Council Ceremony

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Tribal governance: the council ceremony



Native American traditions paid heed to the need to integrate various competing perspectives, and developed a decision-making protocol to insure it: the medicine wheel council. From the popular Ehama trainings in the U.S.

"This was ceremony time. For the next eight hours, the group would join in a ceremony, a medicine wheel council, a communal decision-making tool that would teach them how to replace contentious debate with constructive conversation. The tribal version of Robert's Rules of Order was in effect: the members of the circle would pass a talking stick to indicate who had the floor -- no interrupting allowed. That person would begin by identifying himself or herself by name and end by saying, "I have spoken." The group would then respond, "Ho!" -- the tribal equivalent of "You have been heard."In the ceremony they would learn about the Four Shields and the Four Attentions, and then they would sit as chiefs at the eight points of the compass to hold a council. Each of the chiefs would have one unique perspective to offer the group; the wisdom of the council would emerge as the perspectives came together, one at a time, in a circular ceremony. "It is a way to bring balance into a group," WindEagle explained. "A way to put things in perspective without adversarialism." That search for balance and perspective is embedded in the design of the ceremony and woven into the patterns that decorate the ceremonial lodge. Just as ancient tribes needed a tool to help them reach decisions that reflected the group's collective knowledge, so today's business "tribes" can benefit from a tool that breaks down organizational barriers, explores assumptions in a nonconfrontational style, and changes the mind-set, focus, and pace of the conversations that lead to decisions.

As the participants learned, these ancient teachings or Earth Wisdom, offered by RainbowHawk and WindEagle, who run the Ehama Institute in Los Gatos, California, can feel out of place in the fast-paced, technologically sophisticated, modern business world. And it's unlikely that hundreds of companies will be turning their conference rooms into ceremonial lodges anytime soon. But what the council ceremony offers is a set of insights and techniques that change how and why decisions get made. Eight hours later, when the council was over, Helena Light Hadley left with a new insight into decision making. "The tribal approach makes a lot of sense," she says. "When a decision is put in the context of `the greater good,' you stop acting so territorial. You see the needs of the entire system, not just the little piece you're hanging on to."

The teachings of Earth Wisdom aren't hip. They won't be the basis for the next business best-seller or rival reengineering for consultants' billable hours. They are worth understanding precisely because they endure: this tool for making group decisions dates back to the Americas' earliest inhabitants -- with links to the Mayans and Incas. The actual ceremony that RainbowHawk and WindEagle practice stems from an oral tradition. According to this tradition, representatives of the Iroquis, Delaware, Cherokee, Choctow, Osage, the plains people and other tribes came together in 1879 in Oklahoma in a large council; by then, these tribes had realized that their indigenous culture would soon be overrun by the dominant white culture. To preserve their tribal wisdom, they passed on 37 belts to selected medicine women -- the last of these belts that they had -- that conveyed their sacred teachings through glyphs. The belts were passed from keeper to keeper, trained medicine women and men, from generation to generation. Among those to whom this tradition passed was Hyemeyohsts Storm, a Cheyenne, who in 1973 published Seven Arrows, which recounts many of these teachings. It was through Storm that RainbowHawk and WindEagle became keepers of this tradition. Underlying the council ceremony is an elaborate mandala-like design, tying together the cardinal and noncardinal directions of the compass, universal forces, and a process of group consultation and consensus-building. In its most fully articulated version, the design not only constructs a medicine wheel for council discussions but also builds an overall social vision. For the purposes of their teaching to businesspeople, RainbowHawk and WindEagle simplify the design into three essential elements: the Four Shields of Balance, the Four Attentions, and the Eight Chiefs, each of whom has a specific perspective to represent in the council ceremony. The Four Shields, which correspond to the four cardinal points of the compass, are the image of human wholeness and balance. In the east is the Shield of the Magical Child, which represents the spirit of creativity, playfulness, imagination, illumination, and enlightenment. The east's responsibility is to maintain the tribe's freedom to move and to play with the design of life; all discussion originates in the east. In the south is the Shield of the Little Child, the place of trust and innocence, where awe and wonder, emotional flexibility, curiosity, and adventurousness-the attributes of a young child are paramount. In the west is the Shield of the Nurturer, responsible for recognizing what is needed to heal, nurture, teach, balance, and care for the tribe's people. In the north is the Shield of the Warrior/Warrioress, with the attributes of courage, resourcefulness, and strategy. It is the place of knowledge and wisdom, clarity and action. The Four Attentions, set at the noncardinal points of the compass, provide the counterbalance to the Four Shields. Here again, each point is associated with a set of attributes. In the southeast is Be Present, a reminder to pay attention to the tastes, smells, sounds, and touches of the moment. In the southwest is Guards Out. Here the question is, "Are we awake, guarding our focus, staying true to our target or goal?" In the northwest is Look for the Teaching. This direction asks, "Are we attentive to the meaning of each event or happening? What should we be learning from this situation?" And in the northeast is Let the Little Child Play, a reminder to stay open to vital information, to be playful with the forces at work in any situation, to use challenge as a way to learn.

In the council ceremony, two chiefs -- one male and one female -- sit at each of the eight cardinal and noncardinal points of the compass. In what is perhaps the most important feature of the ceremony, each pair of chiefs must adopt the perspective or attributes that correspond to their position on the compass. Just as the Four Shields and the Four Attentions each describe a sensibility, so the chiefs represent particular ways of looking at experience or evaluating a situation. In the east are the Heyoehkah Chiefs, who are responsible for speaking to the tribe's freedom and creativity. In the southeast are the Peace Chiefs, who focus on the current situation facing the tribe, with "present conditions and appreciation" as the most important verbal cues. In the south are the War Chiefs, who address emotion, in particular "power" and "danger" as represented in the issue before the tribe. The Medicine Singer Chiefs in the southwest speak to purpose and direction. They must answer the question, "Is this proposal on target for the tribe?" In the west are the Women Chiefs. "Maintenance" and "balance" are the key words in their deliberation; they must concern themselves with healing and nurturing, protecting and caring for the tribe. The Council Chiefs in the northwest speak to timing and interrelatedness. In offering their council, they consider the question, "Is this the right time?" In particular, they focus on the flow and turn of events in the life of the tribe. In the north are the Hunter/Worker Chiefs. Their focus is strategy and implementation, their key words "clarity" and "action." Finally in the northeast are the Law Dog Chiefs. They speak to "integrity" and "vitality," and must determine whether the council has spoken sufficiently to reach a decision, or whether the ceremony is incomplete and the wheel must go around again. The council ceremony always begins in the east and proceeds clockwise around the circle of the medicine wheel, with each chief speaking to the issue before the tribe and representing his or her designated perspective. The talking stick passes from chief to chief; each chief rises to speak and identifies himself or herself, identifies the perspective from which he or she speaks, and then offers wisdom on the issue, usually talking for less than 10 minutes. In the center of the medicine wheel are the Zero Chiefs, whose job is to ensure that the process is honored and that the discussion moves as it should.

Because of the design of the medicine wheel, the quality of the discussion is dramatically different from a traditional Western meeting. Each chief adds to the council from his or her perspective, but none of the chiefs debates with or directly contradicts any other. The ceremony is a council, not an argument; understanding does not come out of conflict but accumulates and then emerges.

Not all council ceremonies lead to consensus. If the ceremony has been completed and the council has not reached an agreement, one of two things can happen. The group can suspend the ceremony while it collects its energy for another attempt. Or if there is an emergency and a decision must be reached, the council can give someone the authority to decide, with the understanding that not everyone is in accord. As WindEagle says: "If there's agreement, that's good. If there's disagreement, at least we've heard it in depth and we can establish what it is. This process is not about positions, it's about people. It's about perspectives and wisdom. It creates relationship, connection, and respect. When you speak and you're different from me, I value your opinion. If we can live that way, we'll be wiser in the actions we take." What distinguishes the council ceremony as a decision-making technique is the nature and quality of the discussion. The actual protocols are about as different from most corporate decision-making practices as possible. "When the council comes together, it's a cumulative process, rather than a debating process," says RainbowHawk. "Being a chief in the council setting means stepping forward for the whole. Each person adds to it and as each adds, the container of wisdom gets fuller." (