Circle of Courage: learning from the past


A late snowfall—the largest in six years—had turned the Black Hills of South Dakota white surrounding Rapid City, just a short drive from the famed presidential carvings of Mount Rushmore. But it’s only a little further down the road to a still more ambitious mountain-carving project, the Crazy Horse Monument, where the visitor and cultural centre serve as a repository for the artefacts and history of the indigenous inhabitants
of the region.

This is the place and tradition from which the “Circle of courage” originated.

And Jonathan Duffy, leader of the “Circle of courage” rides in Australia and New Zealand, has travelled to South Dakota to connect with the descendants of the original practitioners of the philosophy of child-rearing and youth development that has come to be known as the “Circle of courage.”*

Luke Yellowrobe is a member of the Rosewood Sioux tribe. He worked as a law-enforcement officer in Rapid City for 11 years. “Nine of those 11 years of service I served as an investigator in child protection,” he says. “And, sadly, when you work in that field you begin to see some of the social ills that are plaguing our society.”

“There were unanswered questions I felt needed to be answered as to how we help our children. How do we impact their lives so they won’t become statistics?”

Prompted by these questions, Yellowrobe has now worked for the past 12 years with an organisation called Children’s Home Society. “Children’s Home serves kids aged four to 12 who have faced extreme cases of abuse and neglect,” he explains. “I’ve now committed my life to helping my people and all those within my sphere of influence realise there are solutions.”

In this role and in associated humanitarian work with Native American groups and beyond, Yellowrobe has seen much that makes positive changes to young people in negative circumstances.
But he draws his greatest lessons from his family.

“My father worked for the [United States] Federal government for 25 years and he is my greatest hero today,” Yellowrobe says with obvious pride. “My dad should not have been a good dad.”

“Statistics say we have a tendency to pattern our lives around our past—that we’ll become what was modelled for us. My dad blew those stats right out of the water. He grew up with the inconsistencies we see in the life of a child who has grown up in an alcoholic environment.”

But, according to Yellowrobe, the difference in his father’s life was simple.

“He made a choice,” he says. “When they met, my father made a promise to my mother, ‘I will never subject you to the things I experienced in my life and I will never put our children through that.’”

Yellowrobe recalls how this choice also made an impact beyond their family.

“Growing up on the reservation, I can remember cars pulling into our driveway in the middle of the night,” he says. “I would hear someone knock on the door, call my father’s name, apologise, saying, ‘I’ve been drinking. I haven’t fed my children in two or three days. Can you help me?’

“I would hear my father and mother get up. And as a child, I knew my family was reaching out to touch someone’s life. They didn’t teach us—they modelled it for us. That was generosity in motion. “They had a belief system that there was a deep sense of purpose and there was a reason for life. And that was modelled for us as a family.”

Yellowrobe references the “Circle of courage” model to explain the difference he sees in his family and that he has applied in his work. “Our word for children simply means ‘sacred child’ or ‘sacred being,’” he explains. “And so our children were placed on a pedestal and anthropologists have long known that our people reared respectful, courageous children without all the adverse controls.”

According to Yellowrobe, relationships are vital to this process. “When we have a relationship and until the children and their families are able to see the character and integrity in you, that will help remove the barriers that exist between most relationships,” he says. “We’re experiencing within the cultures a lack of trust. And when trust is in place, once again you begin to see barriers come down.”

“Our children have been poisoned. Our kids have been told, ‘I wish you were never born.’ Our kids have been told, ‘You’re alcoholics, you’re drunks, you’ll never amount to anything and you won’t graduate from high school, nor will you attain because of what you have experienced.’”

“We have a tendency as adults who use our autobiographical experiences to try to impact children,” Yellowrobe continues. “But I want to be able to listen to them. I want to be able to hear their heart. I want to be able to disclose and know that I’m a trusted adult.”

In his experience, this is the basis of making changes. “When they begin to find that model, when they begin to align with that model through relationship, it’s all about empowering that child based on their deepest desires, their greatest strengths,” says Yellowrobe.

“I teach that the curse of society is the norm, and sometimes society tries to get us to go with the flow, while we live in a world that’s a negative flow,” he says. “Living by faith, living by purpose, is almost like trying to paddle upstream. I want kids to study which way the crowd is going and, based on a deep sense of purpose, realise the potential is there to make a choice to go the opposite direction.”

Again, for Yellowrobe, this is based on relationships. “Children tend to become what that most trusted adult thinks they will become, and when trust is there through relationship it will form trustworthiness,” he explains.

And when trustworthiness is in place we begin to see the potential, we begin to see that child show an interest based on their environment. We’re all products of our environment; but how we view that world serves as the lenses on what’s been modelled to us. And so we need to get back to modelling to our kids who they are.”

Yellowrobe emphasises the importance of a sense of purpose in growing healthy young people. “Purpose is the original intent for the creation or the existence of a thing,” he expands.

“We’ve had strong beliefs in a Creator and our children are beginning to understand that the Creator put them here for a reason. And with that purpose our children will be able to rise higher. That sense of purpose will serve as a guiding light to help them dig deep and help them realise the importance of overcoming obstacles.”

With a broad smile and a gentle but firm delivery, Yellowrobe is enthusiastic in sharing wisdom from his heritage in explaining the “Circle of courage” model—and he sees that this sharing fits with the value of generosity that is itself part of the model.

“Based on the values and the principles within the culture, one of our greatest strengths was to be able to share our culture with the many,” says Yellowrobe. “That is one of the greatest strengths of the ‘Circle of courage.’”

“When that sense of belonging was in place and our children were able to master things in their lives and begin to think in terms of independence, their greatest strength was to be able to give back.”

*As described in Reclaiming Youth at Risk: Our Hope for the Future by Larry K Brendtro, Martin Brokenleg and Steve Van Bockern (1990).
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