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  • Writer's pictureJavier Omar Meléndez-Vega, LCSW

Respecting Ancestral Knowledge: My Path to Indigenous Wisdom



Today, we delve into a framework for engaging with indigenous knowledge systems. This framework is based on Tyson Yunkaporta’s book, “Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World”. Yunkaporta suggests four guiding questions to navigate our work with Indigenous Knowledge sustainably. These questions are pivotal as I, bian’daka*, connect with our Taino ancestry.


The four pivotal questions Yunkaporta presents are:

  1. What can we know?

  2. What do we know?

  3. How do we know it?

  4. How do we work with that? 


Yunkaporta suggests that the responses to these questions share similarities across many Indigenous cultures through their “ways of valuing”, “ways of being”, “ways of knowing”, and “ways of doing”. That being said, it’s critical to acknowledge the distinctiveness of each Indigenous culture, as this framework may not universally apply. For our purposes, bian'daka will use this framework throughout this journey to discover more about our indigenous Taino roots. 


Below is a table bian’daka compiled drawing from Yunkaporta’s insights charting our path toward reconnection. This framework is meant to be personalized to individual cultural systems, so as bian'daka continue to learn more about our Taino heritage we may make adaptations to the framework so that it fits within our cultural context, if necessary.


Here's the framework:


Framework for Engaging with Indigenous Knowledge Systems

Four Pillars of Engagement

(always in this order)

Approaches to Indigenous Knowledge

Foundational Questions of Indigenous Epistemology

Practical Applications of Indigenous Principles

(examples quoted from Sand Talk)

1. Respect (Spirit)



Ways of Valuing

What can we know? 


What we can know is determined by our obligations and relationships to people, Ancestors, land, Law, and creation.

“Values and protocols of introductions, setting rules, and boundaries”

2. Connect (Heart)

Ways of Being

What do we know?


What we know is that the role of custodial species is to sustain creation, which is formed from complexity and connectedness.

“Establishing strong relationships and routines of exchange that are equal for all involved. Your way of being is your way of relating, because all things only exist in relationship to other things.”

3. Reflect (Head)

Ways of Knowing

How do we know it?


The way we know this is through our cultural metaphors.

“Thinking as part of the group and collectively establishing a shared body of knowledge to inform what you will do.” 

4. Direct (Hands)

Ways of Doing

How do we work with it? 


The way we work with this knowledge is by positioning, sharing, and adopting our cultural metaphors.

“Acting on that shared knowledge in ways that are negotiated by all.”


Yunkaporta shares how he was traveling and “following songlines” for two years with his friend Mumma Doris Shillingsworth to identify this process for working with Indigenous Knowledge. During this time they had many yarns with each other and with other elders along their travels. As Yunkaporta shared the process they came to learn (synthesized in the table above), he highlighted an important insight Mumma Doris shared,

“She also noted that non-Aboriginal people seemed to work through the same steps but in reverse. Mumma Doris has observed interventions and programs imposed on her community for over half a century, noticing that they always begin with the last step, Direct. Government agents come into the community with a plan for change, and they direct activities toward this change immediately. When it all fails, they go backward to the next step, Reflect. They gather data and measure outcomes and try to figure out what went wrong. Then they realize they didn’t form relationships with the community, so belatedly they go to the next step, Connect. Through these relationships they discover the final step (which should have been the first), finding a profound respect for members of the community they ruined. They cry as they say farewell and return to the city, calling, ‘Thank you! I have learned so much from you!’”

The Foundation of Respect in Reconnection

Taking all this into account, if bian’daka want to reconnect with our indigenous heritage, the first and most important thing is to begin with an attitude of respect. It’s important to recognize that bian’daka are not the first on this journey and that there are many  that have come before me. They are nah’alik’aita*, “those who know”. They are the knowledge-keepers of our Taino heritage who have done the deep work to learn and preserve what has been passed down to them. They tend and care for this knowledge, so that they may, one day too, pass it down to the next generation of nah’alik’aita. Bian’daka are still very early on in our reconnection journey and if bian'daka want to do this right, we need to approach the journey with respect for all ‘nah’alik’aita’ that have come before us. 


The Custodial Role of Humanity

This practice of respect is also how we honor and connect with Spirit. I’m still on the journey to better understand Taino cosmology, so I can’t speak that just yet. However, from what I understand about our human species and from what I learned from Sand Talk, we humans were made by some Great Spirit to be a custodial species. Each of us have been crafted to be a type of knowledge-keeper. As Yunkaporta puts it, "Knowledge is...a living thing that is patterned within every person and being and object and phenomenon within creation," (p83). So there is knowledge in each and every one of us and that knowledge within us can be accessed. That being said, knowledge doesn’t just come from nowhere or randomly from us alone. Knowledge is gifted by those who come before us. As such, it's important to recognize and acknowledge that there are communities of people who have been engaging in the intentional practice of knowledge-keeping for thousands of years and it's essential we respect these communities and the knowledge they hold.


If bian'daka are to begin thinking in a similar way as our indigenous ancestors, who are still alive and active today, bian’daka must first understand what we can and what we cannot know.


Respecting Indigenous Knowledge and Practices

As bian’daka are in the early stages of our reconnecting journey, there are a lot of things we don’t know. There are also probably a lot of things we can’t know. That is, until bian’daka have matured enough and demonstrated that we are capable of tending to such knowledge. Due to the atrocities committed by colonization and settler colonialism, many indigenous communities have needed to safeguard their knowledge and ancestral practices. There is a well documented history of how colonizers, time and time again, murdered, tortured and punished any indigenous person who was engaging in indigenous spiritual practices. In fact, here in the United States, it had become illegal for various indigenous peoples to practice their spiritual ceremonies and dances due to many governmental policies. It wasn’t until 1978, when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) has passed, that the rights of Native Americans to exercise their traditional religions was protected. We also see that with settler colonialism, many indigenous practices became appropriated and “white-washed”, and we still see this happening today. 


Bian'daka have noticed a lot of hype these days around somatic therapy practices and psychedelic assisted therapies, both of which are useful approaches for addressing and healing trauma. However, what modern approaches to these practices fail to acknowledge is that much of the knowledge of these medicines were already common to various indigenous communities. This failure to respect the knowledge and where it came from has resulted in the frequent appropriation of these medicines. 


As a therapist in the process of decolonizing both myself and my practice, this is especially relevant to me. If bian'daka don't respect and acknowledge the original keepers of such medicines, if we continue to appropriate them, we will be no better than the colonizers. We will continue to be part of the problem, perpetuating the harm and erasure brought on by both colonialism and settler colonialism. 


The hard truth is, some practices should simply not be practiced by those outside the community from which they originate. This is a difficult truth to accept, and some would call it gatekeeping, but after all the suffering colonizers have caused among various indigenous communities, particularly around cultural and religious practices, indigenous communities have every right to preserve and gatekeep their knowledge. And this is why there is some knowledge that bian’daka must accept that we cannot know. If a community decides that a knowledge or practice is not for bian-daka, then it is not for bian’daka. Us-two* imagine that this would ring true, as well, even as a member within our own community. If elders of our community express that bian’daka are not to know or practice a particular knowledge, then bian’daka must accept that reality. 


This respect and understanding underscores the ‘okanau’ or sacredness in receiving knowledge. ‘Aitaye okani le’, knowledge is sacred. Once we are able to accept and respect that reality, we will be more effectively able to receive new knowledge, as well as tend to that knowledge. If we are able to demonstrate we are responsible in tending to the knowledge we've received, we then have an opportunity to receive more knowledge. Spirit holds an abundance of knowledge for us all. The work lies in understanding and respecting what knowledge we can know and cannot know. Ideally, all knowledge would be shared because as Yunkaporta states, "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.” However, respect, above all else, is key in the transmission of knowledge.


Respecting Mysterious Knowledge

Not only are there things that we can’t know due to protecting and preserving knowledge from misuse and appropriation, but there are also things we simply can’t know because they are unknown. Another book I’ve been reading, Grounded: How Connection with Nature Can Improve our Mental and Physical Wellbeing by Ruth Allen, speaks about the power of mystery. Allen discusses how mystery is “normal and inevitable”. There will always be “many things we don’t understand” and are unable to know. Embracing mystery and accepting that the reality that there is some knowledge we just can’t know, provides bian’daka with more opportunities to dream, explore, wonder, and be in awe of creation. It also encourages a spirit of reverence and humility as we recognize the finiteness of the human mind and human existence. 


So what can I know? What will Spirit teach me?

The main question for bian'daka is "What can I know?" What knowledge am I privy to? Yunkaporta answers that question by saying, "What we can know is determined by our obligations and relationships to people, Ancestors, land, Law, and creation," (emphasis added).


This is a very helpful starting point as bian'daka aim to reconnect to our ancestral ways. The next natural questions for bian’daka is then, “What are my obligations and relationships to people, Ancestors, land, Law, and creation?” What do some of those terms even mean? And what knowledge can bian’daka receive from these obligations and relationships? 


Navigating our Obligations and Relationships

People…

Ancestors…

land…

Law…

and creation….

What did Tyson mean by these? He speaks about each throughout his book, but as bian’daka sit here looking at each term we realize we need to reflect on these a bit more.

Also, what is meant by the word “obligation”. What are my “obligations” to people, Ancestors, land, Law, and creation? Bian’daka assume that will become clear once we understand our relationship with each. So with that said, bian’daka plan to take a deeper dive into each of these to better understand our relationship and obligations to each of these categories. In doing so, our hope to discover what knowledge is available to us via these relationships and obligations.


As I continue to explore those answers for myself, I encourage you to reflect on the same within your own life and context.


 

What are some of the sacred wisdoms or practices from your heritage that you cherish? How do you navigate the delicate balance between preserving these traditions and exploring new understandings? 


 

*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”. 

(To learn more about the terms “bian’daka” and “us-two”, feel free to read this blog). 


I also use the term “nah’alik’aita” to express the idea of knowledge-keepers in Hiwatahia. Nah’alik’aita literally translates to “those who know” and I would define it as: “a collective group or individuals characterized by their knowledge, awareness, and understanding, emphasizing their identity or status as informed and wise entities around particular matters''.  Example: “Nah’alik’aita carry the stories and traditions of our people.”


References:

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

  • Grounded: How Connection with Nature Can Improve Our Mental and Physical Wellbeing - Ruth Allen


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