Circle Style: Healing, Helping, and.. Co-opting.

Posted by


The other week I stood in a circle and listened to a prayer offered up by an elder in the language that has been spoken on this land for generations upon generations. I have been lucky enough to reside on this land and have been welcomed by it’s Indigenous people for almost a year now.

Memories bubbled up of the healing power of circles and I was filled with a strong presence of gratitude. Sitting in circles, in sweat lodges and in crowded living rooms, have been my saving grace. I cannot recall when I first sat down in a circle but I know that this introduction was 4 or 5 years ago. It seems like such a short span but there has been immeasurable healing and destruction between here and then.

I spent my teenage years sitting in circles of another form, always in a haze and filled with the illusion of solidarity. It was in these drunken and high circles where bottles, pipes, and other things were passed like clockwork that I felt like I belonged to something. This “togetherness” allowed me to believe that I was able to transcend the stereotypes and historical shame that I thought clipped my wings. Note that I used the word “thought”. Once you come to know the nature of oppression, it’s historical and present states, you see that it is by liberating your mind and spirit.. you can truly be free. Thus, the only thing that stands between us and liberation is our belief in being able to do so. That is another story for another day.

Participating in circles for my own personal recovery as an individual who struggled deeply with addictions and the trauma of abuses reintroduced some form of cultural tradition back into my predominantly Christian family. My mother, who had always been weary of First Nations spirituality (even practices from her own heritage), reluctantly participated in circles. For the first time in her life, my mother eased into rooms filled with the smoke of sacred medicines out of love and care for her ailing daughter.

One day my mother came up to me and explained that she had heard Dr. Martin Brokenleg say that sometimes healing for us (Indigenous people) looks different than healing for others and we all have our own way in which we need to heal. Hearing these words gave her the slight perception shift to see that our ways held validity and truth.

I have broken down and rebuilt in circles. I have learned, and prayed in circles.

However, just because you slap a circle in a process or program doesn’t make it Indigenous. I have taken note at several meetings that deal with Indigenous content or questions of moving forward, that there will be a prayer and sometimes a circle.

Sometimes “Indigenous processes” and “decolonized ways” are hidden under the simple guise of a prayer and a circle. I love circles and prayers but these two processes and ways of being should not be tokenized and co-opted into a program, meeting, workshop and be called traditional or a culturally competent program.

Maybe my eyes are too critical now but more and more I am seeing the need for REAL and TRANSFORMATIVE change for Indigenous peoples and communities. Real and transformative change does not lie solely in Pan Aboriginal practices nor in Western methods tweaked for First Nations benefits, it lies in real community culturally based change and knowledge. I am not saying that other ways of knowing from other tribes should be dismissed because they are not our own. There are a lot of good tools that fit with numerous Indigenous worldviews and have a lasting impact.

I am stating that these processes and tools need to be surrounded by Indigenous content, in a similar environment, in order to not be “token tools”. We need to be able to ask this of ourselves, of our communities, of our Aboriginal organizations, of our educational systems, of our outreach programs.

We are in a time where we need to shift beyond culturally modified programs, policies, and quick fixes. This takes commitment, envisioning, and work from all levels of community. We are the holders and molders of our destiny and our time is now.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s