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The Circle-Way Society – Powerful Medicine for Dark Times

The Circle-Way Society - Powerful Medicine for Dark Times - A Social Prescription from Manitonquat (“Medicine Story”) by William Hofford

For some quixotic reason, this writer has long been passionately obsessed with finding ways by which our present, deeply unhealthy society can begin the Great Healing that so desperately needs to be born in both the human world and the living Earth in which it now flails.

Frankly, this passion has alternated with periods of anguish and despair over the apparent hopelessness of the situation. After all, in the face of ecological annihilation, endemic public apathy and denial of horrific crimes by psychopathic governments and corporations, a twisted economy valuing money and power above all, and alienation of so many humans from themselves, each other, and even Nature itself, it’s a challenge to maintain a sense of hope. Although psychopathic behavior and twisted economics are nothing new to the historical scene, today’s unprecedented technological leverage is, which allows deeply unbalanced behavior (e.g., war, totalitarianism) to be greatly magnified with god-like powers undreamed of by previous eras.

So, years ago, when I found out about a free workshop being given on consensus decision making for social-change groups, I enthusiastically signed up.

By the time the workshop was over, I was thrilled by the profound implications that such a technique of collective wisdom generation could offer our society if practiced at the grassroots level with an eye toward authentic government of, by, and for the people.

In a nutshell, each member of the consensus-using group strives to (a) give other members basic respect, (b) truly listen to what’s being said, and (c) give honest input. No group decision is made without every member being in agreement with—or at least acquiescence to—the final decision, which evolves during thorough deliberation of the issue at hand. Although this process might take longer than majority rule voting, there is an important sense of ownership by participants of the decision reached, which often contains solutions to problems that no individual member had even considered beforehand.

Subsequent experiences I had with groups using consensus process and the use of a ‘talking stick’ (a stick or other object that gives its bearer an uninterrupted speaking space until it is put down again or given to another participant) were deeply rewarding. The emotional bonding, deep wisdom, and group mind manifesting that such techniques engendered in the groups felt to me like receiving water after nearly dying of thirst, satisfying a craving for heart-felt human-to-human connection.

Question & Answer
It seemed clear to me that, to make our way into a better world, we must take on much more direct and grassroots roles than most of us already have in healthfully co-creating our personal and societal evolution. The task now is to re-engage and take direct and effective action in shaping our own personal and collective destiny, and to do so in beautifully healing ways.

However, a question that naturally arises for many who face the enormity of our current situation on planet Earth is, “So what can I as an individual do now?”

One answer to that is, “Start co-creating a healthy clan/village/tribe-based society—now.”

Manitonquat (“Medicine Story”) would certainly answer it that way.

While desperately searching for clues as to how to implement a vision of neighborhood-based, consensus-using wisdom circles connected to the electoral process, somewhere on the Web I happened to stumble upon a site containing an e-version of a fascinating book, Ending Violent Crime, by a Native American elder named Manitonquat (“Medicine Story”). This book was a soothing yet invigorating wind of inspiration for my spirit, describing the various practical, emotional, and spiritual issues that invariably arise within a talking (or wisdom) circle, as well as the basics of how to replicate this deceivingly simple process.

More recently, I found Manitonquat’s own website (www.circleway.org), where I discovered another inspiring online book by him, Changing the World: A Vision of a Circle Way Village. After reading it, I became determined to find out more about this powerfully healing vision of a better world, so I engaged in an email conversation with Manitonquat in the spring of 2008 as he was leading Circle Way camps and workshops across Europe. The following information is taken from that conversation.

Manitonquat is a Native American elder and a visionary of a compelling new-yet-ancient way of living harmoniously with each other and all Creation. He is from the Assonet band of the Wampanoag (“People of the First Light of Day”), a tribal confederation originally inhabiting what is now southeastern Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island. Members of the Wampanoag met and helped the Pilgrims in 1620 (though by 1675 they were trying to drive the English colonists out in what later was known as “King Philip’s War”).

Prisoner rehabilitation. Since 1985 in at least eight New England prisons, Manitonquat has been using a simple talking-circle format based on ancient tribal practices—including sitting in circle, prayers of thanksgiving/invocation, using a talking stick, being honest, giving respect—to create and facilitate one of the most successful and least-costly recidivism reduction programs ever run. They have been effective even for inmates previously considered hardened criminals. His experiences with the talking circles were, he says, “a confirmation of the fact that all people are born good, that no one harms another or himself unless he has first been harmed himself, and that the [talking] circle itself is always healing if it is centered on respect and insists on listening to and supporting each [other] equally.

Intentional communities. Manitonquat has also spent over forty years with various intentional communities around the world—as founder, participant, and observer—and so has gathered a wealth of intimate knowledge about their various strengths and weaknesses, as well as effective techniques in communal living.

In short, he knows quite a bit about the human potential for great evil as well as for great good.

A Circle Way Vision
For many years, Manitonquat has also entertained a noble vision: a world at true peace, with more than enough plenty, joy, and harmony to go around. At the root of Manitonquat’s vision is a Native American indigenous understanding of the interrelatedness of all beings and forces, combined with much practicality-enhancing experience.

Manitonquat describes some of what brought him to this vision and its results:

“The teachings of our tribal traditions and history, together with those of many other First Nations of the Americas—which I learned while traveling with the American Indian Spiritual Unity Movement in the early 70s—led me to an understanding of the circle as a universal instruction necessary for a truly human society. I saw many instances where much of the circle way of life had survived the European invasions, and in 1978 this was an inspiration for me to help create a small community in Greenville, New Hampshire called ‘Mettanokit’ (meaning ‘Our Mother Earth’).

“Mettanokit worked wonderfully for many years, although—of course—we made a few mistakes. We were very close: working, playing, and sharing everything together; birthing, raising, and home-schooling our children; and networking as members of the Federation of Egalitarian Communities and the New England Network of Light. During the 1990s, our children began to grow up and leave home on their own, and members went through changes in their goals and moved away. Since I was involved—beginning in 1984—in my European tour for six months of the year and in the prison outreach I had begun in 1985, I was not able to give attention to replacing members who had left. Instead, we made a transition from a residential community to one where people would meet once a month for social and ceremonial gatherings.”

A Circle Way Society
If what Manitonquat describes in his book Changing the World: A Vision of a Circle Way Village is accurate, a Circle-Way-village-based society would offer beautiful, healing ways to live with each other, Nature, and ourselves.

The Circle Way is based on several principles, each having much real-world experience and often deeply rooted in ancestral tribal ways:

  • Spiritual rootedness (including reconnecting to Nature-as-Divinity, and mutually acknowledging and respecting the various religions that various inhabitants follow)

  • Social cohesion (including each inhabitant being part of an egalitarian clan, plus regularly held all-village gatherings)

  • Economic sustainability (including land trusts and being as self-sufficient as possible)

  • Political sustainability (including authentic consensus decision-making process—leading to high quality self-government—and continual self-education)

  • Simply taking joy and having fun in life!

Manitonquat explains:
The Circle Way is the most human social structure ever devised and has worked very well for a million or more years. The essential elements of it are respect and trust, which in a circle of equals will always result in closeness, caring, and support of each member of the circle. This is possible only when the circles are small enough for each one to know, listen to, and be close to all the others. It is in this coming together—communicating and supporting each one equally—that we become human in the first place.

But to the extent that our systems separate, isolate, make us fear instead of trust, make us competitors and enemies, to that extent we begin to lose our humanness. We wind up with the crazy, inhuman, stressful, and unwieldy cultures we have today, in which people feel powerless, hopeless, angry or depressed, and become violent, psychotic, or addicted to drugs, sex, wealth, power, and all the other substitutes for love and caring.

In general, village life around the world is more personal and intimate, though it often also suffers from a lack of respect, trust, equality, and closeness. This results in jealousies, envy, gossip, and suspicion, because people cannot know each other as in the old tribal circles, which were more like extended families.

The clans compose the village. What my Circle Way camps of several hundred members use are smaller circles—we call them “clans” as was part of our old circle traditions—to provide an even greater intimacy and closeness, understanding, and caring.

Representatives of the clans convey the thinking and feeling—the mind and heart of the clans—to a circle of representatives that organize what is needed for the village as a whole.

Also, the whole village meets often to share in creative and cultural events. In ancient times, there was always a great diversity of customs and beliefs among the tribes of ancient times, and so I would expect it to be in a modern society of Circle Way villages.

The essential elements are respect and trust. They go together. The more respect there is, the more trust. Communities with a high trust level work best and are most satisfying to all. The more rules and restrictions you have the less trust there is.

The trouble with politics around the world is the “adversary” model of relating to people and ideas. Good problem solving and conflict resolution techniques avoid that. For my village model, I also recommend such models as co-counseling and non-violent communication, both of which feature the appreciation of self and others, and positive ways to deal with emotions.

Although all Circle Way villages would share basic attributes such as the clans structure, talking circles, consensus process, and general self-sufficiency, Manitonquat hastens to add that each will be unique, deciding what its own customs and interpretation of the founding principles should be.

He also straightforwardly declares that all oppression has an economic basis, and that the economic system of today’s mainstream society is truly “soul killing.” In the Circle Way village model, to be free means to be self-sufficient and relatively removed from the current dominant economy.

“Together there is nothing we cannot do!”
The original residential Circle Way community experiment is now a place where Circle Way kindred spirits gather monthly, as well as where Manitonquat and his Danish wife Ellika live while in the U.S. and operate the prison outreach programs. Nevertheless, they still plan to develop a small Circle Way Village on their land.

Much of Manitonquat’s efforts for the past 25 years, however, have been in Europe, where he and Ellika create and run Circle Way village workshops and camps in seven countries. Most camps last from one to two weeks, and although they are popular, so far only a few, very small, just-started communities there may turn into villages later on. “A lot of networking needs to happen” with other intentional communities, says Manitonquat, so he has been working with several of the larger European communities to gain insight and advice on how to expand the number of Circle Way communities.

As far as Circle Way villages here in the U.S., Manitonquat says, “A big problem is really that it is just me lecturing, writing, and making camps where the Circle Way can be experienced. What little money we raise goes into the prison programs and into just holding on to our land now. We need funds; people to work on promoting, publishing, and distributing books; a massive Internet outreach; and, of course, we need people inspired enough to make their priority building this dream.

What would it take to put more focus on conducting Circle Way workshops in the U.S.?

What it would take would be someone organizing them, as people do for them here in Europe. There are circles of people in six countries here that demand workshops and camps every year and get on my calendar a year in advance. In the US, I can be available from October through April, but there is only occasional demand, no ongoing circles yet.

When I get home [this October], I want to begin to do more speaking—radio, TV, universities—about the vision, and it would probably help if people were to work on that promotion, as well. I write and I speak and I go into prisons; I have no time or talent for organizing and promoting.

To help further expand awareness about the potential of Circle-Way-village-based society, Manitonquat is currently writing a book—Have You Lost Your Tribe—that describes the history of community building down to the ecovillages of today, and includes examples of how people have done this successfully over the years.

Though our current planetary situation looks hopeless at times, there is hope if we start acting together now.

Readers inspired by these ideas are encouraged to visit the Circle Way.

The book “Changing the World: A Vision of a Circle Way Village” by Manitonquat is now available for reading directly online at the Circle Way website. It describes how a future Circle Way village could actually work and details the areas of governance, economics, spirituality, education, criminal justice, and the arts, among others.

William Hofford is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached at [email protected]

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