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What Is a Message Stick?

A message stick is a traditional form of communication used by Indigenous Australians. Carved or painted with symbols, it conveys information and grants safe passage to the bearer. This ancient artifact is a testament to the rich cultural heritage and sophisticated systems of the Aboriginal peoples. How might these time-honored practices inform modern communication? Join us to uncover their enduring legacy.
T. Carrier
T. Carrier

A message stick was a form of ancient and often nonverbal communication that originated in Australia, particularly among aboriginal people. It consisted of a wooden stick inscribed with designs and symbols. These objects were relayed by couriers between various regions and tribes and thus functioned as a means of cross-cultural communication. In modern times, a message stick might still be used for communication purposes, or it might serve as an aboriginal cultural symbol containing important and significant designs.

"Aboriginal" is a term that refers to people who are believed to be the first known inhabitants of a region, and in this case, it is used to describe several subgroups of native Australians. Each group might have its own unique customs and languages. They were often divided by tribes, so these groups needed a means to communicate. Message sticks were first devised for this purpose.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

The stick itself was often made from the wood of native Australian trees such as black wattles. Messages were placed on the sticks using a variety of methods, including carving, painting or burning symbols onto the wood. The markings usually consisted of wordless symbols that had to be translated by the courier. This messenger was thus usually a physically fit younger man who had the mental sharpness to properly convey message details.

Message sticks functioned as a sort of neutral territory between tribes. Couriers were granted safe passage and safe harbor, even if they came from an enemy land. Sometimes, the method of delivery consisted of a single courier carrying a message stick from tribe to tribe. Other methods had one tribe begin a passing process amongst tribes, with each tribe using its own courier to convey the message to the next tribe.

Surviving Australian aboriginal tribes might also use a traditional message stick. It might serve as a passport or means of identification in these areas. Although they typically still are made of wood, they also can be hollow inside and contain a piece of paper rather than carved symbols.

This object also has survived as part of Australian cultural celebrations. Some schools, for example, design and transport message sticks as a means of learning about the past. In addition, the term "message stick" is often used in Australian lingo as a reference to other communication forms such as newspapers or radio broadcasts.

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    • Woman standing behind a stack of books
      Woman standing behind a stack of books