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Yarn 1

Sep 30 2021
Indigenous Yarners from Australia and Wales
About the event

Yarn 1

First Nation experiences, perspectives and processes have much to contribute to understanding, making sense and taking action in complexity. The first session’s thinkers are: Tyson Yunkaporta and Chels Marshall from the Indigenous Knowledge Systems Lab (Deakin University Australia), Dave Snowden and Beth Smith Welsh Cynefin Centre colleague (Wales). Together they challenge our assumptions about about knowledge sharing and co-creation and deepen our understanding as we learn through listening to their conversations. Be curious about new ideas and possibilities as you listen in on this, the first of many yarns and tune into the extraordinary value of Indigenous ways from Australia and Wales.
Summary of content

People, place and language:
knowledge to scale complexity

Tyson Yunkaporta introduces cross cultural yarnings by inviting his guests to share “what you’re doing”. Yarners seem to naturally start with the intersections between place and culture which turns up, certainly for the two Australians, as Country. Dave Snowden, while from North Wales links his history with land rights in Australia, people and people interactions and the “link between different knowledge bases” in the form of the concept of Cynefin – “It’s the sense of being rooted in many paths, which profoundly influence who you are, but also, are constantly changing.”

Tyson is playful with describing place of belonging as geography (North, South) as being subjective and being on a digital platform as dislocating and Dave insists that Welsh people “have to find out where you belong” and brings in his claim “complexity is the science of relationships”.

Between them, Dave and Tyson, almost 9 minutes into the yarn, have established that for this yarn at least, it is ok to “just throw something else in”. This ‘something’, for Dave involves introducing culture as seemingly place based – he now introduces happenings historically around the mines in Wales that later he will link to matriarchal cultures. For Tyson, naming the “governance, here, negotiating and navigating our way forward, how we’re going to do it” and naming and prompting concepts like matriarchy, establishing a pattern of asking questions and weaving Country and each of the other yarners into the yarn. The yarn then moves forward with many of the exchanges directly between Dave and Tyson and less frequent, sometimes longer and hugely impactful contributions from both female yarners, Chels Marshall and Beth Smith.

Chels sets the scene more solidly for the importance of people and place being considered together. She asserts that Australia is an “old world (which) has many, many stories attached to it” and makes the claim by Indigenous Australians to being Australia’s first scientists, artists and more: “we invented unique technologies that were derived from the landscape”. She continues that the land has “always been a place that has needed Aboriginal people” through traditional cultural practices which care for it.

Dave and Beth gradually weave in the importance of their own language more solidly into the yarn by bringing in examples of poetry, myths, and even the famous musical abilities of Welsh and Welsh people. Beth reflects on having some distance to her own South Walean culture with the Welsh phrase “to return to my trees”, imagining that this relates to “nearly all Indigenous cultures in terms of the groundedness of understanding and being at one” or to “be in your origin” and suggests that Dave has more to add. Dave had earlier stated that the issue was not so much losing connection to the land and culture over history, but the deliberate impact of colonisation: “I don’t think we lost the understanding. I think it was more, we lost the right to articulate it.” Another important insight from Dave was that the loss of language was a deliberate strategy by the English colonisation of Wales present on many fronts: “If you’re more concerned about your cultural dominance (implying the English colonisers), you can actually break people up using their own cultural differences as a strength.” The point that there are words in Welsh that do not have their equivalents in English is made within this general context.

There seems to be a loose, but not quite surfaced, quality to the yarn to this point, brought out by Tyson; that of the “narrative landscapes” of Wales and by implication through the frequent mentions of Country, the stories and narrative landscapes of Australia. Chels now takes the lead for a while, bringing to the fore the situatedness of knowledge and even adventurously claiming that Aboriginal people essentially invented the ‘cloud’. She talks about how the sharing knowledge as being held between people, being intergenerational, linked to the landscape and its objects and passed across time and space as a kind of “holisticness.” She reflects that this idea might be taken as simplicity, not complexity. “That way to store information and knowledge, embedded with people and landscape. It’s pretty cool.”

The yarners now loop back to the earlier nascent topics of poetry, proverbs and music, bantering about language and identity and how pure text and the English language may not be enough. From Dave: “using metaphor and art as a way for people to interpret their narratives. Because if you go into an abstraction, you see things differently, and you can’t see things differently if you just stay in the text. You’ve got to move up.”

Tyson then chimes in with a description of how the word “Country” has been chosen and over time has come to mean so much more than the simple definition: “So the idea of Country, there’s a lot of layers to that, that you have all of your patterns of being, all of your governance structures, your economic structures, everything else is patterned within a landscape and is coming from Country.”

The theme of ambiguity, while not voiced, seems to surface with the idea, raised by Dave, that the true form of narrative is often circular, not linear as in the ring form stories in the Old Testament as well as in Arabic. Dave’s earlier exchange with Aunty Beryl Carmichael in Menindee, New South Wales brought up for him a question about stories being “more real than reality.” She responded in their earlier meeting with “probably yes, the story is the meaning” giving some more weight to Dave’s observation that “every time I talk with anybody, any Indigenous storyteller, it was like the stories never finished.”

A new theme evolves here, with Dave’s claim that “You can’t disentangle stories from metaphors, from people from land, I don’t think. And I think that’s what complexity is about”, however Beth asks everyone to reach a little more deeply. As listener’s we can revisit Dave’s earlier statement about looking through different perspectives but not making these categories or typologies (which he is clear are not the same thing as taxonomies). Beth reminds everyone of Babrielle Garcia Marquez’s work and “the idea that interpretation through realities and patterns that are not our own, only serve us to make us kind of more unknown, less free, and more solitary.” Here the ‘untranslatable’ words like the Welsh word hierath turn up, highlighting her parallel claim that the pattern over time to assimilate to languages like English enables possibilities for communication in the wider world and also shuts off understanding of meanings that can only be expressed in one’s own Indigenous language. For the listener, she explains that “the bit that feels interesting here is that we know that something’s been taken and obscured, and we can feel it, but we can’t find the language to do it justice.” Here she refers to distant memories of assimilation through colonisation that are not accessible to people but may be deeply traumatic. She shares a sense of tension between the Welsh being willing participants in taking the losses of belonging along with the advantages of a different culture and language: “we’ve benefited so much from assimilating to our own oppressor.”

Tyson then takes the yarn in a different direction, coming back to Dave’s earlier point about the challenges of categories and taxonomies, reminding listeners and his fellow yarners that not so long ago Aboriginal people in Australia and elsewhere were being typecast injecting a sense of humour with the horror: “when the pseudoscience of race was being developed, you see all the original sketches, measuring skulls and with these horrible caricatures of faces, and this is the Welsh race, I’ve seen the sketches, is this the Cockney race here and there … you got these beady little eyes, and then you got the Welsh race. And they’re like, whoa.’

The pain and humour of this new vein in the yarn is acknowledged as Dave and Tyson see common threads in the experience of Indigenous people’s all over the world, including the Welsh and extending this to Cockney people in London as being a ‘race’ and open to ridicule.

Chels now recalls Tyson’s earlier reference to Indigenous knowledge as presenting a system of tools “that enables you to be able to then adapt or to change that cognitive behaviour or those, those inbuilt, I suppose, and embedded ideologies that you learn from a child or by learnt behaviour” giving Dave an opportunity to get excited about a fishing boomerang Tyson describes in ‘Sandtalk’, his book.

Dave, Tyson and Chels eloquently interweave their thoughts as this next theme turns up about learning through doing, apprenticeship and the affordances of tools such as the fishing boomerang which Dave admires: “it means the tools didn’t just embed the knowledge, they embedded the ability to teach the knowledge.”

By now, Chels has brought the idea of knowledge being embodied to the fore, Dave has recalled childhood memories of being held back from doing work on his father’s boat until he had learnt through small failures the quality needed and Tyson has taken an interesting tack to include the idea of ‘shame’ as a way to bring motivation to learning something in his upbringing as an Indigenous Australia. Dave and Tyson negotiate what shame means in this context, with Chels bringing in a dreamtime story of emu and platypus which makes this point, yet this concept needs further elaboration by Tyson. As listeners, we learn that an Indigenous person does not think of making mistakes by doing something in apprenticeship: You can’t learn, you can’t master an activity, a skill or any knowledge at all until you can completely inhabit the ontology of the person who knows that. And when you inhabit that ontology then, and you are observing how they do it, then the first time you do it, you will do it perfectly. And you’re expected to do it perfectly the first time.” So shame turns out to be a pedagogy which is not fully debated by Dave and Tyson.

Tyson’s view is that “we don’t have trial and error” because “story is the tool that allows you to inhabit the ontology of a system in our way” which might be a point of agreement, however Dave is clear that “the shame I would feel if I couldn’t do the work on the boat right from my father was a main driver.”

The yarning then takes another turn towards the role of stories, fables, dreamtime and literature such as Rudyard Kipplings ‘ ‘Just so stories’ as either being, instructive, problematic or protective in the continuance of Indigenous culture. Dave shares that “those stories tell you more about humans than any other stories because they allow that sort of displacement”, seemingly allowing for hiding important lore in plain sight, yet Tyson counters that ‘That was a technology that was deployed a narrative technology that was deployed to pretty much ruin a lot of our lore in Australia” and then appears to somewhat agree that childlike versions of these important narratives might “prevent them from coming in deeper and taking the actual knowledge.” The yarners might, at this point, have revisited the earlier thoughts Dave had voiced about poetry being “a line of flight” – another way of creating alternative narratives, and in one sense they do by extending the conversation to how history is held by culture.

This new theme brings in a tantalising sense of how the Welsh role of “ Ceiwad” or “‘keeper of the memory” is now threaded out on one hand because people are so distributed from the context of the memories – it is made more pluralistic in nature as “common shared history” extends across not only time but space. She asks how we do this authentically in modern times when we might want to be “constrained by one individual’s understanding.”

Tyson and Chels then launch into an extended exploration of how “the knowledge is distributed, and it’s constantly moving as well, and being exchanged” on Country in Australia. They begin to share how kinship, totem and clan represent the knowledge as Indigenous Australians relate to other people and to Country while moving across the landscape. Tyson explains that “It’s in that fractal pattern where that pattern of the kinship system at the local level is then scaled up fractally in every order of magnitude, as you move through larger system”, yet Dave shifts this towards his theory that it is that “the primary identity isn’t the individual, the primary identity is the kinship group of the clan and that’s one of the great divides.”

A rich and expansive conversation about the nature of individual and collective identity, barriers to this being shared over time, inter-generational knowledge and culture, parenting in different cultures and the respective roles and differences between authority and power. The Welsh and Australian yarners share examples of different ways in which a collective identity can be evoked and how that helps youth grow up with alternative identities, including being radicalised or developing the tendencies towards racism. Here the importance of “cognitive and cultural diversity” is raised by Dave and that communities need youth as they grow up not to be kept strictly ‘safe’ and separate, but to avoid a future where ”that ability to adjust to what you are faced with within a community is lost in that sort of fragmentation.”

As they enter the last thirty minutes of this yarn, Dave talks about “Maori theories of justice” where shame can be redemptive in terms of the legal system if the rebel is re-accepted back into the clan. He claims that “We assume everything has to be universal and context free. We don’t allow context specific solutions to emerge within scaffolding. And that I think that applies to justice.”

The yarn then turns to how to scale complexity and focuses on exchanges between Tyson and Dave for nearly thirteen minutes. Variously, they talk about issues of size – many dreamtime stories have larger than life beings who battle it out and are broken up, get put in their place or otherwise transformed – and legends and some stories from Wales include owls, flowers, dragons where there is a “change in relationships.”

At this point, the yarn itself appears to naturally pull towards how change in complex systems is achieved. Dave leads the conversation now, setting the scene for how ‘big’ creates problems: “But people fall in love with their aggregations. So they build bigger and bigger things, right? And then the identity becomes a problem.” He continues that “you need stability for things to be the right level of granularity, that they combine in different contexts to create something novel” and summarises this with “We don’t design for decomposition and recombination, we design for aggregation and imitation.”

The last twenty minutes of the yarn which naturally extends by it’s finish time, start to explore how ‘big’ and ‘size’ can be seen in the concept of land ownership, enclosure and related concepts such as trade and the inheritance of property over time. Roughly, as Dave claims: “So they control that. So instead of having a distributed ability for sustenance within a rural community, you end up with a dependent community and industrial community. “ The distribution of power has had implications across time, Dave claims: “It was a problem in Australia. The tribes could never unite against the colonial power because they weren’t united. They were distributed.”

In the closing minutes of the yarn, the concept of gifting versus exchanging turns up. Gifting provides a rich set of possibilities to contrast Indigenous cultures for ‘trading’ against sharing with modern economies based on money. Nearly out of time and needing to bring the concepts raised in the yarn towards a sense of closure, the relationships appearing while honouring Country and clan, perhaps in ritual ceremony are linked with natural cycles bring in the possibility that gifting is much more than a money-free exchange. Tyson shares about Wanju or “collective sensemaking” which is triggered by the triennial flowering of the Bunya tree to be an event in the Bunya Mountains. Listeners who are outsiders might misunderstand this even, perhaps as a market, and not for its true “purpose (as being) of the economy, traditional economy … to increase relatedness.”

Dave asks “how can you build gifting as a microeconomic tool from which you can rebuild society?”. Beth looks for “non-extractive or non-depletion type economies” and the thought that the jockey is only as fast as his horse. Dave believes people must be able to learn and to use stories so that they can participate in “abstractions above the level of material need” so they don’t “lose power”. Chels sees that there is potential for Indigenous systems of knowledges in sustainability. That “it’s that equity to living systems and the language attached to that equity in the living systems.”

Tyson leaves listeners in a contemplative space with the ‘big’ thought that there is “equity … in those living systems” and amusingly, the more pragmatic first law that “nobody boss bela me. We can’t have our bosses run around in here.”

Our Speakers

Chels Marshall

A Gumbaynggirr woman and Knowledge Keeper, Chels is a leading Indigenous systems ecologist and with extensive experience in marine ecology, cultural landscape management and regenerative design. She has over 27 years of professional experience in cultural ecology, environmental planning, design and land management within government agencies, research institutes, Indigenous communities, and consulting firms. Chels is currently the Director for Flying Fish Blue, an Indigenous-owned company that specialises in socio-cultural and ecological assessment and advisory services. Chels works to embed Indigenous knowledge systems, principles and governance models into business and project planning for regenerative ecological, social, economic and spiritual outcomes.

Beth Smith

Holding an MSc in the field of policing and counterterrorism, and a post-graduate qualification in mixed methods research from the University of Oxford, Beth’s research interests are in citizen engagement, community development, political risk, strategic management, and epistemology. As Programme Manager for Citizen Engagement, Beth is responsible for the design and delivery of SenseMaker® projects related to citizen journalism and governmental collaborations. Having previously worked as a policy advisor to the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, Beth was responsible for providing research and policy guidance to government and public services in relation to public involvement and democratic and digital innovation. Throughout her career, Beth has published and delivered lectures & training on collaborative policy making and evidence informed policy at events, including the Bevan Commission International Conference and Cambridge and Swansea Universities Narrative Research Development Group. In her spare time, she can usually be found with her head in a book or on a hill walking with her dog.

Tyson Yunkaporta

Tyson Yunkaporta is an academic, an arts critic, and a researcher who is a member of the Apalech Clan in far north Queensland. He carves traditional tools and weapons and also works as a senior lecturer in Indigenous Knowledges at Deakin University in Melbourne. He lives in Melbourne.

Dave Snowden

Dave is the creator of the Cynefin Framework, and originated the design of SenseMaker®, the world’s first distributed ethnography tool. He is the lead author of Managing complexity (and chaos) in times of crisis: A field guide for decision makers, a shared effort between the Joint Research Centre (JRC), the European Commission’s science and knowledge service, and the Cynefin Centre. He divides his time between two roles: founder Chief Scientific Officer of The Cynefin Company and the founder and Director of the Cynefin Centre. His work is international in nature and covers government and industry looking at complex issues relating to strategy and organisational decision-making. He has pioneered a science-based approach to organisations drawing on anthropology, neuroscience, and complex adaptive systems theory. By using natural science as a constraint on the understanding of social systems this avoids many of the issues associated with inductive or case-based approaches to research. He is a popular and passionate keynote speaker on a range of subjects and is well known for his pragmatic cynicism and iconoclastic style. Dave holds positions as extra-ordinary Professor at the Universities of Pretoria and Stellenbosch as well as visiting Professor at the University of Hull. He has held similar positions at Bangor University, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Canberra University, the University of Warwick and The University of Surrey. He held the position of senior fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at Nanyang University and the Civil Service College in Singapore during a sabbatical period in Nanyang. His paper with Boone on Leadership was the cover article for the Harvard Business Review in November 2007. He has previously won a special award from the Academy for originality in his work on knowledge management. He is an editorial board member of several academic and practitioner journals in the field of knowledge management and is an Editor in Chief of E:CO.

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