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On what we can learn from our First Peoples

News from the front desk 458: Among the most inspirational things we’ve come across this year was a book by Indigenous academic Tyson Yunkaporta, released a few weeks ago.

It’s informed the shape and feel of our first session at Tomorrowland19 next Thursday where we explore how artificial intelligence is eyeing off Indigenous social and cultural systems where “everything is connected” – not just to each other but first and foremost, Country. Which is what AI is all about.

It’s no understatement to say more than a few people have found Yunkaporta’s book amazing. He will rock the thinking and view of Indigenous systems as much as Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu did a few years ago, in speaking about Indigenous relationships to and understanding of the land.

Because in so many ways Yunkaporta also shares some hugely important insights from his people in a language and framing and intelligence that will resonate in a way non-Indigenous people will understand.

He’s synthesised his findings in the most readable, digestible and quite frankly exciting way we can imagine.

The book is called Sand Talk. It’s subtitled “How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World”. Which might sound extraordinary.

Above all though, Yunkaporta is humble. Lesson number 1. He spent 20 years gathering the stories of his people across the length and breadth of Australia and asking permission to share them.

When you hear Yunkaporta talk to Philip Adams on Radio National or at the launch of his book at Newtown’s Better Read Than Dead, he laughs a little at the sub title. It’s cheeky, he admits. But read his book and you think, spot on.

Okay, it’s pretty much impossible to convey how well he rolls through the hugely complex, ancient and connected social systems of this country’s first inhabitants, but as you read, there are so many pauses for mental air punches it’s hard not to get excited. The Fifth Estate’s copy of the book is pockmarked with underlines and notations (usually sacrilege in these parts, but unavoidable here for the compulsion to go back and find key passages).

For instance the passage on narcissism or, as he puts it, that “Luciferian lie: “I’m greater than you; you are lesser than me” and how much trouble that lands us in.

Yunkaporta talks about the critical importance of diversity, that everyone’s voice is important and that consultation absolutely needs to start with the most marginalised people in the group.

This resonates with the old experiment that says that in a contest between two groups of people – one extremely intelligent and learned, and the other totally diverse – it’s the latter that will come up with the better solution to a problem.

Here’s an article in Scientific American that tells us why –

This is not only because people with different backgrounds bring new information. Simply interacting with individuals who are different forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort.

That’s partly why “yarning” is so important, says Yunkaporta. That’s the art of non-judgemental, easy sharing of views and thoughts, if we’ve understood this right. It’s also a way to create cohesion with the group. And that will be critical to resilience with the growing climate extremes, as we continually hear.

On sustainability, Yunkaporta is blunt.

His notion of it is vastly different to that of others. “I hear them talking about sustainable exponential growth while ignoring the fact that most of the world’s topsoil is now at the bottom of the sea.”

When it comes to environmental catastrophe he says, “the jury is done deliberating, the case is closed…This apocalypse is real.”

That doesn’t mean catastrophes haven’t happened before and can’t be survived, he says, but it usually means there will be vast changes in the way our society organises.

In a phone conversation later he says that the “preppers”, those who are preparing dugouts and hideaways in remote locations to survive potential meltdown of our way of life, probably won’t survive. In the past when social order has broken down these groups have been the first to perish; it’s the people in the cities who are networked and have developed systems of mutual help that will do best.

Landcom’s Lauren Kajewski honed in on a similar themes in recent weeks ahead of her presentation at Tomorrowland19. Examples of programs with refugees in western Sydney she shared with us sound like they are breaking entirely new ground.

So resilience is less about the height of the sea wall or the strength of the storm proof windows, but about social resiliance. About people connecting to each other and respecting each other. And sharing.

This is similar thinking to the sharing custodial nature of Indigenous relationship to land, Yunkaporta says.

But what’s surprising is that in his telling, the connection and respect for the group doesn’t mean relinquishing of freedom and agency for the individual.

“It demands the relinquishing of artificial power and control, immersion in the astounding patterns of creation that only emerge through the free movement of all agents and elements within a system. This impacts the way we are managed and governed.”

Pre-industrial systems were self organising in order to “predict weather patterns, seasonal activity and the dynamics of the social groups, then manage response to these complexities in non intrusive ways to maintain systemic balance.

“Systems are heterarchical – composed of equal parts interacting together. Imposing a hierarchical model of top-down control can only destroy them. Healthy interventions can only be made by free agents within a complex system, referred to in chaos theory as ‘strange attractors’.”

It goes on… it’s fascinating. Among the most intriguing insights is the intense and nuanced observations Indigenous people have learnt over the millennia – of land or Country so that they can predict weather or know that it’s time to harvest turtle eggs or other form of sustenance. Or which plants or leaves will heal.

Yunkaporta says brain researchers say humans never actually lose memories (perhaps such as these) we just lose access to them, yet they may still guide our actions, such as fear of flames for instance.

What’s interesting though, is that our memories are all still there in “unconscious zip files,” he says.

We can sometimes attain this altered state through near death experiences or meditation after which we may find “complex decision and activities in the hours afterward were effortless and elegant. You were performing feats of raid calculations that would crash a quantum computer…”

Attempt this consciously and you’d probably “fry your neural system like an egg”. But our Paleolithic ancestors had the time and liberty to live with this heightened state of mind every day.

These are the patterns of knowledge and ways of thinking that among other things might help us learn so much.

“The assistance people need is not in learning about Aboriginal Knowledge, but in remembering their own,” he says.

Unfortunately Yunkaporta can’t be with us at Tomorrowland (this year) but our keynote session will still focus on these issues.

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