Humans as a custodial species

Tyson Yunkaporta

8 March 2021

Tyson Yunkaporta, Dugout canoe in construction, photo: Tales Badeschi Faria

Tyson Yunkaporta explains how humans became a custodial species and their role to increase the connections within the world.

You don’t need to believe in ghosts to balance spirit and live the right way in this world. You can use any metaphor you like—for example ego, id, superego and persona. Frontal lobe, monkey brain, neo-cortex and lizard brain. Athos, Porthos, Aramis and d’Artagnan. Harry, Ron, Hermione and Malfoy. Monkey spirit, Pig spirit, Fish spirit and Tripitaka. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Whatever stories your cultural experience offers you, you can still perceive spirit through metaphor and bring it into balance to step into your designated role as a custodian of reality. Some new cultures keep asking, ‘Why are we here?’ It’s easy. This is why we’re here. We look after things on the earth and in the sky and the places in between.

The circle on the left represents the abstract world of mind and spirit, and the circle on the right represents the concrete world of land, relationships and activity. The lines above and below show the lines of communication between these worlds, which occur through metaphors. These metaphors include images, dance, song, language, culture, objects, ritual, gestures and more. Even written words are metaphors that help carry communication between the abstract and practical realms (although that communication usually only goes one way and does not complete the loop shown in this image). Metaphors are the language of spirit—they go around, top and bottom, because you need to close the feedback loop—you can’t just sit in the abstract space, because you need to take the knowledge back to apply in the real world, and vice versa. This can be seen in a secular view of reality as a relationship between theory and practice.

The sand-talk symbol shows a basic model of the Turnaround event of creation, the enormous revolving force that produced the separation of earth and sky worlds. Turnaround is an Aboriginal English word that was used to describe creation events and times before the term ‘Dreamtime’ was invented by settlers. Creation is not an event in the distant past, but something that is continually unfolding and needs custodians to keep co-creating it by linking the two worlds together via metaphors in cultural practice. Story places or sacred sites are places of overlap between the two worlds, which is why people need protection when entering these places—calling out for the old people and putting armpit sweat or smoke or water on those entering. Ceremony creates a similarly powerful overlap between the worlds. Ceremonies and interactions with sites on Country in this way keep creation in motion, causing increase in natural and social systems that are necessary for good health.

A smaller but similar Turnaround event happens at the neurological level when an individual learns something new. There is a spark of creation like lightning when true learning takes place, with a genetic reward of chemical pleasure released in the brain. This is the moment that teachers love—described by educators universally as “the light coming on in their eyes”. You can see the same light when you gut a fish—for a few minutes there is a shine like rainbows in its intestines, but as the life and spirit leave those organs the light dies. This living spirit of creation, sparked by opposite fields colliding and separating, is what brings fire and light into the universe. This is the sacred nature of knowledge. A knowledge-keeper must share knowledge because she or he is a custodian of miniature creation events that must continually take place in the minds of people coming into knowledge.

This is an excerpt from Tyson Yunkaporta Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World, 2019, Melbourne: Text Publishing.

Increase ceremonies

During the COVID pandemic, Tyson Yunkaporta has been yarning with interlocutors in podcasts and video gatherings across the world. He was a three-time guest on the Jim Rutt Show, which promotes alternatives to the present capitalist system though the “GameB” movement that emphasises cooperativism. In Currents #10, they talk about what it means to be a custodial species.  

Jim: …Since I read the book and had those two wonderful conversations with Tyson, one idea from the book in particular has pulled at me. It just keeps pulling me back and making me look at it again and again, so I reached out to Tyson and said, “Let’s just talk about this one topic.” And that’s a topic which he calls, Humans as the Custodial Species of the Earth. So what do you mean by that?

Tyson: Well, this a foundational understanding in most of our aboriginal cultures and Torres Strait island cultures in Australia. And most of our creation stories culminate in human beings being given this role, of human beings passed this knowledge and this lore from our creator entities of how to be in the world, and what your role is and how your maintaining this custodial relation with all of creation.

Jim: Of course, the Christian cannon also has that when they kick Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, good old Yahweh says, “You will have dominion over everybody,” and it’s kind of ugly, frankly. I’m not sure I like that model of a custodial species. Do you have a better one?

Tyson: Yeah, well the dominion’s a different thing. Even the word custodial is about as close as you can get in English to it. It brings to mind ideas of custody and like you’re holding, capturing, trapping this nature. And that’s not quite the idea. But most people have an idea of what custodianship is. And it’s a bit of a light hand and something that has to be deeply considered and has to be governed by more natural law than anything else.

Jim: And what is it you think that allows or permits or demands, maybe is a better word that humans be that custodial species? Could it be, again, I do a lot of work in cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience and there does sure seem to be a pretty bright line between the mental and reasoning capabilities of homo sapiens and all the other species. We’re the only one that has what we call general intelligence; given enough time and enough paper, we can figure out almost anything. That’s very different than the other animals. Is that what makes us the ones who are the custodians? Or, is there something else about humans?

Tyson: If you look at most of the other beings in the system, in a complex, dynamic system, they’re largely concerned with their niche and the relation of that niche to the other things around it, with the exception of some things like mycelium and that sort of thing, which tends to be a big sort of underground, almost internet, that goes through the entire system and communicates things in real-time right across, say a forest, or whatever. But mycelium don’t have opposable thumbs.

Jim: They don’t have symbolic reasoning or discrete memory. They do have a chemical memory.

Tyson: They really are.

Jim: But they lack a lot in the ability to generalize and look at the really big picture and also to work, to even understand the idea of depth of time. I was looking at my dog the other day and he’s a pretty damn smart dog as dogs go, but he has definite limitations. For instance, in this place we’re renting in Pittsburgh for a few weeks here, waiting for a grandchild to show up, we walked the dog around the block and he has not yet figured out that… We go out the back door, through the alley and then around the city block, he hasn’t figured out that the front door and the back door are somehow related.

Jim: But humans have the capability to do that very easily. A four-year-old figures that out in one day.

Tyson: Yeah, well I guess they’re specialists, aren’t they? A lot of animals are specialists whereas we’re more generalists.

Jim: Yeah. But  there’s clearly a difference in our capability, so, “Hey, we’re the ones who are the only ones that really can be responsible-”

Tyson: Well, we can see, like our minds are such that we’re able to perceive the entire system, if we really do put our minds to work the way they were designed to be. We can perceive an entire complex system, but we can also perceive the systems beyond that system and the way they interact. So I guess it’s that unique capacity, we would say we’ve been given by the hero ancestors and the creation entities. We’ve been given those gifts particularly, so that we can be that custodial species. So there’s a dreaming story in western Australia, they talk about there was a big meeting. Everything, all the trees, the plants, the animals and humans who were in there, when they were sitting down at the moment of creation to decide who the carers for everything were going to be. So that’s the language they used. Now, they call it the carers of everything. So who was going to care for all of this and oversee it? It went through each of the traits of each animal and the trees were like, “Well, we can’t move around.” And the kangaroo came really close, apparently. But he just had these shitty little arms. And they weren’t quite going to do it, so it ended up being the human beings. They had that capacity. And the hands are really important. They have a really big significance, spiritual significance in our culture. And for human beings all around the world, that’s what you see on the cave walls in that rock art.

Jim: Yeah. It goes all over the world, I’ve seen them. I’ve seen where people have put their hands against the wall and apparently, they would take paint, and put it in their mouth and spit it out to produce those patterns. That was a common way they would do it.

Tyson: Hands are remarkable and of course, they’re the things that allow us to have that haptic cognition, where a tool becomes recognized in our brain as an extension of our arm. The way we interact with the world.

Jim: Yeah, and also tools… and I’ve worked with other people on a theory of linguistics. It may not be true, but it’s possible that it is, which is that we learned how to make multi-part tools before we developed syntactical language. And it turns out, based on our analysis, that tool making is in many ways, similar to syntactic language in that it’s not rigid, you can make the parts in a different order, but you have to put them together in the same way to have the tool.

Jim: So it has both the requirement and freedom of language. That may well have been the mental capacity for building tools is what we were able to leverage into our even more tool of language.

Tyson: And potentially the language may have developed out of a need to sing. It’s an interesting little thing to think about. Because you often see, when your grandchild is born and you watch him grow, you’ll see kids are always… They’re singing before they can speak. Or trying to sing. It’s one of the first things we try and do. The same way they try and run before they can even stand up.

Tyson: I think the singing is important because that’s how you encode all those relations of being the custodial species, is through ceremonies. And you sing all those stories, but you sing like I mentioned to you before about the increase ceremonies. And the increase ceremonies are not about increasing the size of the system that you’re a custodian of, but increasing the combinatorials within the system.

Jim: I love it.

Tyson: So you’re increasing the connection between things and you actually sing those connections, you sing them into being. You’re taught this from a really young age. I was talking to a Samoan fellow yesterday, and he was talking about there’s this concept they have… like their word for warm data, I guess you’d call it, I think it’s vaʻa, is what he said. It’s an actual thing. It’s a force, an energy, it’s a substance. But it is the thing that exists between thing in the relation between things.

Tyson: He was telling me about the five stages that you go through in coming to increased knowledge of that Samoan warm data thing. And the first one is when you’re very young, when you’re just starting to stand, and right the way through when you’re a toddler and you’re a young kid, your mother will take you and put you there on the beach and get you to pay attention to your feet on the sand and the vaʻa between your feet and the sand, that relation between them. But right at the edge of the water.

Tyson: So then the waves come up and wash over your feet. And so then you’re seeing the connection between those three things, that relation that you have. And that’s the earliest, simplest form of that. So all of your cultural expression, all of your ceremony, ritual and just the way you live from day-to-day, it’s all about working with that in-between, which is just as real as the things themselves. The connection between things, it’s very real.

About Tyson Yunkaporta

Tyson Yunkaporta is an academic, an arts critic and a researcher who belongs to 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. Connect with Tyson Yunkaporta and read his other stories.


A yarn with Tyson

In the first of the think-maker residencies, Tyson Yunkaporta shared the experience of carving a canoe. We started with a welcome from Bunarong elder Aunty Gail Koonwarra Dawson, who celebrated the recent decision to block the AGL gas import terminal on the Mornington Peninsula because of environmental effects.

Tyson began by contrasting two contexts for making a canoe. One happens in community with many actors in a disorganised fashion where the goal is coming together rather than producing a perfect product. In the other, an individual alone strives to make a masterpiece that wins acclaim. Tyson today finds himself in this “wrong story” having to make the canoe on his own at the university campus.

This unsettling introduction set us looking for better stories in the room. The carvers Pete McCurley and Hape Kiddle talked about the way wood becomes a social currency for them, creating relations, one of which is Tyson himself, who had been gifted some gidgee by Pete. As a weaver, Ilka White spoke of how her making is embedded in the Castlemaine community. Cara Johnson reflected on how her work is also about “wrong story”, making jewellery from the plastic tree guards that signify the false promise of nature restoration. And Jules Christian  talked about how her work ravels and unravels feelings for herself and her relations with fellow weavers.

It was a surprise to have a focus on “wrong story”. Tyson’s satiric take on virtuosic canoe-making showed up the blandness of much wishful thinking of harmony and connectedness. Thinking about it, “wrong story” can be foundational to many different cultures. Doesn’t the Judeo-Christian story begin with eating the sacred apple? Stories don’t have to be wholesome to be effective.

So as an act of thinking-making, the frustration of making alone for Tyson is associated with thoughts of “wrong story”. This turns us towards a broader understanding of handmade objects and how they connect us to each other, particularly as currencies. What’s left unresolved is the place of the university. For Tyson and many others, academic positions and PhD programs offer a space to work outside the capitalist market system. Yet as credentialing institutions, universities are premised on individualistic practice: a community can’t sit an exam.

Can universities change? We’ll see what Tyson can do at Deakin University. Meanwhile, we need to support those outside the university system who are striving to make their way as social makers in an atomistic world? The stories from other cultures that Garland gathered in the first journey provide inspiration, particularly the Bali issue “Rame rame” (Let’s do it together) and the Oaxaca issue “Guendalisaà” (Crafting kinship).

Let’s start trading stories.

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  • Chris says:

    Rewards for coming together and convening. The richness may just be not what is shared but the very simple act of being so far apart and yet seen to be close. All on the screen with each other.