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Consensus among Inuit Women—
A Lesson

by Kuya Minogue

Last night was my most amazing night yet [at a new job as adult education coordinator for the town of Qikitarjuaq, on a small island off the east coast of Baffin Island]. I had called a meeting of all the women who are interested in the kamik (sealskin boot) making class. Twenty women showed up, all but two of whom had called in to sign up. Since I know nothing about kamik making and since the instructor neither speaks nor understands English, I had decided that I would let the class members decide when, where, how many etc. Everyone knew that the budget only covered 70 hours of instruction and materials for 12 kamiks. Unless they felt I needed to know something or they had a question, the entire meeting was conducted in Inuktitut.

As you probably know, consensus decision making is a deep part of Inuit culture. I thought I knew what consensus decision making meant until I watched the women in this meeting. My experience with consensus has been that it's long and slow and grueling. Not so with these women. They quickly realized that they had four main issues: when to hold the class, how to conduct the class within the allotted 70 hours, how many would be in the class and how would the money for the materials be used and distributed. Another deep underlying cultural issue was that no one could leave the meeting unhappy with the results. I thought we would be there until midnight. The meeting lasted one and a half hours.

One of the women kept me informed about the topic under discussion at any given point. They started with the most difficult - student numbers and distribution of materials. The teacher talked for about five minutes and then visibly sat back to withdraw from the discussion. There was a general hubbub in which it seemed like the meeting had fallen apart. Women talked in pairs or small groups. Occasionally one women would stand up and speak loudly over the din to the whole group. The group composition shifted and moved as women moved around to talk with each other. they spontaneously formed dyad, triads and occasionally small groups of four or five. There was no one visibly directing this process. This went on for about 10 minutes, then they came back to the table and there was complete silence. They had not solved the problem. So they went on to the easier issues: when to meet and instructor hours.

The process that I described above occurred again, only this time when the silence came, one woman informed me that they would meet Saturdays 1-5, and Mondays and Wednesdays 7-9. The instructor said that she would volunteer if her 70 hours expired before they got the kamiks finished. Then they returned to the issue of student numbers and distribution of materials. Again it seemed to me like the group had fallen apart ,and again, when they came back to the silence, no solution had been found. This time, during the silence, women quietly left the table, got tea, went out for a smoke, or paced the floor. The energy was very calm and peaceful and I sensed no conflict - just consensus building. The silence lasted for at least 10 minutes.

Finally, after another round of discussion and silence, one woman stood up and addressed the group. When she finished, everyone laughed and clapped. I knew that consensus had been reached. They had decided that all 20 women would be in the class, that they would bring their own skins to supplement the budget, that six women would make small children's kamiks and that they would split any excess costs.

© Copy right Kuya Minogue 2001. Last updated10 March 2001