I acknowledge the ancestors of this mighty land, called Australia by the colonisers. I pay my respects to the elders past and present and the emerging leaders of the future. The ancestors of this land have cared for and formed deep relationships with this land for many many thousands of years.
Tyson Yunkaporta belongs to the Apalech Clan from Western Cape York, and is a senior lecturer in Indigenous Knowledges at Deakin University. His recently published book, Sand Talk,1 draws on the knowledge and traditions of those ancestors, elders, and emerging leaders, to expose global (primarily western) ways of thinking to a lens of Indigenous Knowledge. Without saying so directly, Yunkaporta finds western knowledge systems lacking.
It doesn’t take much looking around to agree with him. The world is in a mess and that is largely because of western thinking. But, don’t read this book to discover the jewels or nuggets that exist in Indigenous Knowledge that can be used to save the world (as the sub-title suggests.) Yunkaporta warns that using Indigenous Knowledge in this way has for centuries been how western colonisers have treated such knowledge. Colonisers have plundered and stolen knowledge and used it (often in ways it is not meant to be) to further the exploitative and destructive process of colonisation.
Yunkaporta would prefer that non-Indigenous peoples acknowledged and learnt from the processes of Indigenous Thinking. And here is where this book is of profound importance – it sheds a light on the different thinking processes used by Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples to arrive at Knowledge.
Indeed, Yunkaporta goes further. He insists that non-Indigenous people do not need to acquire Indigenous Knowledge, but rather, need assistance in remembering our own thinking processes. He is right. We do have thinking and knowledge systems based in patterns, holism, and complexity. We have forgotten them, or have had them stolen from us. Yunkaporta reminds us to go look for them again.
Yunkaporta uses the customary technique of drawing images in sand to illustrate and assist in passing on knowledge. Each chapter uses a sand drawing for this purpose, as well as a yarn2 with many Aboriginal people to add to Yunkaporta’s own ideas and thoughts. These techniques give this book a holistic and grounded feeling. A sense of ancient wisdom comes through in the images, the yarns, and almost every sentence of the book.
For readers of this blog who, like me, come from a western-styled, non-Indigenous, culture, this book can be challenging. Not in a linguistic sense – Yunkaporta has a very engaging writing style – but in the ideas presented, especially as the ideas challenge many of the fundamental thinking patterns we have been taught. So, if you find you have to stop, go back, and re-read sections (as I did) then don’t get disparaged. Stop, go back, re-read.
Perhaps the most challenging thinking process presented within the book comes just four pages before the end. In one of his yarns he quotes an Aboriginal woman who describes a way of thinking that begins with Respect, followed on by Connect, then Reflect, and ends with Direct. She insists on this being the appropriate order and then notes that “non-Aboriginal people seemed to work through the same steps but in reverse.”
Think about that. It is appropriate that this comes almost as the final comment, as in many ways it sums up the whole book.
For non-Aboriginal people this is an engaging and challenging book, one that should be read by all.
1. 1. Tyson Yunkaporta, sand talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World, Text Publishing, Melbourne, Australia, 2019.
2. 2. English speakers will recognise the noun yarn as meaning a story or tale. In Australia, and particularly so within Aboriginal settings, the word has become a verb also, as in to tell a story, to talk.