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  • Writer's pictureJavier Omar Meléndez-Vega, LCSW

Embracing Our Many Voices: The Journey of Decolonizing Thought Through Language

I've been reading Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World by Tyson Yunkaporta, and let me tell you... This book has been revolutionary for me so far. I don't tend to reread books often but this is a book I definitely plan to revisit again and again.

In my journey of reconnecting to my indigenous roots I've been recognizing the importance of learning how to breakdown my colonized ways of thinking and viewing the world, and in turn replace it with a more indigenous framework. Tyson Yunkaporta, through his book Sand Talk has been significantly helping me with that. Here's an example of what I mean:


There are times when I have a lot on my mind and I feel the need to express myself. One way I try expressing myself is through writing. I keep a private journal and am able to express some personal thoughts in there every morning, but there are times when writing in my journal doesn't feel like enough. Sometimes I feel the need to, as Yunkaporta puts it, yarn.

I had never heard that term before, however, after learning more about it, I realized I have definitely experienced what it means. As Yunkaporta explains it, a structured cultural activity that is recognized even in research circles as a valid and rigorous methodology for knowledge production, inquiry, and transmission. It is a ritual that incorporates elements such as story, humor, gesture, and mimicry for consensus-building, meaning-making, and innovation. It references places and relationships and is highly contextualized in the local worldview of those yarning.

He continues,

It has protocols of active listening, mutual respect, and building on what others have said rather than openly contradicting them or debating their ideas. There is no firm protocol of only one person speaking at a time, although the mutual respect protocol ensures that interjections are in support of what a speaker is saying, enriching what is being said... There is a lot of overlapping speech that makes yarning vibrant and dynamic and deeply stimulating. It is nonlinear branching off into diverse themes and topics but often returning to revisit ideas in ways that find connections and correlations between diverse sets of data that would otherwise not be found in more analytical modes of dialogue. There may be periods of comfortable and communicative silence that are reflective and not considered to be awkward. The endpoint of a yarn is a set of understandings values and directions shared by all members of the group in a loose consensus that is inclusive of diverse points of view.

He goes on to say how the main way yarns are communicated is through "the sharing of anecdote, stories, and experiences from lived reality of the participants".

I've definitely experienced yarning during conversations with close friends, and I particularly remember engaging in it as a child, between the ages of 7 and 12. I wonder if yarning is the natural way children communicate. Either way, I remember finding the experience, both in child- and adulthood it to be a very fulfilling. Unfortunately, however, due to various moves across state lines over the course of my life, I don't get to see or connect with past friends with whom I would yarn, so yarning has become less frequent.

One hope I have with this blog is to build a community of people with whom I can yarn. So, although yarning is more of an oral cultural practice versus a written one, I'm hoping that by writing, I can spark engagement of thought virtually and maybe we can work our way back to face to face interactions. Yunkaporta says that yarns and yarning are tools for both enhancing memory and engagement, but more than that "they can be a disruptive innovation that is empowering and liberating when transferred to contemporary media" (emphasis added). This is what I hope to evoke as I virtually and asynchronously yarn with you through blogging. (I acknowledge how that seems contrary to what yarning actually is, but I invite you to explore and play with me as I build this out).

So let's yarn!

I was having conversation with a client the other day about the shame they feel when they are inconsistent in engaging with tasks they feel would make them a better person. As we explored this idea further we came to realize there is a nagging "voice" (thoughts) in his mind that led him to believe that he's not a good person, especially if he doesn't do "what he's supposed to". As we spoke further, I recalled from my own experience just how common that "voice" was for me throughout my life too. A "voice" that would tell me I'm not good enough or that I'm not doing enough.

Sometimes that "voice" would be mean and condescending, calling me stupid, or cringing when I would do something regretful, and other times the "voice" would be encouraging and uplifting, telling me "good job, you did that" (or maybe that was the voices sarcasm).

I experience that "voice" sometimes when writing. I sometimes experience the voice wondering, "What's the point of writing. What if no one reads it? What if no one is interested in listening?" But then another or the same "voice" says, "So what?... So what if no one reads your writing or your thoughts? Who are you doing this for? What is your actual purpose?"

This voice and internal dialogue has been pretty consistent for me since I can remember, and from conversations with other's it appears this internal "voice" experience is common for many people as well. So much so, that apparently there are cultures that acknowledge and normalize this internal experience within their language.

Yunkaporta helped me to understand this further.

He shares that in his language this "voice" is "ngal", it is the dual first person. And, apparently, many Indigenous languages have a pronoun for it. In Sand Talk, Yunkaporta provides an English-language term to conceptualize it. He uses "us-two". "Us-two" is the duality of self that aids in the process "of dialogical and reflective" thinking. And as I* see it, ngal or "us-two" is a necessary lens for decolonzing the mind.

How a dual-first person pronoun can shift our thinking?

As I reflected on this notion further, thinking about my own personal experience with this internal dialogue, and in hearing the various experiences of people I work with, I've come to believe there are actual benefits to having an incorporated and embodied dual-first person pronoun.

  • When we see ourselves through the lens of the "us-two" pronoun, we foster a mindset that acknowledges our natural inclination towards relationship, moving us beyond an individualistic perspective to a more communal and wholistic** one, strengthening our ability of compassion both towards others and towards self.

  • Having an "us-two" pronoun normalizes and encourages individuals to engage in more complex internal dialogues and allows a person to acknowledge and converse with different aspects of their identity, leading to deeper self-reflection and understanding.

  • By recognizing the "other" within ourselves, we can develop greater empathy and compassion for the "other" outside ourselves. And by practicing internal dialogue and coming to a deeper understanding of our relationship with the dual-self, it can better prepare us as we work to understand the perspectives and experiences of others, fostering a sense of shared humanity, possibly reducing conflicts that arise from misunderstandings or narrow self-interests.

Parts Work in Mental Health

I'm somewhat familiar with this way of thinking due to using "parts work" in my practice such as Internal Family Systems (IFS) and Structural Dissociation. Both strategies address trauma by providing a framework where clients can better understand themselves by acknowledging how the mind develops as a composition of multiple parts or sub-personalities, often as a survival mechanism for various stressors and traumas across the life-span. However, until now, I* had never considered adding a pronoun for it to my lexicon to more further embody the concept as part of our identity and way of thinking.

I've noticed I somewhat practice this perspective when I think about my body. I personally view my body as a separate entity even though we are still one. I talk and interact with my eiruku (my body) as I would with a friend. In doing so, it helps me to feel more deeply connected with da'waya (myself). But I've never had a pronoun to express myself from this lens. I speak English, Spanish, and some Hiwatahia, the language of my community, and as far as I'm familiar, there are no dual-first person pronouns in any of those languages.

So with that being said, and in the spirit of decolonzing our minds through lanaguage, I'd* like to suggest some terms be added to the Hiwatahia lexicon to shift how we view the self. If any of my Higuayagua Taino kin are reading this, I'd love to hear your feedback and suggestions as well. I also encourage other readers to consider your own languages and to contemplate ways you can incorporate this lens into your own framework.

For my Higuayagua Taino family:

I* considered currently existing pronouns such as: da (I), wakiya (us), wa (our), wa'waya'no (oursleves) and da'waya (myself). I considered the ideas of both a dual-first person pronoun and a multiplicitous-first person pronoun based on Yunkaporta's explanations of ngal and "us-two", my professional understandings of personality development across the life span, and frameworks I've learned from Renee Linklater's book Decolonizing Trauma Work.

After some reflection, I've come up with two suggested terms to be added to our lexicon:

  • bian'daka - two me

  • ana'waya - multi-self or many self

With each term I* intentionally wrote them in singular form to convey that although two or many, we are still one.

two minds, one person

Further Musings on these Terms

To explain my thinking on these two terms further, I've provided some definitions and examples below.

bian'daka [pronoun]

  • A dual first-person pronoun used to acknowledge and express the interconnectedness and duality of the self, emphasizing an internal dialogue between different aspects of one's identity.

  • This pronoun can be used in place of da (I or me) when speaking in terms of reflection and processing thoughts. In fact, I could've used this term at various times throughout the writing above. I marked those instances with an (*). Moving forward, I will use bian'daka to express myself from this lens.

  • Example:

    • "Houn'alu ka mauka bian'dak'anaba'ho bian'dak'amaranu A~adir'ahei bian'daka do ketawa A~kunokoa.

    • "When, in the morning, "us-two" awaken "us-two" check to feel if "us-two" are ready to arise."

ana'waya [noun/pronoun]

  • A term denoting the concept of 'many or multi selves,' used to describe the multiplicity of identities, roles, and perspectives within a single individual.

  • In a psychological or therapeutic context, it refers to the various parts or sub-personalities that constitute a person's overall psyche, each with its distinct attributes and functions.

  • This term can be used to acknowledge the multiplicity of self. It can also be helpful when acknowledging one's experience of cognitive dissonance, self criticism, and loneliness, as well as experiences of self-compassion, wholeness, and internal connection.

    • Example:

    • "Wo do wani abisarisa luku. Alu ka uma lan akuaiba, houna axikiha'no wariko, wo bikidoko ana'waya A~umayara k'amuti axikiha'no. Haitaxi noma ana'waya le ayata'ki, wo do m'adan akatal'anaihi wo do abanibi**."

    • "We are an adaptable people. In the path of life, when challenges come, we cultivate multi-self to navigate the various challenges. Although each multi-self is distinguished, we are never separate/apart because we are one-whole."

These are just suggestions. No one has to use these terms. If anyone has better terms to express the concept, I'm also open to it. However, regardless of whether we use these terms or others, I would encourage the implementation of this lens into our cultural and mental framework and lexicon because as Yunkaporta says, "Solutions to complex problems take many dissimilar minds and points of view to design, so we have to do that together, linking up with as many other 'us-twos' as we can to form networks of dynamic interaction."

In other words, if we really want to create positive change in this world and create effective solutions for things like landback, decolonizing in general, sustainable and regenerative living, indigenous and overall human rights, etc., we have to first spend time in our own individual reflective process, experiencing the internal dialogue between "us-two" as part of a cultural mindset and way of life. Then, from the insights we gather internally, we can come together with other "us-twos", other bian'daka, and maybe even other ana'waya, to more effectively collaborate in the design of said solutions.

I now understand that the "voice" I've been interacting with throughout my life has been bian'daka. And as bian'daka write this now, it leads us to think that maybe another purpose of writing this blog is to further experience this internal dialogue (a yarn within myself).

Yunkaporta says, "I write to provoke thought, rather than represent fact", and maybe that's what our writing is mean to be. Simply an expression of ideas spoken "out loud" to accomplish two things:

  1. To help bian'daka process and make sense of these thoughts that flow through our mind.

  2. And to hopefully catch the ears of others who are also engaging with their own internal dialogue with "us-two / ngal / bian'daka / ana'waya"),

and maybe, when we come together we can build solutions that create balance in our world 🌎.

Houna wo uwar'adawa,

Uwaradawa wo anuta.

When we build together

Balance we create.


Do you have a dual-first person pronoun or a multiplicitous-first person pronoun in your language? Feel free to share it and how it influences your thinking and reflection process.


**Notes on Language:

  • In this blog, I use the spelling "wholistic" with a "W" to describe an all-encompassing perspective on wellness. This choice is inspired by the work of Renee Linklater of Rainy River First Nations and Alice Olsen Williams of Curve Lake First Nation. They highlight that "wholistic" better represents the concept of wholeness and inclusivity, reflective of Indigenous cultural philosophy. This spelling intentionally moves away from associations with the word "holy," which can imply masculinity, patriarchal power, and specific religious connotations. In our journey together, I aim to embrace language that truly encapsulates our shared exploration of identity, resilience, and healing within a broader, more inclusive context.

  • I also use the word abanibi in the example for ana'waya. Abanibi is a compound word I'm suggesting to convey the combined ideas of oneness and wholeness. In Hiwatahia, the word for "one" is "aban" and the word for "whole" is "anibi". So put together I suggest the word abanibi. It can be further conceptualized as the following:

    • "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. It symbolizes unity and integration, where the sum of parts creates a singular, harmonious entity and suggests an underlying interconnectedness or interdependence, where each part is essential to the integrity and completeness of the whole. "Abanibi" could be used to describe situations, systems, or entities where diversity is synthesized into a unified whole without losing the distinct value of individual components. I imagine, in a philosophical or spiritual context, "abanibi" might also represent the concept of universal oneness, where all existence is interconnected and part of a single, unified reality.

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