This essay was submitted to the Indigenous Studies Unit at Macquarie University in 2020 as an a component of the subject 'Indigenous Culture and Text'. The task was a comparative discussion between two texts chosen by the writer.
You might join me in paying my respects to the people and other beings everywhere who keep the law of the Land. (Yunkaporta, 2019)
True learning is a joy because it is an act of creation. (Yunkaporta, 2019)
Asking Echidnas for Help* - Understanding Power, Patriarchy and Pedagogy
We stand at the crossroads to the most urgent decisions required in the history of humankind on the planet: if we move forward, as we have been doing, we go into the territory of ecological annihilation, mass species extinction and the breakdown of planetary survival systems.
This comparative discussion will highlight the role of Indigenous epistemologies and pedagogies, discussed here as Knowledge Systems, through the examples of cultural burning by Djabugay author, Victor Steffensen, and, Indigenous memory technology, specifically sand talk symbols as mnemonic devices, as explored by Apalech author, Tyson Yunkaporta, in order to discuss Indigenous Knowledge Systems as a solutionary response to ecological destruction caused by western colonisation and ongoing colonialism in Australia. The concept of coloniality is used to refer to the connectedness between racism, capitalism and patriarchy generated through processes of globalised domination (Quijano cited in Tom et al, 2018 p.8) which describes attacks against Indigenous peoples and nature, including the commodification of life-forms and life-systems.
I will explore the relational dynamics of Western patriarchal systems as discussed by both authors, and the impacts of these as institutional agents and agendas on Indigenous knowledge and ecological systems (Karanja, 2018). This will include the examination of the role of traditional Indigenous narrative, in solutionary, decolonising practices, and in navigating new relational systems for a new earth-referent paradigm (Tom, Sumida Huaman and McCarty 2019, Arabena 2015).
As an initial observation it might appear that Yunkaporta’s book provides a pedagogical framework, or the ‘how’ to the ‘what’, or content of Steffenson’s knowledge systems; I intend that this discussion reveals that there are far more nuances and complexities to consider.
Based on years of learning on Kuku-Thaypan country with his teachers, Awu-Laya men, George Musgrave and Tommy George, Djabugay man Victor Steffensen developed a system of cultural burning practice in response to ecological challenges faced on Kuku-Thaypan country. Steffensen, found this system was applicable to most ecological systems across Australia, and he presents a series of practice pedagogies or praction: these include spending time on country, learning to ‘read’ and develop sensitivity to country, relationship to non-human kin, responding to a variety of ecological systems, plants and soil types, and developing methodologies for the protection of water, riparian and other culturally and ecologically sensitive sites; and protecting living knowledge through intergenerational learning, participation and community well-being. This knowledge is published in his book, Fire Country - How Indigenous Fire Management Could Help Save Australia (2020). ‘Praction means applying the action for the wellbeing of the people, in a way that is culturally in tune with the natural world’ (Stefferson, p145).
Based on his learning with Larrakia man, Old Man Juma, Apalech man, Tyson Yunkaporta applies symbolic icon, as a traditional Aboriginal sand-drawing device, in his book Sand Talk – How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World, to present a series of philosophical discussions to critique contemporary Western systems. His objective is to find the ‘how’ within the discussion of Indigenous Knowledge Systems and their applications, in order to identify solutions to global sustainability issues. From the supposition that the only way to store data long term is within relationships the author explores the notion of developing our minds in Indigenous ways in order to learn, to remember, to relate and to create a sustainable world.
Thesis and Themes
Indigenous Knowledge systems such Yunkaporta’s and Steffensen’s texts provide solutions to the degradation of ecological systems caused by Western land-use processes as part of Western patriarchal colonisation and ongoing colonialism. According to Arabena (2015), Indigenous processes and pedagogies, on the other hand, are earth-referent, inclusive, regenerative, underpinned by notions of respect, collaboration, reciprocity and humility; I will assert that both Yunkaporta’s and Steffensen’s texts provide examples of these pedagogies in the application of their Knowledge Systems.
The essay aims to demonstrate the efficacy of the texts in offering potent solutions for the decolonisation of land, and the co-creation of self-organising systems, which are required to deal with current ecological dilemmas, including destruction of earth-systems such as water, soil and air, resulting in habitat destruction, species extinction and climate change.
Both texts offer considerable material to the growing conversation of listening to Indigenous peoples and cultures for answers to the pandemic of human-induced ecological collapse across the planet (Tom et al 2019, Karanja 2018, Arabena 2015). This text comparison will explore the following interconnected themes and be structured in the following way:
1. Agents and systems of Western patriarchal land coloniality and direct impact on Indigenous Knowledge Systems and ecological systems
2. Indigenous knowledge systems and processes, (pedagogies) as mechanisms for land decolonisation and application to regenerative, synergetic, earth-protecting care-systems, (this is referred to as sustainable land-management practice in some professional sectors).
The Emu Bossmen
Colonising processes aim for domination of Indigenous peoples for access to land and in turn, domination over land, and, as Karanja states ‘colonial thought processes of Western science privilege and superiority over non-Europeans was the driving force for colonisation, and the dispossession of Indigenous people of their lands. Occupation was and is based on the scientific lie that the land was terra nullius, empty, and not owned by anyone (Karanja, 2018).
Rose states that ’ethical dialogue requires that we acknowledge and understand our own particular and harshly situated presence’ (2004, p22), which is a vital component in truth-telling processes; through the texts I will assert a key similarity between Steffenson’s and Yunkaporta’s books, which supports the premise that institutional patriarchal systems and their inherent relational practices are the key barrier to effective ecological management in the modern Western world and in the current Australian context, and perpetuated by ‘unequal power relations, discursive authority, hegemony, and privilege play at the site of contact between Indigenous knowledge and Western science’ (Karanja, 2018).
Throughout his text Steffenson describes numerous examples of his lived experience with such power dynamics, I referred to the boss men as the three P’s (of power): the police, the parks and wildlife, and the pastoralists... obstacles for cultural revival (2020, p25), including disrespectful and humiliating interactions with parks and wildlife staff, such as being given instructions without explanation, being present but not consulted at control burns as the token Aboriginal representative and not as an experienced fire-practioner, and being directed to ride in the tray of the utility with other Aboriginal men over rough tracks as the white ‘officials’ rode upfront.
All these exemplify the relationally racist methods used to maintain the dominating power dynamic where, to not hear what is being said, not to experience the consequences of one’s actions, but rather to go on in one’s self-centric and insulated way is norm (Rose, p20).
Yunkaporta focuses on another ‘P’ of institutional patriarchy, ‘Public Education’, characterised by relational dynamics including discipline, boredom, obedience, commitment to labor, compliance leading to national uniformity, social control, and ultimately fascism; including the manipulation of Indigenous peoples through rebranding, racial integration, reconciliation and homogenised identities (2019, pp 133-154).
Yunkaporta asserts that schools are sites of political struggle because they are the ‘main vehicles for establishing the grand narratives needed to make progress possible’ (2019, p133). Steffensen describes his attempts to bring Indigenous Knowledge Systems into schools, realizing early on that ‘cracking the education nut’ was an almost impenetrable task (2020, p206).
Western science acts as a ‘definitional and discursive hierarchical authority failing to acknowledge other Knowledges as complementary and equally valid (Dei, Hall, & Rosenthal, cited in Karanja 2018). Stefferson and Yunkaporta align in their views on relational difficulties inherent in Western scientific institutional practice where Steffensen describes knowledge as being forced into different categories and names, and lamenting how regularly Indigenous knowledge is appropriated when (science) ‘specialists come and go, creating their own projects and selling it as their own’.… in turn creating a ‘fragmented knowledge base’ (2020, p97-98).
Although Steffenson concedes that science is a powerful tool, he acknowledges its relational and institutional limitations, suggesting an ideological power base that is ‘like a religion for some’… and that it’s’ common for people to think science is always done for good’…whereas, ‘there has certainly been some bad fire science…that is still influencing devastating environmental problems’ (2020, p101). Yunkaporta refers to western science an illusion of omniscience (2019, p47) because, unlike Indigenous understanding of biological networks, Western science systems do not ‘seek to find a way to belong personally to that system; they exist without feedback loops of knowledge, or lived cultural framework embedded in landscape and patterns of creation (2019, p196).
These relational behaviours characteristic of Western patriarchal institutions, embody Yunkaporta’s story of the emu, the trouble-maker who ‘brings into being the most destructive idea in existence: ‘I am greater than you; you are less than me. Emu made hell of a mess running around showing off his speed and claiming his superiority, demanding to be boss’ (2019, p30). Yunkaporta warns about the need to contain narcissistic behaviours and communications because they threaten the basis of reciprocity which is needed for survival (2019, p31). Yunkaporta’s juvenile emu ‘bossmen’ closely align with Steffersen’s direct experiences with these ‘hardheads of society’ (2020, p205) and the ‘arbitrary controls and designs of (these) elevated individuals’ (Yunkaporta, 2019, p71). I would argue that identifying and describing these interactions is an act of resistance, and also necessary in the process of identifying decolonising methodologies for effective relating.
Where the relating style is ‘narcissistic, disrespectful, non-listening’ (Rose p20), which both authors describe in their interactions with bossmen, police, pastoralists, scientific agencies, education and other officials, what constitutes movement forward from this point? If, as Rose asserts, this ‘nihilism stifles the knowledge of connection, disables dialogue, and maims possibilities whereby ‘self’ might be captured by the ‘other’’ (2004, p20), how do the authors describe effective development of relational processes? How can Self be captured by Other?
Both texts offer numerous responses to this question, some of which are discussed below and include the role of narrative, yarning, subverting dualisms, truth-telling and utilising emotionally-engaging pedagogies inherent in knowledge systems. (This is only a brief summary as the scope of Yunkaporta’s and Steffensen’s offerings are too rich and broad to comprehensively cover here).
Pedagogies of humility, joy and relation
Karanja (2018) asserts the ‘primacy of land to Indigenous knowledge production and protection, and that Indigenous knowledge cannot be excised from its source, the land’. I would argue that they are interdependent and therefore that Indigenous Knowledge Systems are central to the protection of land. I will discuss some of the key components, as explored by Yunkaporta and Steffensen, that are both inherent in and act as protecting agent for this ‘sheer genius of symbiotic relationship’ (Yunkaporta, p2).
Yunkaporta’s emu story is a powerful example of experiential narrative that constitutes an ‘epistemic, theoretical, pedagogical and empirical lens through which relationships with and between people and the natural world can be understood… (such) stories are theories that serve as the basis for how communities work’ (Archibald & Brayboy cited in Tom et al, 2019). The power of the emu story is that we can learn about this type of behaviour, through the powerful visual and behavioural icon of the juvenile emu as character, and work together to identify and understand (our own or others’) behaviours, and in so doing, strengthen relational processes.
‘The consequence of unmasking narcissistic singularity is that we embrace noisy and unruly processes capable of finding dialogue with other people and with the world itself’ (Rose p21). Yunkaporta and Steffensen highlight dynamic reciprocity, humility, patience, sharing and non-heirarchical approaches required in this dialogical process, focusing on First Nations’ equalising practice, yarning, which Yunkaporta describes as ‘structured, cultural activity that is a valid and rigorous methodology for knowledge production, inquiry and transmission’ (2019, p30).
Rose argues that ‘colonising narratives are based in harmful dualities’ including nature/culture, male/female, civilisation/savagery, making relating impossible (2004, p19). Stefferson and Yunkaporta subvert the colonising dualisms or ‘othering’ associated with gender; Stefferson explains that women are also experienced fire practioners because they are the managers and therefore experts of their own food gathering lands (2020, p39), whilst Yunkaporta subverts myths about women as gatherers and men as hunters, challenges language that domesticates and feminises women’s tools (2019, p128), and points out that there is fluidity of gender in old age, where as elders engage with their own special business, at this time of life ‘men grow tits and women grow beards’ (2019, p206).
Both authors offer numerous examples of utilising enriching pedagogy of the emotions, or learning through emotional engagement, and Yunkaporta asserts that ‘true learning is a joy because it is an act of creation’ (2019, p112). Steffensen and Yunkaporta align in their description of these pedagogical elements; working directly with self-organising systems on country where engagement with land is inherently haptic, kinaesthetic, social, highly-contextual providing opportunities to learn and value attitudinal and dynamic reciprocity, empathy, respect and humility.
Steffensen describes the joy of learning when emphasis is placed on relationship building, and his own delight at observing that process, where the ‘activation of cultural understanding’ within non-Indigenous people brings them joy and hope;
His face was lit up, he was free from a side of himself that was deprived of the truth and the freedom that comes from the land. I was happy for him and for the others…I could see the happiness in them too as they smiled in all four directions. It was a beautiful moment and everyone felt the love (2020, p94).
Both authors emphasise the need for unity, and therefore working collaboratively with education agencies; more than ever we need a systemic response by education institutions to opportunities offered by Indigenous Knowledges, epistemologies and pedagogies. Theorists of critical pedagogies argue that Indigenous knowledges are vital for sustainability education, emphasising Indigenous ontologies as being essential to teaching and learning about land, in particular, the notion of humans as not separate to/from nature. Furthermore critical pedagogies actively criticise Western education as endorsement of colonial narratives including the domination and destruction approach to peoples and land (Greenwood, 2013). Yunkaporta argues that such a process would require the relinquishing of artificial power and control, (and an) immersion in the astounding patterns of creation that can only emerge through the free movement of all agents and elements within a system’ (2019, p94).
This essay reiterates the value of truth-telling as key to decolonising practice which means exploring answers to questions that seek truth such as those asked through critical pedagogies: What happened here? What is happening here now, and in what direction is this place headed? What should happen here? (Greenwood, 2013). Throughout his book Steffenson makes clear the causative link between recent catastrophic fire events and historic mismanagement of lands in Australia: What a hell of a mess we need to start working through (2020, p85). There is no doubt that the devastation we see cast across the Australian landscape today has developed since colonisation (2020 p162).
I would add this question and response from Yunkaporta to assist in truth-telling and critical pedagogy processes:
‘Why are we here? To look after things on the earth and in the sky and in the places in between’ (2019, p109).
A superficial comparison between the texts might suggest that Steffensen’s work focuses on the practical application of Indigenous Knowledge Systems to land, whereas Yunkaporta’s application of Knowledge Processes is designed to work upon our minds; or, that Stefferson’s relational priority focuses on healing land, where Yunkaporta’s relational priority is intra and interpersonal. Comprehensive consideration of the texts reveals the complexity of their discussions, with both authors synthesising abstract knowledge and practical application for human/planetary wellbeing.
Each text highlights the importance of land to Indigenous people and the symbiotic interdependency of Indigenous Knowledge Systems and land; and each author has a comprehensive response towards the imperative to act, based on mounting evidence of impending planetary ecological collapse. My discussion has argued that both authors provide rich pedagogies of practice that are decolonising and healing for people and land.
This essay has attempted to argue that right relationships, as presented by Steffensen and Yunkaporta, offer profound opportunities for social and ecological healing through the dismantling of dualisms, building relational capacity and supporting of self-organising systems. Both authors demonstrate that truth-telling and acknowledgment is of profound importance in healing processes for people and land by clearly describing and therefore subverting the relational systems operating in current western patriarchal power dynamics. Yunkaporta’s and Stefferson’s texts are necessary, inspiring and exciting tools in navigating a way forward within the Australian context.
1. A focus on research that gathers the stories of institutional ‘turnaround**’ or effective decolonising, through applied effective methodologies along with thorough and honest analyses of failed attempts would provide vital information for the protection of Indigenous Knowledge Systems and lands. An associated study on institutional emotional intelligence, (rather than individual emotional intelligence), would assist in identifying organisational systems and structures that reinforce mechanisms associated with coloniality, such as hierarchical structure, gender or culture dominated spaces, communication styles and decision-making processes.
2. Localised, regenerative movements, focusing on self-organising systems are gaining interest and application across the planet; Indigenous Knowledge Systems are key to the success of this movement. The process needs to be embedded in best practice, ensuring that Indigenous people define themselves and their Knowledge so that cultural appropriation and stereotyping is avoided (Karanja, 2018).
3. Western critical pedagogies have considerable progress to make before they can be regarded as being effectively synergetic with Indigenous pedagogies, and successfully integrated within the Australian school context; therefore an emphasis on teacher capacity-building and curriculum development in this area is urgently required.
*Yunkaporta describes the echidna as having the largest sized brain in relation to body size; he uses the echidna symbol in the discussing of complex problem-solving, and the need to listen to dissimilar minds and to take many points of view into account, to form networks of dynamic interaction and fertile ground; and to ask the following questions, ‘who are the real Indigenous People? Who among them carry the real Indigenous Knowledge and what aspects of Indigenous Knowledge are relevant in grappling with the creation of sustainable systems?’
**Yunkaporta’s definition of turnaround is synonymous with Creation, both during Dreamtime and now, an eternal cycle of renewal, continually unfolding. A smaller but similar turnaround happens at the neurological level when an individual learns something new (2019, p23) and extrapolating, when, at an organisational level there is cultural growth, or at a societal level, a critical mass of changed thinking that drives new behaviour.
Arabena K, 2015, Becoming Indigenous to the Universe, Reflections on living systems, Indigeneity and citizenship, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne.
Greenwood D, 2013, A Critical Theory of Place-Conscious Education, International Handbook of research on Environmental Education, eds Stevenson R, Brody M, Dillon J and Wals A, Routledge, New York.
Karanja, W 2018, An Inconvenient Truth; Centering Land as the Site for Indigenous Knowledge, Knowledge and Decolonial Politics - A Critical Reader, Anti-colonial educational perspectives for transformational change, pp 60-94, Vol 6, eds G Sefa Dei & M Jajj.
Rose, DB 2004, Reports From A Wild Country – Ethics for Decolonisation, UNSW, Sydney.
Steffensen S, 2020, Fire Country, How Indigenous fire management could help save Australia, Hardie Grant Travel, Melbourne.
Tom MN, Sumida Huaman E, & McCarty TL 2019, Indigenous Knowledges as Vital Contributions to Sustainability, International review of Education 65, 1-18, 2019, https://doi-org.simsrad.net.ocs.mq.edu.au/10.1007/s11159-019-09770-9
Yunkaporta T, 2019, Sand Talk, How Indigenous Thinking can Save the World, Text Publishing, Melbourne.