The Ugly Feather: The Story of a Circle Process at Work

Excerpted from Peacemaking Circles: From Crime to Community by Kay Pranis, Barry Stuart, and Mark Wedge (Living Justice Press, 2003) Available through Living Justice Press: a non-profit publisher for restorative justice

Slumped in his chair, legs stretched out, arms folded and head down, Jamie listened as the feather was passed around the Circle. People were talking about him or his crime. He heard anger, but mostly he heard people asking him in many different ways: Why? Why had he spent so many years lost to alcohol and crime? When was he going to change? What would it take for him to change? Did he not care about the people he hurt? He was now twenty-one; when was he going to grow up? When was he going to take responsibility for his life?

Amidst the questions and anger were comments reflecting on his past—about the good things he had done. Some spoke about how he dealt with Elders and young people and about what he could be. These comments surprised him. Those were the only times he looked up. A furtive glance at those who spoke kindly about him briefly altered his otherwise frozen posture, sending messages that he didn’t care and perhaps wasn’t even listening.

But Jamie was listening. He was nervous, very nervous. He knew the feather would soon be passed to him. Soon he would have to talk and answer many questions. In court, anger, hostility, and a silent resignation to the process enabled him to slip through without being involved. Not here.

The feather came to him. He held the feather, twirling it in his hands. He paused. “I don’t know what to say. I’m here because I want to change. That’s it.”

He passed the feather to John with a desperate hope that John might answer all the questions. John, a respected Elder, had been talking with him for weeks, trying to help him prepare for the Circle. John was in the Circle to support him. Jamie thought John would help him now.

John held the feather but didn’t speak. Jamie worried that John might pass the feather back to him. John reached into his pouch and pulled out another feather. This feather was hardly recognizable as an eagle feather. It was twisted and large gaps suggested strands were missing. It was bedraggled, unkempt, and obviously not cared for—not a sacred object. John held up the feather for everyone to see.

“This is a very ugly feather. I don’t know when I’ve seen such an ugly feather. This feather reminds me of myself when I was running wild and crazy. I was missing many strands, it seemed. I was twisted up inside, full of booze and anger, full of not caring for anyone, not even for myself. I was an ugly feather with lots of gaps in my life. I want everyone to see up close how ugly this feather really is, so I’m going to pass it around while I talk. Hold this feather for a while. Look at it, feel it, and see how ugly and uncared for it is.”

As the feather passed around the Circle, John spoke about his youth and broken life.

“I wasn’t going anywhere but bad. I needed help, but I didn’t know it. I needed someone to care, but I didn’t know that either. Then Agnes, an Elder, came into my life. Slowly, you know, she always greeted me with a smile and asked how I was doing. Sometimes she gave me presents of food. She asked me to her house for tea. We talked. At first, she just listened. I did most of the talking. Soon she had me meeting with other Elders. Then I got working with an Elder on a trapline. I was still drinking, but it seemed like a lot less. She kept me busy.”

“Pete, her husband, died that fall. It hit her hard. She turned to me for help. I didn’t know how to handle that. I tried. I spent time with her. I went hunting and fishing to bring her food. She counted on me. That made me try.”

“Soon I was taking courses from Sue, her niece, at the school. They kept me at it even when I went to jail for drunken driving. It was the first time I was ever embarrassed to be in jail. I’d been there before—lots of times. This time was different. I worried about Agnes. Who would get her food? Who’d visit her? People did, but I worried about it.”

“She was worried about me too. Agnes saw to it that lots of people visited me in jail. They even had a dinner for me when I got out. I had to miss the drunk party planned by some of us getting out of jail the same day.”

“She kept me at it, because she cared and got me caring. Agnes filled my life with caring people. It happened slowly, but it happened.”

By the time John finished the story of his youth, the old, ugly feather had been around the Circle. Jamie held it for a moment, stroked it, and passed it to John. Holding up the old feather, John said, “Now, look how beautiful this old, ugly feather has become.”

The feather was different. Maybe not beautiful, but certainly not ugly. Everyone, as they held the feather and listened to John, had stroked it almost unconsciously, as most of us do when holding a feather.

Still holding up the feather, John said, “This feather is like me. Once I was ugly, mad, and twisted up by anger. There were big gaps in my life. Many important parts of living a good life were missing. Then Agnes and several others came into my life. They held me, cared for me, and changed me like this feather. That’s what we all have to do with Jamie. If all of us touch him with caring hands, we can help him become like this feather.”

“Everything is beautiful, is sacred. It takes caring to bring out beauty, to make someone realize they are sacred, and to make us realize they are sacred. So I’m asking all of us tonight to touch Jamie’s life, to care for him, to bring out his beauty, his sacred spirit.”

John spoke about how Jamie had come to him asking for help. They had spoken several times, shared a sweat, and told each other the stories of their lives. “I believe in this young man. I believe he is genuine about wanting to change. In our old ways, we give a feather to those we believe in, those we want to know the teachings.”

John stood, called upon Jamie to stand up, and presented Jamie with the once-ugly feather. “Jamie, this feather is yours. It says to you we believe in you. As this feather has been changed into something beautiful by the caring hands of everyone in the Circle, so will you be touched by the caring hands of all the people in our community. By respecting yourself, you will respect those who touch your life with care. Respect this feather. Let it keep you aware of what you are and of how people care about you.”

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