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  • Writer's pictureJavier Omar Meléndez-Vega, LCSW

Embarking on a Journey of Indigenous Wisdom: Reflecting on ‘Sand Talk’

Updated: Feb 5



As I mentioned in the last blog post, I'm reading Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World (actually I just finished reading it, but I continue to reflect on it). This book has truly had a profound effect on me, and I want to strongly encourage everyone on a reconnecting journey to read it as well. For me, personally, it spoke to both the part of me that is longing to feel more connected to my ancestry and the part of me that holds on to the hope that we can truly build a better world and future. Bian’daka* can’t wait to fully put into practice all the insights we’ve gained from reading this book and to start living an even more connected life in harmony with the Earth and with our indigenous and Puerto Rican ancestry.  


The Goal of ‘Sand Talk’

If bian’daka understood the book correctly, it appears Tyson Yunkaporta's main goal for this book was not only to teach and demonstrate HOW indigenous thinking can save the world, but to explain how the reader can also think in an Indigenous and more sustainable way. He provides various stories and yarns that highlight how these indigenous ways of thought bring us into more alignment with the rhythms of nature transforming us into what he calls "Sustainability Agents".


This will be a multi-part reflection, as it's too much information to condense into a single blog post. This current post will simply be an introduction for what’s to come. 


Exploring Indigenous Minds

Yunkaporta introduces five foundational perspectives, or “minds”, that are common to various indigenous cultures’ ways of thinking: kinship mind, story mind, ancestor mind, dreaming mind, and pattern mind. He emphasizes that these concepts are “open-source” and meant to be personalized and adapted to one’s own culture and environment. As such, bian’daka will spend more in depth time on each of these later when we look at how they apply to my Taino heritage. For now, I will give a brief highlight of what each mind is about and what it brought up for me:

  • kinship mind 

  • Tyson summarizes this as being about “relationships and connectedness”. What stood out to me was the notion that all things are connected. Our lives are woven through relationships with all beings, encapsulated in the phrase, ‘All my relations’, or in Hiwatahia, “Tokowa da itai’no”.

  • story mind

  • When discussing the story mind, Tyson describes it as “the role of narrative in memory and knowledge transmission”. He explains how storytelling and the sharing of songs or poetry is a practice of passing down knowledge. Storytelling and song also help with memory retention. I found this fascinating and really got me thinking about how I could practice this within my own context.

  • dreaming mind

  • Dreaming mind is that practice of “using metaphors to work with knowledge”. I found this practice to be particularly beautiful. It’s through dreaming mind that we are able to bring the spiritual world into the physical. The idealogical into the tangible, the abstract into the concrete and practical. 

  • ancestor mind

  • I was most captivated by the concept of ancestor mind. Tyson explains it as an experience of “deep engagement, connecting with a timeless state of mind, ‘alpha wave state’”. The details in which he describes it sounds profoundly similar to the experience of ‘flow-state’. If this is a correct understanding of it, I believe it has profound implications, which we will explore later. 

  • pattern mind

  • Pattern mind was also really cool. Tyson says that pattern mind is “seeing entire systems and trends and patterns within them, and using these to make accurate predictions and find solutions to complex problems”. This is probably one of the more challenging minds to practice well. I look forward to diving deeper into it.

Becoming a Sustainability Agent

Similarly, he also outlines four operating guidelines for being a ‘Sustainability Agent’: diversify, connect, interact, and adapt. Bian’daka will later explore what it means to be a ‘Sustainability Agent’ and how these guidelines can help us ideate healthy interventions for our current world. However, for now, let me just briefly share what is meant by the term Sustainability Agent.


When Yunkaporta discusses the idea of Sustainability Agents, he implies that these are agents of change working within the complex hierarchical system we currently find ourselves in. He discusses how preindustrial cultures and indigenous models of governance operated under heterarchical systems instead of hierarchical. Meaning there was “no outsider-imposed authority, ‘no boss’, no ‘dominion over’”. Sustainability Agents are free agents within the current system similar to what would be “referred to in chaos theory as ‘strange attractors’”, endeavoring to disrupt and change the current structure. 


Sustainability Agents operate from a lens of cultural humility, with each individual working to understand their own “culture and the way it interacts with others, particularly the power dynamics of it,” for the purpose of building more efficient, and sustainable relationships with one another so we can work together more effectively. Yunkaporta states that, “this kind of cultural humility is a useful exercise in understanding [our] roles as agent[s] of sustainability in a complex system.” However, it requires us to “relinquish the illusions of power and delusions of exceptionalism that come with privilege”. 


Being a Sustainability Agent requires us to embrace our “true status as a single node in a cooperative network”. This may seem like a scary or intimidating idea for some, as it may evoke fears of being swallowed up, as Yunkaporta puts it, “by a hive mind”, or that we are going to “lose [our] individuality”. However, the role and practice of being a Sustainability Agent actually allows us to “retain our autonomy while simultaneously being profoundly interdependent and connected.” Yunkaporta reassures that “sustainable systems cannot function without the full autonomy and unique expression of each independent part of the interdependent whole”. I imagine it like the murmuration of birds or the synchronization of a swimming school of fish. Each bird and fish is still autonomous and able to break free from the synchrony when necessary and yet they still move in unison. There is power in becoming a Sustainabilty Agent.  

   

Reflections and the Path Ahead

Towards the end of the book, he provides four main questions to ask ourselves when learning and working with Indigenous Knowledge in sustainable ways. Each of the above foreshadowed lessons, I feel, are significant as bian’daka continue to approach reconnecting with our Puerto Rican / Taino roots and learning how to think more indigenously. 

Bian’daka plan to dive into the four questions Yunkaporta proposed for working with Indigenous Knowledge in sustainable ways. “Us-two”* believe these questions will help create an introspective map that will guide us on our journey towards “knowing”. And hopefully, by the end of it, us-two will better understand how to think in the ways of our ancestors and work as life sustaining custodians of the Earth and land. 

The four questions are as follows:

  • What can we know? 

  • I ask my self, in the context of who I am as reconnecting Puerto Rican/Taino and as someone who engages in healing work, what knowledge do I have access to?

  • What do we know?

  • As I reflect on my life journey thus far, what do I already know. What knowledge has been passed down to me that I currently hold within me and my relationships? 

  • How do we know it?

  • How do I maintain a reflective practice that allows me to reassess and critique what I think I know? 

  • How do we work with that?

  • What do I do with knowledge that has been gifted to me? 

As mentioned earlier, this is just an introduction to what’s the come. The first series of blog posts will attempt to explore the first question in the list above, “What can we know?” My hope is that my personal reflections on this journey will help anyone else who is seeking to reconnect with their indigenous heritage and ancestry. I hope this discussion and exploration will inspire the manifestation of more Sustainability Agents and custodians of the land. I imagine this journey is going to be challenging for me personally, and I imagine it probably involves a lot of intentional work, but I’m excited to see what will come of it. Again, you are welcome to follow along and I hope it provides some relevance for you within your own context and journey.


 

What aspects of your heritage or culture do you feel could contribute to a more sustainable and interconnected world? Have you encountered similar concepts as the ones mentioned above within your own culture? How has it influenced your thinking? Share your thoughts below.


 

*Note on Language

In this blog, I use 'bian’daka' and 'us-two' to reflect the concept of dual self, inspired by Tyson Yunkaporta's 'Sand Talk.'  'Us-two' is an English variation of the term ‘ngal’, a dual-first person pronoun from Yunkaporta’s indigenous tongue. 'Bian’daka' is my suggested Hiwatahia variation of ‘us-two’. It signifies the dialogue between the dual facets of oneself, fostering a deeper understanding of our multiplicity, and creates, as Yunkaporta puts it, “a balance between self-definition and group identity”. 


Additionally, 'abanibi' represents the idea of unified wholeness. It’s another Hiwatahia term I suggest that aims to describe the interplay of diverse elements as a singular, harmonious entity. ‘Abanibi’ is a noun that encapsulates the concept of unified wholeness or wholistic oneness and represents the idea that multiple elements or aspects come together to form a complete, indivisible whole.


These linguistic choices underscore my commitment to decolonizing my mind and embracing a more wholistic view of my identity and connection. Incorporating terms like 'bian’daka', 'us-two', and 'abanibi' into how I speak and write is a crucial step in decolonizing my mindset and embracing a wholistic view of identity and interconnectedness. These terms help articulate the complex, intertwined nature of our selves and our relationships with others and the Earth, which is often overlooked in Western paradigms of individualism. They serve as linguistic bridges to the more interconnected and multiplicitous worldview that indigenous knowledge systems offer.

(To learn more about these terms you can read my previous blog here)


 

References:

Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World - Tyson Yunkaporta

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