In terms of classroom learning and the Australian Curriculum, the exploration of message sticks brings together history, science, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, literacy and art. Coupled with a trip to a museum and contact with a local Aboriginal Group where possible, the links to both Historical Knowledge and Understanding and Historical skills for Foundation to Year 3 are strong. As well as being sources of information of the past about which students can easily pose questions, message sticks are an example of how stories of the past are communicated, why museums have such artefacts and can elicit reflection on the impact of changing technology on traditional Indigenous practices. By also immersing students in the spiritual connection that Aboriginal Peoples and Torres Strait Islanders have with the land and sea and the great diversity of each group’s connection, students begin to understand why message sticks and other forms of communication (stories, dance, music, art) are so important to Indigenous identity. In terms of science, message sticks hit the mark for Year 1, chemical sciences and also a number of the Years 1, 2 and 3 English descriptions.
Australia is a vast land. Not surprising then that it is home to a large number of different indigenous cultural groups. Over tens of thousands of years, “a rich diversity of tribal groups, each speaking their own languages and having a variety of cultural beliefs and traditions” has emerged (Hill, C. 2004). It is estimated that around 250 distinct indigenous languages were spoken in 1788 with around 600 dialectal variations. Message sticks have played an important part in communication between Aboriginal groups across the immense Australian landscape. In our classrooms, message sticks offer a way of understanding the diversity of indigenous cultures in a way that most students can relate to. Whilst the diverse oral culture of Aboriginal people is well-known, message sticks may not be something teachers are familiar with, hence this background briefing blog.
Message sticks are a form of communication between Aboriginal nations, clans and language groups even within clans. Traditional message sticks were made and crafted from wood and were generally small and easy to carry (between 10 and 20 cm). They were carved, incised and painted with symbols and decorative designs conveying messages and information. Some were prepared hastily, like you might create a note left on a friend’s desk or a quick text message; 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 neighboring groups and by translators when the message stick was taken long distances.
Message sticks helped support the oral message that the carrier would provide, especially when languages of groups were very different. But there were enough marks to ensure that the original message would not be misinterpreted. More importantly, the message stick itself was a ‘passport’ which gave the carrier protection. 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. Group members would then accompany the carrier safely back to where they came from with a reply. The message stick also helped to secure safe passage across long distances and through many groups. This was because each time the messenger was directed to meet the elders to show the stick and request permission to pass through and deliver the message to its final destination.
The subject matter of message sticks varies much like the text types of many written languages. Notices about meetings and events, invitations to corroborees, ceremonies and fights, notices/ requests of marriage arrangements, notification of a family member passing and requests for objects are some of the types of information placed on message sticks. They were also used for trading journeys; curators know that many artefacts could not have been made at the locations where they were found because the materials they were made from, were found and traded across great distances (Jacob 1991, pg 260). Some message sticks were created with unique markings that were used only at certain times, and were only allowed to be carried by particular people for special rituals.
The story telling text types are generally not seen on message sticks. These of course are shared within the clan, passed down through rich oral traditions including The Dreaming, music and dance. These ‘stories’ of country vary greatly from region to region because they describe the journeys of ancestral spirits who created the features of a particular area. But not just the geographical features. Helen Nunggalurr from a clan in north–east Arnhem Land explains, “First all things in our environment were created by spirit beings which we call Wangarr. They created the different tribes and their languages. During their creation journeys they created animals, plants, waterholes, mountains, reefs, billabongs and so on. Today we can see their tracks in our land and where they stopped we can see their signs. These are the features in our landscape. This is why these places are our sacred areas which we must respect and care for” (Smyth, D.,1994, p 3).
At Queensland Museum and Sciencentre you can see many examples of message sticks and engravers in the Dandiiri Maiwar Exhibition. In some cases, the museum has acquired the stories associated with particular sticks. For example, 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 Darwin boy to explain the message. The boy read the message symbols which requested headbands and boomerangs from Daly Waters. The Bishop delivered the message stick (shown below) and asked the recipient to tell him what the message was. The boy interpreted the message stick exactly as the Darwin boy had explained it.
The essence of message sticks, apart from their obvious purpose, is the way they signify the carrier’s identity with a particular group (the senders). As a result of the WIK decision of 1996, Queensland Museum invited school groups to make message sticks called WIK sticks so that others could glean a sense of who they are just by viewing the stick. This idea could easily be replicated in schools and WIK sticks could be shared between schools from very different regions. Individually, students could create small WIK sticks on thick cardboard to represent their own unique identities.
In summary, message sticks are a rich source of historical and cultural learning for Foundation to Year 3 students in particular. Along with the many other artefacts on display at QM & S, the online resources and the various relevant loans kits, teachers can go a long way to developing an appreciation and respect for the great diversity and richness of Aboriginal Peoples and Torres Strait Islanders cultures and histories.
Below you will find some interesting contemporary representations of message sticks with some useful reference sources and information to use with students in the classrooms or at home with your children.
This article continues the theme of early indigenous scientific knowledge which often centred around the collection of food. Most shell middens were created in ancient (pre-European contact) times and can provide valuable information about Aboriginal hunting and gathering practices.
For thousands of years, Aboriginal people caught and ate large numbers of shellfish species in and around the mangrove mud flats and coastal areas along the Queensland coast. Often they would cook the meat and use the shells for a number of different purposes, or dispose of the shells in large dump sites. These dump sites would normally be near where they were camped and eventually form what is called shell middens. Shell middens have provided important information and clues for researchers about the Aboriginal people and the environment they lived in. They tell the story of the Aboriginal peoples’ diet, food sources for that particular area, what species were available, the impact of biodiversity, environmental changes and marine ecosystems.
Different species of food sources found in shell middens include, mussels, oysters, clams, crabs, fish. These food sources were highly prized as today we know they contain valuable nutrients such as zinc, iron, calcium and vitamins such as A and B. These would have been hunted and gathered according to the seasons and particularly when they were in abundance. The Aboriginal people would have known when the oysters were at their fattest, the crabs were at their heaviest, the mussels in abundance from reading the seasonal signs around them. This practice is still used today by many Aboriginal people.
Some of the species found included Geloina coaxan (Mud Clam), Nerita balteata (Lined Nerida), Telescopium Telescopium (Telescope Mud Creeper. Most of the food sources were collected during low tide as that was the time they were exposed in the mud or sand or attached to rocks and branches of the mangrove trees.
Once they were collected they would have been immediately eaten and then discarded in a nearby heap eventually forming into a midden. The Aboriginal people also found uses for the shells and used them for cutting and slicing or decoration. Every year at the same time the shell midden would grow in size. In the Hinchinbrook area, between the North Queensland towns of Cardwell and Ingham shell middens sites have been found and from the research tells the story that it is a particular area that would have supported a large number of people. Whilst middens are found there, a number of fish traps have also been found which reinforces that the area was a valuable nutrient rich environment. All shell middens and fish traps today are protected sites. They are protected under the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2003 and Torres Strait Islander Cultural heritage Act 2003. One area protected for artefact scatters, shell middens and fish traps is an area at Palm Island.
Whilst shell middens have survived over thousands of years they are exposed to threats. Threats include cyclones, (a shell midden at the Townsville Town Common was damaged by a cyclone), erosion from water and wind, vandalism and development.
Sustainability is a cross-curriculum priority of the Australian Curriculum. Sustainability addresses the ongoing capacity of Earth to maintain all life. The AC website states that: “Education for sustainability develops the knowledge, skills, values and world views necessary for people to act in ways that contribute to more sustainable patterns of living.”
In Science: “… students appreciate that science provides the basis for decision-making in many areas of society and that these decisions can impact on the Earth system. They understand the importance of using science to predict possible effects of human and other activity and to develop management plans or alternative technologies that minimise these effects.”
Many Australians live in coastal areas and occupy catchments which supply waterways that empty into the ocean. So there is a direct link between healthy waterways and healthy marine environments, and for much of Queensland that includes coral reef environments.
The catchment and/or marine environments are an ideal foci for a school sustainability program. Here are links to excellent educational programs and resources to support the implementation of a sustainability program in your school:
Organisations and educational programs
Reef Guardian Schools – Great Barrier Marine Park Authority. The program encourages schools to commit to the protection and conservation of the world heritage listed Great Barrier Reef. The program helps to protect the Reef by promoting their ideas, initiatives and activities to communities to encourage all people to “do their bit to look after it!”. It focuses on: Curriculum offerings; Management of Resources; On-the-ground projects in your school and community and Education of the community. “
ReefED: online resources and activities from GBRMPA.
Ocean Life Education ‘Brings the Sea to You’ with fun marine education programs including live marine animals designed to inspire students of all ages to appreciate and take responsibility for the marine ecosystem.
The Global Learning Centre is a not-for-profit community organisation dedicated to supporting education for justice, peace and sustainability.
Healthy Waterways: An NGO that provides information and resources on water education in South East Queensland including: information, resources and games.
The Up a Dry Gully Schools Program challenges primary and secondary students to explore and understand how water must be safe, secure and sustainable for our future.
CSIRO: CarbonKids is an educational program that combines the latest in climate science with education in sustainability.
CSIRO Education, North Queensland: Eco-enigma – An environmental case study where the class becomes a scientific team preparing an environmental impact report. By measuring heavy metal levels in fish, analysing silt in a river etc, students find out who is responsible for the environmental health problems of Sunny Valley.
Sea World (Gold Coast): Excursions and education programs.
Reef HQ Aquarium (Townsville): Age-specific, innovative curriculum-centred programs include interactive activities and investigation challenges, stimulating inquiring minds to discover all they can about the Reef.
Redland City Council: “IndigiScapes helps teachers design units of work so their students can achieve learning outcomes from a variety of curriculum areas. We provide interactive and challenging activities that guide students through an appreciation and understanding of local conservation issues and how they can protect their planet in the future.”
The museum has a rich repository of authoritative information and resources, including online content, interactive learning objects, games and school loan kits.
Biodiscovery and the Great Barrier Reef: Biodiscovery is the quest for bioactive chemicals from living organisms. Investigate some of the factors affecting the survival of reef organisms and how human activities and climate change are having an impact on the reef.
Backyard Explorer: An invertebrate biodiversity audit resource kit that can support biohealth assessment component of a sustainability program.
The museum provides loan kits that support object-based learning. For example: Marine Life: Explore a variety of marine life and how they interact with their environment and each other. Investigate interactions between living things and suitability for a marine habitat.
Teaching is characteristically a time poor occupation and no more so than in the modern classroom. In our efforts to deliver the entire curriculum (in a perfect classroom with well-behaved children who attend school nearly every day!), we need to be clever about maximising the potential of learning in each lesson. Specifically, we need to reduce the need for different activities to teach different subjects, reuse a context to build deeper understanding and rethink how we can better link classroom learning to real world situations. Recycling provides us with just such an opportunity.
Recycling can be used as a way of delivering several aspects of the Australian Curriculum for Science, Mathematics and English and for technology Essential Learnings for a number of year levels. In a nutshell, the recycling process fosters the understanding of the properties of materials, physical and chemical change, magnetism, measurement, labelling, human impact on the environment and other living things, systems, design and resources. The opportunities abound for inquiry and analytical processes and to see real world applications for the use and influence of science, maths and literacy.
Queensland Museum teachers have developed a new resource in conjunction with external recycling partners. Recycling can be incorporated into a number of year levels, so we have not provided unit/ lesson plans but have instead provided the relevant curriculum links and the resources such as images and investigations which can be linked with existing planning. The resource includes images of recycling plants and processes which are not easily accessible to teachers and students and some investigation and activity ideas. We are just waiting for a content check from SIMS and the new resource will become available. It will be located in our learning resources/ resources/Australian Curriculum suite but we will notify you when the link is active.
Queensland Museum and Sciencentre would like to thank SIMS Metal Recyclers, Brisbane City Council, Moreton Bay Regional Council Waste Services, Christopher Trotter (Artist) and Visy for their enthusiastic support of our recent Science of Recycling exhibit.
The “Zoo Animals” went into the tin with the blue lid, while my “Farm Animals” went in the tin with the green lid. The animal kingdom, as I knew it, lived under my bed in Streets ice-cream tins. All were classified, according to contexts developed from the songs, books and experiences of a four-year old. Fast forward to 2012 and, as a Museum Educator, I am delighted to be sharing the topic of Animal Classification with the next generation of biologists, taxonomists or collectors.
Queensland Museum has re-launched Animal Classification into our range of school programs. Bookings are now being taken for Yr 3-7* classes to experience a value-added program to enrich your Museum visit
If the concept of Animal Classification makes you numb, let us please change your mind. School programs are delivered by the Museum Learning team, using real collections to elicit real experiences. This is a valuable option in an increasingly virtual world.
This program primarily responds to Science Understanding descriptors in Australian Curriculum: Science for Yrs 3 and 7, but also addresses Science as a Human Endeavour and Science Inquiry Skills for Yrs 3-7.
So how does classification apply to our lives? You don’t even need to be a collector to use it. We find classification systems everywhere – from libraries to supermarkets. Things that are in some way similar are arranged together for comprehension and convenience.
So how does animal classification apply to our lives? Animals are grouped as part of the process that describes or identifies them down to an individual species. This helps us effectively communicate information about them. Understanding characteristics of a particular species or group can affect our health and welfare, economic growth and ability to effectively manage the conservation of our wildlife.
Dr Karl Kruszelnicki has shared the virtues of the dung beetle since the CSIRO introduced several species to Australia in the late 1960s. The objective was to manage a bi-product of grazing and its impact on fly control (the bi-product that wasn’t destined for our taste buds or footwear). Selected species were introduced to a number of Australian climates and ecosystems resulting in a biological control success story. Our approx 350-400 species of native dung beetle evolved to mostly feed on the smaller, drier, fibrous dung pellets of marsupials.
Other examples of genus-specific relationships are applied in agriculture (both in pollination and pest management). According to the Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Honeybees add an estimated $4 – 6 billion to Australian agricultural and horticultural industries, annually.
Further examples of identified animal groups have supported medical research. Studies of Tammar Wallaby and other marsupial forms of milk have provided medical researchers with a template for investigating antimicrobial compounds, potentially resistant to “superbugs”.
Examples of animals helping humans can be ‘reciprocated’ in conservation campaigns. Most Queenslanders are aware of the plight of the endangered Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat. Distribution once extended south to the Victorian border. By the 1980s, a drastically reduced population was reportedly (without the advanced surveying methods in use, today) around 35 wombats. A remnant population in Epping Forest National Park (South-West of Mackay, Queensland) was recognised as the last chance to protect this species. Since then, wombat numbers have been carefully monitored and protected, reaching around 138 today. In 2009, the colony was deemed at risk should an environmental disaster such as fire or flood affect the region. To mitigate this, the decision was made to establish a second breeding colony 600km south at Richard Underwood Nature Refuge (near St George, Queensland). Recent reports (May 2012) indicate this second population is stable with the current “snout count” at seven females, three males and three joeys in good condition.
A smaller cousin, the Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat has maintained a conservation status of ‘Least Concern’, although recent reports suggest it, too is affected by similar threats. These include reduced/replaced food plants and possibly toxins from introduced weeds. Relationships determined by the classification of animals can help us to make informed decisions. Are we prepared to learn from the past to determine the future?
The Animal Classification theme is supported by a range of Queensland Museum exhibitions and resources.
* Please note: Secondary school, teachers can also select a Biodiversity and Classification program, which can be tailored to your unit of work by prior arrangement.
During traditional times, Aboriginal people showed an ingenious mastery of physics to create hunting equipment and labour-saving tools. They demonstrated knowledge of chemistry, held a deep understanding of biology through powerful observation and using all the senses to predict and hypothesis. Additionally, they were competent at testing through trial and error, making adaptations and retesting to achieve a final result. Aboriginal people were experts at reading signs signalling seasonal changes and life cycles. They understood that the entire environment around them was intertwined and depended on careful stewardship of their custodial area to survive and thrive.
Traditional knowledge held by Aboriginal people demonstrated an ingenious mastery and deep understanding of Biology and Chemistry. From generations of knowledge passed down orally, they invented labour-saving tools and techniques aimed at making food gathering easier. The rainforest people knew how to make multiple uses of plants such as the buttress roots of the fig tree, lawyer cane, seeds, palms and vines.
For example, they were able to understand that grinding toxic seeds on the morah stone would break down cell membranes and when put in running water the toxins would leach out. They discovered that heating up toxic seeds would also break down cell membranes and remove the poison. The Aboriginal people of the rainforest invented the bicornual basket to act as a sieve for the ground seeds. They knew that placing the basket in running water, loaded with the ground seeds, the toxins would leach out. The cleverly woven basket could stay for days at a time in the water without disintegrating because of the vine’s strength. These baskets made from lawyer cane, Calamuscaryotoides, which is a prickly climbing vine were ergonomically designed to endure and withstand many functions.
The rainforest is a veritable supermarket, abundant in plant and animal food sources. Aboriginal people of the rainforest used their spearthrowers, firesticks, morah stones, nutstones, bicornual baskets and ooyurka stones to make hunting and the preparation of food easier.
The spear thrower (also called a woomera) is used with a spear. It acts as a lever to project the spear with force and speed. This enabled the thrower to increase the spear’s trajectory over a longer distance.
The morah stone was designed to grate or grind down toxic seeds in preparation for leaching. A push and pull motion was used on the stone with the topstone as it broke down the seed on the morah stone
The bicornual basket has an ergonomical design. The Aboriginal people of the rainforest designed it to fit securely and comfortably on their back whilst the handle part is hung from the forehead. From this position, the basket user could carry a controlled weight easily while having their hands free.
The t-shaped ooyurka stone was designed as a scraper and was used with a push and pull motion to remove seed residue from the morah stone. It was also used to make a groove in a stone axe head and could be bound easily with twine.
The nut stone was designed to make cracking open the hard exterior of nuts easier. The grooves etched in the nutstone allowed less force to be exerted.
Firesticks usually consisted of two long drill sticks and a case that protected the drill parts. The firemaker would use friction between the two drill sticks to make heat and a fire would result.
The Rainforest people built strong shelters made with lawyer cane, fan palm leaves, blady grass, rushes and barks. Knowledge of tight weaving and thatching handed down through generations gave them the skills to waterproof their shelters against heavy tropical rains. Inside the shelters the people kept their precious shields, swords, baskets, axes, firesticks, ochre, boomerangs. Outside sat morah stones and nut-stones. For many generations this lifestyle was maintained.
Without this deep scientific knowledge and understanding, Aboriginal people would not have survived for thousands of years.
We are custodian of Queensland's natural and cultural heritage, caring for more than a million items and specimens in collections that tell the changing story of Queensland.