality and reverence of the earth daily. It was a way to worship within a way of life. It was a means to be in church and in prayer all day every day and not just at a specific time or day. The land was considered sacred and to walk upon that land was a spiritual ritual. The animals were considered sacred; all sentient beings were honored and gratitude was part of the daily rituals and ceremonies that paid homage to all the abundance given from the Creator.

The Talking Circle is an exercise in equality and egalitarianism. The circle itself is considered sacred and all who are within its parameters are honored as equal in importance and all are embraced as Spiritual beings with inherent wisdom.

The Circle experience often alters one’s consciousness and creates a unity and fellowship that is always greater than the sum of its parts. It is, it its way, uplifting and magical.

Discussion Questions
  1. Are there rituals in the Judeo-Christian belief system that seem similar to the Native Traditions?
  2. Many Eastern cultures develop a reverence for all life. How is this similar? How is it different?
  3. What advantages can you think of to this way of life? For the individual? For society?
  4. Have you ever attended a Talking Circle? What was your experience?
  5. Some corporations have adopted this ritual for its meetings and brainstorming sessions. What do you think the result might be of adopting this style of communications in the modern business world?
  6. Can you predict what the differences might be in cultures that practice reverence for all humans and all life, versus those who do not? What would you expect from each?
  7. The Talking Circle validates each person as significant and essential to the whole. How might that change communication and interactions if the method was widely adopted in modern culture? How would the entire ecosystem change in a culture that adopted this tradition? How might human interaction change?
  8. What part does self validation and other validation and self esteem play in the development of autonomy? Why? What outcome might be predicted in widespread practice of the validation inherent in “Circle.”
  9. Being in “Circle” has a different “feel” than other ways of being and other kinds of communication. Have you experienced that? How? What was the result?

Written by Debra Morningstar with Voices Education Project Contributing Editor Rev. Kaufmann

Debra Morningstar-Native American storyteller & cultural presenter, is an enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians—WI (Turtle Clan)and professional Storyteller–Yukhika-l’atuhse? (She tells us stories). Debra has presented Native storytelling performances, cultural residencies, and workshops at festivals, schools, conferences, libraries and museums across the U.S. and Canada for the past 23 years.

Artfully weaving stories, Native flute, chant and drumming into an educational and thought-provoking presentation—Debra explores/discusses dangerous Indian Stereotypes (the Hollywood Indian) the Native American worldview, history and cultural traditions of Turtle Island’s First People.

A favorite of Wisconsin students, she shares her “traveling cultural exhibit” including moccasins, beadwork, corn husk dolls, basketry and more; all are encouraged to touch, feel and “experience” The Native American culture—hands on! It is her hope that she honors the Spirit of her ancestors by sharing her culture through education and storytelling. Debra recently released a CD collection of Traditional Stories called“Tales From the Lodge.” For more information on Debra’s work, visit: www.debramorningstar.com


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