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A Ritual for Reconciliation

In this time it seems important to continually define what we say  – misapprehension seems to be the norm.  We are members of multiple cultures (family, work, ethnic, socio-economic, racial . . .) and each culture projects its own meaning on common terms.  For instance: what is ritual?  Some people think of Voodoo or religion; others think of the biological mating practices of different species.  What I mean comes from theatre anthropology:  the common practices we routinely repeat to get through our daily lives – how we brush our teeth; the order in which we put on our clothes; the way we commute to work; how we eat our meals; what we do to get ready for bed at night …  If we look at our common daily rituals we can see that the actions we have chosen to do have a progression and a purpose.  If we carry over this idea to actions we do in groups, rituals become actions that can bind people to a common purpose.  This may be the rituals an audience observes when attending a performance (sitting down, reading a program, becoming quiet when the lights go down, applauding the performance …) which lasts only for a short period of time, as well as the rituals practiced by a service club or organization (singing O Canada, opening with a prayer, reciting a pledge, having individuals in specific roles to do specific tasks like collect fines if members do something against “the rules”) which link members to each other over years and allow them to work together on projects with common goals.

Reconciliation is a term that has become contested in the aftermath of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – named after the process developed in South Africa after the ending of apartheid. Canada’s TRC was a very different process in which only Indigenous people were expected to give testimony to the colonizers; the colonizers were not compelled to testify to their own actions.  If “reconciliation” means that two equal parties in conflict with each other work through their differences together to come to a balanced agreement, Canada’s TRC offers neither truth nor reconciliation.  Where does this leave us if we indeed do want reconciliation and not justification?

In bringing ritual and reconciliation together, what might be achieved?  What ritual might open space to begin to reconcile difference, history, experience, pain, discrimination?  Is there a ritual that allows us to listen deeply to each other, without interruption?  To see ourselves and each other more clearly? The answer is “Yes!”  And this is where we begin.

A number of years ago, I was working in an Indigenous Friendship Centre.  We would begin every week with a Talking Circle.  The circle was led by an Elder who would ask us a focusing question to respond to.  The Elder would begin, holding an eagle feather, and would speak to the question as a way of modeling how we could respond. When the Elder was finished s/he would pass the eagle feather to the person sitting beside them and it would be that person’s turn to speak to the question.  When they were finished they would pass the feather on to the person beside them, and so on.  This ritual has rules: only the person holding the token – a feather, a stone, a shell … –  may speak; you are allowed to pass if you don’t have anything to say; you must not interrupt or question, or speak to anyone else during the talking circle. Once everyone has had the chance to speak then the leader can ask if anyone has anything they would like to add to what they said. If they do then the token gets passed around the circle to that person so they can speak further.  Then the Leader can ask if anyone else needs to have the token so they can speak.  Once everyone has spoken as they need to, the token is put aside and the group moves on to the next item on the agenda. This process can take quite a long time but once I learned to discipline myself to listen and not prejudge what someone would say, I learned a great deal.  I also learned to speak more precisely so that others could understand my meaning, concerns, questions.  The process set up the possibility of consensus because we were all responsible for understanding each others’ needs and desires.  When decisions needed to be made they were acknowledged as being the best decisions that could be supported fully by everyone.

Can this ritual be translated into other contexts?  Absolutely.  I have used it ever since in every class I have taught, meeting I have chaired, theatre production I have directed.  The feedback I have received at the end of a class or project is that this ritual is the most important component of what we have done together – by children, youth, adults, and elders.  I am confident that the ritual of the Talking Circle can be used as a way to see ourselves more clearly.  And if we see ourselves more clearly we can see others more clearly.  We still have to choose to move beyond seeing to acting if we are to reconcile with others whose life experiences and learned biases are different from our own.  But we are in a better position to do so with compassion and welcome.  And this may, in time, lead to healing and true reconciliation.

We can start with the ritual of telling each other who we come from in a Zoom Talking Circle as a meeting place on our path to building a transformative learning community together.  And maybe we’ll have time to share a dream we hold close to our hearts as well.  Please find an object you can hold as your own talking piece and think about who you come from.

~ Annie Smith

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