The Origins of Circles

The Circle process that many non-Native people are using today has been inspired by different Indigenous Nations in North America. The form of Circles described in Living Justice Press books is a Western adaptation of these nations’ talking Circle processes. In these traditions, Circles are not a “technique” or a set of instructions—they are a way of being, based on deeply held cultural values and relationships.

During the 1990s, members of First Nations in Canada began teaching the Circle practice to non-Native people. First Nation communities were seeking alternatives to the mass incarceration of their people, which was—and remains—another form of genocide. Returning to Native ways to resolve conflicts and harms required collaboration with non-Native people: lawyers, prosecutors, judges, as well as non-Native neighbors. In the process, non-Native people experienced the Circle process and its power to bring positive transformation for everyone involved. From these interactions, the use of Circles among non-Natives has grown.

Several First Nations in particular contributed to the use of Circles among non-Natives in the U.S. and Canada. The Hollow Water First Nation on Lake Winnipeg and, in Yukon, members of the Carcross-Tagish and Dahka T’lingit First Nations have played a critical role in demonstrating efficacy of Circles. Many non-Natives learned about Circles through their work. For example, First Nation Circle practitioners, along with non-Native Circle trainers, trained the entire staff and many in the community of Roca, Inc., a youth center outside Boston that works with gang, street, and immigrant youth. Minnesota was also a site of many of these Circle trainings by First Nation members.

This cross-cultural transference was first spurred by the need to find alternatives to incarceration and to reduce the disproportionate incarceration of Native peoples. When non-Native people, including many People of Color, experienced the power of the Circle process to address harms and conflicts, they began to use the process with other non-Native people and in other areas of life as well. The Frogtown–Summit University Circle in Saint Paul, Minnesota, for example, operated for many years to save young African-American men, ages 18–35, from going directly to prison and on a good path.

Using Circles in schools quickly became another major area of use, especially to stop the school-to-prison pipeline. In Minnesota, Dakota-Ojibwe playwright and scholar Chuck Robertson was a strong advocate for using Circles with Native and non-Native communities, especially in schools. With his Circle associates Jamie Williams and Oscar Reed, Dr. Robertson trained and worked with hundreds of educators to bring the Circle process into school settings.

Through many millennnia, Indigenous peoples around the world have used processes similar to Circles to attend to the community’s work. However, European (or “Western”) cultural evolution, based as it has been on hierarchy, racism, colonization, and the pursuit of economic advantage, in large part has not demonstrated the deep community values so ingrained in Indigenous practice: most Indigenous European forms of Circles are long lost, being replaced by state justice systems.

It therefore is of the highest importance for those of us who have not grown up in an Indigenous tradition to be mindful of, respect, and practice the values and relationships inherent in true Circle culture everywhere. This way of life will always be more important than any “formula” or structural process.

What is represented in LJP’s books is the result of mutually adaptive processes—as we understand them—when cultures interact. Indigenous talking Circles often involve prayer and traditional ceremony, for example. These traditions are not part of Westernized Circle forms, though meditation and other forms of inspiration are included. Indigenous Circle spaces and Westernized Circle spaces look and feel different: they are not the same. Different cultural philosophies and habits undergird each. Circles hold spaces for our humanity, and the resilience of Circles is their adaptability in how they do this.