A couple of days ago I found myself engaged in a conversation about the differences in perception and values that define Indigenous cultures and colonial culture. The conversation was focused on attitudes towards community and the land, the presence of the ancestors and spirits, and centrality of oral history. Then someone suggested the main difference was our relationship to the circle. That set me to thinking.
Last weekend the host of the local folk music show played Joni Mitchel’s “Circle Game.” It had been a while since I had last listened to the song, and I found myself singing along. When the idea of circles entered our discussion that song rose to my attention. There’s a line in the story/song that exemplifies the Western attitude towards the circle: “We can only look back from where we came, and go round and round and round in the circle game.”
Western culture tells stories about a linear progression called “history.” History moves eternally from lesser to greater, taking on the form of something akin to Social Darwinism. In a linear view of life, the circle game becomes as sort of hell.
Indigenous cultures tend to imagine history as circular. Our stories are complex and multi-centered. In them, we return to where we’ve been, changed and, hopefully,wizened. It is not just that we may return to childhood in old age. Rather, we understand childhood in and through old age, and look forward to rebirth, if not in this world, another. Everything returns.
My father missed my mom and his family, and like many elders, in his last days eagerly anticipated being reunited with them. For Indigenous people the work of family and community does not stop with death. Rather, family, across untold generations, remain engaged with the living. They visit us in dreams and visions, intervening in our lives. For some who are gifted in that way of knowing and perceiving, they are a constant presence. You see, life is an immense circle, and we cycle through our lives, in this life and, potentially, in many others. The ancestors are always present, as are the generations to come, and we are both. Complex, eh?
There are enormous values differences implicit in these two world views. A linear worldview allows a throw away culture: what is behind is left behind. I recently saw a series of brief ads for mindfulness training that echoed this view. One said something to the effect that, “Once settled, that which troubled us no longer reappears.” On one hand this is a truism. Yet, from an Indigenous point of view it is also inaccurate. Experiences return to us, are revisited, as opportunities to understand our lives in a new light, as gifts of wisdom. Nothing is left behind, as everything remains in the present and will return, in some form, in the future. The lesson of history is simply that everything returns. Even the mastodon and passenger pigeon remain in the Dreaming. They are gone from the world we now inhabit, but not from All-That-Is. They will return, although perhaps in a new form.
This is not an excuse for extinction. All beings are like us; they seek to live. Only Hubris tells us we are more important than others, whether persons or species. Perhaps over immense periods of time we will experience life through the eyes of innumerable species. Yet, with each incarnation we will hold tenaciously to life. We are all life forms and ALL LIFE IS SACRED.
The circle teaches us that we are each a part of the ALL. That story and the knowledge and wisdom that grows from it are our heritage. We hold it dear.