You can learn a lot about someone from an interview. But can you learn more over a drink? The Australia Letter introduces a new series, “Beer with Bella,” in which one reporter in the Sydney bureau who hates beer but loves chatting (an unfortunate combination) meets interesting Australians over a drink of their choice.
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Tyson Yunkaporta and I did not know where to go and what to drink. For absolutely no reason, we settled on a pub with an outside courtyard in Newtown, a trendy part of Sydney.
But when the author of “Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save The World” showed up in black jeans and a leather jacket he fit right in. A member of the Apalech Clan and a carver of traditional tools and weapons, Tyson has an aesthetic that is more rocker than scholar. His book, a series of yarns, or conversations, that bring the reader into Indigenous ways of perceiving the world, is thought-provoking and unconventional.
Now, he’s ready to yarn with me this afternoon. Over a beer.
“I guess you could go with the Ancient Greek idea of the symposium, whether the person who is running the symposium decides how much water to put in the wine,” he said.
“Will we still be here at 11 o’clock at night? Is that what you’re saying?’ I said.
An hour later, we had gone from Indigenous Australian identity to questioning Western culture and, strangely, Vikings.
We decided to do as in Rome and went for a local Australian pale ale called the Newtowner.
So I guess to start with: Why write this book?
The book represents 20 years of yarns, conversations, and then two years of carving those conversations and knowledge on traditional objects. The writing part — that’s the easy part. But the knowledge is hard and takes a long time, because of the complexity.
I constantly have to explain the Indigenous point of view. But what if it was the other way? What if it was turning the Indigenous point of view on the world and describing what we see?
With Indigenous knowledge it’s always a dialogue. The knowledge changes depending on the relationship of the people who are sharing it. Fifty percent of what’s in the book is the reader’s knowledge because it’s what they’re bringing and what they’re thinking.
There’s no quantum computer that could do the same thing that 10 people sitting around the same sandy circle drawing with sticks could do.
What are the most important messages you want to send about how Indigenous thinking works in a Western world?
You don’t need to learn about Indigenous knowledge to be in touch with this. You just have to remember your own. In the systems that we’re living in, there’s a very big collective memory loss. People don’t really remember who they are or what they’re supposed to be doing. A lot of people when I talk about Western this and that — people assert this idea that they don’t have a culture. No, other people have cultures. Everything outside of the West is a culture. But the West itself is neutral.
People say the West isn’t a culture to you?
People really assert it.
It’s funny. You’re somebody who’s living in the system and you don’t have a lot of choices in that system. And we need to be looking up rather than sideways and going: Victim — victim — oppressor — evil person — hero, classifying ourselves. What do we need to be able to do to free ourselves from this?
What lessons can we learn from Indigenous custodians of the land?
Take Indigenous astronomy: Did you know that Aboriginal people knew that meteorites form craters before Europeans did? It’s only a few decades ago that they discovered that in modern science. But we’ve got Dreaming stories about that. People record these things and then they write it as a paper. It’s just “Wow. Aboriginal people knew about this. So Aboriginal culture is a lot smarter than we thought.” And that’s it. O.K., what are we going to do? Astrophysicists need to be sitting down with those old fellas and going into detail in those stories. Tell us the properties of that asteroid.
Their knowledge is respected and even put up on a pedestal a little bit. So it’s not that — it’s this uncertainty of how to proceed.
In the book’s introduction, you say you don’t want to talk too much about your own story.
You have to tell your whole life story, not just yours but the traumatic story of all your recent ancestors. It’s like re-traumatizing yourself over and over and I just find it really interesting that’s the main Indigenous genre people want to see and it is just the same story over and over again. And it’s like, that’s all that people want to hear.
There’s a scholar called Martin Nakata who’s said, we need to resist the self narrative. He calls it “the ubiquitous Indigenous self narrative.” It’s killing our thought. It’s killing our scholarship.
I used to love it. You can wallow in that forever. I found it depressed me in the end, but it’s also easy. And everybody loves it.
You’re always performing Indigeneity. I try and sabotage myself all the time in that. I’ll just destroy it. You know I’m not building a brand. I’m trying to build a collective base of knowledge and relationships and conversations that might help try to stop the world from dying in the next few decades.
So what keeps you motivated?
It was just the culture and curiosity and just a passion for knowledge and learning. And just relationships mostly , really strong relationships with knowledgeable people. That’s what’s motivated me up to this point. At the moment my motivation is just trying to get enough money together to be able to survive this period. Survival is an issue.
I’m working on the next novel. I’m writing a Viking novel.
Are you? Tell me more. You can’t just throw that out.
It’s full of black Easter eggs. I love Vikings. You go anywhere, blackfellas love that show, “Vikings.”
The Drink Verdict
”Yummy,” according to Tyson.
“Cold, bitter, and oddly refreshing like every beer,” according to myself. We have more to say about the freewheeling conversation.
“You’re on to something,” he said. “Free-range yarn. It’s a good format. See what falls out.”
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