Message stick

"A native carrying a message stick" image from The Euahlayi Tribe by K. Langloh Parker (1905)
An Australian Indigenous message stick held in the National Museum of Australia
Message stick inscribed with notches and strokes and their codified meaning (Howitt, 1889)

A message stick is a public communication device used by Aboriginal Australians. The objects were carried by messengers over long distances and were used for reinforcing a verbal message. Although styles vary, they are generally oblong lengths of wood with motifs engraved on all sides. They have traditionally been used across continental Australia, to convey messages between Aboriginal nations, clans and language groups. In the 1880s, they became objects of anthropological study, but there has been little research on them published since then. Message sticks are non-restricted since they were intended to be seen by others, often from a distance. They are nonetheless frequently mistaken for tjurungas.[1] the term 'message stick' is also sometimes applied to similar objects made by Indigenous people of North America, housed in the Peabody Museum Harvard and the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley.

Description and use

The message stick is usually a solid piece of wood, around 10–30 centimetres (3.9–11.8 in) in length, etched with angular lines and dots. Styles vary, but they are usually a cylindrical or slightly flattened shape.[2]

Traditionally, message sticks were passed between different peoples, language groups and even within clans[3] to make alliances and to manage the movements of people and goods. They were often used to summon neighbouring groups to ceremonies, including mortuary or initiation ceremonies. Identifying marks inscribed into the stick would convey the relationship.[4][2] When messengers entered another group’s country, they would first announce their presence with smoke signals, so that they would be taken safely with the message stick to the Aboriginal elders, to whom they would speak their message.[3]

They were sometimes referred to as talking-sticks or stick-letters, according to Robert Hamilton Mathews in 1897.[5]

Message sticks were inscribed with notches and strokes whose meaning is codified. They are typically given to a messenger who delivers it to a recipient (often after a long journey). The person who carries the stick is present during the inscribing of the stick, when the message to be delivered is recited orally while it is being inscribed; that messenger is present once again when he delivers both the stick and the oral message. Without this oral delivery most message sticks would not be understood (Howitt, 1889). Cases of message sticks being sent and interpreted without an intermediary are not unheard of but are exceedingly rare in our documentation. The figure shows a message stick from Queensland. The first notch represents the recipient of the stick, Carralinga, the final notch represents the sender, Nowwanjung (Lumholtz, 1889).[6]

Historical accounts

Anthropologist Alfred Howitt wrote of the Wurundjeri people of the Melbourne area in 1889:

The oldest man (Headman) having made such a message stick hands it to the old man nearest to him, who inspects it and, if necessary, adds further marks and gives corresponding instructions. Finally, the stick having passed from one to the other of the old men present is handed to the messenger, who has received his verbal message in connection with it. If any duration of time is connected with the message, or if an enumeration of stages or camps is made, a method is used (see Australian Aboriginal enumeration) [to explain this].[7]

Jeannie Gunn wrote about life at a station near the site of the town of Mataranka in the Northern Territory in 1902:

Then he ['Goggle-Eye'] showed me a little bit of stick with notches on it, and said it was a blackfellow's letter-stick, or, as he called it, a "yabber-stick." It was round, not flat like most other letters, and was an invitation to a corroboree; and there were notches on it explaining what sort of corroboree it was, and saying that it was to be held at Duck Creek. There was some other news marked on it...[8]

Donald Thomson, recounting his journey to Arnhem Land after the Caledon Bay Crisis in 1935, writes of Wonggu sending a message stick to his sons, at that time in prison, to indicate a calling of a truce. In etched angles, it showed people sitting down together, with Wonggu at the centre, keeping the peace.[9] The sticks acquired a function as a tool of diplomacy, especially in Northern Australia.[2]

Museum Collections
Australian Museum
Aboriginal Message Sticks from the Australian Museum collection

The Australian Museum holds 230 message sticks in its collection.[10]

South Australian Museum The South Australian Museum holds 283 message sticks in its collection.[10]
British Museum The British Museum holds 74 message sticks in its collection.[10]
National Museum of Australia The National Museum of Australia holds 53 message sticks in its collection.[10]
Pitt Rivers Museum The Pitt Rivers Museum holds a message stick from the 19th century made of Acacia homalophylla which originates from Queensland. Originally sent by a Yagalingu man to a Wadjalang man, it is an invitation to hunt emu and wallaby. Zig-zagged symbols carved into the wood represent ‘emu’ and the cross-hatching represent ‘wallaby’. The British Museum holds a Kalkatungu message stick, collected by Charles Handley in 1900, created to communicate the death of three children through a combination of diamond-shaped engravings.[10]

Modern cultural references

See also


  1. ^ "How to identify a message stick". Brave New Words. 2021. Retrieved 25 August 2021.
  2. ^ a b c Kelly, Piers (4 July 2019). "Australian message sticks: Old questions, new directions". Journal of Material Culture. 25 (2). SAGE Publications: 133–152. doi:10.1177/1359183519858375. hdl:21.11116/0000-0003-FDF8-9. ISSN 1359-1835.
  3. ^ a b qmnadmin (6 November 2012). "Message Sticks: rich ways of weaving Aboriginal cultures into the Australian Curriculum". The Queensland Museum Network Blog. Retrieved 30 May 2020.
  4. ^ Wurm, S.A.; Mühlhäusler, P.; Tryon, D.T. (1996). Atlas of Languages of Intercultural Communication in the Pacific, Asia, and the Americas: Vol I: Maps. Vol II: Texts. Trends in Linguistics, Volume 13. De Gruyter. p. 1-PA54. ISBN 978-3-11-081972-4. Retrieved 30 May 2020.
  5. ^ Mathews, R.H. (1897). "Message-Sticks Used by the Aborigines of Australia". American Anthropologist. A10 (9). Wiley: 288–298. doi:10.1525/aa.1897.10.9.02a00010. ISSN 0002-7294. PDF
  6. ^ Morin, Olivier; Kelly, Piers; Winters, James (April 2020). "Writing, Graphic Codes, and Asynchronous Communication". Topics in Cognitive Science. 12 (2): 727–743. doi:10.1111/tops.12386.
  7. ^ "Notes on Australian Message Sticks and Messengers", AW Howitt, FGS, Journal of the Anthropological Institute, pp 317-8, London, 1889, reprinted by Ngarak Press, 1998, ISBN 1-875254-25-0
  8. ^ "The Little Black Princess", Mrs Aeneas Gunn, p 54, George Robertson: Melbourne, 1909?
  9. ^ *Peterson, Nicholas, Donald Thomson in Arnhem Land, Melbourne University Press ISBN 0-522-85063-4, pp 80-81.
  10. ^ a b c d e Kelly, Piers (2019). "Australian message sticks: Old questions, new directions". Journal of Material Culture. 25 (2): 133–152. doi:10.1177/1359183519858375. hdl:21.11116/0000-0003-FDF8-9. S2CID 198687425. Retrieved 26 May 2021.
  11. ^ "Our Story – Message Stick". Message Stick – Indigenous Business. 6 March 2020. Retrieved 30 May 2020.

Further reading

  • Allen L (2015) Message sticks and Indigenous diplomacy. In: K. Darian-Smith, P. Edmonds (eds). Conciliation on Colonial Frontiers: Conflict, Performance and Commemoration in Australia and the Pacific Rim. New York: Taylor & Francis, 113–131.
  • Bastian, A. (1880) Message-sticks der Australie. Verhandlungen der Berliner Anthropologischer Gesellschaft 240–242.
  • Bastian, A. (1881) Australische Schriftsubstitute. Zeitschrift für Ethnologie Transactions 13:192–193.
  • Edye, I.G. (1903) Aboriginal message sticks. Science of Man 5(12): 197–198.
  • Hamlyn, Harris R. (1918) On messages and ‘message sticks’ employed among the Queensland Aborigines. Memoirs of the Queensland Museum 6: 13–36.
  • Howitt, A.W. (1889). Notes on Australian message sticks and messengers. Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 18: 314–332.
  • Kelly, Piers. 2019. Australian message sticks: Old questions, new directions. Journal of Material Culture 1-20.Online First
  • Mountford, C.P. (1938). Aboriginal message sticks from the Nullabor Plains. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia 62(1): 122–126.
  • Thorpe, W.W. (1926). Aboriginal message sticks. Australian Museum Magazine 2(12): 423–425.

External links

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