Event page

Yarn 4

Mar 07 2022
Indigenous Yarners from New Zealand, Australia and Wales
About the event

Yarn 4

First Nation experiences, perspectives and processes have much to contribute to understanding, making sense and taking action in complexity. The fourth session’s thinkers are: Guy Ritani (Aotearoa New Zealand) Tyson Yunkaporta and Chels Marshall from the Indigenous Knowledge Systems Lab (Deakin University Australia) and Beth Smith and Dave Snowden Welsh Cynefin Centre (Wales). Together they challenge our assumptions 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, another in the series of a growing collection of yarns. Together we will discover the extraordinary value of Indigenous ways.
Summary of content

Places and People as context setting for value

Once again Tyson Yunkaporta introduces his fellow yarners, including Guy Ritani of Maori heritage from Aotearoa (New Zealand) who is currently in Queensland, Chels Marshall from Gumbaynggirr First Peoples (coastal New South Wales) and Beth Smith and Dave Snowden from Wales. Threaded through the first minutes of introductions are mentions of the multiple locations the yarners weave in the stories they bring. For Beth it is being a Welsh woman in Denmark, for Dave living between north and south Wales and having ancestors sent to Tasmania as prisoners, for Guy and Tyson there are links to Country north and south (Tyson) and west and east (Guy in both Queensland and NZ).

Guest yarners are open to exploring Indigenous knowledge spaces. Guy “loves these spaces” and “draw(ing) from Indigenous frameworks to move forward”; Chels loves “being in any sort of space with other Indigenous people from places around the world. And just that collective yarning and collective thinking.” Beth is intrigued by “this idea of decision-making and actually how do we make decisions as groups of people, in…a more decentralised and social way.”

As a place to start given that in the days before this yarn, there has been plenty of rain, the yarners first reflect on a video of a snake in a tank giving a ride to two mice and a frog in a tank. Chels has described the situation in general as being like “the sky crying” and observing frogs about her home. Guy too is sitting with and reflecting about frogs ”calling on the rains” as depicted in a local Aboriginal artist’s work: “I’ve really been sitting and listening and observing to what is Country saying to me through these various different frog calls”. Tyson hears Guy talking about frog songs and the role of frogs in ecosystems and with Guy, brings into the yarn an opening for dreamtime stories such as Tiddalik and more modern myths, this time from Beth about “placing a frog in cold water, and slowly turning up the heat, the frog never jumps out.” For Dave, thoughts are more a step to the side about being united or not to defeat a common enemy such as the English invading Wales: “because what they actually did was to exploit differences between tribal groups.”

Chels contributes a rich story about a small frog in her home being saved by a bit of inter species cooperation involving Sunshine, her Jackeranian dog, who aware of the danger defends the amphibian visitor who about to be crushed by Chels closing her door: “I just thought this is really interesting because we now see this sort of relationship, where it’s part of that helping.” Chels reflects “how greed moves into deteriorating the complexities in life, and then the importance of that teamwork.”

Other examples of interspecies cooperation then flow. The wombats bringing other animals into their burrows during fires, for example. Yet colonisation, Guy claims, appears to have mixed things up: “we are kinda like, Is it bad? What’s that? Is that bad? Is that good? I don’t… When do we get on the back of the snake, who is the snake, who is the frog? And what is the flood?”

Other scenarios given are also less clear. Tyson talks about cane toads being poisonous, then tells about local action:

“It was a plague of frogs. No one knew what to do. And yeah, and so the fellas got together, all the fellas got together and they made ceremony for the frog and they brought the frog in and made sure that ceremony was all about all the little tweaks that everybody needed to do right across the entire ecosystem across everybody’s totems to sort of just tweak all the behaviours and minimise the damage and bring the cane toad in.”

There appears to be little doubt about the damage done by invasive species, which by inference might just be referencing the experience of Indigenous peoples in colonial times. Dave, comes back to toads and their reputation: “That toad was a witch’s familiar. But coming back to the wider theme, every time we’ve introduced new animals into an ecosystem, it’s caused damage.”

Now one third of the way into the yarn, there is a theme about the tensions between design and emergence. Dave talks about how “the engineers will now design the perfect game, yeah. We’ll take Indigenous concepts and dump them in there because that looks cute.” Guy offers an alternative, referring obliquely to Tyson’s recollection of Maori history and their experience of the English in New Zealand as working out differently. He offers perhaps a way forward:

“And so, that’s for me, it was always about the energy of this Yarn space is intentional, it’s informed. But more often than not, we’re put into these spaces that aren’t intentional and they aren’t formed and they’re not centered around service of building empathy or service of building understanding to landscape.”

Guy continues: “But like you said, Dave, where are… How are we uplifting these spaces and with these systemic infrastructures, are we steering towards more of these spaces or are we steering away from them? And even with the now Indigenous frameworks, are we still steering towards more of those praxis of empathy spaces rather than the dilution of separation, isolation?”


Tyson asks the yarners, this time specifically Beth and Chels: “Beth and Chels, do you think it’s possible to have collective sense-making without the kinda super rational logics and processes that come with the arts, craft story, all of these things?”

Yarners then slip into exploring how, in their different historical contexts, the arts and culture have turned up in times of adversity. From Tyson “..it doesn’t come from abundance…and leisure, it comes from stress and hardship and death.” Dave then talks about the dedication to self funded and directed learning in the CaBans of the slate mines in Wales, yet he contrasts this with examples of where there is a flight from the stress and hardship. Dave finds one contrasting example in the book Watership Down, where “you’ve got a whole a bunch of people on an island who’ve just decided the world is too hard, so they spend all day eating lotus leaves in this sort of drug induced stupor and don’t actually engage in the world.”

Heading towards the halfway mark in the yarn, the discussion now turns towards what appears to be the necessary conditions, sometimes lacking: “is that whole sort of realm around arts and leisure and that it’s about time and space.” She continues: “everyone’s driving faster, and we don’t have that time to be able to let the mind rest.” Chels looks to welcome this into her own life: “I’d love to have two days off a week just to do some cultural activity or do some art and let my mind rest and I’m sure I would come out with a clearer thought process, being able to use analytical thought a lot better, and being able to focus and concentrate.”

Leaning a little more closely into Chels’s yearning, Guy reflects:

“…in this context, being resourced in that way means being very wealthy, and having all the access to that time. So, how do we create conventions within this way of being that we are frankly in to get back into those spaces? Are there conventions within our workspaces or does that mean we have to lean on very strong family ritual context or…”

Tyson takes a different line: “There’s a hell of a lot you got to do and there’s not a lot of time for good collective sense making, there’s only time for propaganda. So how do you design something that can only work with smaller communities living within bio-regions?”

No longer in the realms of a straight forward discussion, the yarners then throw lots of ideas into the ring and what turns up offers some new directions. For Dave it seems the work of connecting generations and entanglements of three people who are different can help:

“I think this is a key thing, to change the way in which people interact, so that they have to face things in different ways, because if you isolate people, they work differently, in that sense. So I think we need a series of small experiments which start to change interactions between people, and we need to see what happens when those work at scale…”

Tyson brings mentoring into the discussion with some scepticism about how well that works out in practice. Beth argues that formal roles for efficiency can backfire: “people optimised for efficiency and being very, very role-based, and quite often single role-based. The saying that a society that separates its scholars from its warriors will always have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools…” Beth asks for looking to “…more Indigenous communities whereby that role of thinker and doer is far more fluid.”

Dave circles back to celebration and the role of art: “even in very difficult circumstances, people would still sing, even to make bad work tolerable…..Art needs to be something which is part of what we do. It’s imagination, it’s singing.”

This idea of shaking up interactions between people is then discussed in different ways. Dave remembers his time as a youth at school where “that’s what travellers used to do, you’d all end up in the common room eating out of the common pot, yeah, and having conversations with people you didn’t meet before…”

Guy’s work in queering permaculture is subtly brought in by Tyson as “these sort of just beautiful gardens growing” where “that foundation of Mana, and how they work with Mana, and how that emergence happens in relation in this kind of co-evolutionary thing going on with whatever landscape they find themselves in, on whatever community is around, whatever community is there, and coming into relation in that way.”

Guy’s even more subtle language asks listeners to note how “it’s very hard to come into a space sort of modeling what that looks like and anchoring that Mana coming into it…”

The yarn turns to Dave’s recollection of his youth where “we had geography-based schools. So you were in school with people from all sorts of backgrounds and different backgrounds.” Dave then notes a lack of intermingling and the opportunity to reintroduce that is time limited: “when you’re young, that period up til 16 of being in a school with lots of people from lots of different backgrounds…” Dave sees an opportunity to “combining younger people with older people.” In earlier times “grandparents were the primary child-carers because the parents were out hunting, and that’s where the wisdom got transferred and the knowledge got transferred.”

Chels instead talks about her growing up, where there was co-parenting (she describes this in yarn 1) and from this “it’s definitely like a shield around allowing us to have that osmosis of being able to release those inner components of ourselves and especially to other people.” Chels raises limitations of time in the day as well as a version of family which is arguably further from “entrapment” with a smaller social circle where “people have become so guarded in that sense…” Listening to Chels’s introduction to these thoughts, she shares that as ecologist, her natural tendencies might be elsewhere: “the awkwardness of having to talk about current day issues and situations, because they’re so confounding.”

Yarners now take on the topic of wellness, which Tyson reminds us may just be wryly taken at an individual level where “like well, I’m gonna be an Übermensch from doing yoga and taking all of these supplements that are gonna make me this fabulous, special, healthy individual and stuff everyone else.”

Tyson’s earlier statement that “or me, and in our way, health is something that only works at the community level, the village level, the clan level, the family level, that’s the scale of good health, that can’t scale down to the individual and it can’t scale up to public health of millions of people…”

To be clearer still, Tyson claims “Wellness has to be a community and a village, local thing.”

In the last third of the yarn the importance of identity is the focus. Dave introduces this with some stories about health and his experience of ageing and the opportunities for what he calls “amiable eccentricity.”

Dave continues with thoughts around how humans are constantly changing and in the midst of change: “That’s the whole Cynefin concept, is a weaving concept of being constantly wrapped up in different things, which you only ever partially understand, which you’re constantly living with and changing.” Dave worries about some apparently damaging trends: “It’s a libertarian structure, it’s the isolated individual.”

Switching identities seems to be important here, with Guy concerned that “combating these larger roles of identity that become very stagnant I think, and people hold on to them very, very tight.” He notes that in his work “I’m very attuned to what is good for our nervous system and what is good for our nervous system through cultural convention.”

Chels broadens out the discussion to include more about the context, though she does not seem to link this specifically to wellness: “So I’m just thinking, given that we’re constantly changing, evolving, our environment is helping to assist what’s going on with us.” Very soon there is a long silence after which Tyson brings in a question about the difference between wellness and wellbeing raised by a listener. Dave is “cynical, the minute you catch people out on one word, they then change the word and say it’s different.” His concerns are about pushing the responsibility back on the individual: “ If something’s wrong with the company, it’s that you don’t have the right attitude or the right mindset, or you haven’t focused on your well-being. It’s not the fault of the society, the processes or anything else.”

Tyson seems to agree: “Health becomes something that happens at your local community level rather than at the individual level or the national level.”

For the last minutes of the yarn, the topic of representing the growth of individuals is brought up with Spiral Dynamics and Tyson takes this topic next level by asking “So where is it going then? Sovereignty and scale… Like at what scale does sovereignty work and how do we move towards doing that?”

Guy appears to be asking listeners to be sensitive to the choices around them: There’s resources about the world flowing about, and whether we like it or not, they’re being designed in a certain way to go to a certain place.” He reflects that tracking that is “emerging in our communities” and that “it’s a high value project and can only be quantified by seeing it happen as a results appear. At least that’s my perspective.”

Beth now brings the yarners back to earlier points about inter species co-operation, mentioning the myth, apparently with no true historical context, of Gelert the dog. Tyson is playful with her point, saying that this “story was a Victorian invention to promote the Gelert pub, and Bath Gelert” with intentions to promote tourism.

While is seems to casual listening, there are many points the yarners now bring to the exchange – for example Dave’s quip “Nobody should spoil a good story for the sake of the truth.” To which Tyson responds with “This is why disinformation has become so successful, it’s harnessed the power of a good story. Not good story, but you know what I mean… Compelling story.”

To end the yarn, Dave contributes the following question: “Go back to something earlier. What does it mean for sovereignty to exist in the interactions between people. Not in people or things?”

With the idea from Dave that “you have sovereignty because… Not as an individual, but you have sovereignty in a series of interactions” some quick exchanges turn up around authority, agency, small team dynamics and conditions for better interactions. Tyson reminds us of the quote from Jeff Bezos that “The most optimal team size is a group of people who can be fed by two pizzas.”

Guy goes a bit deeper in to the question, sharing his thoughts about “emergence of sovereignty by action” where he asks some probing questions: “What is meaningful representation versus meaningful presence versus participation in the space. And it is very much about what is that process of building sovereignty. What is that brave space agreement?”

Tyson’s response looks to what appears to be the opening of the discussion towards boundaries “And that’s what half of our problems at the moment come down to is selection. All of us in terms of selecting for the dynamics of who’s gonna be in our group.”

With some more rapid exchanges now some ambiguity around how definite inclusion might be in certain contexts with Chels welcoming diversity on one hand: ”So that person has a role and a place and a purpose. And whether it’s bringing chaos or whether it’s bringing a different way of thinking or it’s bringing… Yeah, it’s altering that purist process, I think.” Or being patient with the outcome over time: “I suppose that’s part of that organic process that you just need to let happen and unfold. Or it could be like osmosis, you just let them come in, and they’ll eventually move out.”

Beth brings her closing thought where she raises: “the value of tough love, that sometimes doing the right things by people and by the system isn’t always a lovely experience.” Chels leaves listeners and fellow yarners in a place of possibility as she brings these final words to close yarn four:

“I would say that love is about loving your mind and loving the places that it can take you and the different experiences it gives you as an individual. So having time to let it do its thing.”

Our Speakers

Guy Ritani

Director of PermaQueer, Guy is interested in exploring how culture relates to the environment and people around them. They strive for the harmonious integration of landscapes with people through permaculture and promoting natural flourishing ecosystems.

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

As the founder of the IKS Lab at Deakin, Tyson is an academic, an arts critic, and a researcher who belongs to the Apalech Clan in far north Queensland. He looks at global systems from an Indigenous perspective, asking how contemporary life diverges from the pattern of creation. How does this affect us? How can we do things differently? Tyson also carves traditional tools and weapons.

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.

If you’re beyond admiring the problem or feeling overwhelmed email us.

Ready to start a conversation?