Students in Anthropology 152– Introduction to Anthropology participated in a “Turtle People Talking Circle,” demonstration, a replication of the methods many First Nations of Canada and Native Americans of the U.S. use to deal with criminal matters and community disputes, instead of courts and the legal system.
Students played the roles of Indian community members in a Talking Circle discussion of a crime (in this reenactment, they determined the crime was manslaughter). They determined how the offender needed to take responsibility, make a sincere apology, and make restitution to the victim and family and community. This takes the place of a trial and sentencing.
“Unlike the legal system in the U.S. which focuses on individual crime and punishment, the goal is for the community as a whole to heal and rebalance itself and to bring the offender back into the group as a productive member—while at the same time holding him/her responsible for their actions and accountable for restitution,” said Dr. H. Lyn Miles, UC Foundation Professor of Anthropology, who teaches the class. Dr. Shela Van Ness, Associate Professor of Sociology, served as guest facilitator. Both Miles and Van Ness are of part-Native/First Nations descent (Coast Salish of British Columbia; Cree of Montana; Abenaki/Wabanaki of Vermont & Quebec).
Talking Circles begin with rituals and proceed with a “talking stick” that is passed to an individual in the circle who can speak while holding the stick. When that individual is finished the stick is passed clockwise until each person in the circle has an opportunity to speak, and the stick is passed again and again as the community as a whole processes the event, the impact on the victim, and how the community can be made whole again.
No cross-talk is allowed—only the speaker with the stick can talk. If someone goes on too long, the community can softly cough or if a listener wants to interrupt they can ask to “address the stick,” and the possessor of the stick can decide if he/she will pass the stick.
UTC students played the roles of Clan Mothers, medicine healer, community drummers, reservation police, physician, Native artists, miners, craftspersons, unemployed laborers, and others typically found in Native communities and will dress appropriately in character. Students are also learning the more indirect styles of Native American communication. Respect for First Nations/Native traditions will be shown, and members of the regional Native American community have been invited.
True Talking Circles can consist of passing the stick many times around the circle and can take days until the community has acknowledged and digested the events and can move forward to healing and restitution—however, the UTC demonstration took only one hour with discussion.
Community mediation and restitution groups such as the Talking Circle are increasingly being used in North America to resolve community disputes, up to and including murder, as an alternative to the judicial system. These methods are also being advocated for larger communities such as Chattanooga since studies show that they reduce crime and recidivism, and are mentally and physically healthier for the victims who can return productively to the community much more quickly.
This demonstration is another example of how UTC, as an engaged metropolitan university, is partnering with the local community, showing respect for the traditions of Native peoples, and providing active learning experiences for students, to make their education come alive.