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Yarn 3

Dec 08 2021
Indigenous Yarners from Canada, Australia and Wales
About the event

Yarn 3

First Nation experiences, perspectives and processes have much to contribute to understanding, making sense and taking action in complexity. The third session’s thinkers are: Melanie Goodchild (Wolf Willow Institute for Systems Learning), Tyson Yunkaporta from the Indigenous Knowledge Systems Lab (Deakin University Australia), Beth Smith and Dave Snowden Welsh Cynefin Centre colleagues (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. Together we will discover the extraordinary value of Indigenous ways.
Summary of content

From traditions and culture
to a new collective resonance

Tyson Yunkaporta swiftly introduces Beth SmithMelanie Goodchild and Dave Snowden as yarners in this, the third in the yarning series around complexity. He brings in a quick quip with Dave around cultural artifacts – a cardigan from Ireland that Dave is wearing, as a segue to a prolonged discussion about the role of tea which, Tyson tells us is “essentially British, but then somehow Indigenous people everywhere always seem to pick up tea.”

This playful exchange introduces Tyson’s partner’s “Cup of Tea Research Methodology”, with each yarner in turn and many audience members in the chat sharing real time their preference for tea. Tyson then welcomes yarners and listeners to Boon Wurrung Country. Melanie then introduces yarners to Anishinaabeg protocols which in English are known as Ojibwe or Chippewa or Saulteaux. She places herself in Ontario, Canada, soon to be eight hours north of Niagara Falls, on a continent Indigenous people know as Turtle Island. We then meet “Three Fires Confederacy territory. And the Three Fires here are the Potawatomi, the Odawa and the Anishinaabe”, her partner Sly “who’s Algonquin and French, he has become a tea specialist, a certified tea specialist, and he’s spent time in both Japanese and Chinese tea ceremonies”, her uncle Dan Longboat who brings “cultural fluency” to her conversation in a time that is “an interesting experience for us because we live in a time of prophecy.

Melanie is “really exploring relational methodologies like yarning”. She introduces many forms of tea and tea cultures from her Indigenous peoples but importantly from China. She reflects that tea “allows us to shift our consciousness, but it also picks up on our tradition of feasting. And so when we feast and we eat and we drink together, we ingest the spirit of what’s being said.”

Tyson asks Melanie to bring what she wants into the conversation from earlier yarns, which Melanie responds to by talking not about a binary black and white or a contrast between Wales and Australian Indigenous experience, but by referring to the “medicine wheel teaching” of white, black, yellow and red people. “I remember hearing Dave and Beth talking about their stories, their identity, their language and how powerful language is.”

Melanie then takes yarners towards her own family’s experience of language: “I don’t speak my language fluently – Anishinaabemowin” and the experience of her dad at Indian residential school and her mom at Indian day school. She continues: “And so I’ve been picking up our language as I can from ceremony and with elders. And it’s just so important because it really does encode or codify your values, your beliefs, how you say things, the words that you have, and I’ve been fascinated by language and identity in terms of the words that don’t exist in English.”

Melanie introduces herself as a complexity scholar, and introduces what appears to be an important thing she has noticed about “Anishinaabemowin and a lot of Indigenous languages are like that. We don’t have, it’s not very noun based, it’s verb based.” She adds “and so there’s a lot of animacy. So when you’re in relationship with the world, the natural world, for example, you are not thinking of a tree as a noun, as a thing, as an it. So that relationality is really important…”

From Melanie, yarners learn about her sharing the same Pe-erh tea with her Chinese colleagues; she circles back to Gong Fu Cha as mentioned earlier and that is “is connecting to the chi of the tea” with their experiments showing that tapping into the chi of the tea gives them similar experiences. Melanie reflects that “a Western conventional mindset about complexity” and in parallel, about “Indigenous complexity mindsets… how those can help us navigate these spaces, but the space between is really fascinating for me. With Melanie’s closing idea here “So in those yarns, there was this space between each of you that was fascinating. What were you saying? What were you not saying? And how did language influence that? So that’s all what resonated with me.”

Dave then takes yarners towards the concept of the numinous and that there are extremes that religion has moved to, in the Southern United States about “extreme right wing and “the sort of faux Buddhism of Westerners adopting Eastern religion without really understanding it because they like the concept of being a guru.” He suggests that “you need to make spirituality or religion authentic. It doesn’t necessarily have to be believe in God, but it has to be a belief in this is the numinous idea, something that is more other than you, that you have to have a relationship with.”

With the yarners, listeners now hear from Beth who introduces Welsh Pagan tradition with multiple gods as an alternative to “God is a lobster, the twist, the double bind.” Tyson and Dave then take over with an exchange about the earliest civilisations, the fertile crescent and the appearance of “big universal one God who would definitely kill you if you didn’t meet the requirements of your contract.”

Being quite knowledgeable about the history of the Catholic Church and the shift over time in both law and religion / numinosity as it was practiced in Wales up to the early middle ages, Dave introduces the law of Hywel Dda and the difference between Celtic and Roman Christianity: “Celtic Christianity was very different from Roman Christianity. It was based on abbots and chiefs. So it was monasteries and local chiefs in a multi distributed environment. And the community of saints was actually multiple gods. The whole Catholic church just absorbed native religions and multiple gods and called them saints instead.”

Dave tells us that “with the Synod de Whitby, everything got concentrated into the king and the pope. So everything got centralised from that point onwards. And that was when the Celtic church was destroyed.”

Again from Dave: “So I think there are traditions all over the world, which are much more collectivists, much more integrative, much more localised, which we can fall back on.”

Tyson and Dave then talk about what they have learned from chapter two of David Graeber and David Wengrow’s book “The Dawn of Everything”. Dave summarises a useful point that what is “fascinating is the evidence that people could move into distributed or centralised models (of authority structures) based on the season” which Tyson neatly summarises another way: “ If you’re going to move everybody inside for half the year, then, you’re going to need someone else in charge.”

The yarners now hear where Tyson wants to take the yarn: “where I’d like us to finish up today of what we actually have to offer as Indigenous peoples to the world in terms of solutions for the design of these sort of systems that are needed, in a time when none of the institutions are working particularly well, and all the systems are failing, that we perhaps have some governance models that are worth having a look at.”

A new theme now emerges. Tyson leads the theme by mentioning requests at events to centre on the “Indigenous voice.” This request is positioned almost as a child’s game or a parody. Dave compares it to a common response a Welsh person often receives to sing a song. We hear from yarners about “token performances” and being a “tourist attraction” and “You’re entertaining. You have beautiful land. You say different things, which we don’t have to deal with. We can listen to you. We can be entertained. And we go back to our ordinary day to day lives afterwards.”

The conversation turns to the film “Walkabout” which Dave claims was “a film of its time.” The cultural wars between the Maori and British and Indigenous Australians and the British followed different courses. Tyson is “not ashamed of the fact that we haven’t won this war yet.” He then makes a very impactful statement of intent:

“We’re actually breeding the invaders out, very gradually. We’ve got about another 50 years, just the current sort of, birth rates and death rates and everything else we’ve got about another 50 years before everybody in Australia is Aboriginal again. So they’ve won a few battles, the British, but we’re going to win the war. We’re going to love them to death.”

Dave then asks yarners and Tyson jumps in to specifically ask Melanie to consider “the Maori Pakeha thing in New Zealand is very different from Whitey Aboriginal in Australia or the whole First Nation issue within Canada.”

From Melanie: “when you talked about narrative and who controls the narrative and how empire building erases the history that we don’t want to hear about. So we had something called the truth and reconciliation commission here in Canada. And that brought out the stories that the survivors had kept inside for so many years.” However she feels that is somewhat like “letting them off the hook instead of them doing something more like shifting their governance and their business model and things like that.” Sometimes NOT talking is a strategic move.

Melanie, in an earlier life, worked in film and television. To introduce yarners to her story, she gives the background of how in Canada many people don’t learn about The Doctrine of Discovery and Terra Nullius which labels non-Christians as not human. That the education system skips over how the rich and diverse history that pre-existed colonisation was wiped out and there was genocide of people and “ the slaughter of our relatives, like the Buffalo and the beaver, for fur and the fur trades.” She continues: “So you don’t really learn a lot of that history and I’m just thinking about narratives.”

IN the film “Grey Owl” which Melanie worked on as a young professional, English actor Archie Bellamy was actually an imposter. He posed, very successfully, as a Native Indian, yet in many ways he was authentic as a true conservationist. As the role he played in the film, he “was kind of showing his Indigenous female counterpart in the film, her culture.” He achieved a lot, but he lived falsely. Melanie thinks “it’s so powerful and that those different entry points into shifting the narrative can be so powerful, because we can all remember films that taught us things and made us think about things.“

Between them, Melanie, Tyson and Beth bring the yarn to a point where they jointly consider “The weight that we give to stories and almost a gradient at which they’re accepted. So the more you’re exposed to the story, the more likely you are to accept it.”

By this point, Melanie has asked us to remember the narratives around slave ships, as well as the book ‘On Time and Water” which talks about the film ‘Blade Runner.” That there is a question around “how to interpret those stories and share them with people.”

Tyson notes a double story going on in the yarn, with Beth being interested in the “spirituality side of things” plus a continuing discussion about “the past and the present and potentially the future with what decolonization was, what it is, what it will be.”

The yarn is now in the territory of legends, empire and “the dominant story.” How lucky, Tyson reminds us, that it (colonisation in Australia) could have been far worse: “you’re lucky it wasn’t at Dutch, just lucky.”

Tyson wants to “get those tricky little people running around the edges” to warm up the next phase of the yarn. He reads a section of prose from his next book, currently in draft form. He reminds us that there is a lot of what we might call window dressing going on. In his words: “We’re encouraged to lend our native eye to redecoration efforts everywhere, as long as it’s in front of the curtain. Nothing structural is allowed. We platform and amplify thinkers who are culturally anticolonial, but fiscally colonial.”

The new approach is as follows: “We can have more Indigenous leaders in real estate, commerce and politics, but just as long as we focus on representation and never notice the machinery of property, finance and governance.”

Halfway through the yarn we are now firmly in the territory of a discussion on colonisation and decolonisation and the rise and collapse of empires. As the audience, we might infer that Dave is talking about colonists when he talks about “the assumption that everybody wants to be like them.” Dave extends this idea, suggesting that when there is a shift to a few powerful net worth individuals owning the world “we’ve lost an empire to challenge.”

Melanie draws a comparison with the big picture and her own contributions to to social media: “And so you can kind of think of an enemy, but the nation state enemy. And now we have the corporate, the corporate gods who are manipulating us in ways that even when we become aware of it, you go, yeah, I guess I’m contributing.” She contrasts this with writing “from a place of spirit.”

Yarners then learn about how Melanie is preparing for her shift to the place of her ancestors in North Ontario. This involves leaving the Turtle Island Institute. She is already writing a thesis. So by way of being true to spirit, she shares “when the Elders talk about spirituality and spirit” that she has a pipe and also a turtle rattle which mean that because of these artifacts the “turtle spirit knows that you’re not giving anything away. You’re not giving away your teaching lodge.” In ceremony she also learns more, that the “comes from a place of both, I think, heart and mind. And that’s what that rattle is, that teaching.”

Beth, Tyson and Melanie then weave loosely the ideas of pre-colonial and post-colonial knowledge that “can be not shared in the commodifying it sense but certainly drawn upon and reinvigorated in a more modern sense.” There is an emerging feeling between them that not everything is lost in the change to a new order, but that there is more of an integration which somehow holds back the way the more prevalent way that “people devalue the invisible or irrational forms of knowledge” which “depends upon what level of privilege you’re giving that back knowledge.”

Coming back to turtles and complexity thinking, Tyson reminds us of the popular phrase “turtles all the way down” you can get stuck: “if you have this sort of really Western imperial kind of cosmology that you’re using to try and view, you’re trying to populate that with all these exotic bits and pieces you find.” The implications of turtles all the way down and turtles all the way up is that “it’s infinite but at the same time must be filled otherwise nothing may be tethered, nothing may be located, nothing may Be unless it is hitched in some way to the center, and that somehow the center, which is the human, which is the world, which is the city or whatever else, the center is the only thing that is hitched.”

Tyson is intrigued with Melanie’s turtle rattle and reminds us of his podcast ‘The Other Others” and his main work on the Indigenous Knowledge Systems Lab. He links Imperial cosmology with the gremlins of mythology and L-O-R-E: “Those fairies and gremlins exist in a landscape, in a spirit, in a topography of spirit that is patterned differently.

Now Dave brings in the author Terry Pratchett and his mentions of turtles all the way down, linking to one of his favourite characters Tiffany who “is a shepherdess who is linked in with her land and with her people.” Dave brings in the importance the Chinese government is placing on youth spending time in nature and away from their screens. He also mentions a poem ‘Reservoirs’ that mourns the loss of land beneath the flooded valleys of Wales which pose as places of solitude and beauty which hide the lost places beneath. Dave is saying here that “people are creating this veneer across human reality which actually prevents us connecting with the land, with people, with other people. But it looks serene, right? And for me, that’s deeply problematic.”

Tyson raises other levels of ‘posing’ where the dominant narrative such as centring Indigenous voices or having a majority of lands under native title and ‘managed’ by Indigenous Australians which, when heard, imply that everything is really under control when the missing detail suggests that it isn’t.

Beth gives another example: “Particularly from a Welsh kind of policy and cultural point of view right now that to me, it seems like almost a self-imposed sense of commodification. That people are being empowered and under the guise of economic development, sustainable economic development, to conform to non, I would say, certainly nontraditional exploitation of land and natural resources.”

“…this idea of a step change that so long as whatever you’re doing now is better than what was there before, then is given the gold star and is probably by no means as good as it could be, or as good as it possibly has been at different points in time. It might be better than the immediate past, but what preceded that? And are there things that could be drawn upon or reinvigorated from there with this idea of without being fully path dependent?”

Tyson talks about the idea that Douglas Rushkoff has of “retrieving forward”: “ So it’s not about this idea of that you’re returning to this great and glorious past, because that’s always folly. You look at all the worst movements in history, there were people who were trying to return to some kind of golden age.”

At this point, Tyson makes a powerful point about the reality of self-determination being more about self-administration and “and it is a way about controlling that narrative of the past and seizing control of the present…” Dave Snowden then continues with the concept of “entangled timelines, making microconnections and jumping out of path dependencies? And that’s where we need to go with narrative.”

Melanie takes up the point of breaking path dependencies, but not with recipes, not with formulaic approaches, more like having “those conversations that we have with each other. And telling cultural stories” and true to her approach, she tells a story about a little manitou that needed to return home.

Tyson takes Melanie’s claim “But really, it’s a reconnection to each other, and to the world and all of our relatives” which Tyson names as “collective connective resonance.” After a brief visit to points around having magic and spirit (Tyson) and the way religion was “just the way people lived their lives (Dave), the yarners settle into the closing thoughts for the yarn.

Dave reminds us of the book “Braiding Sweetgrass (which) we’ve mentioned a few times. The concept of braiding, intertwine and entanglement. And I think we’ve got to find ways to disconnect from time-based dependency on change.” Beth ends with the concept of sovereignty: “… If you want to keep your garden the way you keep yours, at least respect our choice to keep ours the way we do, even if we don’t choose to mow the lawn in that sense.” Melanie ends with a wish for “healing self and systems”, reminding us that “There’s so many other helpers that are on this journey with us.” From Tyson, it’s “we’re happy to do the work, but let us go home.” And with those words from Tyson, yarn three draws to a close as “a good compromise.”

Our Speakers

Melanie Goodchild

Melanie Goodchild, Anishinaabe, is Moose Clan from Biigtigong Nishnaabeg and Ketegaunseebee First Nations in northern Ontario on Turtle Island. She is a systems and complexity scholar, a PhD candidate in social and ecological sustainability at the University of Waterloo, and a Research Fellow at the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience. Melanie is a faculty member and advisor with the Academy for Systems Change, the Presencing Institute, the Center for Systems Awareness at MIT, and the Wolf Willow Institute for Systems Learning. She is a Scholar Practitioner Faculty member at the University of Vermont and in 2022 she will be a Systems Changer in Residence with the Omidyar Group. Melanie is a member of the Editorial Board of the Journal of Awareness-Based Systems Change.

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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