The Talking Circle and Consensus
The circle is an important symbol in Aboriginal culture as it represents equality, interconnectedness, and continuity. Circles are non-hierarchal and inclusive, and are one of the main tenants of Aboriginal worldview and belief systems. Circles are found throughout nature. For instance, the sun and seasons start in the east and move clockwise to the south, west, and north. Because the circle is such an important symbol, “ talking circles” continues to be one of the ways in which Aboriginal people would build consensus. Sitting in a circle allowed each member to participate in the discussion. Individuals were given the opportunity to hear what others had to say as well as time to think about what they wanted to share with the group. Often the issues discussed in a talking circle had no right or wrong answers. What was important was that people were able to share ideas and opinions. As well as sitting in a talking circle, a “talking stick” was also used. The talking stick was often an object of importance that was passed around the circle. Whoever held the talking stick has the right to speak what ever they feel, being careful not to hurt other peoples feelings, while the others must listen respectfully.
In traditional consensus based decision making models the participants were committed to reaching consensus no matter how long it took for resolution. It was essential that each member of the talking circle agreed. The leader of the community often played the role of facilitator in the talking circle. This was a challenging role.
Aboriginal peoples have always had structures for governing themselves, choosing leaders, and making decisions. In most Aboriginal communities leaders were chosen by consensus. They had authority, but not a lot of power. The power arose from within the community. People chose to follow a leader because they demonstrated qualities the people felt were important such as honour, generosity, honesty, and the capacity to make decisions that benefited the group. In Aboriginal communities, the welfare of the group was viewed as more important than individual needs. Often Aboriginal groups had more than one leader that specialized in certain areas such as war or peace talks. Elders were in many cases leaders because they passed important knowledge and cultural ways along to the younger generations. Across the plains all members of the Aboriginal community; men, women, and children were allowed to participate in decision making.