Aboriginal Sticks - Communication System

Aboriginal message sticks and an ancient system of communication

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Throughout Australia, it is said that there are over 200 Aboriginal languages and 600 dialects, but apparently no writing system for recording the spoken word. How then were messages transmitted between different indigenous groups across the massive landmass of Australia? The solution was found in ‘message sticks’, an ancient form of communication that has been used for tens of thousands of years, and is still in use today in some parts of Australia.

Traditional message sticks were made and crafted from wood and were generally small and easy to carry (between 10 and 30 cm). They were carved or painted with symbols and decorative designs which conveyed messages and information. In addition, the symbols were meant to prove to its recipient that the messages being carried were genuine. Some were prepared hastily, while others were prepared with more time to make the markings neat and ornate. There were always marks that were distinctive to the particular group or nation sending the message and often marks identifying the relationship of the carrier to their group. This way it could be identified and authenticated by neighbouring groups and by translators when the message stick was taken long distances and passed by hand from one tribe to another.

The 5 Lands Walk message stick

The 5 Lands Walk message stick, created by Gavi Duncan. Photo source .

Message sticks were regarded as objects that granted its carrier a kind of diplomatic immunity, as it guaranteed safe passage and entry into the lands of other tribes, even when entering ‘enemy territory’.  When someone carrying a message stick entered another group’s country, they announced themselves with smoke signals and were then accompanied safely with the message stick to the elders so that they may speak their verbal message. The messenger would then be accompanied back to the border with a reply to pass back to their tribe.

The messages transmitted by these message sticks included announcements of ceremonies, invitations to corroborees, notices, requests, disputes, warnings, meetings, marriage arrangements, notification of a family member passing, requests for objects, and trade negotiations. Remarkably, the message contained in these tools of communication could be understood by Aboriginals from many different regions of Australia, despite the fact that they had different languages and dialects. For instance, one of the message sticks in the Dandiiri Maiwar Exhibition at the Queensland Museum and Science centre is as follows: Bishop White of Carpentaria described how he delivered a message stick on behalf of an Aboriginal boy in Darwin to a boy in Daly Waters. Bishop White asked the boy from Darwin to explain the message. The boy read the message symbols which requested headbands and boomerangs from Daly Waters. The Bishop delivered the message stick and asked the recipient to tell him what the message was. The boy interpreted the message stick exactly as the boy from Darwin had explained it.

It has been observed that while the messaging system was more highly developed in some regions than others, there were some tribes that did not use the message stick system at all. This might not be overly surprising, considering the size of Australia and the number of different tribes once in existence. In addition, this also reminds us that ‘Aboriginal culture’ should not be viewed as a monolithic entity, but one that varied from one region to the next.  

Message sticks have played an important part in communication between Aboriginal groups across the immense Australian landscape for thousands of years and have survived as part of Australian cultural celebrations. 

Featured image: Aboriginal Message Stick . Photo source

By Ḏḥwty

References

australia.gov.au, 2007. Australian Indigenous Tools and Technology. [Online]
Available at: http://australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/austn-indigenous-tools-and-technology
[Accessed 15 May 2014].

Culture Victoria, 2010. The Aboriginal Object Collection at Dunkeld Museum: Message Stick. [Online]
Available here.
[Accessed 15 May 2014].

Mathews, R. H., 1897. Message-Sticks Used by the Aborigines of Australia. American Anthropologist, 10(9), pp. 288-298.

Message Stick, 2014. Origins of Message Stick. [Online]
Available here.
[Accessed 15 May 2014].

narindasandry, 2012. Message Sticks: Rich Ways of Weaving Aboriginal Cultures into the Australian Curriculum. [Online]
Available here.
[Accessed 15 May 2014].

Saint Patrick's Cathedral, Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne, 2014. Aboriginal Culture: Message Stick. [Online]
Available at: http://www.cam.org.au/cathedral/Aboriginal-Culture/Article/13411/message-stick
[Accessed 15 May 2014].

Wikipedia, 2014. Message Stick. [Online]
Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Message_stick
[Accessed 15 May 2014].

Comments

rbflooringinstall's picture

Its an awesome way to break the language barrier.

Peace and Love,

Ricky.

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