Yarning Circle Meaning and Importance for Australian Indigenous Culture

As we approach the Australian Referendum on the proposed introduction of a permanent Indigenous Voice to Parliament, many are interested in what this might mean and the benefits for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people now and in the generations to come.

A Voice to Parliament–one of the prominent suggestions explained further in our Uluru Statement From the Heart summary–would be an important step in addressing the substantial imbalance, ensuring that representatives of Aboriginal people would act in an advisory and consultative manner to inform legislative and parliamentary policy.

In this articleToday, we’ll explore the meaning of the yarning circle, an integral part of dialogue and negotiation for First Nations people, to show the importance of restoring cultural practices and how this relates to conventional decision-making.

What Is a Yarning Circle?

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people belong to the oldest living civilisation on the planet, with a rich and diverse culture and system of beliefs centred on respect, peacefulness and truth. Looking through an Aboriginal rights timeline paints a stark picture of the countless ways First Nations people have had their rights, autonomy and culture repressed. 

A yarning circle is one of those key elements of Indigenous culture, where decisions are made collaboratively and through inclusive dialogue rather than having one person in a position of power who makes autonomous decisions that may affect others. 

Instead, yarning circles invite everybody to participate on equal standing, learn as a collective of people with different ideas and experiences, and create respectful and appreciative relationships. This helps to foster a spirit of accountability and honesty and create a safe space where everybody is listened to and heard.

Yarning circles have been used across Indigenous communities for thousands of years and act as a conversational process for storytelling, sharing knowledge, safeguarding beliefs and culture, and finding the right ways to solve problems and criticisms without conflict, hostility, or blame.

The Place of the Yarning Circle in Modern Life

Should the Voice to Parliament be introduced following the Referendum, the representatives elected to speak on behalf of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will undoubtedly base their discussions and consultations on the concept of the yarning circle.

Rather than being a ‘way of doing things,’ the circle represents the fundamental belief that all people are equal, everybody’s stories are valuable, and the creation of new knowledge or greater understanding is best achieved through thoughtful collaboration. Yarning circles are now being introduced in schools, universities, workplaces, and other group settings to explore the power of storytelling, active listening, and taking time to explore alternative thoughts or views.

Understanding Yarning Circles in Indigenous Culture

The four cornerstones of First Nations culture are family, land, law, and language. The way people interact with the world around them and consider their relationships with each other, the natural landscape, and their communities differ considerably from the Western convention.


For example, the land we live on is not a benign object or something a person can truly own. Instead, Aboriginal culture sees the land as a living thing that provides shelter and sustenance, where each person is responsible for caring for and nurturing the land as the custodian for the next generation.

These contrasts are connected to the yarning circle, where societal groups are based on kinship systems, with a strong focus on ceremony, custom, tradition, and learning about the environment–many of the long-standing customs and beliefs within the culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people remain an integral part of modern life.

However, it is important to recognise that not every Indigenous culture is identical. There are considerable diversities between Indigenous communities across Australia, with different characteristics, although the yarning circle remains a commonality across many First Nations groups.

The Connection Between Aboriginal Culture and Kinship

Kinship relates not only to the relationships between one person and their immediate family, but also to extended relatives, the broader community, and the land. The value of sharing is embedded, where each person is accepted and recognised for the strengths they bring to their community while respected for their limitations.

This way of life means that obligations to support, respect, and trust one another are about more than the immediate family unit and create an environment where listening, learning, culture, and knowledge are all equally important–as represented by the symbolic shape of the yarning circle.

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