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Yarn 2

Oct 28 2021
Indigenous Yarners from Papua New Guinea, Australia and Wales
About the event

Yarn 2

First Nation experiences, perspectives and processes have much to contribute to understanding, making sense and taking action in complexity. The second session’s thinkers are: Merv Wilkinson Founding Director, Catalyst of Change Consulting Group (Papua New Guinea) joining Tyson Yunkaporta and Chels Marshall from the Indigenous Knowledge Systems Lab (Deakin University Australia) and Beth Smith and Dave Snowden from the Cynefin Centre (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.
Summary of content

Exploring language, power and economics

This second yarn starts as the first did with Tyson Yunkaporta welcoming the places and then the people – Merv Wilkinson from Papua New Guinea, Beth Smith from South Wales and Dave Snowden from North Wales – giving a sense of the qualities that each yarner is bringing to the mix and specifically the exchanges between himself and Dave.

Tyson brings in some more biographical information – Apalech as the name of his clan, that he is a popular author – and each yarner throws to the next. Identity comes up early in the yarn, even as this changes within a single country like Wales.

Early on, the topic of a country being conquered, specifically by an imperialist force, turns up with Wales being invaded by the English, yet it is the language and how the Indigeneity of each of the three countries represented is evoked, even satirised, that Merv introduces that appears to stick at first. The exchanges are at first brisk, even humourous, promising discussion on economics, the history of money and the chance of what “we can cook up together.”

This time Tyson uses what he calls a “Welsh face”, a pretence where he pretends to be Dave mocking Tyson, asking why it might be alright for Tyson to mock Dave for being Welsh and not the other way around? He refers obliquely to cancel culture. This train of thought then shifts to accents and a BBC radio show which set out, in Dave’s view, to make a Welsh political party look foolish by using a Welsh Valley’s accent which, as has been the case for the Irish and Scots’ accents, to be associated with quaintness and negative connotations.

Various examples of the portrayal of Welsh people in the spheres of politics and the arts – Lloyd George as British Prime Minister, and Anthony Hopkins who sometimes performs as a native Welshman but often performs in an English accent, and Dylan Thomas whose poetry Dave claims as “distinctly Welsh” – are brought out for inspection. Dave reveals some of the intricacies of the Welsh language which make it more like a song and therefore not responsive to mockery in the same way. Beth brings in the way an accent can locate someone to a specific place in Wales, Dave shows how a single word can mean different things in different places across the world, leaving the floor open for Merv who makes a very interesting observation.

Papua has – and Merv is estimating here – around 800 different languages: “It is not monolinguistic.” His observation is that mimicking, is “not necessarily a big deal” in the context of so much variety. At least three versions of English and other less formal varieties, plus a natural affinity with hearing and speaking multiple languages, linguistic complexity is the norm: “it’s too hard to mimic someone else.”

Dave then introduces English as the “lingua franca”, admiring its richness yet also noting that Shakespeare also imported about 750 words from Welsh into English because he “liked the sound of them.” Tyson and Dave have an exchange on whether English is like a “trade creole” without a lot of natural or evolving complexity (Tyson) or has value to poets from Wales, Ireland and India that goes against Tyson’s view of English (Dave). The phase shift to the next topic – power – comes as Tyson declares that the yarners are not prepared to use this “p” word. The examples now fly, with the invention of a Welsh costume dreamed up by the English to improve cultural marketting, tartans being promoted in a book being compiled by a Welshman despite being a Scottish artifact and Aunty Beryl Carmichael, Ngiyaampaa elder potentially using Aboriginal patois strategically so “they take me more seriously.”

Beth reminds everyone that the oppressed – those who are dispossessed from their Indigenous language – also benefit in some ways just as they lose out in others. The exchange eventually settles into a focus on cultural appropriation and power. Merv describes “visible mixtures in society” which, in Papua, are places where “law, behaviours, work, leisure” are the context for “an exercise of power and the influence on one’s freedom and identity.”

The topic of economics now comes to the fore, as the yarners agreed explicitly to talk more about cultural appropriation and power before economics became their focus. They give examples like the talking stick, which is not native to Australian Indigenous people, yet the topic of the personal making of artifacts by both Merv and Tyson during the Covid-19 pandemic becomes noteworthy. Each has his reasons for this activity, Merv because “I feel powerful” expressing “what’s in my head from my Papuan background.” Tyson has carved and artifact for each chapter of his book ‘Sandtalk’ and refers to these as being “like Post-it notes….. You’re having thoughts and you keep that knowledge in those things.”

Beth is curious and asks “how can we actually share the positive or export in ways that are culturally respectful?” Dave’s answer is there is an element of going on the “same journey” and that this might take time to complete: “So cultures advance by people spending time with other cultures, being in with them.” On the flip side, Tyson claims that an object can actively be turned into a commodity and that the process “involves removing that thing from its context, it involves sanitising it, repackaging it, branding it and giving it a different purpose, value-adding in that way.” All that remains is to give it a price and it is an economic commodity.

Yarners then learn about what Dave calls one of the worst ways in which cultural appropriation takes place – the “anthropological appropriation of other people’s stories.” Merv reminds the yarners first that people want to display and buy his artifacts – the shields made in a hotel in Canberra during lockdown. Tyson also has a hotel story about Aboriginal log coffins on display, Beth’s story is that the Welsh have been encouraged and responsive to selling their own stories: It’s a really wonderful thing to kind of rape and pillage our own land and that for natural resource.” Dave’s extension of this was the Aberfan disaster in Wales where an unstable coal tip collapsed onto a village school. Yet the Grenfell disaster in London and much earlier, the Bougainville in Papua New Guinea are both examples of where the local, narrative has been hijacked, sometimes to justify what happened before and afterwards. Dave links this with identity again “it is an identity issue because it makes Indigenous groups into permanent victims or people, this is the point I made earlier, you are put in a category where the imperial power needs to look after you because you’re not quite good enough, for their respect.”

Merv and Tyson then look at tactics the local Bougainvilleans used to take back control of their narrative in a protracted series of acts of clever sabotage. Merv recalls how the teachers in a high school in Port Moresby running content that helped students be critically aware of what was going on in Bougainville, which was a much contended mine.

Mining then becomes the next topic as Dave claims “we’ve all got mining in our histories…your land becomes valuable because it contains something that somebody wants to rip out of it. And mining is almost by definition, yeah, the concept of a non-renewable” and then that “ It becomes part of the identity of the people, you have to accept the pollution and everything else which goes with it, because that’s what makes your land valuable.”

Welsh land, Dave explains, was owned by families so it was easily taken by the English. And with mining, Dave continues, “The concept of mineral rights is an exploitative concept in its own right. So you can have the surface but we own what lies underneath it, yeah. And I think that the economics about that are fascinating because the communities from whom which the material is exploited have actually never benefited economically from it. Yeah, we went from a rural culture to an impoverished urban culture.”

The discussion then shifts again to other commodities such as water for large English cities coming from the damming of Welsh valleys against the Welsh people’s will and trees in Papua New Guinea.

Where resources are taken from the land, Dave explains “So once the thing is taken from the land, the land has no value by implication and therefore it can become a soil tip and everything else. And I think asset valuation is one of the big issues here, ’cause we don’t value the asset as a whole, we value the thing we dig out of the asset.” Merv extends Dave’s point that there is a “path of devastation” the resource harvester’s leave behind them and that “there’s always the notion of corruption….power and influence…. (and) money, whether it be brown paper bags or otherwise.”

The yarners then turn to the mechanics of economics and whether or not some of the alternatives like Doughnut Economics might not necessarily going to be effective as change makers are just “doing something because they can create neoclassical measures while not actually really changing.” After touching on Capitalism 2.0, the yarn shift to attitudes about money which has Tyson claiming something his mum says as meaning “money nothing for us, money bad for us.” Dave shares that in the Welsh mines it was the culture for the Welsh mams or wives to take the husband’s pay packet, give him back beer money and then use the remainder to run the family and the community.

Relevant to the theme of economy but not yet densely woven into the yarn is the idea of a gift being a different type of thing to an exchange that involves money or something money like was shared in this middle part of the yarn with Dave telling the story of “when I was working in Kakadu, a gift wasn’t an exchange, it was a membership fee.”

Different examples of role based authority come up “role based authority, so it’s kinda like you might be leading the hunt, but that doesn’t mean you’re in charge of the tribe.” Merv adds that not only is authority not hierarchical in Indigenous cultures, it is often polyarchical or as Tyson alludes to “it’s distributed” when things go pear shaped.

After the discussion about authority in the military context, Dave brings the conversation to a discussion about how “our identity is in the network of relationships which you have, then it doesn’t mean you’re non-exploitative, but exploitation is far less likely than if you see the community as something which is there, which is a bargain you make.”

Tyson makes the point that there is a difference between being in an “individualised identity” in a “loose cluster of individuals” which is claimed to be a tribe but is still in a state of “social fragmentation.” His point is that demographics and identity are not the same thing.

Several stories then turn up about what Dave says is important: “context-based authority, not a hierarchical-based authority. These include no less than a four-star General in Washington who had to take himself out of a conversation in order to learn what he really needed to learn from what could meaningfully be shared by subordinates that had to be enabled by his absence.

The discussion on context-based authority then plays out in Dave’s stories about Rugby in Wales and Merv’s tales about the one-talk system and how this ties in with economic relations in Papua. Merv and Tyson then talk about matrilineal tribes in their respective cultures and Dave later adds in that a council of women had a large part to play in his future wife being given the family’s agreement for them to marry and that the men’s job was to watch the rugby while this discussion took place.

The importance of social factors in economics and decision making are a strong theme in this, the last part of the yarn. Using a particular type of sea shell used for bartering in Papua as a way to redirect the discussion, the yarners soon come to a wonderful conversation about different forms of gifting and exchanging. There is first a diversion to how informal networks turn up, with a matrilineal twist, for distributed decision making. Dave claims that power “gets distributed both formally and informally” which have been degraded because “we’ve lost the social cohesion.”

Beth brings the yarners to a denser conversation about the role of power and articulating feelings around which an Indigenous people might unite, and how that power is “fragmented” in Wales in a way which seems to prevent collective action. Dave continues this thread with Tyson, where Dave starts to talk, instead of further definitions about the differences between power and authority, more on “assemblage and affordance. What does the environment, social and cultural, give to you? Which allows you to do things and doesn’t allow you to do other things? What are these structures which inform the way you see it?”

Tyson’s reminder that the word ‘power’ in Latin means, in the infinitive ‘to be able to’ which leads Dave to talk more about ‘agency’: “You force that dialogue between difference in order to make a decision.”

Merv then explores with Dave oligarchical and polyarchical organisations and the nature of hierarchies. Merv has the insight that facilitative power can be a form of manipulation. A few minutes back, Dave had talked about using “entangled trios” as a way of making joint decisions stand. Dave then talks about giving instructions in another language so that content is owned by the people: “so what we basically said, the facilitator mustn’t get involved in the content, because the content is people’s content. They’re not allowed to influence it.”

Yarners now step sideways to look at the narrative around “sovereignties with the ways of knowing and ways of thinking”, as Tyson puts this. Beth reflects on this being “based on historical structures” asking why we don’t have “old mens tales” – the men are philosophers – instead of the “wives tales.” There’s a Western narrative that is awry: “And it’s all of the stuff that devalues emotion, human existence into relationality and reduces the system to the things that are in the system, as opposed to the relationship between those things”, that the narrative “is all about substance as opposed to the relationship.” Merv then mentions the “Nauwa tide” – “It’s the tide and the water in between that also is really critically important.”

Dave then shares a story where academic researchers are forced to concede they might be “culturally biased” in their ways of interpretation compared to what can be picked up from stories interpretted by the person sharing them. This takes the exchange between Tyson and Merv to the idea of cognitive sovereignty, which Merv associates in Indigenous Papuan and Bougainvillean peoples as being “a pride and attitude” and Tyson as “nobody boss bela me.” One of the risks raised though is that of the elimination of languages, of culture as a deliberate strategy weakening this cognitive sovereignty. That an apology, even “reconciliation” are poor restorative practices when, as Dave says “nothing actually changes” and as Merv reminds us “the iterations, the procedures, the processes that have been historically embedded in people’s brains and their structures”. The impact of these colonising patterns on Indigenous people Tyson astutely summarises as “Hang on, give me a minute, I’ve just been… I just been decolonising for so long. I forgot how to do it.”

When the words “sorry” and “apology” are thrown in and shown to be weak in rebalancing the conversation, the yarners discuss the place of giving ‘voice’ to Indigenous people, how that can go to extremes, and a story about Nora Bateson being what Tyson calls “Dixie Chicked” in a cancel culture. The exchange then comes back to approaches like digital democracy versus liquid democracy, though Dave is wary about “blockchain stuff because it’s reducing human beings to machine based transaction.”

From “he-conomics” , Tyson urges Beth to stand up for “her-conomics”, at which point she doges sideways and contributes a poem for the yarn’s close about God’s creation of a Wales which sounds too good to be true and has a tricky twist when the result is queried: “You’ve not seen the neighbours that I’m going to give them.”

So our yarners end with Beth’s summary that the yarn has been about “the discourse around power reductionism, and let’s call it good neighbours, bad neighbours.”

Our Speakers

Merv Wilkinson

Dr Merv Wilkinson leads a revolution of organisational culture change and social change thinking and actions as a trusted strategic advisor and hands-on consultant to executives, managers and staff. Merv is clear that organisational change is his passion, DNA, life’s work, expertise and social imprint. Complex adaptive systems, complexity and chaos principles are the ‘smarts’ that underpin his work in transforming organisations with people through cultural change. A respected member of Stanford’s Who’s Who for outstanding contributions to leadership and organisational change, Dr Merv Wilkinson works with sponsors, leaders and staff to co-design and co-develop roadmaps of cultural change, IT change, and business and process change action; and successfully makes it happen in collaborative, inclusive ways.

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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