Message sticks on the Songline
Who we are
Dr Lorina Barker is a Wangkumara and Muruwari oral historian at the University of New England. Dr Barker is the Chief Investigator of the Songlines of Country Discovery Indigenous Project.
Dr Piers Kelly is a non-Indigenous man of Scottish and Irish ancestry. He is currently a DECRA fellow at the University of New England where he collaborates with Dr Barker.
Both our ARC projects have overlapping goals which is why we are combining our efforts in archival research.
Our combined research
We are aiming to reconstruct the histories and meanings of message sticks in Southeast Australia, along a significant Songline that passes through Dr Barker’s country from Queensland through Corner Country to South Australia.
Settlers collected message sticks in great numbers between 1880s and 1910s. Many of these objects disappeared. Others ended up in the storage facilities of ethnographic collections in different parts of the world. Dr Kelly’s task has been to locate surviving message sticks in collecting institutions and to trace their individual life histories. With direction from Indigenous collaborators he has been trying to re-associate them with their traditional Countries of origin.
To date Dr Kelly has had the opportunity to consult the paper and digital records of the National Museum of Australia, the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, the British Museum, the Pitt Rivers Museum Oxford, the Peabody Museum Harvard, the Grassi Museum Leipzig, the Weltkulturen Museum Frankfurt and the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin. With the expert guidance of archivists, he has identified the present-day locations of approximately 840 message sticks.
Collection history research and consultation
Due to the inadequacies of colonial collection practices, message sticks are often poorly provenanced. For example, an object may be listed as originating in ‘Western Australia’ or from ‘The Mitchell River’ or from sites of heavy interaction like missions and ports. This lack of precision is a reflection of the circumstances of collection, and not on the expertise of contemporary curators.
The effect of ambiguous documentation is that the present-day Traditional Owners of the objects cannot be securely identified and thus consulted about their wishes when it comes to their display, access, interpretation or circulation. Many objects in museum collections are attributed to the wrong Traditional Owners, which has the potential to generate confusion and distress. However, despite gaps and errors in museum registers and card files, these documents are crucial when it comes to reconstructing the journeys of message sticks from their creators, to their senders and recipients, their eventual collectors and their final storage places.
We have occasionally succeeded in triangulating knowledge from archival and oral historical sources to reconnect message sticks to Country. Most recently, for example, we have established the provenance of a Muruwari message stick at the Australian Museum, labelled ‘Creator unknown’ in the museum display. This outcome would not have been possible without Dr Barker’s traditional knowledge combined with generous access to different kinds of records from institutions with varying access policies.
Statement of community support
- Dr Lorina Barker is a First Nations scholar with recognised cultural authority. She is a founding member of Taragara. Contact Taragara here for further details.
- The Indigenous-managed Maningrida Arts & Culture is a partner on the Top End portion of the message stick project. The centre is under the jurisdiction of the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation and traditional knowledge holders Stanley Rankin, Jack Nawilil and Lena Yarinkura. Contact Maningrida Arts & Culture here for further details. A downloadable statement from Maningrida Arts and Culture is available here.
Our request to you
We would like to be able to consult any and all of the following documents in your institution’s archives:
- Hard copy historical registers that record objects of Indigenous origin
- Card files
- Relevant correspondence
What we do not want to request
- Physical artefacts
- Ethnographic descriptions containing restricted knowledge. (Note that these are not typically found in registers or correspondence. We will accept cultural risk and alert your institution should any restricted knowledge be detected in our research.)
- This phase of research is archives-based and thus does not involve physical artefacts or human research participants
- Our combined research is wide-ranging and we require access to diverse archival materials
- Traditional Owners cannot always be identified (and thus consulted) before the archives are accessed. At the same time, access to the archives is required up front in order to map object journeys and thus (hopefully) identify Traditional Owners in retrospect. We hope your institution can navigate this paradox!
- Consistent with the Right to Know principles (see below) any findings that result from the examination archival records will be shared with the collecting institution, with relevant Traditional Owners and publicly. Later, Dr Barker may wish to make her own requests to access objects, photos or records associated with her Country. (This will be enacted as a separate request.)
- Note that, by definition, message sticks are non-sacred and highly public, though non-Indigenous people are sometimes confused on this point and inadvertently represent them as sacred. An explanation of this problem is here. Our research is emphatically about public and non-sacred objects and practices. We are happy to provide your institution with guidance on this mater
- We state our strong adherence to the Right to Know principle set forth by the Indigenous Archives Collective. All other rights, including ICIP and cultural safety are contingent on the Right to Know, as well as the secure provenancing of objects. Collecting institutions often express a commitment to the Right to Know while in practice their access policies undermine it (without intending to!). We maintain that the Right to Know should always take precedence over strict adherence to institutional access procedures.