reading notes for Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta (still to sort into chapters)

I don’t know why Stephen Hawking and others have worried about super-intelligent beings from other planets coming here and using their advanced knowledge to do to the world what industrial civilisation has already done. Beings of higher intelligence are already here, always have been. They just haven’t used their intelligence to destroy anything yet. Maybe they will, if they tire of the incompetence of domesticated humans.

Most of us have been displaced from those cultures of origin, a global diaspora of refugees severed not only from land, but from the sheer genius that comes from belonging in symbiotic relation to it.

The Sumerians started it. The Romans perfected it. The Anglosphere inherited it. The world is now mired in it. The war between good and evil is in reality an imposition of stupidity and simplicity over wisdom and complexity.

Viewing the world through a lens of simplicity always seems to make things more complicated, but simultaneously less complex.

For an Indigenous Australian coming from an intensely interdependent and interpersonal oral culture, writing speech-sound symbols for strangers to read makes things even more complicated. That is exacerbated when the audience is preoccupied with notions of authenticity and the writer’s standing as a member of a cultural minority that has lost the right to define itself.

In my own world I know myself as my community knows me: a boy who belongs to the Apalech clan from Western Cape York, a Wik Mungkan speaker with ties to many language groups on this continent, including adoptive ties. Some adoptive ties are informal, such as those I have in New South Wales and Western Australia, but my customary adoption two decades ago into Apalech is under Aboriginal Law, which is strict and inalienable. This Law prevents me from identifying with Nungar/Koori/Scottish affiliations by descent and demands that I take on exclusively the names and roles and genealogies required of Apalech clan membership. I honour this no matter what, even though I know most people don’t understand it and it makes me look silly

My life story is not redemptive or inspiring in any way and I don’t like sharing it. It shames and traumatises me, and I need to protect myself as well as others who have been thrown about in the cyclones of this messy colonial history. But people insist on knowing about it before reading my work, for some reason, so here is the condensed version.

Like I said, this is not an inspirational tale of redemption or triumph over adversity. I’m not a success story or role model or expert or anything like that. I am still a reactive and abrasive boy who is terrified of the world, although this is moderated now by a core of calm and intelligence my family has worked hard to develop in me. This is the thing that keeps me breathing, along with a network of relations and cultural affiliations all over the continent that I have obligations to, demanding I move in the world with respect and care. Or try to: I don’t always succeed. But there are many people who care for me and defend me no matter what, and when I travel around there is always a bed, a yarn and a feed waiting for me. My woman, my children and my community hold me up and watch my back, as I watch theirs. I know who I am, where I belong and what I call myself, and it is enough.

Speaking of Rome, it must be acknowledged that there is nothing new about imperial cultures imposing classifications on Indigenous people. The Romans classified the Gauls in three groups this way: the toga-wearing Gauls (basically Romans with moustaches), then the short-haired (semi-civilised) Gauls, then the long-haired (barbarian) Gauls. Although I have spent a lot of my life in Australia as a long-haired Gaul, I have to question my right to claim that now. If I am honest with myself I need to acknowledge that I can’t remember the last time I ate turtle outside of a funeral feast, as a way of living rather than a remembrance of people and times lost. My feet, hands and belly have become soft and I use the term ‘neo-liberalism’ far more often than I use the word miintin (turtle).

which Gaul would a Roman talk to when seeking Indigenous Knowledge solutions to the crises of civilisation? Of course, the Romans did no such thing, which may help explain why their system collapsed after only a thousand years or so, but if they had, which Gauls would have offered the solutions they needed?

The short-haired Gauls, on the other hand, carried enough fragmentary Indigenous Knowledge and struggled enough within the harsh realities of transitional Romanisation to be able to offer some hybridised insight — some innovative sustainability tips to the doomed empire occupying their lands and hearts and minds. Of course, simplistic categories that rank occupied Peoples by degree of domestication do not reflect the complex realities of contemporary Indigenous communities, identities and knowledge. They certainly do not work in Australia.

Our complex history as Australian First Peoples does not align with most criteria demanded for authentication and recognition by colonists.

The Indigenous ‘self’ that has been designed by outsiders to render programs of self-determination safe does not reflect our reality. Even our organisation into discrete ‘nations’ (to negotiate the structures of Native Title that facilitate mineral extraction) does not reflect the complexity of our identities and knowledges. We all once had multiple languages and affiliations, meeting regularly with different groups for trade, joining in marriage and customary adoption across those groups, including some groups from Asia and New Guinea. I know for many people there are elements of those laws and customs still in place, and I am one of those people.

But I also know that the horrific process of European occupation resulted in the removal of most of us from our communities of origin, many to reserves and institutions far from home as part of forcible assimilation programs. Biological genocide was attempted through large-scale efforts to ‘breed out’ dark skin, with the infamous Stolen Generations representing only one part of this policy. For many women, marrying or submitting to settler males so that their children might pass for white was the only way to survive this Apocalypse, while waiting for a safer time to return home.

So the recently imposed ‘authenticity’ requirement of declaring an uninterrupted cultural tradition back to the dawn of time is a difficult concession for most of us to make, when the reality is that we are affiliated with multiple groups and also have disrupted affiliations. For many people, these traumatic relations are unsafe to talk about, while for others there are reclaimed connections that are too precarious to declare.

Through the lens of simplicity, historical contexts of interrelatedness and upheaval are sidelined, and the authenticity of Indigenous Knowledge and identity is determined by an illusion of parochial isolation, another fragment of primitive exotica to examine, tag and display. There are zealous gatekeepers on both sides, policing, suppressing. Most of the knowledge that gets through this process is reduced to basic content, artefacts, resources and data, divided into foreign categories, to be stored and plundered as needed. Our knowledge is only valued if it is fossilised, while our evolving customs and thought patterns are viewed with distaste and scepticism.

I can’t participate in this one-sided dialogue between the occupiers and the occupied. For a start I’m not manth thaayan: someone who can speak for cultural knowledge. I’m a younger sibling, so that role is not available to me in our custom. I can speak from the knowledge, but not for it or about all the details

However, I can talk about the processes and patterns I know from my cultural practice, developed within my affiliations with my home community and other Aboriginal communities across this continent, including Nyoongar, Mardi, Nungar and Koori Peoples

Our knowledge endures because everybody carries a part of it, no matter how fragmentary. If you want to see the pattern of creation you talk to everybody and listen carefully. Authentic knowledge processes are easy to verify if you are familiar with that pattern—each part reflects the design of the whole system. If the pattern is present, the knowledge is true, whether the speaker is wearing a grass skirt or a business suit or a school uniform.

I’m not reporting on Indigenous Knowledge systems for a global audience’s perspective. I’m examining global systems from an Indigenous Knowledge perspective.

The gesture involves placing the splayed hand in front of the eyes, providing the lens through which to view the closed hand.

To avoid losing it in a void of print, I have built every chapter on oral culture exchanges: a series of yarns with diverse people who all make me feel uncomfortable. I yarn with those people because they extend my thinking more than those who simply know what I know. Some of them I’ll name, but many would rather not be captured in print and pinned down to a particular moment of thought, preferring to dwell privately in the generative cultural practice of yarning. Yarns are like conversations but take a traditional form we have always used to create and transmit knowledge.

For each chapter, I carved the logic sequences and ideas arising from these yarns into traditional objects before I translated them into print.

This is my method, and I call it umpan because that is our word for cutting, carving and making—it is also the word now used for writing. My method for writing incorporates images and story attached to place and relationships, expressed first through cultural and social activity. My table of contents is visual, and it looks like this:

Each chapter will include some ‘sand talk’, invoking an Aboriginal custom of drawing images on the ground to convey knowledge. I can’t share a lot of the symbolic knowledge because it is either restricted (by age, birth order, gender, mastery levels) or appropriate only for a specific place or group

So the knowledge I will share in the sand-talk section in each chapter will be entry-level. It may reference some stories, but won’t tell them completely. However, I will tell parts of a big story, a meta-story that connects and extends all over Australia through massive songlines in the earth and sky, a Star Dreaming that Juma Fejo from the Larrakia People wants to share with all Peoples. It goes everywhere that turtles go—and there are turtles all over the world, even in desert country, so it connects everybody.

There’s a welcome ceremony at the start and a dance at the end, and everybody goes home happy but none the wiser.

We rarely see global sustainability issues addressed using Indigenous perspectives and thought processes. We don’t see econometrics models being designed using Indigenous pattern-thinking. Instead we are shown a dot painting and implored to make sure we include Indigenous employment in our plans to double a city’s population ‘sustainably’ within a couple of decades. Any discussion of Indigenous Knowledge systems is always a polite acknowledgment of connection to the land rather than true engagement. It is always about the what, and never about the how.

I want to reverse that phenomenon. I want to use an Indigenous pattern-thinking process to critique contemporary systems, and to impart an impression of the pattern of creation itself. I want to avoid the ubiquitous Indigenous literary genre of self-narrative and auto-biography, though I will include some anecdotes and yarns when examples are needed. What I say will still be subjective and fragmentary, of course, and five minutes after it is written it will already be out of date—a problem common to all printed texts. The real knowledge will keep moving in lands and Peoples, and I’ll move on with it. You’ll move on too. Already, you might take away the hand gesture shown earlier, add your own shades of meaning, share it and grow something from that pattern that could never be imagined on a page. I need to pass these concepts on so I can leave them behind and grow into the next stage of knowledge. Failing to pass it all on means I’m carrying it around like a stone and stifling my growth, as well as the regeneration of the systems I live in. I’m getting tired of being a middle-aged boy in my culture.

This book is just a translation of a fragment of a shadow, frozen in time. I make no claims to absolute truth or authority

Things may seem unstructured; I allow the logic to follow the complex patterns I’m trying to describe, which don’t reflect the usual cause–effect relations of print-based thought.

Words may be capitalised that are not usually capitalised, and this changes in different contexts when they have different shades of meaning.

One of the exciting things about the English language is that it is a trade creole, so it changes shape wherever it goes. I will be honouring this quality by taking her for a spin to see how she goes around some tight bends.

English inevitably places settler worldviews at the centre of every concept, obscuring true understanding

For example, explaining Aboriginal notions of time is an exercise in futility as you can only describe it as ‘non-linear’ in English, which immediately slams a big line right across your synapses. You don’t register the ‘non’—only the ‘linear’: that is the way you process that word, the shape it takes in your mind. Worst of all, it’s only describing the concept by saying what it is not, rather than what it is. We don’t have a word for non-linear in our languages because nobody would consider travelling, thinking or talking in a straight line in the first place. The winding path is just how a path is, and therefore it needs no name.

One man tried going in a straight line many thousands of years ago and was called wamba (crazy) and punished by being thrown up into the sky. This is a very old story, one of many stories that tell us how we must travel and think in free-ranging patterns, warning us against charging ahead in crazy ways. So it will be stories, imagery and yarns that will make the English work in this book, with meaning being made in the meandering paths between the words, not the isolated words themselves.

There are many English words to describe our First Peoples and, since none of them is entirely appropriate or accurate, I randomly cycle through most of them, each of which is somebody’s preferred term and somebody else’s offensive label

I use many other terms that I don’t particularly like, such as ‘Dreaming’ (which is a mistranslation and misinterpretation) because a lot of the old people I respect, and who have passed knowledge on to me, use these words. It’s not my place to disrespect them by rejecting their vocabulary choices

In any case, it is almost impossible to speak in English without them, unless you want to say, ‘supra-rational interdimensional ontology endogenous to custodial ritual complexes’ every five minutes. So Dreaming it is.

I discuss some beginner’s knowledge about Aboriginal cosmology, then look for patterns, and then implications for sustainability, in a free-range ramble that should never be taken at face value. I write to provoke thought rather than represent fact, in a kind of dialogical and reflective process with the reader. For this I often use the dual first person. It is a common pronoun in Indigenous languages but not present in English; that’s why I translate it as ‘us-two’, my fingers typing those letters while my mouth is saying ngal.

Solutions to complex problems take many dissimilar minds and points of view to design, so we have to do that together, linking up with as many other us-twos as we can to form networks of dynamic interaction

I’m certainly no authority on any of the ideas in this book and my point of view is marginal, even in my own community. But there is fertile ground at the margins.

The hope is this: that from this liminal point of view us-two might be able to see some things that have been missed, glimpse an aspect of the pattern of creation and run a few thought experiments to see where that pattern takes us.

If we get stuck, we’ll ask the echidnas for help

This isn’t an archaeological site, to be excavated and observed. It is still inhabited. The boy is still here and he probably doesn’t want uninvited visitors. It’s no monument. The place is alive. Every rock is animate and sentient—but in our worldview this is true of all rocks. Far away there is a secret cave with a miniature replica of the site built on the cave floor. People with the knowledge of how to work with the stones there are said to be able to travel between those sites in the blink of an eye. And these places are connected to stone arrangements all over the continent.

Birds flying overhead are part of that creation song in that moment. A satellite. A plane. Two clouds in the north spiralling strangely like snakes. We call that a ‘something’, a sign or a message from the Ancestors.

I can see the pattern—right up until the point I try to write it down, when it disappears like smoke.

There is not much of use here, on the surface of it. These things allow us to assert, ‘See, we’ve been astronomers for thousands of years, so our knowledge matters. You wrecked all that, you bunch of bastards.’ Beyond that, what knowledge can we share to shed light on sustainability and other complex issues?

Juma Fejo tells me everything in creation has Dreaming, even windscreen wipers and mobile phones, so why must our knowledge of creation be frozen in time as an artefact?

Stones in the earth and the sky, all these stories and their connections can tell us more than the mere fact that they have existed for a certain number of millennia. They can tell us about how to deal with the complexities and frailties of human societies, how to limit destructive excesses in these systems, and most importantly how to deal with idiots.

To sit with this story, to discern the pattern, we need to begin by examining rocks.

It would be unhelpful to say, ‘Granite is an igneous crystalline mix of quartz, mica and feldspar.’ It would also be unhelpful to waft around in a tie-dyed shirt hugging the rocks and asking them to divulge their secrets by communing with us through our navel piercings. You have to show patience and respect, come in from the side, sit awhile and wait to be invited in. So we might do some more sand talk first, before we get to the business of rocks and who is allowed to know about them, and how that knowledge might help us to survive today.

I have unresolved issues with Emu, with its role in creation and the behavioural patterns that keep spinning out from this, making problems for human society and, by extension, all of creation. Emu’s problem can be seen in the mathematical greater-than/less-than interpretation of the symbol. Emu is a troublemaker who brings into being the most destructive idea in existence: I am greater than you; you are less than me. This is the source of all human misery. Aboriginal society was designed over thousands of years to deal with this problem.

Containing the excesses of malignant narcissists is a team effort.

A combination of social fragmentation and lightning-fast communication today, however, means we have to deal with these crazy people alone, as individuals butting heads with narcissists in a lawless void, and they are thriving in this environment unchecked. Engaging with them alone is futile—never wrestle a pig, as the old saying goes; you both end up covered in shit, and the pig likes it. The fundamental rules of human interaction do not apply to them, although they weaponise those rules against everyone else.

All over that place in Tibooburra the red rocks are people turned to stone for breaking the Law or messing around too much with weather modification rituals

There is Law and knowledge of Law in stones. All Law-breaking comes from that first evil thought, that original sin of placing yourself above the land or above other people.

In our traditional systems of Law we remember, however, that everyone is an idiot from time to time. Punishment is harsh and swift, but afterwards there is no criminal record, no grudge against the transgressor. Perpetrators are only criminals until they are punished, and then they may be respected again and begin afresh to make a positive contribution to the group. In this way, people will not lie and shift blame or avoid punishment by twisting rules to escape accountability. They can look forward to a clean slate and therefore be willing and equal participants in their own punishment and transformation, which is a learning process more than anything else.

We’ve spent a lot of time sparring in a traditional style that was once done with stone knives. The rules of engagement are that you can only cut your opponent on the arms, shoulders or back (extremely difficult to do) and—here’s the kicker—at the end of the fight the winner must get cut up the same as the loser, so that nobody can walk away with a grudge

In our yarns following these sessions we decided this kind of combat forces you to see your enemy’s point of view, and by the end of it you can no longer be opponents because you’re connected by mutual respect and understanding.

I guess if you wanted to take a contemporary economy that is dependent on perpetual war and try to make it sustainable, you could start by applying similar rules of engagement. But in the stone-knife model, enemies are a non-renewable resource and eventually you would run out of them. It would not be sustainable at all for the war machine if everybody ended up respecting all points of view. Perhaps the transferrable wisdom here is simply that most young men need something a little meatier than mindfulness workshops to curtail the terrifying narcissism that overtakes them from the moment their balls drop. Maybe then they won’t grow up to be the men who start wars in the first place.

This brings us back to that foundational flaw, that Luciferian lie:‘I am greater than you; you are lesser than me.’ Because his appearance does not match some people’s idea of his cultural identity, Max faces abusive encounters grounded in that foundational flaw daily. His identity is constantly questioned by both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people who place themselves in a greater-than position and get a little thrill out of pronouncing judgment on his existence. Max reflects on these encounters, deciding that these people lack their own authentic identities and therefore can only find comfort in assaulting his

When Max recites a hundred digits of pi he is not stepping outside of his identity; he is singing a pattern of creation from north to south. He does not need to have an Elder’s level of knowledge to do this. He needs only to perceive the pattern in what he does know. Keepers of knowledge see him behaving in this way and know he is ready to be responsible for additional knowledge, so pass on story to him. This is how Indigenous Knowledge works.

We yarn about the sentience of stones and the ancient Greek mistake of identifying ‘dead matter’ as opposed to living matter, limiting for centuries to come the potential of western thought when attempting to define things like consciousness and self-organising systems such as galaxies. They viewed space as lifeless and empty between stars; our own stories represented those dark areas as living country, based on observed effects of attraction from those places on celestial bodies. Theories of dead matter and empty space meant that western science came late to discoveries of what they now call ‘dark matter’, finding that those areas of ‘dead and empty’ space actually contain most of the matter in the universe.

Max suggests that in recent decades people have been becoming aware of rock spirit, reminding me of what has been going on at Uluru. There is a shed there full of rocks. For a long time, tourists took stones away from that sacred site as souvenirs, then a few decades ago something strange began to happen. The tourists started mailing the rocks back with panicked reports of weird happenings, disturbed sleep, bad luck, ghostly visitations and terrible accidents. Somehow they knew it was because of the rocks, and were sending them back with desperate apologies. So many were returned that they had to build a big storage shed to house them.

In our Law we know that rocks are sentient and contain spirit. You can’t just pick one up and carry it home, as you will disturb its spirit and it will disturb you in turn. If you sit at any campfire for a yarn with Aboriginal people anywhere on this continent, you will be sure to hear a cautionary tale about a relative who was silly enough to pick up a rock and take it home, who then got sick or was haunted or killed or went crazy. A lot of rocks are benevolent and enjoy being used and traded, but you have to follow the guidance of the old people to know which ones you can use. Rocks are to be respected.

Hopefully I have now given you some ideas on what Indigenous Knowledge is and which Indigenous people have it, and what it might be used for. In case you missed them, the answers are everything, all of us, and anything. But who is Indigenous? For the purposes of the thought experiments on sustainability in this book, an Indigenous person is a member of a community retaining memories of life lived sustainably on a land-base, as part of that land-base. Indigenous Knowledge is any application of those memories as living knowledge to improve present and future circumstances.

Creation time isn’t a ‘long, long ago’ event, because creation is still unfolding now, and will continue to if we know how to know it.

Always was, always is, always will be.

In her kinship system every three generations there is a reset in which your grandparents’ parents are classified as your children, an eternal cycle of renewal. In her traditional language she asks you something that translates directly into English as ‘what place’ but actually means ‘what time’, and you reluctantly shift yourself into that paradigm

Nothing is created or destroyed; it just moves and changes, and this is the First Law. Creation is in a constant state of motion, and we must move with it as the custodial species or we will damage the system and doom ourselves. Nothing can be held, accumulated, stored. Every unit requires velocity and exchange in a stable system or it will stagnate—this applies to economic and social systems as well as natural ones. They all follow the same laws.

My subjective view of the Rainbow Serpent helps me to perceive problems with the timelines we are all forced to inhabit today (although it also makes me miss appointments and write in logic sequences that can be difficult to follow). The arrow of time proposed by physicists works in lab experiments and is a real, observable phenomenon in closed systems. It is a true law. It’s just the wrong law to apply to beings living in open, interconnected systems. It’s a bit like touting the theory that an economy is thriving when the stock markets are doing well—the actual inhabitants of the economy say, sure, stock prices are spiking, but we’re still hungry!

When the yarn is over, I find that ‘whiteness’ is no longer a useful term in my vocabulary. In my community we use the words ‘black’ and ‘white’ every day as a convenient shorthand to describe relationships between the occupiers and the occupied, but those terms are horribly inadequate for describing our reality today, particularly in multicultural and international contexts.

In a world where black African colonists are annexing the traditional lands of fair-skinned Nemadi hunters, where Celts struggle against English domination while Basques in Spain and Koryaks in Russia fight to retain their ancient lands and languages, where diasporic peoples of various skin tones have been making babies together for generations in every country, black and white is a limiting paradigm for understanding the Indigenous experience. The Indigenous experience itself is hard to define as a distinct reality when the non-Indigenous communities of the world have only (relatively) recently been displaced from their own ancestral territories of origin, moved into large cities and towns to provide the labour that progress demands.

For Australians the hazy old binaries of race have become profoundly unsettling and difficult to pin down on a colour-coded continuum of victims and oppressors. ‘People of colour’ in their struggle for economic equality join the rush to exploit Aboriginal land and resources, and are welcome at the boardroom table as long as they embrace settler values and identities. An Indian company undertakes a project to devastate Aboriginal lands and waters in Queensland with coal mining, and farmers formerly opposed to Native Title now stand beside Traditional Owners to protest the development

If the Sami apocalypse had a soundtrack it would be ‘Jingle Bells’.

Time and place are usually the same word in Aboriginal languages—the two are indivisible. At the centre of the compass is the point of impact during a creation moment or site; this and the other points represent seven spirit families and their sacred places.

When I finish my yarn with the Sami women there is a huge gap left in the vocabulary I have been using to describe my world. The words my community have been given in the language of the occupiers to describe our racialised reality have blinded us to the true nature of that reality. We name victims and perpetrators by a colour code that masks the actual forces and patterns that are vexing us. We see ethnic groups with our left eye and we see individuals with our right eye and are blind to anything else. We can’t see the flows of power and control in the world, the systemic suck of resources from south to north. An illusion of time and space, a false global map of places and peoples has slid over our frontal lobes.

Blackie talks about decolonising movements that have been so intent on rejecting western systems of thought that they have focused too much on ways of knowing rather than ways of being, causing a lot of Indigenous Knowledge to be lost in theory rather than being embedded in daily life. On the other hand, a recent obsession with ‘ontology’ has swung the pendulum back the other way, as people seek authentic but individually unique foundations for the traditional knowledge they report on in various media.

In all of this branding and rebranding of Indigenous Knowledge, things can become lost or contaminated. This is not like replacing wood with roofing iron in the manufacture of fishing boomerangs; that’s fine, demonstrating continuity and adaptivity in response to change. It’s more like somebody making up a Dreaming story about the Japanese visiting Australia thousands of years ago when they hear Oldman Juma joking about blackfella ninja stars. Indigenous Knowledge is constantly under threat from such weird amendments and misinterpretations, from within and without. The physical apocalypse of invasion came with a bang, but our cultural armageddon is more of a whimper, a gradual contamination and unravelling of communal knowledge by exceptional individuals.

I’ve seen Dreaming stories invented with no connection to songlines or real places. I’ve seen complicated indigenised rituals manufactured from new-age fripperies. One person says, ‘Today I’m running a buddubigwan, which is the traditional Aboriginal word for workshop,’ and delivers a PowerPoint presentation mixed in with some trust-falls, face-painting and warm fuzzy affirmations. Another person translates the Oxford Dictionary into an Aboriginal language, inventing new Indigenous words for things like tableau, quixotic and xenophobia. This is a work of genius, but the problem is that it is not how cultures adapt and evolve over time. Like all things that last, it must be a group effort aligned with the patterns of creation discerned from living within a specific landscape.

Most lasting cultural innovations occur through the demotic—the practices and forms that evolve through the daily lives and interactions of people and place in an organic sequence of adaptation. When these processes are unimpeded by the arbitrary controls and designs of elevated individuals they emerge in ways that mirror the patterns of creation.

Sustainable systems cannot be manufactured by individuals or appointed committees, particularly during times of intense transition and upheaval. For those seeking sustainability practices from Indigenous cultures it is important to focus on both ancient and contemporary knowledge of a demotic origin, rather than individual inventions or amendments. That is not to say that all demotic innovations are benevolent. But if you listen to many voices and stories, and discern a deep and complex pattern emerging, you can usually determine what is real and what has been airbrushed for questionable agendas or corrupted by flash mobs of narcissists.

I was involved in the emergence of a new funerary ritual over the first decade of this millennium, a headstone opening ceremony that takes place a year or so after a deceased person is buried. It began in a community that had only wooden crosses in the cemetery and was led by a woman who wanted a stone marker erected for her dead son. The creation of the ceremony to ‘open’ that first headstone was a communal process shaped by multiple Elders and family members, incorporating older elements of the traditional mourning process that had fallen into disuse. When it was repeated and modified by many families and different communities it became an authentic innovation embedded in living culture. It even incorporated family savings plans and budgeting to save money for the headstone and the community feast following the ceremony.

The most remarkable thing about western civilisation is its ability to absorb any object or idea, alter it, sanitise it, rebrand it and market it. Even ideas that are a threat can be co-opted and put to work. The Romans did it with Christianity—an ideology of the poor and enslaved that threatened the foundations of empire. When torture and murder became ineffective as deterrents, they simply embraced the idea and made it the state religion, rewriting the holy texts to suit their needs and rebranding it as a new system of control

the Aboriginal flag represents a social system in direct opposition to the global order that requires the existence of flags in the first place.

All over Australia we have stories of past armageddons, warning against the behaviours that make these difficult to survive and offering a blueprint for transitional ways of being, so that our custodial species can continue to keep creation in motion. Butterfly goes off on her own on opal Country to chase a shiny new brightness, only to become trapped in ice. Millennia later, the ice melts and her colours run down into the opal, while saltwater people all around the continent keep stories to preserve the maps and memory of lands drowned after the big ice melt. The stories are passed down and people partner with whales, dolphins and others to continue caring for the Country beneath the sea. This is important, as the oceans will fall again as they have before, and we will want to return to that Country

the Baakindji people faced extinction when they experimented with nation-building long ago, which worked well enough until the land and sky moved and they were no longer able to move with it. Their story, as I was told, recalled a time when all the tribes and clans of the region gathered and stayed in one place in permanent settlement. There were abundant resources to support this lifestyle and the people assimilated into one uniform language and culture, forgetting their previous diversity. A massive meteor crashed nearby and killed most of the people, scorching goannas with different marks to make diverse varieties as a reminder to the survivors of the right way to live. Move with the land. Maintain diverse languages, cultures and systems that reflect the ecosystems of the shifting landscapes you inhabit over time.

you might recall a similar biblical story in Genesis about the Tower of Babel.

While I was tracking this pattern, I yarned with Dr Larry Gross, chair of Native American Studies at the University of Redlands in California. An Anishinaabe man of the Minnesota Chippewa, Gross has published and spoken extensively on a theory he coined, called post-apocalyptic stress syndrome (PASS): ‘When a culture experiences such a massive shock that it never fully recovers.’

‘The Europe that came out of the Black Death was not the same as the Europe that went in,’ Gross told me. He drew parallels between this event and the Indigenous experience of colonisation. ‘Both resulted in an intergenerational pandemic of post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide and widespread substance abuse.’

Any real move towards sustainability will require us to cease limiting our understanding with simplistic language around group and individual identities, villain and victim branding, so that we can see what our actual diversity looks like and what it can do for us. We might then begin to notice the patterns and forces that are threatening the survival of all living things and start to change the way we do business. Rather than fighting brand wars to make this doomed globalising system feel more fair and inclusive, we might instead develop some new systems of transition.

Old Nyoongars and Yorgas in Perth tell stories about a group of three totemic entities that work together in miraculous ways. Certain butterflies always lay their eggs on a particular bush above the nest of a particular species of ant. The ants collect the eggs and take them down into the nest. When the larvae hatch, the ants carry them up to eat the leaves of the bush at night and then carry them back down again. When they grow too heavy to carry, the ants bring the leaves down to them. The larvae grow a jelly on their sides when they eat those particular leaves, and this is the food that the queen ant eats. The larvae then spin cocoons in the nest for the final stage of the process, after which they fly out of the nest as butterflies and begin the cycle all over again. This intensely interrelated process within a totemic group of three entities—bush, ant and butterfly—would be impossible for a single human mind to design. How do these symbiotic dances develop, when the cause-and-effect relations are so interdependent and complex that there is no way to reverse-engineer the process by which the system came to be? This is precisely the kind of process we need to understand and engage with to create sustainable responses to the catastrophes we are facing.

I tell those children who are thinking of dropping out of school and going to TAFE or trying for a job in a supermarket that these economies fall apart fairly regularly and you don’t want to be on the bottom of them when they do. I look around at their faces, either blank or scared or angry, and realise that nobody wants to hear this. I need to show them how to read patterns and see past, present and future as one time, and let them navigate the system themselves.

With another group of young Aboriginal protégés in Western Australia I take them on regular excursions walking country with Noel Nannup, who is a local Elder here. He says things like, ‘It is going to rain in twelve minutes,’ and the kids time it on their phones and laugh in amazement when his prediction comes true

What can I do with that? Say it is amazing and ask him to tell the kids stories about growing up in the bush? Ask him to make us a damper and show us how to throw a boomerang and tell the kids they can follow their dreams and do anything? Nah. I ask him to explain the patterns of his thinking in making predictions, and whether the kids could apply those patterns to contexts beyond the bush. So he shows them his process of pattern thinking and even shares how he uses it to follow stock markets and economic trends. His process is all about seeing the overall shape of the connections between things. Look beyond the things and focus on the connections between them. Then look beyond the connections and see the patterns they make. Find the sites of potential risk and increase, like judging where the ball will go in a football game.

Then he turns around and points at the buildings, observing that they are mostly made out of concrete, which is made mostly out of sand, much of which is dredged from the ocean floor leaving holes and gouges in the seabed that fill up with sand again. That the sand moves around in its cycles, but never makes it back to the beach. Or worse, the seabed slumps into those holes and the beach then collapses further into the sea. ‘You can build all the levies you like, but those fuckin’ buildings are gunna go back into the sea where they came from.’ Well. As I always say, if you want to find the next generation of great thinkers, look in the detention room of any public school.

If you can see the relational forces connecting and moving the elements of a system, rather than focusing on the elements themselves, you are able to see a pattern outside of linear time. If you bring that pattern back into linear time, this can be called a prediction in today’s world.

But chaos in reality has a structure that produces innovation, and anarchy simply means ‘no boss’. Could it be possible to have structure without bosses?

In my community there is a phrase that is repeated daily—‘Nobody boss for me!’ Yet at the same time, each person is bound within complex patterns of relatedness and communal obligation. Indigenous models of governance are based on respect for social, ecological and knowledge systems and all their components or members. Complex kinship structures reflect the dynamic design of natural systems through totemic relationships with plants and animals. Totems can also include other elements of these systems like wind, lightning, body parts and substances. The whole is intelligent, and each part carries the inherent intelligence of the entire system

Respectful observation and interaction within the system, with the parts and the connections between them, is the only way to see the pattern. You cannot know any part, let alone the whole, without respect. You cannot come to knowledge without it. Each part, each person, is dignified as an embodiment of the knowledge. Respect must be facilitated by custodians, but there is no outsider-imposed authority, no ‘boss’, no ‘dominion over’. While senior people ensure the processes and stages of coming to higher levels of knowledge are maintained with safety and cohesion, there is no centralised control in Aboriginal societies.

you don’t need to be an expert to understand the knowledge processes of people from other cultures and enter into dialogues with them. More importantly, making yourself an expert in another culture is not always appreciated by the members of that culture.

Understanding your own culture and the way it interacts with others, particularly the power dynamics of it, is far more appreciated.

Sustainability agents have a few simple operating guidelines, or network protocols, or rules if you like—connect, diversify, interact and adapt.

Diversity is not about tolerating difference or treating others equally and without prejudice. The diversification principle compels you to maintain your individual difference, particularly from other agents who are similar to you. This prevents you from clustering into narcissistic flash mobs. You must also seek out and interact with a wide variety of agents who are completely dissimilar to you. Finally, you must interact with other systems beyond your own, keeping your system open and therefore sustainable.

Connectedness balances the excesses of individualism in the diversity principle. The first step in connectedness is forming pairs (like kinship pairs) with multiple other agents who also pair with others. The next step is creating or expanding networks of these connections. The final step is making sure these networks are interacting with the networks of other agents, both within your system and in others.

Interaction is the principle that provides the energy and spirit of communication to power the system. This principle facilitates the flow of living knowledge. For this, you must be transferring knowledge (and energy and resources) rather than trying to store it individually, with as many other agents as possible. If the world ever experiments with an actual free market rather than an oligopoly, this would be the perfect system to facilitate sustainable interactions. Knowledge, value and energy in truly sustainable networks of interaction are prevented from remaining static and unchanging by the final protocol.

Adaptation is the most important protocol of an agent in a sustainable system. You must allow yourself to be transformed through your interactions with other agents and the knowledge that passes through you from them. This knowledge and energy will flow through the entire system in feedback loops and you must be prepared to change so that those feedback loops are not blocked. An agent that is truly adaptive and changing is open to sudden eruptions of transformation, in which the agent may temporarily take on the role of strange attractor and facilitate chain reactions of creative events within the system.

In English these are I/me and we/us. In Aboriginal languages there are many more, including pronouns that are translated as: I, I-myself, we two, we but not others, we altogether. Repeating the plural ones twice can mean ‘It’s up to us’, but repeating ‘I’ twice can mean ‘I go my own way!’ There is a balance between self-definition and group identity. These two are not contradictory but entwined, and there are names for all of the roles you occupy as an agent of complexity

You perform these roles alone, in pairs, in exclusive groups and in networked groups.

In Aboriginal English there is a very useful term to help us draw lines in the sand between these roles, asserting both boundaries and connections. The word is ‘lookout’ (a term I believe we originally borrowed from Cockneys), which is not a warning but refers to a person’s appropriate sphere of influence and accountability. If a person is being pushy and expecting you to get involved with their frantic business in an effort to control you, you might say, ‘That’s not my lookout,’ or ‘Nah, that’s your lookout.’ Your lookout encompasses all of your reasonable obligations and activities within your pairs, groups and wider networks. By reasonable, I mean any tasks that reflect the other protocols of a sustainability agent—leaving you free to be different from others, receive and transfer knowledge and transform in response to shifting contexts, while acting as a custodian and defender of these things.

Adolescent cultures always ask the same three questions. Why are we here? How should we live? What will happen when we die? The first one I’ve covered already with the role of humans as a custodial species. The second one I’ve covered above, with the four protocols for agents in a complex dynamic system. The third one, us-two will look at next.

Well, there are ghosts all over this massacre-soaked continent but they generally don’t do much harm unless you fall asleep right on top of them or mess with their places and things.

Eleanor Dark

The smoke is liminal—neither earth nor air but part of both—so it moves across the same spaces in-between as shadow spirits do, sending them on their way. The shadow spirit is that part of a person that collects attachments to things, sensations, places and people. Some First Peoples in New South Wales call it yaawi, which early settlers adopted as a name for their bogeyman—yowie. It is all longing and illusion, the part of your spirit that carries the I-am-greater-than delusion. I am special, it screams and is drawn to its own name and image. This is why in Aboriginal cultures we often won’t say the names of the deceased, or any words that sound like their names, and will cover or hide any photos or images of that person. Our word for this spirit is often the same as the word for image. It thinks it will live forever, that its temporary persona represents full consciousness and being. It is pure narcissism.

There are at least four parts to your spirit from an Aboriginal point of view, and this shadow is only one of them. Your higher self (maybe what they call the superego in psychology) is your big spirit, and it goes back to sky camp when you die. But sky country always reflects earth country, so there is another spirit, your ancestral spirit, which goes back to a place in the land. It is born again eternally from that place. There is at least one other part, your living spirit, which animates your body in life, flowing through you from the land around you like water fills a string bag in a running creek—never the same water in the bag from moment to moment. That water is only as good as what is in the creek. Therefore if the land is sick, your living spirit is sick as well.

Your shadow spirit is that part of you that wants things you don’t need, makes you think you’re better than other people and above the land, and it takes all the other parts of your spirit to hold it in check. If the rest of your spirit is not clear and in balance, it gets away from you, causes conflict and destruction. You gossip behind people’s backs, spread uncertainty, deliver judgments, upset people, take more than you need and accumulate goods without sharing. It makes you a competitor instead of a human being. But only when it is out of balance. If it is checked by the other parts of you, it becomes a stable ego that drives you to act upon the world in perfect ways.

You don’t need to believe in ghosts to balance spirit and live the right way in this world. You can use any metaphor you like—for example ego, id, superego and persona. Frontal lobe, monkey brain, neo-cortex and lizard brain. Athos, Porthos, Aramis and d’Artagnan. Harry, Ron, Hermione and Malfoy. Monkey spirit, Pig spirit, Fish spirit and Tripitaka. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Whatever stories your cultural experience offers you, you can still perceive spirit through metaphor and bring it into balance to step into your designated role as a custodian of reality.

Some new cultures keep asking, ‘Why are we here?’ It’s easy. This is why we’re here. We look after things on the earth and in the sky and the places in between.

The sand-talk symbol shows a basic model of the Turnaround event of creation, the enormous revolving force that produced the separation of earth and sky worlds. Turnaround is an Aboriginal English word that was used to describe creation events and times before the term ‘Dreamtime’ was invented by settlers. Creation is not an event in the distant past, but something that is continually unfolding and needs custodians to keep co-creating it by linking the two worlds together via metaphors in cultural practice.

A smaller but similar Turnaround event happens at the neurological level when an individual learns something new. There is a spark of creation like lightning when true learning takes place, with a genetic reward of chemical pleasure released in the brain. This is the moment that teachers love—described by educators universally as ‘the light coming on in their eyes’. You can see the same light when you gut a fish—for a few minutes there is a shine like rainbows in its intestines, but as the life and spirit leave those organs the light dies.

Jokes are one of the most pure examples of this neural creation event; most humour is based on two ideas coming together in a new way—puns, rhymes, double meanings, unusual circumstances, accidents, exposed delusions and contextually inappropriate content are examples of this. The chemical rush we get from sudden neural connections in jokes is so intense and pleasurable that we laugh out loud. This kind of humour and joy in learning is a huge part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. If people are laughing, they are learning. True learning is a joy because it is an act of creation. But there are two kinds of joy. One is characterised by light-heartedness and the other is marked by fierce engagement and deep concentration. Both give pleasure by increasing connectedness and complexity in the neural systems of learners. There needs to be an interaction between abstract (spirit) and concrete (physical) worlds of knowledge for this kind of complexity to develop fully. Without closing the loop between abstract knowledge and reality, and without making connections between different ideas and areas of knowledge, true learning cannot occur.

a neurochemical rush of lethargy and discomfort that most people call boredom

If you use a familiar object to help you encode new knowledge you are learning, then when you pick up that object or even just visualise it you instantly remember what you learned. It has become a tangible metaphor, an overlap between the two worlds. This is why a lot of cultural objects have special significance in Aboriginal societies—knowledge is encoded into them in a creation process that is sacred. This is how traditional message sticks work. This kind of haptic knowledge is also encoded in relationships, which is why kinship systems are so central to our cultures. If you learn something with somebody, you might have trouble remembering it on your own but recall it in vivid detail when you are with them again, or if you think of them or call out their name. There is a similar haptic relationship with Country, or with the Ancestors you might call out to when walking in particular places.

Although the gut is not connected directly to the brain (only indirectly through the cranial nerve complex), there must be interaction between these two systems in the same way that there must be interaction between the physical and spiritual worlds in the Turnaround, in order to maintain the whole system in a healthy balance. The interaction between the gut and the brain cannot happen mechanically through purely biological function, so it must be done through cultural practice. It is done by constantly making meaning in the worlds around us and within, transferring knowledge from one domain to another through use of metaphor. It is about making connections between things that would otherwise remain unconnected, using metaphors that are non-literal and often seemingly irrational. This gives rise to both complexity and clarity.

Paradoxically, the more complex the meaning-making is, the clearer your thinking will be and the more likely you will be to remember new knowledge. Two test groups presented with the same list of long, unfamiliar words will have different results on a spelling test of those words depending on the complexity of the meaning-making they engage in. The control group is asked to memorise the spelling. The second group is asked to look up the meaning of the words. Every time, the second group does better on the spelling test

Knowledge transmission must connect both abstract knowledge and concrete application through meaningful metaphors in order to be effective. Without this sacred and joyful act of creation, our systems become unstable and deteriorate. You need cultural metaphors of integrity to do it properly. Working with grounded, complex metaphors that have integrity is the difference between decoration and art, tunes and music, commercialised fetishes and authentic cultural practice. When metaphors have integrity they are multi-layered, with complex levels that may be accessed by people who have prerequisite understandings.

Working with metaphors is a point of common ground between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal knowledge systems. We have a long tradition in Aboriginal society of ritual training in the use of metaphor during initiation into higher stages of knowledge

A metaphor that lacks integrity only damages connectedness—an action that is known as a curse, in Aboriginal culture.

This is a yarn about yarns—a meta-yarn, if you like. Us-two will find marginal stories and grand narratives twisted together in macabre ways here, as we stand in a noisy hall outside a high-school science lab.

My second son was born while I was writing this story. His name is Diver, after his great-great-grandfather who was given that name by police when he was stolen from the bush as a child and made a ward of the state. He had no English name so they called him that after he attempted to escape by diving into the river. His family and tribal affiliation are still unknown, however. This is a common ancestral story for a lot of Aboriginal people in Australia. Many are told they have no right to exist because they are unable to claim a tribal identity based on registered bloodlines, or are unable to name these because of relatives who have passed for white and (understandably) wish to keep their prosperity intact. There are a lot of Indigenous stories like this, and if they don’t line up with the larger narratives driving policies and funding they are often burned up and blown away along with the people who carry them.

We’re still here and you can ridicule or deny or regulate or modify or limit our identities based on whatever new narratives you like, but we’re not going away. Maybe at the start of the next century some redheaded Chinese blackfella will be camping on what used to be Parliament House, cooking up a wombat and dancing up stories of how this all came to pass. And my boy Diver, blond as his mother’s Irish dad, will still be here telling our stories and passing on our culture, a proud scion of two strong Aboriginal families and a bunch of mad Celts. That’s little Diver’s second name. Scion. Third name Juma, so he is namesake to the old fella who keeps the forever yarns.

One such larger narrative is that of the dying black race. This drove a policy of capturing and removing Aboriginal people in openly declared attempts to eradicate Aboriginality by breeding out dark skin in hopes of arriving at a ‘final solution’. Well, it didn’t work

There are cracks in the stories I’m sharing here too, the grand narratives and the cheeky counter-narratives I am presenting to disrupt them. I yarned with a lot of different people while I carved out the ideas and stories in this chapter, but nobody would engage with my critique of primitivism.

Stories are also called yarns, but yarning as a verb is a different process altogether. The symbol represents the yarning process as well as narrative, because this is the process by which stories come together and begin to have meaning. Without yarning, stories are just something to put children to sleep. There has to be an exchange of stories if you want to be awake and grown

Narrative is the most powerful mechanism for memory. While isolated facts go only to short-term memory, or to mid-term memory with repetition (as with study for exams), story goes immediately to long-term memory. If you can make up a story connecting metaphors, locations and language triggers to help you remember something you are studying, it will save time and increase your long-term recall.

Yarning is more than just a story or conversation in Aboriginal culture—it is a structured cultural activity that is recognised even in research circles as a valid and rigorous methodology for knowledge production, inquiry and transmission. It is a ritual that incorporates elements such as story, humour, gesture and mimicry for consensus-building, meaning-making and innovation. It references places and relationships and is highly contextualised in the local worldviews of those yarning. It has protocols of active listening, mutual respect and building on what others have said rather than openly contradicting them or debating their ideas. There is no firm protocol of only one person speaking at a time, although the mutual respect protocol ensures that interjections are in support of what a speaker is saying, enriching what is being said. There is no ‘talking stick’ protocol. (The talking stick idea was appropriated by the West from Native American culture.)

This back-and-forth yarning style neutralises the unpleasant phenomenon that occurs in many conversations, meetings and dialogues of one person grandstanding and waffling on while the rest of the group drowns in polite boredom. (Monologues are rare in Aboriginal culture unless a senior person is telling a long story or an angry person is airing grievances.) There is a lot of overlapping speech that makes yarning vibrant and dynamic and deeply stimulating. It is non-linear, branching off into diverse themes and topics but often returning to revisit ideas in ways that find connections and correlations between diverse sets of data that would otherwise not be found in more analytical modes of dialogue.

There may be periods of comfortable and communicative silence that are reflective and not considered to be awkward. The end point of a yarn is a set of understandings, values and directions shared by all members of the group in a loose consensus that is inclusive of diverse points of view.

The primary mode of communication in yarns is narrative—the sharing of anecdotes, stories and experiences from the lived reality of the participants. Sand talk may be incorporated as people sketch images on the ground (or even in the air) to illustrate a point or map out a place. Physical demonstrations are included as people act out events occurring in stories. Sharing drink or food is often part of the ritual—most commonly cups of tea today. Often yarning will occur around a shared material cultural activity like weaving, painting, string-making, Ceremony preparation or even things like crossword puzzles and setting up birthday party decorations.

Yarners will usually sit in a group so that everybody can see everybody else, or in a rough circle—whatever shape the formation takes, it has no stage or audience spaces. This removes hierarchical barriers to consensus and also avoids the shame that often comes with being in the spotlight or having to speak in front of an audience. Some group members may have more authority and respect than others if they are senior people, but that authority is usually used to pull people back into line when they break protocol, rather than to pursue ego-driven agendas. Usually.

Yarns and yarning can be more than tools to enhance memory and engagement. They can be a disruptive innovation that is empowering and liberating when transferred to contemporary media. Unfortunately this potential is usually lost in the widespread Indigenised genres of dreamtime stories and personal recounts. While this kind of narrative is important, it lacks the power of a critical Indigenous lens on the world. ‘Strong Indigenous voices’ need to be doing more than recounting our subjective experiences—we also need to be examining the narratives of the occupying culture and challenging them with counter-narratives.

While most of the facts are verifiable, I have been very selective in which facts I used to build the narrative. I created the story to illuminate the way history can be twisted to suit the interests and narratives of the people who write it. But mostly I wrote it for a laugh—it is fun to imagine what history would look like if it were written not by the winners but by losers like me. The story of modern public education, then, is a story of transition between an age of imperialism and an age of modern globalisation. It begins, like all stories about civilisations, with the theft of land from indigenous people. The people were the Prūsai, natives of an area between modern day Germany and Russia, who lived there from at least 9000 BCE. They traded amber and hemp across Europe and into Asia, but mostly lived by hunting and fishing. They maintained this society right up until the thirteenth century.

Prussia even adopted the Roman symbol of the eagle as a logo, which was later picked up by the Nazis and the United States. Rome introduced mesmerising dreams of power and control that have not been easy to shake even in modern history.

This was the point in history that ‘adolescence’ was invented—a method of slowing the transition from childhood to adulthood, so that it would take years rather than, for example, the months it takes in Indigenous rites of passage. This delayed transition, intended to create a permanent state of child-like compliance in adults, was developed from farming techniques used to break horses and to domesticate animals. Bear in mind that the original domestication of animals involved the mutation of wild species into an infantilised form with a smaller brain and an inability to adapt or solve problems. To domesticate an animal in this way you must: 1. Separate the young from their parents in the daylight hours. 2. Confine them in an enclosed space with limited stimulation or access to natural habitat. 3. Use rewards and punishments to force them to comply with purposeless tasks.

The system they invented in the early nineteenth century to administer this change was public education: the radical innovation of universal primary schooling, followed by streaming into trade, professional and leadership education. It was all arbitrated by a rigorous examination system (on top of the usual considerations of money and class). The vast majority of Prussian students (over ninety per cent) attended the Volksschule, where they learned a simple version of history, religion, manners and obedience and were drilled endlessly in basic literacy and numeracy. Discipline was paramount; boredom was weaponised and deployed to lobotomise the population.

Germany’s compulsory education system expressed six outcomes in its original syllabus documents: 1. Obedient soldiers to the army. 2. Obedient workers for mines, factories and farms. 3. Well-subordinated civil servants. 4. Well-subordinated clerks for industry. 5. Citizens who thought alike on most issues. 6. National uniformity in thought, word and deed.

Mussolini, exterminated the Cavernicoli, a cave-dwelling people who were still maintaining a Palaeolithic culture.

A good way to begin might be to listen to as many divergent versions of this history as possible, from many points of view. I have particularly learnt a lot from feminist versions of this story, but also from libertarians and poets and neo-conservative professors and the alt-right and incarcerated people. Most importantly, I have learnt from yarns with children, the inmates of the education system.

Where is our current turbulent period of transition taking us? Do we want to go there? What form will knowledge transmission (aka education) need to take during this transition?

He interacts with his phone like it’s a benevolent alien message stick. I get frustrated because I know he’s right and that I need to embrace these things as part of creation or I’ll miss patterns I need to see. But I’m a Luddite and it’s not easy. I used to get wild when my own people would tell me I’m not a proper blackfella if I don’t have a mobile phone. I resisted as long as I could. From 2010 onwards, my employers insisted I carry office phones on the road for emergencies and meetings but I seldom used them. I got my first ever personal mobile phone in 2016 and then watched my brain fall apart like damper in a pisspot over the next few months.

The demands of the clock become irrelevant as true ‘blackfella time’ kicks in and we become immersed in the activity. We may attain similarly heightened mental states in sleep (or even in trance) as our minds organise terabytes of information in dreams. Even walking can produce this trance-like state of deep thought—often walking and yarning for extended periods with others stimulates high levels of learning and memory because of this mental state, which I call ancestor-mind.

the white noise of civilisation

the difference between yarning and conversation, Story and narrative, ritual and routine, civility and connectedness, information and knowledge.

Most of us today are living in a state of compliance with imposed roles and tasks rather than a hightened state of engagement. We are slaves to a work ethic that is unnatural and unnecessary.

The clergy conjured up all kinds of demons and evil spirits to frighten workers into compliance. My favourite was the Noonday Demon, a wicked entity that would enter a person if they considered having a siesta. Slave-like labour without lunch-breaks would purify the soul in preparation for paradise. You can take a holiday when you die!

The JOB is the unquestioned goal for all free citizens of the world—the ultimate public good. It is the clearly stated exit goal of all education and the only sanctioned reason for acquiring knowledge. But if we think about it for a moment, jobs are not what we want. We want shelter, food, strong relationships, a livable habitat, stimulating learning activity and time to perform valued tasks in which we excel. I don’t know of many jobs that will allow access to more than two or three of those things at a time, unless you have a particularly benevolent owner/employer.

I am often told that I should be grateful for the progress that western civilisation has brought to these shores. I am not.

John Zerzan is an American of Czech descent. His book titles include Running on Emptiness, Twilight of the Machines, and Elements of Refusal.

Refusal. He argues that civilisations oppress people through scarcity paradigms while Indigenous communities have free societies based on paradigms of abundance. He says we need to reform civilisation by drawing on the knowledge and values of Indigenous societies.

We talk a lot about the nature of work in industrial and pre-industrial cultures, and John suggests that the very concept of ‘work’ is a modern one that did not exist as a separate activity in human society until recently. I think about this for a while and realise that there is no word for work in my home language and none in any other Aboriginal language I have seen.

John shares my unease about the ‘eat like a caveman!’ branding and marketing of Paleo diet fads and the strange fascination these hold for people. ‘However,’ he adds, ‘Paleo diet popularity probably indicates that the yearning for an authentic life is not yet dead. But such gestures and fads don’t go far at all on their own. A fundamental change from the dominant culture is needed and it’s a lot harder to be heard on that than on the topic of some fascinating caveman diet.’

John strikes a hopeful note: ‘The dominant order always fails. Every civilisation has failed and this global one is failing grandly, obviously. Our enemy has no answers. This makes me a bit hopeful. Change is possible because it is necessary.’ I hear some mild alarm bells towards the end there when he says, ‘our enemy’ followed by short, rapid sentences and I wonder if I’ve now been placed on a CIA watchlist somewhere for even having this yarn. But perhaps I’m already on one. (I used to send money to a Mohawk protest group blockading developers who were trying to build a golf course on their ancestral burial grounds. I later found they had been listed as a terrorist group under the Patriot Act.)

I have previously talked about civilised cultures losing collective memory and having to struggle for thousands of years to gain full maturity and knowledge again, unless they have assistance. But that assistance does not take the form of somebody passing on cultural content and ecological wisdom. The assistance I’m talking about comes from sharing patterns of knowledge and ways of thinking that will help trigger the ancestral knowledge hidden inside. The assistance people need is not in learning about Aboriginal Knowledge but in remembering their own

Those old Greek philosophers worked mostly with oral language. Even when they started writing everything down, they often presented those texts as dialogues, a record of yarns they’d had. Plato told the story of the invention of writing, which was handed to an Egyptian pharaoh by an entity named Thoth. The pharaoh was horrified and lamented that this invention would be the death of human memory, but Thoth insisted and the demise of oral tradition began.

The moral of the story is always back up your data if you are committing memory to modes outside of an oral tradition. Modern neural science has been able to map the way print literacy rewires the human brain. It is a fairly catastrophic process, rearranging neural networks and connections between different areas of the brain in ways that are inefficient at best and highly abnormal at worst. I’m not trying to discourage people or communities from pursuing literacy skills, by the way. I’m not rejecting an entire way of knowing and cultural tradition out of hand—that would be advocating ethnocide, which is never a good idea. I’m merely suggesting that it’s helpful to mix things up a little, avoid putting all your cognitive eggs in one basket, keep your brain functioning more optimally. Further, you should never commit all of your cultural knowledge to a print or digital repository. Archives are great, but they are only temporary. The Egyptians learned that the hard way.

The only sustainable way to store data long-term is within relationships—deep connections between generations of people in custodial relation to a sentient landscape, all grounded in a vibrant oral tradition. This doesn’t need to replace print, but it can supplement it magnificently—those two systems might back each other up rather than merely coexist. Relationships between systems are just as important as the relationships within them. Oral traditions grounded in profound relationships represent a way of thinking that backs up your knowledge in biological peer-to-peer networks and provides a firewall against dictators who might decide to burn down your libraries.

Kinship-mind is a way of improving and preserving memory in relationships with others. If you learn something with or from another person, this knowledge now sits in the relationship between you. You can access the memory of it best if you are together, but if you are separated you can recall the knowledge by picturing the other person or calling out their name. This way of thinking and remembering is not limited to relationships with people.

Kinship-mind is one of five different ways of thinking us-two have examined together so far in our yarns.

kinship-mind

story-mind

dreaming-mind

ancestor-mind

pattern-mind

Consensus and consent are unnecessary items in low-context cultures. Reasoning is hierarchical, solitary and disconnected, making it possible for communication to be one-way in the form of rants, instruction and, most importantly, orders.

high-context cultures demand dialogue and complex agreements. They use a lot of non-verbal communication and leave many things unspoken due to common shared understandings and established consensus about the way things are done. Low-context cultures rely more on extensive verbal communication and explicit, detailed instruction between individuals with relatively little shared understanding. I think this is a nicer way of saying it than the usual, ‘White people talk too much,’ which I find a bit reductive, and also just plain rude. It is an ironically low-context statement for an Indigenous person to make.

the main contributing factor is child-rearing practice. In high-context cultures, babies have many carers in extended families, while in low-context cultures there are only one or two primary carers. The former eat, sleep and go to the toilet according to biological demands from moment to moment, while the latter are often subjected to clock-based schedules for these activities.

In our yarns she introduces me to a Cuban literacy program that was trialled in the remote New South Wales Aboriginal communities of Wilcannia, Bourke and Brewarrina. It seems to have been tantamount to an attack on Australian soil in the eyes of the government, who it is safe to say will not be taking up the decolonising model any time soon, no matter how many gaps it closes. The approach is called a literacy campaign rather than a program or intervention, because it goes beyond the curriculum to build a literate culture and economy in the community itself. It is not about individuals acquiring skills but groups of people empowering themselves, enhancing the cultures and economies of literacy in the community. The Cuban model is grounded in an Indigenous standpoint of communal rather than individual ways of being, with literacy inequality being addressed as a social problem, not an individual problem.

First Peoples in Australia experience considerable disruptions and threats to our cultures and ways of life daily, resulting in a lot of dysfunctional reasoning that is not rigorous by any standard. But I usually highlight our best thinking and knowledge, while being careful not to shame people when they stray from this. And we all stray. Silly thinking is something everybody, myself in particular, is guilty of from time to time. It is forgivable as long as you’re still listening.

Emu-fillet medallions with a quandong glaze is not Aboriginal cooking. Aboriginal cooking is not about using native ingredients—it is about using what is available and optimally nutritious at different times of the year and employing cooking techniques that produce the same effect as cooking on hot coals or slowly in the ground. So chicken wings, curry powder and winter sweet potatoes in a pressure cooker could be considered Aboriginal cooking—kangaroo lasagne is definitely not. Sweet potatoes are only good in the cold seasons after the vines die off, and chickens are too busy mating and brooding in warmer periods to produce good meat. And everybody knows winter chicken is good medicine in the flu season.

Johnny cakes are another example. Traditionally they are small dampers made from wattle seeds cooked over hot coals. Today they are made with wheat flour and baking soda, often baked on a wire grill over an electric stovetop. That is Aboriginal food, adapted to a changing environment and supply chain. Wattle-seed ice cream is not. Even tofu cooked in a ground oven is Aboriginal cooking. A crocodile burger is not. (Although any blackfella caught eating tofu could lose his race card on the spot.) Aboriginal cooking today continues to reflect the core culinary principles (if not the original ingredients) of our old people—using what is available, balancing animal and plant food, including plenty of long-chain fatty acids, seeking foods in the right season and cooking them slowly as we would in a ground oven or bed of ashes. I just don’t see anything like that in all these award-winning Aboriginal-themed restaurants, which frankly serve food that belongs in an Alice Springs food court.

That silky oak tree has the same name in Aboriginal languages as the word for eel. Its wood has the same grain as eel meat and it flowers in the peak fat season for eels, signalling to us that it is the right time to eat them. The fat is medicine in that season and can cure a fever. The role of plants in Indigenous medicine is about much more than isolating compounds to be extracted for pharmaceutical use. You can glimpse the true knowledge systems of Indigenous medicine by looking with a less reductive lens at things like silky oak trees. This requires more than taking samples.

Eels, silky oaks, wattle flowers, honey, fruit bats and tobacco all interacting in reciprocal relationships within a dynamic system of life and knowledge

lovely examples, but not really transferrable to current medical research and practice in the city. Thought experiment: how can we bring these ideas into a dialogue with science in ways that will actually help?

Perhaps the first step would be a subtle shift in the focus of inquiry to include an Indigenous orientation, examining multiple interrelated variables situated in place and time. We might ask where the fish oil comes from that we are using in our kidney trials and in what season it was harvested. That might explain why our results are so variable and send our research in new directions. We might even begin to map our reasoning processes onto land-based patterns of thinking in medical research. For example, the well-worn metaphor of the immune system as an army with soldiers, generals and invaders might be replaced with a more dynamic framework of ants on a riverbank to stimulate some new understandings and directions in immunology.

There are many connected species that deal with dead animals in a river system. There are species in the water (innate immunity) and species on the land (adaptive immunity). A kangaroo carcass (pathogen) on the river bank is cleaned up by land/air species like crows, flies and ants, while parts of the kangaroo that fall into the river are cleaned up by water species like eels and yabbies to prevent pollution (bacterial infection). The ant totem is related to the yabby totem, so they work in tandem as a pair to keep the system healthy. The small brown yabbies (dendritic and mast cells) are always crawling about looking for meat. They are the first on the scene, and their excitement on finding the meat signals the blue-claw yabbies (neutrophils) to join the feast. They need help breaking down the larger parts. A signal is given by the flowering silky oak tree, in that season, for the eels to feast and get fat. So the eels (macrophages or eosinophils) arrive on the scene then and help clear the rotting meat from the river. On the river bank, the highly adaptive ants (antigen-presenting cells) have been busy too. Foraging ants (helper T-cells) send out scent signals that let other ants and species of carrion eaters know there is a dead animal on the bank. The queen ants (regulatory T-cells) moderate adaptive responses within the ant nests, also with scent signals, responding to dangers like rising water levels (compromised immune system) or opportunities like the right air temperature, to begin mating and to form new nests to feed on different dead animals along the river (diverse pathogens) in the dry season when more animals are dying there. Many ants (B-cell antibodies) swarm over the carcasses to clear the rotting meat (cytotoxic T-cells). The ants also mate with flying female ants who lay eggs (memory cells) for a new generation of ants who all carry the same knowledge of how to keep the river system healthy by dealing with future carcasses (the pathogens you are now immune to).

In these sand-talk yarns we have so far looked at five ways of thinking. let’s blend them now into one symbol and one way of thinking, which we can use to create dialogue between scientific and Indigenous Knowledge systems. In this symbol you can see the shapes of five other symbols for story-mind, kinship-mind, dreaming-mind, ancestor-mind and pattern-mind. They are not capitalised because I don’t want them to become buzzwords absorbed into the marketplace. There are no trademarks in this knowledge. It is not specific to any single cultural group and belongs to everyone. You should come up with your own words for these ways of thinking if you decide to use them. You should alter them to match your own local environment and culture. This is all open-source knowledge, so use it like linux software to build what you need to build for a sustainable life. If you want to do this you can use the symbol and your hand now to work through a logic sequence that will help you understand holism and enable you to come to Turtle story later on.

Try pressing your little and ring fingers flat into the desk, or ground, or belly, or any surface where you are reading this—maybe on your arm or on the book itself.

But man–woman relations and identities in Aboriginal culture have other layers and complexities, today as well as in the past. There is friction between these sticks, as well as a lot of other kinds of sticks with many different purposes, all of which are vital for sustainable cultures. Some sticks are for fire, others for music or carrying messages. Most sticks are crafted primarily for killing and fighting. Men, women and children customarily all have access to these weapons because in our culture we avoid the unsustainable practice of concentrating violence into the hands of one privileged group, or outsourcing violence to other places so we can enjoy the fruits of it without having to see it. Violence is part of creation and it is distributed evenly among all agents in sustainable systems to minimise the damage it can do. We follow creation, so we must all have high levels of competence when it comes to conflict.

So we begin our yarn with an explanation of gendered cultural activity in Aboriginal societies. While most daily lived culture and even most ceremonies are shared experiences for all the community, there are also many things that are kept separate. Most fibrecraft is done by women and most stonework and woodwork is done by men. In many places there are activities that only one gender is allowed to do—for example in some parts of Tasmania swimming and diving have always been the domain of women. There are also many gendered ceremonies that the opposite sex is not even allowed to see, on pain of death. There is a reason for this division.

there is also variation and fluidity within and between the genders

In some ceremonies men play a symbolic birthing role, while in others (banned back in mission times) women would strap on massive wooden penises for some dances.

Of course, many people will be born with a gendered nature that leans towards the opposite sex from their biological one, and many others will live on a continuum between one end and the other that may change at different times during their lives. Some people are born with both male and female power in their bellies, allowing them to do useful things that others are not able to do without getting sick.

Our kinship systems are based on pairs—uncle-nephew, grandmother-granddaughter, and so on. Knowledge is kept and passed along within these pairs, which have totems relating to them and connected to land and particular places.

It is also true that in many cases today our relational dynamics have become corrupted, and some people use the resulting dysfunction to claim that traditional culture is primitive and abusive. But it has not always been this way, and it is not this way for everyone even today. Sometimes people cite examples of community dysfunction to me as proof that Aboriginal intellectual traditions cannot possibly exist. I don’t see any connection between these two ideas, except for a desire to diminish (through massive leaps of logic) a culture that is inconvenient to the agendas of development and resource extraction on Aboriginal land. The horrific violence of the occupying civilisation is ignored, while our dysfunctional responses to its excesses are condemned.

It is true that some abusive practices in Aboriginal society were reported by early settlers, but these early observations followed the cataclysmic spread of European diseases across the continent, decimating our population and wiping out most of the elderly. So most first-contact encounters were with fragmented societies whose governance structures had been severely disrupted.

everybody knows that it is always best to keep violence in the public eye. Behind closed doors, it can turn nasty because there’s nobody around to help or bear witness. An extra layer of transparency is added when the fight is uploaded to YouTube thirty seconds later. It joins hundreds of other Indigenous fight videos in cyberspace, most reflecting the reality that in remote Indigenous communities all over Australia, women are fighting more than men are, and they’re really good at it. Whether this is a positive or negative phenomenon, it certainly contradicts the dominant narratives about Aboriginal violence. So what is the true story here? Kelly says there is such a mix of traditional and colonial expressions of violence now that it is hard to identify which is which:

There is controlled violence versus uncontrolled violence, hidden violence and public violence, violence to resolve disputes, violence born from colonisation and dispossession and cyclical violence. There is also an argument to be made for white systems perpetuating non-traditional violence so that members of marginalised groups remain concerned about these things, and not with the decisions that are being ‘made for us’ in a wider socio-political sense

At the height of the Australian Government’s recent military intervention into remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, a powerful meme emerged from the ubiquitous propaganda that was branding traditional Men’s Business as a hotbed of sexual assault and paedophilia—‘Rape is everybody’s business!’ This quickly became the motto of every intervention program. Literacy is everybody’s business. Employment is everybody’s business. Welfare reform is everybody’s business. Got a scrapbooking workshop you want to run in an Aboriginal community? Everybody’s business! There seemed to be a push to alter Aboriginal culture into a simplified, one-size-fits-all expression of identity, free from the troubling element of Men’s Law. Some high-profile Aboriginal women even began writing about the dangers of Men’s Business, calling for an end to traditional culture in the name of protecting women and children, alongside calls to open up traditional lands for development and outside investment.

Germaine Greer stepped in to defend Aboriginal men, and hers was a lonely voice. She saw us forced to abandon self-determination for assimilation, in much the same way as women were forced to abandon liberation for equality. She wrote an essay about this and was widely condemned for it, even called a racist. She inspired me, though. I was also inspired when I saw a hashtag campaign run by Aboriginal women promoting strong fatherhood role models in our communities. But these were marginal voices lost in the maelstrom.

it is not enough to examine individual thoughts, words and behaviours—we need to look at the hidden systems of control that Kelly says are shaping our lives and our pathological responses to these power structures. We need to stop looking sideways at each other to identify victims and oppressors. We need to start looking upwards.

The flawed relationship between civilian men and women is the basic unit of our enslavement in the global economic system that has come to dominate our lives. There is no way men would submit to the labour we undertake without needing to attract and then support our women, or worse, without the promise of being able to dominate them by accumulating capital and forcing them into dependence. Ninety per cent of the world’s wealth is owned by men. Most of the wages in the world go to men, while women do about two thirds of all the work, most of which is underpaid or not paid at all. Sustainability is an impossible dream in this unevenly gendered system, so it is worth revisiting the idea of liberating ourselves from it. This is not an issue of ideology but of sustainability

Every culture in history that has elected to subjugate women has had difficulty sustaining itself for much more than a thousand years

Romance is different in Aboriginal cultures. There is a word for it in many of our languages, often mistranslated in mission times as ‘adultery’. It is love magic, that body of Lore that maps the chemistry and lightning charge of attraction and sex. All are equal agents in this game of love, and as long as you don’t play with anybody from the wrong kinship group, anything goes. There is no obligation for men or women to be limited to one partner for life, but marriage is still sacred.

Selective recording of observations by anthropologists and early settlers

A good example of selective settler observation of Aboriginal culture that has resulted in a lot of confusion is of the ‘hunting and gathering’ division of labour between the sexes. It is widely believed, even in our own community today, that traditionally men were the hunters and women were the gatherers. However, in the old stories we see both genders taking part in both activities. Most of my gathering knowledge has been learnt from men. Some of my hunting knowledge and most of my fishing knowledge has been learnt from women. In communities where hunting and gathering still take place daily, you may see men gathering plant food and women fishing and hunting animals with their digging sticks.

It is true, however, that Women’s Business gave females control of nutrition in our communities. They directed most of the harvesting, production and distribution of food, giving them considerable authority, in addition to controlling the creation and nurturing of life. The role of men was to bring in the things that women and the rest of the community needed. It has never been the cultural role of Indigenous men to subjugate women, or even protect them. Our women have always been more than capable of protecting themselves, as they have always had access to the skills and tools needed to use violence when necessary.

The damage of violence is minimised when it is distributed throughout a system rather than centralised into the hands of a few powerful people and their minions. If you live a life without violence you are living an illusion, outsourcing your conflict to unseen powers and detonating it in areas beyond your living space.

Every organism in existence does violence, and benefits from it in reciprocal relationships. Duck hunting results in duck death. Yam digging results in the death of equally sentient plants. Abusing your partner results in a spear through the leg. Hunting stingray can make you into dinner for a tiger shark. Domesticated beings are stripped of this reality and become passive recipients of violence—either its benefits or its cruel impacts. They devolve as a result. What would it mean to reverse this domesticated state?

The burden of patriarchy and misogyny narrows the lives of every person, irrespective of gender and culture. I strongly believe there needs to be a process of acknowledgment, reflection and renewal. This requires more than an act of resistance; I see it as a process of rebirth, redesign and reconstruction. We must move beyond this policed and regulated form of domestication we are now enduring. The boundaries of public discussion need to be widened with information, compassion and honesty. Collectively, we need to break free from the bondage of patriarchy, white privilege and the misogynistic structures that control us. This isn’t just desirable, it is necessary, if we want to be sustainable.

  • sand_talk.txt
  • Last modified: 2021-06-01 14:06
  • by nik