First database of Indigenous Australian message sticks

The founder of a rich data base of Indigenous Australian “message sticks” believes it showcases historic communication techniques of first nations people.

Dr. Piers Kelly, a linguistic anthropologist at The University of New England, and his team created the Australian Message Stick Database (AMSD) of more than 1500 Indigenous Australian message sticks in collections around the world.

“It’s not accurate to say ‘message sticks are just like Western literacy […] because they’re addressing a different kind of problem that written practice isn’t adapted for.”

Kelly says we need to reevaluate beliefs about the use of the message sticks. Early literature makes assumptions about the message sticks being an aid to memory.

“Message sticks aren’t writing but some of them can do things very similar to writing: convey accurate information over time and distance,” he told Cosmos.

“Nineteenth century scholars were very interested in the possibility that they represented language, but they don’t. My argument is that comparing message sticks to writing is the wrong way to approach it. They’re doing social coordination, validation, reinforcement and encoding of non-linguistic information.”

Cosmos: Different message sticks

Kelly’s research claims message sticks are “a coherent system of long-distance communication that connected Australia’s First Nations across geographical, cultural, and linguistic space.

“Over time, I’ve become less convinced that message sticks are about memory and are much more about social coordination.”

“What is reinforced is the validity of the message and not so much the memory of the messenger.”

Kelly says the sticks solve Indigenous problems with communicating over long distances,  also let “people in and out of [their] territory without undermining [their] territorial integrity.”

“Certain sticks […] depict the route of the messenger rather than the content of the message [which] suggests a passport-like function. Other message sticks have a ‘signature’ of the sender on them to validate who it came from.”

“The message stick communication system has been poorly documented with very little research based on original fieldwork or eyewitness accounts”, Kelly says.

The AMSD collects every known observation or description of the sticks surviving in archives, collections, and museums.

Kelly and his team are engaged in talks with the Indigenous Data Network “to ensure that the data remains available and under Indigenous control for future generations.”

You can access the beta version of the database here.

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