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The Quakers utilize a similar process of a decision-making
"council," with people seated in a circle, who speak, one at a time on the
topic at hand. In Native American culture, the Talking Stick is started by
the "leader" who uses it to address the group. No one may speak or respond
to the speaker unless they are passed the Talking Stick. Once the person
has finished, it is passed from person to person around the circle until
it reaches the end. At this point, the decision will or will not be
In Quaker tradition, there is no totem to hold or pass, but if at the end
of the "talking circle" there is anyone who disagrees with the
"conclusion" then the decision is not made until they either agree to
disagree and not block consensus, or they change their position. The
group has to keep discussing the topic until the group is in total
When I first experienced the "talking circle" as the art teacher at a
Quaker boarding school, I thought democracy had gone too far. Now, I am
convinced that consensus-building techniques such as this, whatever the
form, are essential for "true" democracy.
Of course, there is the entertainment aspect, where the person who is
holding the "talking stick" tells a story to the group. This concept
can be utilized with a variety of additional applications of dance and
theatre arts, poetry and mime.
The Native American "talking stick" can be used in the classroom to
give input and feedback on experiences, to discuss "hot topics" or discuss
conflicts. In the school I'm currently an artist-in-residence in, the
teachers use it after the kids go on a field trip or go camping; to bring
closure to work they're doing, to discuss conflicts, to set a tone for
order....it gives everyone's point of view validation without being shot
down by argumentative people who want to debate details. With the "talking
stick," all ideas count. People cannot directly attack the person who has
spoken. People cannot attack their ideas directly. They must state their
position independent of such personalizing, which polarizes opinions and
undermines people's positions.
Information on the use of talking sticks used traditionally in Native
Culture can be gotten, I believe, from The Burke Museum at the University
of Washington in Seattle.