My experience when I just showed up at a Talking Circle

Oct 7, 2019 | Featured

On a Friday evening a few weeks ago, I went to an event hosted by the Katarokwi Grandmothers’ Council and Kingston Indigenous Community not knowing what to expect. I went in tired and uncertain; but came out energized, inspired, and deeply appreciative of the experience I had. 

I learned by someone sharing a simple facebook post link that “Kingston’s Indigenous community hosts candidates for the federal election for a Traditional Talking Circle to build relationships and understanding. All are welcome.” It was scheduled from 5-8 pm on Friday September 20th at Kingston Community Health Centres on Weller Avenue. That’s all I knew.

Wanting to learn more about Indigenous cultures, show my support for their community, and to inform myself as a voter, I decided to go.

Uncertain of what to expect or who would be there, I walked into the room and was happy to see some familiar faces – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous.  There was a buzz of chatter in the room; the energy was welcoming, so it was easy to feel comfortable. The room was set up with a table of food to the side, and two large circles of chairs; an inner circle and an outer circle.  Unclear of what the protocol was, I asked where to sit (I’m learning the best thing to do when you don’t know is to simply ask).

I was told that the inner circle was for the candidates and members of the Indigenous community, and that the circle behind them was for non-Indigenous participants.  Fair enough. I took my seat, chatted to the people beside me, and waited for it to begin; wondering what a Talking Circle with federal candidates would be like.

It started with a meal, with the Grandmothers being the first invited to the buffet.  I learned that most Indigenous gatherings start with food: aren’t we all at our best, able to focus, listen, and speak with kindness when our bellies are full and happy? It certainly made me more comfortable after a long week; and the meal was delightful – chilli (meat and veggie options), salad and delicious traditional bannock.

After a comfortable amount of time when everyone had eaten, the event began.  The hosts were very helpful in explaining the process and ceremonies, so that we were all able to understand what to expect, and why things were happening they way they did.

It started with a smudging, with everyone in the room invited to participate if they wished (all happily partook).   The meaning behind it was shared, which I found beautiful; ‘smudging the ears so you can hear with an open mind and without judgement, the mouth so you can speak with kindness’. We were advised that there is no right or wrong way to smudge: we can each do what feels right to us.  (Ahh..,safety! There is no judgement.)

It then moved to introductions, with everyone in the inner circle introducing themselves and sharing one word to describe what they are looking for in their federal representative.

What struck me was how the introductions differed from what I am used to. I am used people defining themselves by their jobs and what they do.  Members of the Indigenous community introduced themselves primarily by where they are from, and their familial connections.

Those of us in the outer circle did not speak, but I appreciated how it was explained that our presence as non-Indigenous people was valued, and its symbolism: that by sitting behind members of the Indigenous community we were showing our support – that “we had their backs”.  I thought that was lovely.

The format for this event was simple and effective. Questions were brought forward by members of the Indigenous community through social media (as not all could be present for the event). Questions were read out, and the candidates responded in turn, without interruption (the speaker held the ‘talking rock’ passed to them by a delightful young member of the community), and with no criticism of others’ responses.  Candidates had been instructed to respond from the heart, and not with party platforms; indeed, the nature of the questions drew these responses. 

The ambiance in the room was calm and respectful.  Refreshing for a political process! One of the Grandmothers described the energy in the room as “beautiful” – and I would agree. Despite differences in politics, cultures and beliefs, everyone listened and spoke with respect.

There were so many little nuances and wonderful teachings that I experienced, deepening my respect for Indigenous cultures. I would encourage everyone to participate in such an event if you ever have the chance – it was an extraordinary opportunity that I am so grateful for.

Rather than rushing home, I found myself lingering a little longer, chatting with the organizers as they debriefed and tidied up. I was so moved and inspired by the event that I just wanted to share how appreciative I was of the experience. We chatted about many things in a light, honest, and real way. I left happy, energized and grateful that I went.

Cultural understanding and appreciation happen when we leave ourselves open to broadening our perspectives. We have so much to learn from Indigenous peoples. That evening I experienced how a process can be run differently, and therefore produce different results and outcomes.  

It’s easy to shy away from the unknown. I’m glad I didn’t.

It’s amazing what can happen when you just show up.

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