The circle is a model used for group interaction in both the symbolic realm (to convey teachings and promote the development of individual and community values) and on the practical level (to use as a structure for discussion and problem solving). Circles are part of the natural order of creation – from the water cycle to the seasons to the cycle of birth and death – and as such, the circle signifies transformation and movement. Aboriginal peoples in North America use the circle to illustrate their worldviews using models such as the medicine wheel, which illustrates the human journey through life and explains relationships between various aspects of creation, both seen and unseen. The circle is infinite and continuous. It is a way of understanding and explaining interrelatedness and interconnectedness (see Interconnectedness).
There is some debate about whether pre-contact Aboriginal peoples used circles as a model for discussion or problem solving. Some Aboriginal peoples contend that talking circles were introduced by the Jesuits, and were actually a form of oppression in that the Jesuit facilitator controlled the talking stick and Aboriginal peoples were not actually allowed to speak. What is clear is that most Aboriginal nations conceive of society as a circle that functions partly as a result of tension and flux between the individual and the group. They see the natural world as functioning in similar, interrelated cycles and relationships. Ancient drawings of circles and medicine wheels appear at sites across the Americas. In ceremonies such as sweat lodges and sundances, participants gather in a circle. Even if the circle wasn’t used in daily activities, it was clearly used in governance, justice, and other socio-political frameworks as a conceptual model.
Aboriginal peoples do not own the concept of the circle. It is used by cultures worldwide, from Mennonite communities to village councils in Afghanistan. Chinese Daoism describes the logic of relationships, flux, universal oneness, and the cyclical nature of life using the circular yin-yang symbol. Interconnectedness and the necessity of maintaining relationships is not a foreign concept to most cultures – it is simply a forgotten one.
Historically, Aboriginal peoples prioritized collectivity and community over individualism. Individuals were free to determine their own course in life, but every individual had a responsibility for understanding their role in the community and how their actions affected other people and everything else in creation. By maintaining healthy relationships, Aboriginal peoples achieved harmony and balance, and collectivity was maintained. Today, the importance of community is seen in various contemporary systems, including restorative justice frameworks and community consultation processes on questions of self-government and models for health-care delivery, among numerous others. The concept of community can encompass various circles of interconnectedness including family, extended family, community, clan, and nation. It may also include ancestral territory. The concept of community can also fluctuate between an on-reserve and an urban community, depending on where a person is living at the time.
Aboriginal social systems are often organized through a clan or society system. Historically, these systems helped divide labour, as certain clans or societies were responsible for specific jobs in the community. Each clan or society had a self-regulating council that assisted with the nation’s governance. Today, clans and societies still have a role in traditional governance activities. They also confer kinship. A member of your clan, even if not a biological relative, is considered a relation. The clan system ensures interconnectedness and balance among generations and even between distant nations, as people from other nations are also considered relatives if they are from the same clan.
Many traditional Aboriginal social structures have been broken by the forces of colonialism. Communities are now often divided among themselves, and traditional structures such as extended family and clan systems have been replaced in many cases with colonial structures such as the nuclear family. The geographic mobility of Aboriginal peoples – from reserve to urban, from region to region, and from dwelling to dwelling within an urban area – often means that communities have a weaker social cohesion. However, because Aboriginal communities are often marginalized from the dominant society and/or geographically segregated, there are often strong ties within a community that translate into mutual support and community activism.
Aboriginal peoples employ a different value system for establishing relationships with other peoples. Aboriginal peoples do not ask “What do you do?” They ask, “Where are you from?” or “Who are your people?” or “What is your clan?” These questions establish individual identity with the construct of community.
The heartbeat rhythm (ta-dum, ta-dum, ta-dum) is what human beings hear first, while in the womb. Making that sound with a drum connects people to their origins and to the cosmos from which they came. Because this action speaks of the transformation from spirit to human form, and because transformation is sacred to Aboriginal peoples, drums are considered sacred objects. A drum’s power to call the spirit and connect this world with the spirit world means it must be handled carefully and used appropriately. Drums are created from living materials – wood and animal hide – and are considered living entities and part of the web of creation. This is why Aboriginal peoples refer to the drum as the heartbeat of Mother Earth.
Different Aboriginal nations have different teachings around the origin of various types of drums. For some Anishinabe people, the hand drum is said to have been given to a childless woman during a full moon. She was told that the drum represented Grandmother Moon, and that she must care for the drum as if it were her child. Some Lakota people say that the big drum was given to a girl child who snuck into an enemy village, as a way of bringing peace to warring nations. These stories still inform the protocols that surround the care and handling of drums. Like a relative, or as a show of respect for the gift given, drums must be cleansed, thanked, and loved through feasts and prayers if they are to function properly. Offerings of tobacco or water are often made to drums. Drums aren’t left alone for long periods of time; people take them when they travel or make arrangements for their care when they are away. Drums are never placed face down or left in a casual spot where they might be damaged. They should not be used as decoration, for example, hung on a wall and ignored.
Drums have both sacred (ceremonial) and social (celebratory) aspects. Drumming and dancing is a common practice in Aboriginal cultures, happening during rites of passage such as fasts, births, deaths, marriages, healing ceremonies, and ceremonies ranging from the shaking tent to the sun dance. Although there are social aspects to drumming and dancing, drumming is not just about entertainment, as it is in European culture. The heartbeat and music of the drum, although part of daily life, serve specific functions. Drums are not toys and are not merely musical instruments. Children did not historically make drums, as they do not have the necessary experience and skills to care for them.
In Aboriginal cultures, both women and men play the hand drum and the water drum. However, the big drum – which is also called the grandmother or grandfather drum by the Plains cultures with whom it originated – is generally not played by women. This is because the big drum is said to have been brought to humankind by a woman, to help men stay connected to the Earth. As such, women stand around the drum as the men play, singing if they choose, but always watching to make sure that the men are treating the drum with care and respect. This is a position of power that is often greatly misunderstood.
From time immemorial, knowledge of the land, the plants and animals that live on the land, and the seasons and cycles of nature have been central to the lives of Aboriginal peoples throughout the Americas. This knowledge was passed on to younger generations, who were taught to show responsible action toward the environment.
Aboriginal people do not conceive of “the environment” as a discrete entity. The environment is part of the web of creation, and humans are one strand in that web (see Interconnectedness). The idea that humans are related to everything else in creation leads to accountability. Accountability leads to personal responsibility. This responsibility ensures the survival of indigenous cultures, which were – and sometimes still are – dependent on the land. Examples of environmental degradation or over-exploitation by Aboriginal peoples (such as Easter Island) were almost always linked to the oppression and devastation of indigenous cultures by European slave raiding, colonialism, or the introduction of European disease. Sometimes over-exploitation was caused by ecological changes that created tremendous upheavals within Aboriginal social systems.
When discussing Aboriginal concepts about the environment, one must consider the following:
- In most Aboriginal languages, there are no animate-inanimate comparisons between things: animals have souls that are equal to humans, rocks have souls, trees have souls.
- Aboriginal cultures emphasize a close relationship with nature, as opposed to control over the natural world.
- Aboriginal people managed forests with fire and hybridized and irrigated agricultural crops, which meant that their actions did have an impact on the environment – but these activities were done within a sustainable model that emphasized responsibility and relationships.
Many people believe that feeling oneness with the Earth is only possible in a rural or bush setting, when in fact it is possible in any setting, even an urban one (underneath the concrete, the land is still alive; falcons and coyotes live in downtown Toronto). Aboriginal ways of knowing are primarily experiential, and Aboriginal peoples see the web of creation everywhere.
Although Aboriginal peoples are diverse in their cultural practices and perspectives, their worldviews are similar in many basic respects, including a belief in the interconnectedness of all living things. This includes humans as interconnected to other forms of life on the planet, as well as to the planet itself, in an infinite set of systems. This vision of interconnectedness is a spiritual doctrine and provides guidance for the human journey through life. There are different circles of interaction and interdependence – such as family, community, nation, and creation – and within those circles, there are multiple reciprocal relationships (for example, individual to community, and community to the environment). Each life form within each circle is a sacred being; everything has a spirit; and “power with” is valued much more than “power over.” Power over is not considered a true form of power; only in relationships defined by respect, reciprocity, and responsibility do human beings reach their full potential and create just societies. This unified vision contrasts to the artificial fragmentation of systems within other cultures.
In Aboriginal cultures, the survival of each life form is dependent on the survival of all others. This is why models such as the medicine wheel are so central to Aboriginal cultures: envisioning the infinite set of connections present within the medicine wheel creates the questions and reflections that guide the human journey (What is the individual’s responsibility to and relationship with the cosmos? To/with the community? To/with the land?). The positive actions of one affect the whole. Likewise, trauma and hardship experienced by all is experienced by the one. Decisions made today must be considered in light of the effect they might have on one’s descendants. Interconnectedness fosters harmony by promoting responsibility and reciprocity, and harmony is considered the most powerful energy in the universe.
Place: Land & Identity
For Aboriginal peoples, land plays a role in symbolic identity and in creating the everyday interrelatedness that forms the basis of Aboriginal values and beliefs. Prior to colonization, Aboriginal peoples gained their core identity from the place where they originated. During creation, spirit beings travelled over the land creating the natural environment; these markers remain as rocks, rivers, and places on the land where specific cultural activities take place. The land, therefore, also forms the basis for Aboriginal oral narrative, as stories relating to these landmarks – and of migration to new landscapes with new landmarks – create and sustain identity and connection to place. Prior to colonization, Aboriginal peoples learned from childhood the history and spiritual significance of each feature of the landscape. Memory was embedded in the land and in the observation of the transformations of landmarks within the territory.
Land transmits and strengthens the relational nature of Aboriginal life. Whereas European cultures believe in dominion over the land, Aboriginal cultures believe that humankind must live in accordance with the land, because the land has stories to tell.
These stories teach us how to be human; they present us with key questions such as Who am I? Who are we? Where are we? And what does this place mean?
Because the land nurtures people, Aboriginal peoples believe they have a sacred responsibility to protect it. This is why they are often opposed to resource development and other invasive activities on traditional lands, especially sacred or special sites. However, if their right to control the use of and access to their lands are recognized, Aboriginal peoples are sometimes willing to negotiate shared access to the land through land-use agreements. Environmental justice is important to the contemporary struggle for Aboriginal self-determination because sustainable practices will ensure the continued survival of all peoples, as well as the maintenance of traditional Aboriginal knowledge.
The land once ensured self-sufficient living in terms of providing food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and connections to the oral narratives that conferred identity. The creation of reserves, the forced relocation of some communities, and the marginalization and displacement of other groups has had devastating effects on Aboriginal cultures because Aboriginal peoples can no longer be self-sufficient, proud, or purposeful. Most are not able to provide adequately for their families, as environmental degradation has resulted in Aboriginal peoples being unable to hunt, fish, or gather. The loss of land and relocation to reserves has meant the loss of traditional social, economic, and other culture-bound systems. The contemporary situations in many Aboriginal communities stem from this dispossession from the land and subsequent rupture of oral narrative – not from an innate inability to function as self-sufficient societies.
Although Aboriginal peoples have not yet achieved political decolonization – and, as Cree judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond says, “cultural decolonization is now nearly impossible” – they still need to be understood as self-determining. Prior to contact, Aboriginal peoples in Canada were sovereign nations, and were recognized as self-governing in various treaties and in the Royal Proclamation of 1763. Today, many people believe that Aboriginal peoples worldwide should be entitled to choose their own forms of government within existing states as a way to re-establish traditional forms of governance. Aboriginal peoples in Canada want the same rights and freedoms enjoyed by all Canadians, but they also want to maintain their distinct cultural identities and determine their own political status.
Self-determination for both on-reserve and urban Aboriginal peoples will require Aboriginal people to work together to govern themselves, run their daily affairs, and engage in long-term planning in areas such as land management. That doesn’t mean delivering programs designed by someone else – it means designing programs for themselves. This will require a social cohesiveness that does not currently exist due to the intergenerational trauma that has been created as a result of colonization. Self-determination will require a return to traditional ways of being that stress respect, responsibility, reciprocity, and relationships. Self-determination will also require programs and resources to assist Aboriginal peoples in rebuilding their self-governing and decision-making capacities – and that will cost money. Many Canadians will see that as continued dependence, but in fact, the investment will lead to greater self-determination and a gradual return to self-sufficiency.Aboriginal rights are older than Canada. The right to be autonomous and self-governing is acknowledged and protected by the Canadian Constitution.
Many First Nations people believe that the first step to returning to self-determination begins with scrapping the federal Indian Act, which regulates the lives of status/on-reserve Indians. There is, however, some concern about what would replace the Act. How would human rights on-reserve be protected? How would status Indians – who are Canadian citizens – be assured of their Charter rights? How would the status of women be protected in on-reserve communities and on-reserve governments? Would there be taxation? How would each community ensure accountability around issues of programming and spending? Non-status and urban Aboriginal peoples do not face the same challenges, as they are integrated into municipal, provincial, and federal systems alongside other Canadians.
In a 1995 video of Mayan refugees in Chiapas, México, fleeing paramilitary violence in their villages and walking into the mountains, an amateur videographer asks an elder in Spanish, “Grandfather, where are you going?” The old man answers, “Here. We are going.” The place – the current relationship – is the here and now; so is the movement. The destination isn’t as important as the transformative action; the future cannot be known.
For Aboriginal peoples, the past, present, and future are interconnected. Time is circular, and it is also connected to place. What happens today might be related to the experience of an ancestor, and linked to a particular environment, but it also belongs to the person who carries the memory of that experience. After 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú Tum, a Quiche from Guatemala, published her autobiography, she was accused of fabricating parts of the story because she used a first-person narrative to describe events that happened to other people in her family and community. However, her storytelling reflects an indigenous understanding that time is circular and stories are linked through time and space. While some cultures have a linear understanding of time and experience, for Aboriginal peoples, the world is an eternal now of interrelated circles of experience. The actions of one affect the whole in this and other times; whatever is experienced by the group is experienced by the individual.
Aboriginal concepts of time also extend to ways of learning, teaching, and knowing. In Aboriginal societies, learning is conceptualized as interconnected spirals. These learning spirals are non-linear, extending throughout the lifetime of the learner and including experiences that happened before birth. Learning is lifelong and not located only in the present.
The myth of “Indian time,” which is often used to explain lateness, is sometimes repeated by Aboriginal peoples themselves. Prior to colonization, Aboriginal peoples relied on the interrelated cycles of plants, animals, weather patterns, and other facets of life on Earth. They travelled in small family units and stayed away from enemy territory. If they had a “whenever, whatever” attitude toward hunting or toward moving their village when the scouts informed them that the enemy were two days away, they’d never have survived. Aboriginal concepts of time do not include being late, disrespecting others by keeping them waiting, or waiting around instead of taking action. Aboriginal concepts of time do, however, include the idea that what is meant to happen will happen, and that individuals should live in the eternal now, trusting that the experience will make sense when it is supposed to (in the appropriate “now”). Life is about balancing destiny and acts of personal volition in the present – not worrying about the future.
Ways of Knowing
Worldviews are closely connected to ways of knowing. How Aboriginal peoples come to know and understand the world around them creates a body of knowledge that is expressed in science, political systems, economic systems, and artistic expression such as drumming, dancing, writing, or other storytelling (storytelling can include pictographs, petroglyphs, wampum belts, crested blankets, totem poles, winter counts, or the sides of a painted tipi). There are many nations, and therefore many worldviews. There are, however, some common themes that run across most Aboriginal worldviews, characterized by the concept of the circle, interconnectedness, connection to place, and the four Rs (respect, reciprocity, responsibility, and relationships). Aboriginal worldviews are also characterized by a belief in the power of creating harmony: by creating a positive shared mind with all of creation, and honouring one’s connection to all other sacred beings within creation, one creates “power with,” as opposed to “power over.” The four Rs are honoured daily through experiential interactions with the cosmos, the environment, and other people. Through empathy, compassion, and kinship, Aboriginal peoples believe that it is possible to create a harmonious world. Elders say that words and thoughts have the power to create and change the world.
Language reflects worldview. Most Aboriginal languages focus on action and transformation (Cree uses more verbs than nouns), relationship, and more than one way of understanding. For Aboriginal peoples, there may be multiple realities. There is no such thing as absolute truth; all truth is relative to a particular context, and reality is represented in the relationship one has with truth. Thus, an object or thing is not as important as one’s relationships to it. Reality is represented in relationships, which means that reality is not a static state – it is a process, and this process will be different for each person.
Aboriginal learning addresses the whole person, encompassing the mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional capabilities of that person in relation to all living things. This unified vision is in contrast to the European focus on an analytic approach, and the fragmentation of concepts within discrete disciplines. For Aboriginal peoples, analysis is cumulative, collaborative, and circular. These ways of knowing are reflected in Aboriginal worldviews, which emphasize connectivity, relationality, and interrelatedness.
Aboriginal worldviews are characterized by a belief that all objectivity is subjectivity – that is, the only thing that humans can really know is themselves. First Nations people believe that humans take multiple trips around the medicine wheel; this spiral learning starts with gaining knowledge, continues with using reason, engaging in deep thought, and, finally, being rewarded with insight. But each journey around the wheel reveals deeper, different truths. Life is about constant transformation and greater self-awareness. Thus, within the interrelatedness of Aboriginal worldviews lies a deep and abiding freedom of the individual.