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Ansari Institute awards Australian Scholar with Nasr Book Prize

The Ansari Institute awarded the first annual Nasr Book Prize to Australian scholar Tyson Yunkaporta Sunday night for his book, ‘Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World.’

The award, according to executive director of the Ansari Institute Mahan Mirza, was created to “recognize an author who’s written a remarkable work and contributes to fresh thinking about global issues.”

Yunkaporta, a member of the Apalech Clan in far north Queensland, Australia, said he explores global issues from an indigenous perspective in “Sand Talk.”

“I’m not sure the book was arguing anything so much as just really trying to speak from an indigenous worldview,” Yunkaporta told The Observer. “But I didn’t bother trying to explain myself and what it meant. I just looked at the world and spoke… from who I am.”

Yunkaporta, in his book, ponders the importance of intergenerational relationships. The practice of sand drawings in his culture, he said, creates traditions that can remain for far longer than physical data.

“Long after all the books crumble into dust and all the computers are just a geological layer, my children’s children’s children’s children’s children will still be drawing the same thing in the sand,” he said. “That’s the only way to safely store data, it’s in a story, intergenerational relationships.”

Mirza said temporary art, such as sand drawings, best capture how knowledge is contextual. The permanent nature of western textual knowledge, he said, can be damaging because “it’s removed from its point of origin.”

The book passed the new award’s four eligibility requirements, St. Olaf College professor of religion and philosophy Anantanand Rambachan said at the dinner. 

The award required the author to have an authentic voice, be academically informed, engage in contemporary issues of global affairs and have been published within the past five years. After listing each requirement, Rambachan quoted “Sand Talk” to show how the book qualified.

The Ansari Institute had over 30 submissions for the prize, Rambachan said, and the selection committee narrowed the pool of contestants down to five books.

“Then, we read all the five, and we unanimously said this book,” he said.

Along with honoring Yunkaporta, the dinner featured a “yarn” in which Yunkaporta conversed with Carolyn Brown, the board chair of the Fetzer Institute, about his book’s message. 

Yunkaporta demonstrated the art of sand talks for the audience at the end of the discussion, drawing symbols in a small sandbox on stage representing indigenous ideas. 

The award dinner, held at the Smith Ballroom in the Morris Inn, was part of a two-day symposium in which scholars from different religious and cultural traditions engaged with Yunkaporta’s text in different panels.

While the prize dinner focused on the book itself, the symposium’s panels sought to foster engagement with the text, Mirza explained.

“The larger project is to generate a multifaith conversation around those issues that can somehow be convened by the book that has been published,” Mirza said.

Mirza noted his belief that Notre Dame is distinctly capable of flourishing an event like the symposium.

“Such an event really is possible only at places like Notre Dame that are both committed to academic research and at the same time, where faith is important,” he said.

Contact Liam Price at lprice3@nd.edu.