The Talking Circle

I felt awkward, unsure of where to wait. Most of the clients were finishing an evening Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and the hogan was yet empty, although a fire was burning in the wood stove. I wandered back through the cold air to the main building, hoping to find someone to talk to while I waited.

Walking in the halls of the behavioral health center, I noticed a woman was signing in at the front desk. Her graying hair was pulled back in a pony tail that reached to the middle of her back. She wore large round glasses that fit her smooth gentle features. A heavy wool cardigan sweater hung from her shoulders, and she carried a wooden box and metal bowl. This was the woman who would be facilitating the talking circle.

She led me outside and across the hard desert ground to the eight sided log cabin called a hogan. We entered through the door on the east side. Inside, the floor was covered with sand, and the walls were plain. In the center of the room there was a wood stove, and a folding table stood next to the door. Two electric lights lit the room.

There was a client in the room tending the fire and the facilitator engaged him in conversation. The empty room presented me with my original problem. I looked around for an unobtrusive spot, and sat for the moment against the south wall.

The facilitator began to explain the unique nature of the night's talking circle. She typically ran a session as a form of group therapy with attention to some native American traditions. Three weeks before this night's session, some of the clients asked if she had access to the materials needed to run a Navajo ceremony. Her father had been a road man, and she was thrilled that his equipment could be used again.

An older client, Willie, had run the ceremony the last two weeks. On this night, she explained, other clients decided to run the ceremony in Willie's honor. He had done so much to help them, they wanted him to have the opportunity to sit as a patient and devote his energies entirely to healing himself.

I walked to where she sat against the northwest wall to see what she had brought for the ceremony. She built a staff from three pieces and brought out an eagle feather, a gourd rattle, braided sweet grass, and a bag of cedar chips. A man was stretching a hide over the metal bowl to create a drum. Between the west wall and the wood stove, another person formed a raised circle of sand about one foot across, placing embers from the fire in its center. Other clients were filtering in as she began to explain the philosophy behind the ceremony to me and to anyone else who felt like listening.

She said that alcohol is a poison created by man and is not meant for the Navajo people. It is a habit of destruction, a choice against harmony. We live by making choices that are either in harmony with the world and our place in it or against this harmony. The ceremony is intended to provide an environment in which harmony can be reestablished, destructive choices can be cast aside, and a commitment to return to the outside with renewed understanding of proper living can be made. I returned to my spot on the south wall as she continued to explain.

A tall man sat against the west wall with the tools of the roadman arrayed in front of him. To his right sat the man who had constructed the drum. No one else sat against the west wall. He explained his gratitude to Willie and the clients' desire to return the favor. Then he spoke about the sense of respect in conduct that was appropriate to the hogan. He spoke for a few minutes in Navajo and the ceremony began. He threw a few cedar chips on the embers in front of him. Willie rolled tobacco into a corn husk and smoked. As these pleasant smells spread about the room, the drummer began a steady rhythm. The road man held the staff and eagle feather in his left hand, and played the gourd rattle in synch with the drum. He began to sing a Navajo prayer, and as other members of the group recognized or learned the song, they joined in. Others spoke prayers or confessions aloud to the rising cedar smoke. The effect was profound. I could not tell from where the different voices were coming, and the drifting smoke clouded the face of Willie and those nearest him. When the first song ended, the roadman began another. After the third he passed the staff, eagle feather and gourd clockwise to Willie. The drummer followed and took his seat to the right of Willie. The drumming began again with Willie leading a prayer. After two or three songs he passed the staff, feather and gourd in a clockwise direction, the drummer followed and the singing began again. Slowly the tools of the road man made their way around the room. Some passed the tools while others took their turn leading a prayer. When the staff and feather reached me, I in turn passed them to my left. The lead was passed like this for an hour and a half before completing two full circles.

The hogan represents the world, the womb, spiritual life, time, and daily obligations. I do not remember all that she said, but I will try to recreate the symbolism as I understood it. The hogan faces east, which is the direction of the great spirit, the sunrise, and birth. With the rising sun, you should greet the morning and pray to the great spirit. The door is on the east wall to let the great spirit enter. The southeast wall represents childhood, and reminds us that schooling is the primary responsibility of this time in life. Adolescence is represented by the southwest wall. Obligations during this time include finding your path and deciding on a trade to support you and a family. The adult is to work during the day; that is represented along the length of the south side. The western wall is the sunset and a call to duties at home, which include tending the fire, feeding the family, and playing with the children. The northwest wall is adulthood, and the northeast wall old age. Throughout the course of the north side, time draws closer to death and reunion with the great spirit. Adults need to pay attention to the spiritual. The north side is night, the time of rest. Everything moves in a clockwise direction in the hogan. Clockwise represents harmonious choices, counterclockwise destructive choices.

As I sat, trying to absorb all that she was saying, a group of about fifteen men and women had gathered. Though I knew some of the clients from working with them during the day, I received little more than a nod of recognition. I was very preoccupied with not offending anyone by my presence at their ceremony, even though I had been invited by several of the people now present. My anxiety was relieved when a middle-aged man sat next to me, breaking my sense of isolation simply by connecting me spatially with the group. The roadman put more cedar on the fire and explained that the rising smoke helped carry our prayers to the Great Spirit. He asked us to bless ourselves, and we all reached toward the cedar smoke, drawing it toward us and patting ourselves from foot to head. Willie then stood in front of the circle of sand as the roadman blessed him. He drew the cedar smoke towards Willie with the eagle feather and patted him with it from foot to head. Willie sat down and the roadman waved the smoke toward the sky with the eagle feather. He than sat down and the singing began again.

On the fourth time around I again passed the staff and feather to my left when I heard someone whisper, "ask him if he wants to try it." My neighbor smiled kindly, and rather than taking the staff from me, he encouraged me to try. The drummer began. I shook the gourd rattle in my right hand as I had seen the others do, but I did not know the words to sing. There was only the sound of the rattle and drum for a few moments when an older man to my right began to sing for me. It was hypnotic to play the gourd and stare into the smoke. I was moved beyond words to be included so completely in this experience.


Behavioral Health Services is primarily an alcoholic rehabilitation program run by the Rehobeth McKinley Hospital in Gallup. Clients, almost entirely Navajo, stay for thirty days of group therapy and individual counseling. Most of the therapy is based on the Alcoholics Anonymous program. Only recently, and against some resistance, have Navajo healing practices entered into the picture. A hogan and a sweat lodge have been built, and each is used for traditional ceremonies about once a week. I could sense, however, the indifference that some of the staff held toward these activities. Once the facilitator for the sweat lodge called to ask that some clients get the fire started around ten o'clock. The head nurse huffed that she couldn't pull anyone from group therapy, and she canceled the sweat. I agree that group therapy is an essential element of their day, but I am confident something could have been arranged. I know that to many of the clients this was the most important event of the week.

In general, we practitioners of western medicine are arrogant about our knowledge. We believe that the scientific method and reason have led us to the best and only answers to illness. I have heard doctors dismiss therapies because there is no data confirming that they work. But no data means no data. Should we dismiss everything in which we have doubt? I find it particularly frustrating to see resistance to alternative treatment of alcoholics. Western medicine has had abysmal results with this disease. We have made some headway with the introduction of naltrexone, but surely this is a field where our minds should be open. Do we consider Alcoholics Anonymous western medicine? No, but it makes sense to us, we have seen it work, and it's all we have to offer.

I have been to an AA meeting in Philadelphia, and the look of hope and renewal in the faces of the participants was inspiring. I know that the staff members of BHS have seen these very same emotions when other westerners have attended their meetings. I also believe that they are trying to effect this state of mind among the clients at BHS. I have no way to know for sure, but I am confident that the clients who participated in the talking circle made a more substantial step toward health and sobriety than during any five hours of AA meetings. The language and concepts were their own.

I am a firm believer in AA. I think it has worked wonders for an incredible number of people. I believe its effect is through the emotional state that I described above. But do the Navajo react to AA in the same way as westerners? One of my classmates noticed that many of the clients left an AA meeting quite confused. They asked many questions about the twelve steps. It was not the English they were having trouble with, but the concepts. Only one of the therapists has attempted to translate the twelve steps into modified descriptions that fit Navajo conceptions more easily. Why not embrace the talking circle as an opportunity to look at a more culturally specific approach? I do applaud BHS for taking the steps it has, but I am surprised that anyone opposed these ideas. If any of the staff members attended the talking circle, I am sure they would see the sense of renewal that the ceremony attempts to bring to the patients.

The end of the ceremony

The ceremony lasted about five hours. At the end we all drank a small sip of water to cleanse the spirit. This was the pure drink intended for humans, the facilitator explained. We then stood and stretched. Everyone was smiling warmly and we all shook hands as we circled clockwise toward the door. Nearly everyone thanked me for being there, for participating in their healing. I felt warm inside, at peace as I left the hogan, renewed in my commitment to living wisely. I could see a sense of hope in the faces of these men and women who were now returning to their lives, looking for openings and opportunities to make harmonious choices.