The ‘Thousand Year Clean-Up’ With Tyson Yunkaporta

From What Do We Do Now That We Are Here by Rosie Sprinks

Tyson is a member of the Apalech Clan in far north Queensland and a Senior Lecturer in Indigenous Knowledges at Deakin University in Melbourne. I first discovered his work via his book, Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World. While reading it, I felt relieved that someone on this earth finally seemed to have a sensible response for the question, What Do We Do Now That We’re Here?

His book proposes this as an answer: Develop an embodied relationship with the place, people, creatures, and land where you live; participate in building a culture of transition and adaptation; and get excited about the aptly-named “thousand year clean-up.” As it turns out, that’s what humans had been doing long before capitalism came around, anyway.

Rosie: I love this idea in your book of the domesticated human. I think it’s a nice way to reframe civilization — that we’re not civilized, we’re domesticated. Can you say a little more about what humans stand to gain by un-domesticating themselves? It’s often said that “if we lived like Paleolithic man, without the comforts of modern life, we’d be cold, tired, and hungry.” 

Tyson: Most people are cold and tired and hungry right now [laughs]. There’s this idea of, “but look how much poverty civilization has been able to eradicate, look at all the graphs of the last 100 years.” And it’s like, but what was it like before those graphs? Where did all the poverty come from? We haven’t had a million years of miserable poverty and then all of a sudden we’re lifting people out of it. 

The problem is people have been displaced from their lands. And the land gives you everything. Ideally, you’re in relationship with the land that you know intimately. So you know where to stay to find the warm places, and seasonally that just seems to line up with all the foods you need to find and what you want to eat at the different times of year. 

It doesn’t mean running around in animal skins going “ooga booga” and eating bugs off the floor. It was never like that. It’s about being embedded in a landscape and having access to land. And we don’t have access to land. These days, you have to be a millionaire to have access to a very small block of land that wouldn’t even be enough to feed you. All of this land has been taken from everybody. And we’re told that [all] will be supplied for us. But for more than half of us, it’s not being supplied. 

We’ve been told such a horrendously wrong story about what our past is as human beings. That story is so terrifying, that anytime we think of doing anything else, we’re immediately terrified into compliance again. 

R: You’re making a radical argument in the book that modern civilization is doomed. And then you’re extending this invitation for us to transition back to a more land-based and cyclical way of living. I’m on-board, but I think some people might say, “okay well I’m going to wait out the apocalypse then. There’s no point in trying to improve this.” I think the reason people have that response is that it’s such a huge leap — to go from the way we’re living now to that. So I wonder if there’s an incrementalist approach here. 

For example, I volunteer in a garden on Fridays and it’s completely changed the rhythm of my week and the kinds of things I end up thinking about, even when I’m not there. But when I suggest something like that to people, it just sounds so pathetic and small.

T: But see that’s perfect because what you’re doing there is forming a relationship. You’re forming relationships and communities that make the blueprint of a life that’s embedded back in place and with people. And that’s where you have to start. You don’t start by building a cabin in the woods and getting your bow and hunting skills up and storing cans of food. Tinned food only lasts three years, by the way — it’s a really bad way to prep. 

[Doomsday] prepping is all about practicing your relational skills and actually making meaningful connections and networks in your neighborhoods. Because really that’s where the loaves and fishes trick happens when the scarcity hits. That human pattern just emerges. There is a kind of dynamic where, even in real scarcity, everyone gets just what they need and then everyone works together to build up an abundance again. This is what we see in mutual aid activism all over the world right now.

That’s the infrastructure that we need to be preparing, that infrastructure of relationships. That’s what you do. You increase your relatedness with the people around you, but also the non-humans. 

Indigeneity is not defined by the category of tools that we use. It’s about our relationship with each other and our relationship with place. That’s what “indigenous” is. That’s what everyone is seeking a right of return to. 

R: I wonder if we are to do this outer work and try to fix some of these problems, do we have to do our inner work first? I see so many people trying to fix everything external but they haven’t, for example, taken a day off in four months.

T: I don’t think people need to go inwards and fix themselves before they start connecting with the world. That’s the wrong way round. That’s the mistake everyone’s been making for the last five decades, everyone doing this inner work to make themselves worthy of the world — no. 

You are a system that’s been created for relational embodied cognition and so you’re supposed to be out connecting with people, humans, non humans, and places in the world. That’s where your cognition is, that’s where your knowledge is, that’s where your personal development is. It’s out there. 

R: Right, and that’s where you’re going to find that “ancestor wisdom” people are always trying to find in other cultural traditions. I love the line in your book where you say “the assistance people need is not in learning about Aboriginal Knowledge, but in remembering their own.” 

We don’t do that by appropriating all these different practices and traditions from other cultures. We do that by living in these embodied networks of cognition that we’re literally designed to live in. This knowledge lives in us. 

T: That’s it. You just have to go out and inhabit that, and that’s the first half of it. And then you reflect on it. It’s just that simple process that Mumma Doris gave me in the book: Respect, Connect, Reflect, Direct. Just that. [Editor’s note: Tyson writes that Mumma Doris says “non-Aboriginal people seem to work through the same steps but in reverse,” which rings pretty damn true to me.]

The first half of it is just making a respectful relationship with the world. And then you’re reflecting on that and doing the deep thinking and the reading. You’re not just accumulating that for yourself, you’re connecting with all these people and sharing all this knowledge, these yarns, that become community knowledge — it becomes part of the collective knowledge that you hold there. There’s no better prepping than that. 

And then finally you act. That’s the last thing. Then you act upon the world and start fixing things. But it’s not just you doing it. You’re part of a collective of people who are doing things to fix things. You might find that the first thing is, “we need to be looking after each other’s kids and making sure they’re fed really well,” or “we need to have food sovereignty in our neighborhood.”

Rather than charging straight out to a school meeting and demanding what you want to see changed in the curriculum and what you want to see banned and what you want to see included — just go meet your fucking neighbors 

[It might look something like this:] You guys on that street, you’re closer to the ridge over there so you guys will be growing pumpkins this season and if you get fifty of those together we’ll swap it out for a couple of bags of spuds from here. You know what I mean? Everybody is just sort of swapping and exchanging and, oh my goodness the kids are really enjoying the gardening. Why have we even got them going to school anyway? They just want to be here learning together. Oh and Jeffrey down the road wants to teach them blacksmithing and he’s the last blacksmith in this hemisphere — amazing! And the kids want to build their own computers and we got five millennials in that squat down the road who are really good at that.

For us, we’re keeping bees right now and we have some neighbors that are really wild about it and who are really connecting with us. They’re starting up their own hives, and we’re connecting with all these people. You wouldn’t believe how many bee keeping experts there are within a kilometer alone. So there’s this weird thing happening. You know what bees do: They organize and socialize and work together. And that’s what we’re doing. Our little house is like a bee in a hive. 

R: That’s really beautiful. I wanted to finish on this idea in the book of Post Apocalyptic Stress Syndrome, or “when a culture experiences such a massive shock that it never fully recovers.” I know you wrote this book before Covid, but it seems like we’re poised to enter into another 100 year period, or perhaps many more, where we’re struggling to recover. Your invitation in the book is to create cultures and societies of transition in response to that. Amidst climate and Covid, that’s probably the only thing I’ve come across that makes sense to me as a life strategy right now.  

So I wonder if you could finish on an optimistic note. Do you see any bright spots where that’s happening? What does that look like in practice to you? 

T: It looks like people who are finding hope in the idea that oh the new normal is about a millennium from now. It’s people who aren’t feeling depressed by that, but actually people who that makes them feel quite happy. I’m getting the feeling from you that you feel that way — that you’re actually really looking forward to the thousand year clean-up. 

R: Yes, I think I am! 

T: The earth has changed so much that we’re going to be in these cultures of transition. There aren’t all these populations where god put them, where these are mountains and these are rivers and that’s where the lions are and that’s where the black people live and that’s where the brown people live. It’s all mixed up now, and all the landscapes have changed and the climate is changing and new mountains are coming up.

Everything is changing. And there are existential threats like time bombs just from the things we’ve created. Everybody at some stage is going to belong to a mobile population and you better bloody hope that people have a broad understanding that it’s a good thing to welcome those people when they come in.

And I think there’s a lot of people who are actually really looking forward to it. And who are starting to live like that, like “Oh I get to be in the culture as it transitions.” 

R: I think something changes for the better when you accept that this is just what’s happening, instead of fighting to keep the world as it is. Because that just feels like a lost cause to me at this point.

T: The idea that we can just keep this system, but there’s just a few things wrong with it, or we just need to make it more fair. Like, “We just need to make sure there’s plenty of women on the board of corporations that are fucking extracting from this place and destroying the entire planet — just as long as we have enough women of color on the board, that’s better.” 

It’s just like oh my god, you think you’re gonna tweak the system that’s actually designed to destroy the world, to extract every last drop, until it’s all dead — that you’re just gotta make it fairer and it’ll all be fine. Okay man. 


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