Aboriginal message sticks and an ancient system of communication

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, 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


australia.gov.au, 2007. Australian Indigenous Tools and Technology. [Online]
[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]
[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].

    Australian Aboriginal enumeration

    The Australian Aboriginal counting system was used to send messages on message sticks to neighbouring clans to alert them of, or invite them to, corroborees, set-fights, and ball games. Numbers could clarify the day the meeting was to be held (in a number of "moons") and where (the number of camps' distance away). The messenger would have a message "in his mouth" to go along with the message stick.

    A common misconception among non-Aboriginals is that Aboriginals did not have a way to count beyond two or three. However, Alfred Howitt, who studied the peoples of southeastern Australia, disproved this in the late nineteenth century, [ citation needed ] although the myth continues in circulation today. [1]

    The systems below are those of the Wurundjeri (Howitt called them after their language, Woiwurung) and the Wotjoballum. Howitt wrote that it was common among nearly all peoples he encountered in the southeast: "Its occurrence in these tribes suggests that it must have been general over a considerable part of Victoria". As can be seen in the following tables, names for numbers were based on body parts, whose names themselves were metaphorical and often quite poetic:


    Aboriginal peoples used several different types of weapons including shields (also known as hielaman), spears, spear-throwers, boomerangs and clubs. Peoples from different regions used different weapons. [1] Some peoples, for example, would fight with boomerangs and shields, whereas in another region they would fight with clubs. Weapons could be used both for hunting game and in warfare. [2]

    Weapons were of different styles in different areas. For example, a shield from Central Australia is very different from a shield from North Queensland. [3]

    Spears Edit

    Aboriginal peoples used spears for a variety of purposes including hunting, fishing, gathering fruit, fighting, retribution, punishment, in ceremony, as commodities for trade, and as symbolic markers of masculinity. [4] [5] [6] Spears were historically used by skilful hand-throwing, but with changes in Aboriginal spear technologies during the mid-Holocene, they could be thrown further and with more accuracy with the aid of spear-thrower projectiles. [4] [5] Spears could be made from a variety of materials including softwoods, bamboo (Bambusa arnhemica), cane and reed. [4] Projectile points could also be made from many different materials including flaked stone, shell, wood, kangaroo or wallaby bone, lobster claws, stingray spines, fish teeth, and more recently iron, glass and ceramics. [4] [5] [6] [7] These spear points could be bound to the spear using mastics, glues, gum, string, plant fibre and sinews. [4] [5] [7]

    Clubs Edit

    An Aboriginal club, otherwise known as a waddy or nulla-nulla, could be used for a variety of purposes such as for hunting, fishing, digging, for grooving tools, warfare and in ceremonies. [8] [9] A fighting club, called a ‘Lil-lil’, could, with a heavy blow, break a leg, rib or skull. Clubs which could create severe trauma were made from extremely hard woods such as acacias including ironwood and mitji. [10] Many clubs were fire hardened and others had sharpened stone quartz attached to the handle with spinifex resin. [8]

    Boomerangs Edit

    The boomerang is recognised by many as a significant cultural symbol of Australia. [11] [12] The term 'returning boomerang' is used to distinguish between ordinary boomerangs and the small percentage which, when thrown, will return to its thrower. [13] [14] The oldest wooden boomerang artefact known, excavated from the Wyrie Swamp, South Australia in 1973, is estimated to be 9,500 years old. [11]

    • as hunting or fighting weapons [15]
    • for digging
    • as cutting knives [16]
    • for making fire by friction [15] and
    • as percussion instruments for making music. [17]

    Shields Edit

    Shields were mainly used by Aboriginal warriors to defend themselves in dispute battles, often for commodities such as territory. A shield which had not lost a battle was thought to be inherently powerful and was a prized possession. Shields were made from wood or bark and usually had carved markings or painted designs. They could also be used in ceremonies such as in corroborees. [18]

    The Elemong shield is made from bark and is oval in shape. A handle is attached to the back and the shield was often painted with red and white patterns. Arragong and Tawarrang shields were carved of wood often with an outer layer of bark. Tawarrang shields were notably narrow and long and had patterns carved into the sides. This particular category of shield could also be used as a musical instrument when struck with a club, in addition to its use as a weapon. [19] [20]

    Shields originating from the North Queensland rainforest region are highly sought after by collectors due to their lavish decorative painting designs. These shields were made from buttress roots of rainforest fig trees (Ficus sp.) They were painted with red, yellow, white and black using natural materials including ochre, clay, charcoal and human blood. Shields from the post-contact period can, in some instances, include the colour blue. A piece of lawyer cane (Calamus australis) would be pushed up the shield owner's nose to cause bleeding. Blood would be put onto the shield, signifying their life being shared with the object. Designs on each shield were original and would represent the owners’ totemic affiliations and their country. This could be done through symbolism, composition and other means of visual representation. On the final day of a young Aboriginal man's initiation ceremony, he is given a blank shield for which he can create his own design. It was believed that the shield harnessed the power and protection of the owners totem and ancestral spirits. [21]

    The shield is a form of embodied knowledge that acts as substitute for the human body – a symbol not only of the person in his entirety but also a symbol of his expanded self, that is, his relationships with others. The shield covers the entire body, protects the body, is painted by and with the body (blood) and links the body (through totemic design) to clan..

    Findings Edit

    The Australian Museum holds one of the wooden shields originating from the Kuku Yalanji people of the Daintree Rainforest on Cape York, Queensland. [22]

    Types of watercraft differed among Aboriginal communities, the most notable including bark canoes and dugout canoes which were built and used in different ways. [24] Methods of constructing canoes were passed down through word of mouth in Aboriginal communities, not written or drawn. Canoes were used for fishing, hunting and as transport. [25]

    Dugout canoes Edit

    Dugout canoes were a major development in watercraft technology and were suited for the open sea and in rougher conditions. They could be used for hunting dugongs and sea turtles. [26]

    Bark canoes Edit

    Bark canoes were most commonly made from Eucalypt species including the bark of swamp she-oak Casuarina glauca, Eucalyptus botryoides, stringybark Eucalyptus agglomerata and Eucalyptus acmenoides. [27] Bark could only be successfully extracted at the right time of a wet season in order to limit the damage to the tree's growth and so that it was flexible enough to use. The bark would be cut with axes and peeled from the tree. More than one piece of bark was sometimes used. [25] "Canoe trees" can be distinguished today due to their distinctive scars. [27] The shaping was done by a combination of heating with fire and soaking with water. [25] The ends of the bark canoe would be fastened with plant-fibre string with the bow (front of canoe) fastened to a point. [27] Branches could be used to reinforce joints and clay, mud or other resin could be used to seal them. [24] Due to the small draft and lightness of bark canoes, they were used in calmer waters such as billabongs, rivers, lakes, estuaries and bays. [26] Aboriginal men would throw spears to catch fish from the canoe, whereas women would use hooks and lines. Bark paddles could be used to propel the canoe [27] and thick leafy branches were held to catch the wind. [26]

    Cutting tools made of stone and grinding or pounding stones were also used as everyday items by Aboriginal peoples. [28] [29] Cutting tools were made by hammering a core stone into flakes. [29] [30] Grinding stones can include millstones and mullers. [31] Quartzite is one of the main materials Aboriginal people used to create flakes but slate and other hard stone materials were also used. [29] [32] [33] Flakes can be used to create spear points and blades or knives. [29] Grindstones were used against grass seeds to make flour for bread, and to produce marrow from bones. [31]

    Stone artefacts not only were used for a range of necessary activities such as hunting, but they also hold a special spiritual meaning. [34] Indigenous Australians describe a stone artefact as holding the spirit of an ancestor who once owned it. [34] 30,000-year-old grinding stones have been found at Cuddie Springs, NSW. [31] Leilira blades from Arnhem Land were collected between 1931 and 1948 and are as of 2021 [update] held at the Australian Museum. [32]

    Coolamons are Aboriginal vessels, generally used to carry water, food, and to cradle babies. [35] Coolamons could be made from a variety of materials including wood, bark, animal skin, stems, seed stalks, stolons, leaves and hair. [36] When travelling long distances, coolamons were carried on the head. Akartne was placed underneath the coolamon to support its weight. They could be made from possum hair, feathers, or twisted grass. [35]

    Findings Edit

    The Australian Museum holds a bark water carrying vessel originating from Flinders Island, Queensland in 1905. This coolamon is made from the bark shell of a eucalyptus tree trunk that has been burnt and smoothed with stone and shells in order to hold and store water. A water bag made from kangaroo skin was acquired by the Australian Museum in 1893. It originates from the Urania people of North-West, Queensland. [35]

    Message sticks, also known as "talking-sticks", were used in Aboriginal communities to communicate invitations, declarations of war, news of death and so forth. [37] [38] They were made of wood and were usually flat with motifs engraved on all sides to express a message. The type of wood and shape of a message stick could be a part of the message. Special messengers would carry message sticks over long distances and were able to travel through tribal borders without harm. After the message had been received, generally the message stick would be burned. [39]

    Findings Edit

    The Australian Museum holds 230 message sticks in its collection. [37]

    Some Aboriginal peoples used materials such as teeth and bone to made ornamental objects such as necklaces and headbands. [40]

    Teeth ornaments Edit

    The most common teeth ornaments consisted of lower incisors of macropods such as kangaroos or wallabies. One of the most fascinating discoveries was a necklace made from 178 Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) teeth recovered from Lake Nitchie in New South Wales in 1969. Forehead ornaments have also been found to use porpoise and dolphin teeth from the Gulf of Carpentaria. Crocodile teeth were used mainly in Arnhem Land. [40]

    Bone ornaments Edit

    Bones were often used for ornamental purposes, especially necklaces and pendants. These were usually worn in association with ritual or age status but could also be worn casually. Bone ornaments found from Boulia in central western Queensland were made from the phalanges of kangaroos and dingoes. Branchiostegal rays of eels from the Tully River were used as pendant units by the Gulngay people. In western Victoria, echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus) quills were threaded as necklaces. A pendant made from goose down, shells, a duck beak and the upper beak of a black swan was discovered from the Murray River in South Australia. Talons of eagles were incorporated into ornaments among the Arrernte of Central Australia. Wombat (Vombatus ursinus) claw necklaces are known from Victoria. [40] Painted requiem shark vertebrae necklaces have been found in western Arnhem Land. [41]

    Children's toys made by Aboriginal peoples were not only to entertain but also to educate. [42] Toys were made from different materials depending on location and materials available. [43]

    Dolls Edit

    'Dolls' could be made from cassia nemophila, with its branches assembled with string and grass. Features were often painted with clay to represent a baby. [44] Dolls made from Xanthorrhoea are called Kamma dolls and are from Keppel Island. Shell dolls could also be made from conical shells and were often wrapped in fabric to distinguish age or status. [45] [40]

    Rattles Edit

    Rattles could be made out of a variety of different materials which would depend on geographical accessibility. For example, they could be made out of land snail shells, sea snail shells (Haliotis asinina), valves of scallop (Annachlamys flabellata), walnut seeds or olive shells which were strung together with string or hair and were often painted. [44] [46] [40]

    Bags and baskets Edit

    In Arnhem Land, the Gulf region of Queensland and Cape York, children’s bags and baskets were made from fibre twine. [44]

    Toy spears Edit

    Play spears, which were often blunt wooden spears, were used by boys in mock battles and throwing games. [47]

    Findings Edit

    Museum Collections
    Australian Museum 370 toys collected between 1885 and 1990 are currently held at the Australian Museum. [43] In 1899 Walter Roth found and collected three rattles (Strombus campbelli, Cyroea subviridis and Arca pilula) from Mapoon, Batavia River and Cape York Peninsula. Three dolls made of curved stick and fabric date back to the early 1900s from North Queensland. [45]
    Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery Three wooden dolls from Mornington Island are held by the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. [44]

    Artefacts sometimes regarded as sacred items and/or used in ceremonies include bullroarers, didgeridoos and carved boards called churinga. [ citation needed ]

    Most Aboriginal art is not considered artefact, but often the designs in Aboriginal art are similar designs to those originally on sacred artefacts. [48] [49]

    Delayed Response

    View Inside Format: Hardcover
    Price: $28.00

    A celebration of waiting throughout history, and of its importance for connection, understanding, and intimacy in human communication

    We have always been conscious of the wait for life-changing messages, whether it be the time it takes to receive a text message from your love, for a soldier’s family to learn news from the front, or for a space probe to deliver data from the far reaches of the solar system. In this book in praise of wait times, award-winning author Jason Farman passionately argues that the delay between call and answer has always been an important part of the message.

    Traveling backward from our current era of Twitter and texts, Farman shows how societies have worked to eliminate waiting in communication and how they have interpreted those times’ meanings. Exploring seven eras and objects of waiting—including pneumatic mail tubes in New York, Elizabethan wax seals, and Aboriginal Australian message sticks—Farman offers a new mindset for waiting. In a rebuttal to the demand for instant communication, Farman makes a powerful case for why good things can come to those who wait.

    I've walked 12 million steps to deliver a message to the Australian government

    ‘I hope that the message sticks will provide an opportunity for Aboriginal people to come together and establish a national alliance – to create structural foundations for our own sovereign governance’ Photograph: supplied

    ‘I hope that the message sticks will provide an opportunity for Aboriginal people to come together and establish a national alliance – to create structural foundations for our own sovereign governance’ Photograph: supplied

    Last modified on Thu 23 May 2019 06.28 BST

    F rom its inception the Australian government has been in denial about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s political existence. Prior to colonisation our people were organised into over 500 nations, each with distinct languages and systems of law that prevailed for over 4,000 generations and 100,000 years. Terra nullius is a fiction.

    No treaty has ever been signed. Why, when the colonists arrived, could they not see the intricate web of political organisation and law, the historical wisdom or the deep knowledge that was the culture of our people? Instead they looked upon us and they saw an earlier version of themselves – an uncivilised people lacking capacity and culture. They believed that we would not survive their cultural and industrial colonisation.

    The Australian colonialist mentality has been about the exploitation of nature and the dominance over Indigenous people. This dominance has made our land and its people sick. It is time to wake up. We are a part of nature. We must protect it.

    I grew up on the Woorabinda Mission, in central Queensland. Woorabinda was one of three large-scale missions established in 1927 to contain Aboriginal culture and replace it with a Christian-dominated Westminster value system. Although on traditional Gangulu nation and the Wadja nation country, the mission housed 52 different nations, an indication of how many families and nations had been decimated, stolen or misplaced.

    The mission establishment did not encourage or even recognise traditional Aboriginal culture.

    Growing up, it appeared to me that many of our people were caught in a cultural void. They were unable to identify with the white man’s ideals, but neither could they reconnect to their traditional culture. I experienced what I can only describe as a spiritual build-up. I felt manipulated by a whitewash of cultural values. Displaced from my traditional ways of being I felt caught in a no-win cycle of being expected to join a white man’s world that was stacked against me.

    Determined to overcome this feeling I made the decision to reconnect with my country and the traditional Aboriginal lore of this land.

    I decided to utilise an ancient custom of Aboriginal law, carrying message sticks as a communication tool. I learned through the teachings of my elders that in traditional culture certain individuals would be given the task of delivering message sticks to other tribes relating to trading, sorry business or creating partnerships. I decided that the way forward for me was to embark on a long walk on country, reconnecting with the songlines of my people and carrying this declaration of healing to the Australia government.

    To this day, I have walked over 8,500km, 12 million steps, through five states and territories, and 50 First Nations.

    I set off, roughly a year ago, from Bamaga in Cape York, the most northern tip of Queensland, carrying the three message sticks that represent the three stages of Australia’s story – creation, colonisation and healing.

    I plan to present the message sticks to the newly sworn Australian government in Canberra.

    I hope that the message sticks will provide an opportunity for Aboriginal people to come together and establish a national alliance – to create structural foundations for our own sovereign governance. It’s time our First Nations People resumed their roles as caretakers of country and custodians of the land. We want to restore and heal our homelands, to secure a future for our children. All of humanity must recognise the interconnected systems of life to survive.

    The message sticks are both an invitation and a challenge to embrace the ancient sovereignty that has long been denied us and which is the irrefutable bedrock of our nation’s identity. They refer directly to discussions about constitutional change that we will establish in the years ahead, acknowledging recognition, the republic and truth-telling.

    We don’t want the likes of Tony Abbott, Bill Shorten, Scott Morrison, Nigel Scullion or any part of the British commonwealth establishment representing First Nations people. We need to paint the picture for ourselves, in our own communities, in our own way.

    Walking this country I have felt not only a connection with my own ancestors, but I have also felt the presence of ancient ancestors from different nations as I walk through their land. I feel them and I know that I’m not alone. I have learnt that my connection to this land and our people can never be overpowered. It is a part of me, I only need to be present to it. Non-Indigenous people can experience that too.

    The message sticks are a gift of incalculable generosity after all that has happened to my people since 1770.

    Because you are a part of us now. You are a part of this land.

    Australians, please stand with us in solidarity – as the First Nations people, the oldest living culture on this planet, come together to ignite the flame in the heart of this land and creation that has always been here, since the first sunrise.

    Our history

    The Aboriginal Community Justice Awards recognise and pay tribute to the many Aboriginal individuals and groups who work tirelessly to deliver improved justice outcomes for the Victorian Aboriginal community.

    2019 Award winners

    Children and Youth Award: Emma Thomas

    Adult and Elder Award: Uncle Alan Coe

    Strengthening Culture Award: Ashleigh Dalton

    Uncle Alf Bamblett Award: Uncle Michael Bell

    Pictured from left to right: Linda Bamblett, Chairperson, Northern Metropolitan RAJAC, Alfred Bamblett, Chairperson, Victorian Aboriginal Justice Advisory Committee, Michael Bell, winner of the Dr Alf Bamblett award and Adj. Prof. Muriel Bamblett AM, CEO, Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency

    Burra Lotjpa Dunguludja launched

    Burra Lotjpa Dunguludja or ‘Senior Leaders Talking Strong’ is the fourth phase of the Victorian Aboriginal Justice Agreement (AJA), 18 years on from the first AJA that was created in response to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

    It strengthens the Victorian Government’s commitment to self-determination and remains the longest running continuous AJA in the nation. Burra Lotjpa Dunguludja is an important step in the long and proud history of the Aboriginal community and Government working in partnership to improve justice outcomes.

    To promote Aboriginal self-determination and provide further support to reduce the over-representation of Aboriginal people in the justice system, the Victorian Budget 2018/19 included $40.3 million to support initiatives to be implemented under Burra Lotjpa Dunguludja, including:

    • $15 million to expand existing community-based justice programs and services and develop new community designed and led approaches
    • $12.3 million for a range of court-based initiatives
    • $10.8 million to target over-representation in Victoria’s youth justice system
    • $2.2 million to expand the state-wide Indigenous Arts in Prisons and Community Program.

    Pictured above: A performance by the Fighting Gunditjmara at the launch of Burra Lotjpa Dunguludja. Image by James Henry.

    50th Aboriginal Justice Forum held in Shepparton

    In April 2018, the 50th Aboriginal Justice Forum since the establishment of the Aboriginal Justice Agreement was held in Shepparton.

    The Aboriginal Justice Forum brings together leaders in the Aboriginal community and the most senior representatives of government departments to promote increased positive participation of the Aboriginal community in the justice system and develop solutions to improve justice outcomes for the Aboriginal community.

    Forums are rotated between RAJAC regions, and alternate between regional and metropolitan locations.

    Since 2000 Aboriginal Justice Forums have been hosted all over Victoria, from the far east of the state (AJF 44 in Orbost, 2016) to the western districts (AJF 17 in Horsham, 2007) from the Great Ocean Road (AJF6 in Warrnambool, 2002) to the Murray River (AJFs 42, 19 and 3 in 2001, 2007 and 2015 in Mildura). Forums have also been held across Melbourne, including in Frankston, Northcote, Footscray and Healesville.

    Koori Youth Crime Prevention Grants

    Across Victoria 25 community–based partnership projects were funded under the Koori Youth Crime Prevention Grants, a partnership between the department’s Community Crime Prevention and Koori Justice Units.

    The focus for funding was on projects that delivered community strengthening, enhanced family relationships and parenting skills, and offered a holistic approach.

    More than $1.5 million worth of grants were awarded to projects to empower and re-engage Aboriginal young people through camps, sporting activities, workshops and education to help prevent them from coming into contact with the criminal justice system.

    Pictured: Fitzroy Stars Football Club

    Royal Commission into Family Violence

    The Royal Commission into Family Violence report was tabled into Parliament on 30 March 2016. The report contains 227 recommendations, and was the culmination of a 13-month inquiry. In response to the Royal Commission recommendations, The Victorian Budget 2017–18 provided funding of $26.7 million to support a number of Aboriginal community–led initiatives for family violence prevention and response, including:

    • Koori Women’s Place - a two–year pilot by Djirra that provides a culturally safe family violence service for Aboriginal women victim survivors and their children.
    • State–wide culturally appropriate legal services that delivered by Djirra and the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service so that both parties to a matter can access culturally safe legal representation.
    • Community–led family violence prevention and early intervention support to provide opportunity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to participate in Djirra’s family violence prevention and early intervention initiatives including Sister’s Day Out, Dilly Bag, and Young Luv.
    • Ngarra Jarranounith Place - an intensive residential behaviour change program for Aboriginal male perpetrators of family violence, delivered by Dardi Munwurro.

    Kaka Wangity, Wangin-Mirrie - Aboriginal Cultural Programs Grants launched

    Launched in 2016, the Kaka Wangity, Wangin-Mirrie grants (English translation: come, listen, hear), are an AJA initiative supporting Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations (ACCOs) to deliver Aboriginal programs within prisons and Community Correctional Services, to Aboriginal prisoners and offenders.

    The programs funded with $2.25 million (until December 2019), were designed to rehabilitate Aboriginal prisoners by focusing on cultural strengthening, family violence, healing, parenting and women’s programs.

    By boosting connections to family and culture, the grants aimed to reduce the risk of reoffending and improve effective reintegration into the community, contributing to a safer Victoria.

    Koori Women’s Diversion Program commences

    The Koori Women’s Diversion Program was piloted in 2015–­16 to reduce Aboriginal women’s involvement with the justice system and the impacts of incarceration on their families.

    Now operating in Mildura and Morwell, and through Odyssey House Victoria, the program provides intensive case management and support for Aboriginal women referred from the Victorian criminal justice system.

    The program has shown positive outcomes including reduced offending, increased engagement with mental health services, and family reunification, and received ongoing funding in the 2017-18 State budget.

    Aboriginal Social and Emotional Wellbeing Plan launched

    Pictured: Coolamon carrying fresh gum leaves, used as part of traditional smoking ceremony during launch.

    The Aboriginal Social and Emotional Wellbeing Plan was launched in 2015 to improve the mental health and wellbeing of Aboriginal people while incarcerated and upon their release.

    For many Aboriginal people, prison provides an opportunity to identify, stabilise and improve mental health through treatment services that may not otherwise have been sought in the community.

    This plan recognises the risks that discrimination, unresolved grief, and trauma have on mental health and the influence that spirituality, connection to country and strong cultural identity have on building resilience and protecting against poor mental health.

    Launch of the Aboriginal Justice Agreement Phase 3

    In 2013, the Victorian Government and the Aboriginal community signed the Aboriginal Justice Agreement Phase 3 which continued the work to improve Aboriginal justice outcomes and reduce over-representation in the criminal justice system.

    AJA3 maintained an emphasis on prevention, early intervention and diversion to reduce further progression into the justice system, as well as an increased focus on improving safety of Aboriginal families.

    The evaluation of AJA3 in 2018 found the AJA partnership has been instrumental in effecting real and positive change.

    It has helped build strong and durable relationships between agencies and with members of the Victorian Aboriginal community.

    Sheriff's Aboriginal Liaison Officer positions established

    In 2010, the Infringement Management & Enforcement Services (now Fines Victoria) established a Sheriff's Aboriginal Liaison Officer (SALO) position located in Mildura. The SALO role was established to provide practical support and assistance to Aboriginal community members seeking to address their outstanding infringement obligations.

    The role is also responsible for building and fostering links and to enhance communication and interaction between the Sheriff’s Office and local Aboriginal communities to resolve issues and promote awareness of the role of Sheriff’s Officers within local Aboriginal communities.

    SALOs now operate across the state in Grampians, Loddon Mallee, Hume, South, East, and North West Metro.

    Opening of the William Cooper Justice Centre

    In 1938 William Cooper led a group of Aboriginal people from his Footscray home to the German Consulate in Melbourne’s CBD to protest the injustices being carried out against the Jews by the Nazis highlighted by Kristellnacht.

    This was the only protest in the world against Kristellnacht. Mr Cooper was 78 at the time and after campaigning all his life for Aboriginal people, still had the resolve to support other oppressed people.

    In 2010 William was posthumously honoured for this in Israel, and also in Australia through the opening of the William Cooper Justice Centre, named in his honour.

    Pictured: William Cooper Justice Centre in Melbourne's legal district, named in honour of Yorta Yorta leader, William Cooper

    Introduction of the message stick

    Pictured: AJF message stick, made by renowned Aboriginal artist and Elder the late Uncle Albert Mullet.

    The message stick, made by renowned Aboriginal artist and Elder the late Uncle Albert Mullet, was introduced into the Aboriginal Justice Forum (AJF) proceedings in 2010.

    The message stick is an enduring symbol of the strength of the AJA and illustrates its journey across Victoria, traveling from one AJF to another. As part of the AJF proceedings, the Chair of the hosting Regional Aboriginal Justice Advisory Committee (RAJAC) engraves a message or symbol on the message stick to represent their community. The message stick is then passed onto the hosting RAJAC of the next Forum.

    The message stick symbolises the important role of the RAJACs as part of the AJFs, honouring the work of Elders and leaders in their communities, and reflecting the continuity of culture in contemporary Aboriginal life.

    Koori Family Violence Police protocols piloted

    The Koori Family Violence Police Protocols are an agreement between local Aboriginal communities and Victoria Police that document the local Police response to Aboriginal family violence.

    The aim of the protocols is to strengthen the police response to incidents of family violence in Aboriginal communities with the longer term goal of reducing both the number of family violence incidents, and the rates of families experiencing repeated incidents of family violence. The protocols are aimed at a holistic, improved response to all parties including victims, children and perpetrators.

    In 2008 protocols were piloted to strengthen the police response to Aboriginal family violence in six priority areas. Protocols were developed locally by representatives of key agencies, and are living documents which are regularly updated. The Koori Family Violence Police Protocols now operate in Ballarat, Bairnsdale, Dandenong, Darebin, Mildura, Shepparton, Swan Hill, Wimmera, Warrnambool and LaTrobe

    Victoria first County Koori Court opens in Morwell

    In 2008 the County Koori Court was established as a Division of the County Court. It draws on the successful implementation of the Koori Court model in both the Magistrates’ Court and the Children’s Court.

    The objective of the County Koori Court is to ensure greater participation of the Aboriginal community in the sentencing process through the role played by Aboriginal Elders or Respected Persons and others, such as the Koori Court Officer.

    The County Koori Court is the first sentencing court for Aboriginal offenders in a higher jurisdiction in Australia. It sits in the Gippsland, Mildura, and Melbourne County Court.

    Pictured: Attendees at the opening of Victoria's first County Koori Court in Morwell, gathered around the Koori Court table - a fine piece of local carpentry work by artist Damien Wright.

    Local Justice Worker Program launched

    The AJA includes a range of community grants for communities to deliver local responses to justice-related issues. An example is the Local Justice Worker Program, established in 2008 and delivered by community organisations across 20 locations in Victoria.

    Local Justice Workers provide Aboriginal offenders with case support to meet the conditions of their orders through supervised community work opportunities in culturally appropriate environments and connecting with relevant programs and services in the community. They have proven effective in helping Aboriginal people to address fine payments, successfully complete community based orders, and reduce breach rates.

    Pictured: staff from the Department of Justice and Community Safety with Local Justice Workers at the Local Justice Worker Program launch

    Wulgunggo Ngalu Learning place opens

    Pictured: Aboriginal cultural dance performed at the opening of Wulgunggo Ngalu Learning place.

    Wulgunggo Ngalu Learning Place is a statewide, culturally appropriate residential diversion program for Aboriginal men who have been sentenced by the court to a Community Correction Order. It was officially opened in September 2008 as a key initiative of the Aboriginal Justice Agreement.

    It provides up to 18 men at a time the opportunity to learn new skills, reconnect with, or further strengthen their culture and participate in programs and activities to help them address their offending behaviour.

    Participation in the program is voluntary and involves living at Wulgunggo Ngalu, in Gippsland, for between three to six months.

    Unveiling of the Sir Doug and Lady Gladys Nicholls statue

    Married in 1942, together the Nicholls were prominent campaigners for Aboriginal rights and justice. To commemorate their important and tireless work and their lasting legacy, a statue of the couple was unveiled in Parliament Gardens in 2007 and was the first memorial sculpture in Melbourne dedicated to Aboriginal leaders.

    Lady Gladys Nicholls was a leading Aboriginal activist whose dedicated community service and commitment to advancing Aboriginal rights was an inspiration to many. She was among a group of resourceful Aboriginal women who worked together to improve the living conditions and wellbeing of their community.

    Sir Douglas Nicholls was the pastor of Australia’s first Aboriginal Church of Christ, in Fitzroy, Melbourne from 1935. He began working more with disadvantaged Aboriginal people in the 1940s through the Aboriginal Advancement League.

    In 1968 he was awarded an OBE for his work and became a member of the new Victorian Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs. In 1972 he was the first Aboriginal person to be knighted, and four years later he became the governor of South Australia.

    Frontline Youth Initiatives Grants established

    The Frontline Youth Initiatives Program provides grants for programs that focus on working with at-risk Aboriginal youth aged 10 to 24.

    Programs are community-based and promote physically and socially healthy activities to reduce the likelihood of offending.

    These may include programs that promote youth leadership, sporting activities, culture, music, arts, and engagement with education, training or vocational activities.

    Aboriginal communities play a major role in determining initiatives for funding with applications requiring endorsement from the local Regional Aboriginal Justice Advisory Committees before being submitted to the Department of Justice and Community Safety.

    Children's Koori Court launched

    The Children's Koori Court was established at Melbourne's Children's Court in 2005 to address the over-representation of young Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system.

    By involving the Aboriginal community in the court process through the participation of Elders and Respected Persons, the Koori Court aims to reduce offending behaviour and reduce the number of young Aboriginal people being sentenced to a period of detention.

    Pictured: Cultural performance at the opening of the Melbourne Children’s Koori Court. Photography by Ilana Rose.

    Aboriginal Community Liaison Officer program launched

    In 2004, the first Aboriginal Community Liaison Officer Position (ACLO) was launched in Victoria.

    This program is an initiative of Victoria Police to enhance the relationship between Victoria Police and Victorian Aboriginal communities.

    The ACLO Program facilitates a proactive community policing approach that instigates positive change.

    It works to build a solid foundation of trust and respect between Victoria Police and Aboriginal communities, and maintain positive partnerships to foster communication and interaction between Police and the Aboriginal community to resolve issues.

    The Kurnai Shield

    The Kurnai Shield is an acrylic on canvas created in 2002 by artist Eileen Harrison, a Kurnai woman from Gippsland. “The markings on this shield represent our people and our country.”

    In 2003, the artwork was purchased by the Department of Justice and Community Safety to feature as the visual emblem of the Victorian Aboriginal Justice Agreement (AJA). Since then it has featured prominently on all associated documents and publications.

    In 2010, Ms Harrison agreed to allow a stylised version of the artwork to be created, enabling increased promotion of the AJA by the Department of Justice and Community Safety.

    Aboriginal designer Marcus Lee developed the ‘Koori Strong, Koori Proud, Koori Justice’ emblem featuring a stylistic representation of the Kurnai Shield, signifying the evolution of the AJA and coinciding with its 10th Anniversary.

    Pictured: Kurnai Shield, created in 2002 by artist Eileen Harrison, a Kurnai woman from the Gippsland Region.

    Disease and Devastation

    Disease struck a fatal and extensive blow to the Aboriginal people, who until that point had been isolated for thousands of years from the diseases that had raged through Europe and Asia. They had no resistance to the deadly viruses carried by the sailors and convicts such as smallpox, syphilis and influenza. In less than a year, over half the indigenous population living in the Sydney Basin had died from smallpox. The region, once alive with a vibrant mix of Aboriginal clans, now fell silent.

    Every boat that went down the harbour found them lying dead on the beaches and in the caverns of the rocks… They were generally found with the remains of a small fire on each side of them and some water left within their reach.
    Lieutenant Fowell, 1789

    It is difficult to comprehend how devastating this event was to the Aboriginal clans of the Sydney area. Bennelong told Judge Advocat David Collins that his friend Colebee’s tribe had been reduced to only three people. Those witnessing could not remain unmoved.

    At that time a native was living with us and on our taking him down to the harbour to look for his former companions, those who witnessed his expression and agony can never forget either. He looked anxiously around him in the different coves we visited not a vestige on the sand was to be found of human foot the excavations in the rocks were filled with the putrid bodies of those who had fallen victims to the disorder not a living person was any where to be met with. It seemed as if, flying from the contagion, they had left the dead to bury the dead. He lifted up his hands and eyes in silent agony for some time at last he exclaimed, ‘All dead! all dead!’ and then hung his head in mournful silence, which he preserved during the remainder of our excursion. Some days after he learned that the few of his companions who survived had fled up the harbour to avoid the pestilence that so dreadfully raged. His fate has been already mentioned. He fell a victim to his own humanity when Boo-roong, Nan-bar-ray, and others were brought into the town covered with the eruptions of the disorder. On visiting Broken Bay, we found that it had not confined its effects to Port Jackson, for in many places our path was covered with skeletons, and the same spectacles were to be met with in the hollows of most of the rocks of that harbour.
    Judge Advocate David Collins, 1798

    The colonists had destroyed within months a way of life that had outlasted British history by tens of thousands of years, and the people soon realised that the trespassers were committed to nothing less than total occupation of the land.

    To most settlers, the Aboriginal people were considered akin to kangaroos, dingoes and emus, strange fauna to be eradicated to make way for the development of farming and grazing.

    I have myself heard a man, educated, and a large proprietor of sheep and cattle, maintain that there was no more harm in shooting a native, than in shooting a wild dog. I have heard it maintained by others that it is the course of Providence, that blacks should disappear before the white, and the sooner the process was carried out the better, for all parties. I fear such opinions prevail to a great extent. Very recently in the presence of two clergymen, a man of education narrated, as a good thing, that he had been one of a party who had pursued the blacks, in consequence of cattle being rushed by them, and that he was sure that they shot upwards of a hundred. When expostulated with, he maintained that there was nothing wrong in it, that it was preposterous to suppose they had souls. In this opinion he was joined by another educated person present.
    Bishop Polding, 1845

    Despite these impacts, Aboriginal people fought a guerrilla war for many years. In a place renamed Woodford Bay by the settlers, now in Longueville in Lane Cove Council, a stockade was built in 1790 to protect timber and grass cutters from attacks by local clans. Attacks had been mounted against the British elsewhere (learn more), however, the ‘eradication’, for the most part, had been easy. Smallpox had destroyed more than half the population and those not ravaged by disease were displaced when land was cleared for settlements and farms. Dispossessed of the land that had nourished them for so long, the Aboriginal people became dependent on white food and clothing. Alcohol, used as a means of trade by the British, served to further shatter traditional social and family structures.

    European civilisation devastated, in what amounts to the blink of an eye, an incomparable and ancient people. Because the vast majority of clans living in the Sydney Basin were killed as a result of the 1788 invasion, the stories of the land have been lost forever. Much of what we do know about the northern Sydney clans must be gleaned from their archaeological remains. Middens, shelters, engravings and art remnants of indigenous life are prolific throughout the region, but no one remains to reveal their particular meanings or ancient significance. There are no first hand witness accounts giving the Aboriginal perspective to what was happening.


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    Piers Kelly is a linguistic anthropologist interested in graphic codes used in small-scale and non-state societies, including emergent writing systems invented by non-literate communities in West Africa and the Asia-Pacific. He has previously worked as an etymologist of Aboriginal words in Australian English for the Australian National Dictionary Centre and as a linguist with the National Commission on Indigenous People, Philippines. He is a co-editor of Skin, kin and clan: The dynamics of social categories in Indigenous Australia (ANU Press, 2018).

    6 Unusual Ways to Send a Message

    Broadband is connecting cultures across the globe, but conversation hasn&rsquot always been so straightforward.

    How many different methods of communication can you think of?

    In this modern, technology-focussed world, your thoughts may immediately fly to texting, Facebook messaging, email and video calls. While these rapidly-developing communicative tools are connecting cultures and individuals across the globe, conversation hasn’t always been so straightforward.

    We’ve put together some lesser-known methods of communication from around the world and across history - testament to the amazing power of the human race to share knowledge in unusual ways!

    Morse code is a unique method of communication in that it can be shared both visually and acoustically. Whereas we most commonly think of the code as a series of dots and dashes, messages encrypted in morse code can also be sent and received as flashes of light that the code originally found popularity when it was invented by Samuel Morse in the 1830s, as part of his electrical telegraph system.

    Morse code is been used by pilots, air traffic controllers, and the navigation officers of ships, but can also be used and understood easily by enthusiasts at home.

    Learn how to use Morse code here , and give it a try with a torch and some patient friends. Before you know it, you’ll be transmitting encrypted messages as easily as you send emails!

    Pigeon post has its roots in ancient Persian culture, but is still used by hobbyists and photographers today!

    This communication method relies on the instinctual ability of homing pigeons to find their way back to a place of origin, and has thus been used by military campaigners, explorers and island dwellers hoping for news from the mainland. One particular homing pigeon named Cher Ami was even awarded a Croix de Guerre medal for bravery, after she delivered a vital message to American troops in WWII despite being shot and blinded and losing a leg.

    Don’t go tying your message to just any pigeon you find on the street, though! Homing pigeons are selectively bred for their ability to navigate over long distances.

    The Aboriginal people of Australia have over 200 distinct languages between them, without a traditional writing system to record messages. They do, however, have a distinctive art style which has become an intrinsic aspect of communications between tribes.

    For tens of thousands of years, Aboriginal messengers have carried carved or painted sticks to identify themselves and their announcements to neighbouring groups via symbols and images that were usually understood regardless of the different spoken languages between tribes. While conveying messages through a series of small pictures may seem alien to us, the rise of emojis suggests that the drive to communicate via symbols is something universal!

    Yes, you read correctly. Despite all the encryption methods that keep our data private today, sending secret messages via hidden tattoos may still be history’s most ingenious method of secure communication.

    In 499 BC, the Persian tyrant Histiaeus sent plans for a revolution to his nephew by shaving the head of his most trusted slave, tattooing a message onto his scalp, and then waiting for the hair to grow back again. He then sent the slave to his nephew with instructions to shave his head once he arrived. If you can convince enough friends to let you shave their heads, your days of dependence on email and instant messaging may be over!

    If your message is too important to entrust to the Royal Mail, you could consider writing it on silk, then rolling the silk into a ball, coating it in wax, then swallowing it.

    While the idea of retrieving the message is unthinkably awful, this is something that ancient Chinese messengers really did! Silk’s natural durability and ability to be rolled up very small also made it the medium of choice for WWII pilots, who often carried secret silk maps in case they were shot down.

    If your friend won’t pick up the phone or respond to your Facebook messages, maybe it’s time to try yodelling. This somewhat comical form of communication is best known around the Swiss alps as a way of communicating over large distances.

    It was originally used by alpine shepherds calling their flocks or communicating with one another across valleys, but has since become a part of the region’s musical tradition. Yodelling can also be heard in music from across the globe, from the Baltic states to Central Africa. We can’t guarantee that you’ll be good at it, but you’ll certainly grab someone’s attention!

    It’s clear that the human brain has no end of ingenuity when it comes to expressing feelings and sharing knowledge. While a lot of these ancient methods of communication have changed history, we’d still put our money on a nice long phone call or an informative email as your best bet for keeping in touch these days.

    Make sure that you’ve got reliable, affordable communications at your fingertips by contacting our friendly sales team here or on 0333 210 4290 . It sure beats shaving your head or swallowing wax balls!


    A child’s spirit was held to come from the Dreaming to animate a fetus. In some cases this was believed to occur through an action of a mythic being who might or might not be reincarnated in the child. Even when Aboriginal people acknowledged a physical bond between parents and child, the most important issue for them was the spiritual heritage.

    In early childhood, children’s focus was on their actual parents, especially on their mothers, but others were close at hand to care for them. Weaning occurred at about two or three years of age but occasionally not until five or six for a youngest child. Through observation of camp life and informal instruction, children built up knowledge of their social world, learning through participation while becoming familiar with the natural environment. Children were also constantly having kin identified to them by their elders and receiving detailed instructions about correct kinship behaviours. Small children often went food collecting with their mothers and other women. As girls grew older, they continued to do so, but boys were thrown more on their own resources. Parents were, on the whole, very indulgent. Infanticide, even in arid areas, was much rarer than has been suggested by some researchers.

    For girls, the transition into adulthood, marriage, and full responsibility was a direct one. Even before puberty, having already become a knowledgeable and efficient food provider, a girl normally went to live with her husband and assumed the status of a married woman. For a boy, on the other hand, his carefree life changed drastically with the advent of initiation. His formal instruction into adulthood began, and he was prepared for his entry into religious ritual. His future was henceforth in the hands of older men and ritual leaders who exercised authority in his community. But he was not among strangers the relatives who played an active role in his initiation would also have significant roles in his adult life. A boy’s age at the first rite varied: in the Great Sandy Desert it was about 16, in the Kimberley about 12, in northeastern Arnhem Land 6 to 8, and among the Aranda 10 to 12 or older. Generally, once he had reached puberty and facial hair had begun to show, he was ready for the initial rituals.

    Initiation in Aboriginal Australia was a symbolic reenactment of death in order to achieve new life as an adult. As a novice left his camp, the women would wail and other noises would be made, symbolizing the voice of a mythic being who was said to swallow the novice and later vomit him forth into a new life. The initiation rites themselves were a focal point in discipline and training they included songs and rituals having an educational purpose. All boys were initiated, and traditionally there were no exceptions.

    Circumcision was one of the most important rites over the greater part of Australia. Subincision (incisura of the urethra) was especially significant in its association with secret-sacred ritual. Other rites included piercing of the nasal septum, tooth pulling (in New South Wales this was central in initiation), and the blood rite, which involved bloodletting from an arm vein or a penis incisura—the blood being used for anointing or sipping (red ochre was used as a substitute for blood in some cases). Hair removal, cicatrization (scarring), and playing with fire were also fairly widespread practices. All such rites were usually substantiated by mythology.

    For girls, puberty was marked by either total or partial seclusion and by food taboos (also applied to male novices). Afterward they were decorated and ritually purified. Ritual defloration and hymen cutting were practiced in a few areas, but, in general, puberty among girls was not ritually celebrated.

    Boys, after circumcision, became increasingly involved in adult activities. Although they were not free to marry immediately, even if they had reached puberty, they might do so after undergoing certain rites, such as subincision. By delaying the age of marriage for young men, sometimes until they were in their late 20s, and keeping the age of first marriage for girls as low as 12 or 13, the practice of polygyny was made more workable. Initiation was a prelude to the religious activity in which all men participated. It meant, also, learning a wide range of things directly concerned with the practical aspects of social living. Adulthood brought increased status but added responsibilities. A vast store of information had to be handed down from one generation to the next. Initiation served as a medium for this, providing a basis of knowledge upon which an adult could build. This process continued through life and was especially marked in men’s religious activity.

    For Aboriginal people, birth and death were an open-ended continuum: a spiritual religious power emerged from the Dreaming, was harnessed and utilized through initiation (as symbolic death-rebirth) and subsequent religious ritual, and finally, on death, went back into the Dreaming. Life and death were not seen as being diametrically opposed. The Dreaming provided a thread of life, even in physical death.

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