Sand Talk

Article | Jul 2020

In this extract from Sand Talk, TYSON YUNKAPORTA honours the Aboriginal custom of drawing images on the ground to bring clarity to complexity.


Stones in the earth and the sky, all these stories and their connections can tell us more than the mere fact that they have existed for a certain number of millennia. They can tell us about how to deal with the complexities and frailties of human societies, how to limit destructive excesses in these systems, and most importantly how to deal with idiots. To find this knowledge we need to get practical. We might try some sand talk to get started – look at one of Oldman Juma’s symbols.

The two symbols within the hexagon represent different things, more than their recent mathematical meanings. Separately, they are signs of marsupials (<) and birds (>) as different totemic categories of meat, based on the direction their legs bend at the knee. Together (<>) they represent the only two placental mammals native to this continent, humans and dingoes. They form a shape that shows the rules of marriage in a kinship system; on a different angle they can form a Men’s business symbol. They also show a point of impact, a creation event associated with the orion constellation (who is always a hunter or warrior everywhere in the world), a big bang caused by echidna fighting with Turtle. The trauma of this event caused the sky camp and earth camp to separate, and the universe to begin deep cycles of expansion and contraction, like breathing, in a pattern shaping everything.

The big bang pattern, that initial point of impact, is not just something that occurs at the massive scale of the universe but is repeated infinitely in all its lands and parts. Many creation stories refer to this point of impact, often represented by a stone at the centre of the place and story. Uluru is the stone at the centre of this continent’s story, a pattern repeated in the interconnected and diverse stories of many smaller regions, reflected in our own bodies at the navel and then down into smaller and smaller parts at the quantum level of our cosmology. In this way of knowing, there is no difference between you, a stone, a tree or a traffic light. All contain knowledge, story, pattern. To sit with this story, to discern the pattern, we need to begin by examining rocks.

It would be unhelpful to say, ‘Granite is an igneous crystalline mix of quartz, mica and feldspar.’ It would also be unhelpful to waft around in a tie-dyed shirt hugging the rocks and asking them to divulge their secrets by communing with us through our navel piercings. You have to show patience and respect, come in from the side, sit awhile and wait to be invited in. So we might do some more sand talk first, before we get to the business of rocks and who is allowed to know about them, and how that knowledge might help us to survive today.

I spent a lot of time drawing that bird/marsupial symbol over and over, yarning with people about it and finally making a stone axe to store my understandings. It took me a year. The reason it took so long was that I kept coming back to those two kinds of legs, which formed an image of Emu and Kangaroo in my mind, over and over – as a Dreaming image, but also as Australia’s coat of arms. Settlers must have recognised its importance to adopt it as a symbol of their colony. I have unresolved issues with emu, with its role in creation and the behavioural patterns that keep spinning out from this, making problems for human society and, by extension, all of creation.

Emu’s problem can be seen in the mathematical greater-than/less-than interpretation of the symbol. emu is a troublemaker who brings into being the most destructive idea in existence: I am greater than you; you are less than me. This is the source of all human misery. Aboriginal society was designed over thousands of years to deal with this problem. Some people are just idiots – and everybody has a bit of idiot in them from time to time, coming from some deep place inside that whispers, ‘you are special. you are greater than other people and things. you are more important than everything and everyone. All things and all people exist to serve you.’ This behaviour needs massive checks and balances to contain the damage it can do.

There are a lot of stories that explain how all this began, and as a Brolga boy (traditional enemy of Emu) I know them all. My favourite one comes from Nyoongar Elder Noel Nannup in Perth, who tells the Dreaming story of a meeting in which all the species sat down for a yarn to decide which one would be the custodial species for all of creation. Emu made a hell of a mess, running around showing off his speed and claiming his superiority, demanding to be boss and shouting over everyone. You can see the dark shape of Emu in the Milky Way. Kangaroo (his head the Southern Cross) is holding him down, Echidna is grasping him from behind, and the great Serpent is coiled around his legs. Containing the excesses of malignant narcissists is a team effort.

A combination of social fragmentation and lightning-fast communication today, however, means we have to deal with these crazy people alone, as individuals butting heads with narcissists in a lawless void, and they are thriving in this environment unchecked. Engaging with them alone is futile – never wrestle a pig, as the old saying goes; you both end up covered in shit, and the pig likes it. The fundamental rules of human interaction do not apply to them, although they weaponise those rules against everyone else.

The basic protocols of Aboriginal society, like most societies, include respecting and hearing all points of view in a yarn. Narcissists demand this right, then refuse to allow other points of view on the grounds that any other opinion somehow infringes their freedom of speech or is offensive. They destroy the basic social contracts of reciprocity (which allow people to build a reputation of generosity based on sharing to ensure ongoing connectedness and support), shattering these frameworks of harmony with a few words of nasty gossip. They apply double standards and break down systems of give and take until every member of a social group becomes isolated, lost in a Darwinian struggle for power and dwindling resources that destroys everything. Then they move on to another place, another group. Feel free to extrapolate this pattern globally and historically.

We have stories for this behaviour, memorial stones scattered along songlines throughout the landscape, victims and transgressors transformed into rock following epic struggles to stand for all time as cautionary tales. Clancy McKellar took me to a site where three brothers who had kidnapped women were punished and turned to stone. All over that place in Tibooburra the red rocks are people turned to stone for breaking the Law or messing around too much with weather modification rituals. There is Law and knowledge of Law in stones. All Law-breaking comes from that first evil thought, that original sin of placing yourself above the land or above other people. 


Author: Tyson Yunkaporta

Category: Society & social sciences

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: Text Publishing

ISBN: 9781922790514

RRP: $24.99

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