Tyson Yunkaporta
Tyson Yunkaporta, Deakin University

Dr Tyson Yunkaporta has struck a serious and important note in the Australian psyche with his recent book, Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World

Speaking to The Fifth Estate for the How to Build a Better World podcast, Dr Yunkaporta said that the book sold far more than he imagined. In fact he said he thought hardly anyone would read it. How pleasingly wrong he was. The book has been a talking point among a growing number of people and the impact of his insights into Indigenous culture in this country just keeps growing.

Apalech clan member Dr Yunkaporta is a deep and wide thinker, an academic and poet who dabbles in traditional wood carving. He’s innovative, provocative, and pulls no punches when he’s talking about the impact of white settlers on this land and on Australia’s Indigenous People. 

As a senior research fellow at Deakin University, he has been responsible for establishing the Indigenous Knowledge Systems Lab – creating a space where Indigenous practitioners can come together and apply Indigenous thinking to different contexts around the world. 

His 2019 book Sand Talk explores the connected methodologies of Indigenous thinking and how it can overcome some of the planet’s biggest challenges. 

In this episode of our podcast Dr Yunkaporta spends the first part of the conversation identifying and exploring Australia’s extractive form of colonisation. Then, he moves on to some really interesting philosophical ideas and discussions of cultural practices in Indigenous Nations. 

His insights are impressive, and sometimes startling in the logical and creative solutions that Indigenous people in this country have brought to societal and environmental challenges. 

For instance, Dr Yunkaporta says in his book that everyone acts stupidly some time in their lives. In the so-called West, we punish offenders by throwing them in jail, and when they come out they are typically shunned by society. Logically this can lead to downward spiral of antisocial, destructive or even criminal behaviour. 

Conversely, in many Indigenous societies there is a clearly defined system of punishment. After the punishment is carried out, the offender is welcomed back into the group, and with higher status than previously because they’ve helped reinforce the social order. 

There’s also a powerful way to share power. For instance in cultural burning, where men might hold some of the knowledge and women might hold the other part – and they need to come together to undertake the task successfully.

He talks about cautionary historical allegories that tell of what happens when humans try to be greater than what they are – like the story of Icarus flying too close to the sun – that warn human beings to not take too much authority and control over their own species and the natural world. 

“These are cautionary tales that have been handed down from our most distant human ancestors.”

“All authority, power or resources must be distributed… every person has to be completely free, but at the same time completely bound within complex relationships that they have obligations to. It’s two sides of one coin.

“[Humans have] a very ecological niche which is quite unique, because we’re a custodial species in relation to the landscape and… each other, and with other non-human entities in the landscape.”

It’s the social and cultural disconnect that we are experiencing in the modern world that he says is caused by our extractive economic system’s obsession with dominance and separation from nature and each other.

“All human beings have a natural disgust for our coercion, we just cannot stomach it… And that includes plants, animals, rocks, everything. You cannot control these things. You can have a custodial relation with these things where you tend to them… but you cannot have that corrosive relation with the mother. 

“This economic system came from a 10,000 year old experiment of separating from the mother. They invented the word for nature in order to separate themselves: separate the human from nature – separate from the mother. Once you do that, you are then free to displace your matriarchs, you are then free to displace the centre of your community – which is the mother and the child – and all relationships in human communities.”

Dr Yunkaporta also talks about how we’re going to survive the coming environmental storm, which he says is not going to be easy. 

He’s working along with other Indigenous colleagues, such as Chels Marshall, and Deakin University to create a national system to relocate as environmental changes call for it. 

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