Scholars unpack Indigenous insights at inaugural Nasr Book Prize Symposium

Author: Josh Stowe

Indigenous Panel
From left, Ashlee Bird, Sousan Abadian, and Tyson Yunkaporta discuss indigenous perspectives during the Nasr Book Prize Symposium

Global collaboration is crucial as the world confronts multiple crises, including conflict, growing inequality, and a climate emergency. Amid these vast challenges, Indigenous ways of thinking—wisdom from people closest to Earth’s rhythms—can provide a helpful way forward. 

So argued scholars from multiple faith and philosophical traditions, who converged on the University of Notre Dame’s campus Oct. 2-3. Their gathering commemorated the Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion’s inaugural Nasr Book Prize Symposium. 

This year, the institute used the prize, which honors the work of scholars who reimagine the connection of religion and global affairs, to recognize Indigenous Australian scholar Tyson Yunkaporta. He is the author of the acclaimed book Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World. Yunkaporta uses Aboriginal-style “yarning,” or dialogues, throughout the work to examine global systems from an Indigenous perspective.

Symposium participants welcomed the approach as they drew on their respective traditions—Indigenous, Abrahamic, Asian, and Secular—to explore and expand on Yunkaporta’s thinking. Speakers offered insights during a series of panels that spanned two days, and honored leaders who have taken a multifaith approach to pursuing peace.

An urgent context 

Mahan Mirza, executive director of the Ansari Institute, noted the timeliness of the conversation. He pointed to UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ recent remarks to the General Assembly, which underscored that “our world is in big trouble,” and meaningful collaboration is the only way forward. 

“The Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion takes these words seriously, as does the Keough School and the University of Notre Dame, and we are dedicated to doing our part,” Mirza said. “The Ansari Institute's signature initiative aims to provide a platform for public conversation on the world as it should be, as envisioned and contested by the diverse religious and wisdom traditions of the world. 

“To that end, we aim to cultivate a fellowship of faiths consisting of prominent intellectuals whose work is informed by their faith and practitioners whose faith is informed by credible academic research. The fellowship will respond in publicly significant ways to issues of common concern in local and global affairs, adding its voice among the prophetic voices of our time to guide the human family into a better future.” 

Conversations yield rich insights

Asian Traditions Panel
Christine Gross-Loh, Lara E. Braitstein, Mugdha Yeolekar, and Nirinjan Khalsa-Baker participate in a panel exploring insights from Asian traditions.

A variety of discussions during the symposium allowed participants to unpack insights from Yunkaporta’s work and offer their own perspectives. 

Yunkaporta joined fellow Indigenous scholars Sousan Abadian (independent) and Ashlee Bird (University of Notre Dame) for a panel. Another, on Asian traditions, included Lara E. Braitstein (McGill University), author Christine Gross-Loh, Nirinjan Khalsa-Baker (Loyola Marymount University, and Mugdha Yeolekar (California State University, Fullerton). 

Jacques Berlinerblau (Georgetown University), Khushwant Singh (Sikhi Council), and Robert Stockman (Wilmette Institute) joined in conversation for another panel. David Cloutier (The Catholic University of America) Nana Firman (Global Muslim Climate Network) and Rabbi Dr. Or Rose (Hebrew College) discussed insights from Abrahamic traditions. 

The wide-ranging discussions covered a number of themes including: 

  • Humankind’s penchant for narcissism, and the importance of humility; 
  • Knowledge as a responsibility rather than a tool for power; 
  • Dealing with diversity and difference; 
  • People’s disconnection from the natural world, and,
  • Using local insights to address climate change. 
Tyson Carolyn2
Tyson Yunkaporta discusses "Sand Talk" with Carolyn T. Brown.

Carolyn T. Brown, who served as a member of the Nasr Book Prize steering committee, joined Yunkarporta in a longer conversation where both reflected on his work. Brown said the book was an important way to share the legacy of Aboriginal culture and ways of thinking with a larger global audience. 

“All of us here recognize that whatever our gifts and contributions, there are legions who stand behind us—ancestors and all the things in nature that nourish us and bring us to this particular moment in time,” Brown said. “When we accept your gift, we know it's a gift from a long line of ancestors and others, and you're in this moment to bring that forth.”

Scott Appleby, Marilyn Keough Dean of the Keough School, praised the gathering for bringing together a diverse group of scholars to discuss timely issues by engaging with often-overlooked perspectives. 

Sand Talk exemplifies what we yearn to gain from respectful encounter with indigenous thinking, and indeed with other traditions of wisdom, born of suffering, displacement, and patient perseverance in fidelity to the sacred,” Appleby said. “Here at the Keough School, we believe that policy and practice must be informed and perhaps corrected and even repurposed through an ongoing critical and respectful engagement with people who hear the cry of the earth and cherish the water, land, plants, and all creatures that inhabit our struggling but still dazzling planet.” 

Anantanand Rambachan, a scholar from St. Oflaf College who served on the Nasr Book Prize steering committee, said Yunkaporta's work was a powerful response to the legacy and the ongoing project of colonialism. 

“Indigenous cosmologies are based on reverence, on reciprocity, on our human obligations to care for trees, for water, for earth, for all living beings,” he said. “The ideology of colonialism on the other hand is one that prioritizes profit maximization, subjugation, and reckless exploitation and disregard for sustainability. 

“Colonial cosmologies are fundamental sources of the structures that are so oppressive to this earth and especially to Indigenous communities. Decolonization, therefore, is fundamental to the work of saving the world, and Indigenous ways of thinking and acting as articulated in Yunkaporta’s work, are crucial to this process.” 

Honoring multifaith peacemakers

During the symposium, the Ansari Institute and Religions for Peace, the world’s largest and most representative multi-religious movement advancing common action for peace, announced a strategic partnership and partnered to honor three multi-religious peacemakers. The honorees were: 

  • Mr. Abdul Ilah Rafie Marafie, international trustee for Religions for Peace and chief patron trustee for the Marafie Foundation; 
  • Rev. Kosho Niwano, co-moderator and executive committee member of Religions for Peace and president-designate of Rissho Kosei-Kai, a lay Buddhist movement; and, 
  • Dr. Aruna Oswal, an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and social activist who serves as co-president and international trustee of Religions for Peace
Jm 10
Azza Karam honors multifaith peacemakers during the symposium.

Azza Karam, secretary general of Religions for Peace, said recognizing such champions of multireligious work was critical to building collaboration across communities needed to confront humanity’s most pressing challenges. 

But although religious institutions were “the original first responders” and continue to provide much-needed social services, they must do more to invest in multifaith work that promotes humility and stifles fundamentalism, Karam said. She noted that the global pandemic has made many religious institutions more likely invest in their own tradition’s initiatives rather than pursuing meaningful collaboration to tackle larger needs. 

“These people deserve to be honored because they are few and far between,” Karam said. “There are many efforts to bring people together in meetings and dialogue, which is absolutely necessary but insufficient. At the end of the day, we have to invest in one another. That's why acknowledging the work of those who have given, some of them for decades, is not only a kindness, but a necessity.”

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