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Learning from Indigenous Peoples - Sharing Circles

Have you ever had the chance to participate in a sharing circle? I hope so.

Sharing circles provide opportunities for each voice to be heard, respected, and valued. They are a traditional practice in some Indigenous communities from various parts of North America, and are designed to ensure everyone has an equal opportunity to share their opinions and ideas. Participants in the sharing circle are reminded to share their own opinions and speak their own voice. They are also reminded to not comment on what anyone else has said, but to focus on expressing their own feelings. Throughout the sharing circle, only the person with the talking piece (an object used specifically for the purpose of identifying who is sharing) has the opportunity to speak. The participants in the circle are encouraged to listen to the thoughts and ideas being shared by each of the other participants. While listening, participants are encouraged not to judge what people are sharing. Instead, participants listen to the ideas and opinions of their co-participants and are open to learning from each person in the circle.

Recently I had the opportunity to lead the Blanket Exercise with a Christian Reformed congregation who had never experienced it before. The Blanket Exercise is an interactive walk through the history of the land we now call Canada – focusing on the historic interactions between the First Peoples of this land and European settlers up to the present day. (There is also an American version.) In this interactive exercise, participants are invited to walk in the shoes of the First Peoples and see history from a perspective that is often different than their own. At the end of the Blanket Exercise, as we do for every Blanket Exercise, I invited the participants to sit in a sharing circle where they would have an opportunity to reflect on how they felt throughout the activity as well present any questions they were left with after participating. As the talking stone passed from one participant to the next, each person shared a personal story or some strong emotions expressing how they felt about the past as well as present relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada.

One participant talked about bullying that they had seen happen in their high school to First Nations students. Another spoke of conversations they had with their family about land claim rights and hearing from several members of their family that “the First Nations people should just be quiet and move on.” Still another participant cried out to understand how people in her community could be racist against people who simply had a different colour of skin and a followed a set of cultural practices from their own. Another told of a friend from work whose father had been in residential schools and continued impacts on his friend’s entire family. As I listened to each of the individual stories that was shared around the circle, I realized that for many or most of these participants this sharing circle was the first time they had the space to really tell their story or cry out for answers. I could tell that the people sitting in the circle were genuinely hurt, sad, and mad about the way they saw First Nations people in Canada treated—and some of them had been feeling this way for years.

After providing the time and space for everyone to share their stories and feelings, I closed the sharing circle with a prayer for each of the people and situations that had been talked about in the circle. I prayed that each of the participants would truly feel that they had taken a step towards understanding the history of relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples as well as a step towards seeking out paths of reconciling these relationships and finding healing. After concluding my prayer, I looked around the circle and could tell those who had been in the circle genuinely felt that they had been able to take a weight off of their chests and start their own journey of healing within this story, whatever that healing looked like.

Since that day, I find myself continuing to pray for those congregation members – that they would continue to find healing in their lives and that healing would be found in the lives of those around them. I also pray that more congregation members and more Canadians would also have opportunities to be in sharing circles in their families, among their friends, in their workplaces, at their schools, and in their churches so they too would be able to find healing.  

*Some names and specific details have been changed in this blog post to protect the identities of those featured in the story. 

[Image: Joseph Visser Photography]

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