Dr Paul Gibson is an IMI Certified Mediator based in Australia, who uses an Aboriginal ‘message stick’ in his mediation practice. Here he shares his story of this fascinating tool and its meanings.
The History of Message Sticks
The Australian Aboriginal Peoples are considered to be the most ancient people on Earth. They are the oldest continuous living culture on Earth with estimates of their cultural existence varying between 60,000 and 75,000 years. Aboriginal Message Sticks are therefore a custom that dates back over 60,000 years.
They were a means of communicating between different Aboriginal tribes, and a “messenger” transported the sticks by hand (travelling on foot). The messenger—the one who carried the message stick was traditionally granted safe and protected entry to other nation’s territory—a sort of visa or passport. The messenger would then convey the message to the elders of the tribe meant to receive the message. Sometimes tribes would add to the message as the messenger passed though.
The messages inscribed on the stick (by painting, carving, burning, etc.) were primarily “prompts” for the messenger so that the message would be conveyed consistently to each different nation’s elders. Typical messages would be announcements of ceremonies, disputes, invitations, warnings, meetings, events and happenings.
The Background to my Message Stick
I had the idea for a ‘Mediation Message Stick’ after researching the conflict resolution stories from various indigenous cultures, including the Australian Aboriginal Peoples, with whom I have spent considerable time. Over dinner with Michael West, an Aboriginal artist and activist, we hatched the idea of a ‘Mediation Message Stick’ and discussed dispute resolution theories and the mediation process.
Following that conversation and many more, Michael and his artistic colleague Graham Toomey designed and made the ‘stick’ and presented it to me. The Iconography (symbols, images and words) was the chosen by Michael and Graham, from our conversations. These two artists have designed Message Sticks for many notable people and institutions – among them the Queen of England, and the High Court of Australia.
My ‘Mediation Message Stick’ is the only one of its kind in the world!!
On My Stick
Referring to the photos in turn.
The words are Catalysts for entering and continuing a conversation in Mediation or Peace-making processes.
The actual words are:
Respect, Reconciliation, Mob, Yarn, Peace, Together, Conversation, Share, Culture, Diversity, Inclusion, Trust, Harmony, Dignity, Honour and Listen.
(Note that in Australian Aboriginal language, “Yarn” means a friendly talk. The designers selected the words after a “yarn” with me as to what I actually do in the process of Mediation.)
In terms of the symbols or iconography:
The two wavy (undulating) lines indicate Journeys and Paths:
“Life is a journey, we share our stories, our tears, our laughter, our experiences and some of our life. We are all on the journey of life, and we must all find our own path to follow, sometimes those journeys and paths are shared other times you are alone.”The Artists
The dots on either side of the journeys and path represents Time:
“Time is not a constant in the universe. It takes time for achievement. We are the oldest Astronomers.”The Artists
The footprints on journeys and path represents Humanity:
“This represents both the individual as a whole and all the subsequent subsets and cohorts, groups we belong to, up to all humanity.”The Artists
The concentric circles are Places:
“These represent places we stop, visit, rest, talk, where ever you spend some of our time on your journey. These places can be many things, but are not limited to countries, continents, states, provinces, cities, streets, houses, homes, rooms and grounds. You interpret and define these places for yourself, from your experience, from your journey.”The Artists
The reason that the stick is lacquered is so that when people handle it, “dirty or sweaty” hands do not adversely mark the stick as it is (well) used.
My use of the Stick
When I use my Stick, I pass it around the group of people in a peace-making situation, or the parties in mediation (usually a multi-party process). I ask them to read the words and I explain the symbols and the iconography to them. Once everyone has had a chance to look at, and feel the stick, I then ask if someone would like to speak about the issue (the subject of the disagreement, conflict or dispute)—the “troubles”—the based on a prompt of a word or symbol on the stick.
The only rule is that you have to be holding the stick to speak. In this latter use, it acts a “Talking Stick” well as “Message Stick”.
With no exception in my experience of using the Stick, it induces an almost ‘spiritual’ tone to the conversation. I believe that the ancient spirit of the Aboriginal Peoples is somehow embodied in the Stick through its clever, interpretive design and the incorporation of the iconography and meanings. I have been amazed at the success of resolving issues using the Stick. When it’s not being used in conversation, it often sits on a table and has the effect of ‘watching over’ the process.
People enter the conversation almost always with reference to the Stick; and they honour the process rule with it as a ‘Talking Stick’.
My Own Journey
After visiting the Mara (Aboriginal) tribe in 2015, I was adopted by a senior Aboriginal woman as her ‘uncle’ and given the skin name of ‘Burrana’. This title accords me relevance, status and respect within the tribe.
As part of my ‘induction’ I was given the ‘songline’ of ‘Frog Dreaming’. I was taken to nearby land where the shape of the landform resembled that of a frog crouching (as if it was dreaming). It was a most significant spiritual moment in my life.
Dr Paul R Gibson, Mediator & Facilitator. IMI Certified, EMTPJ, NMAS. Sydney, Australia
 The Mara (also spelt Marra) tribe is located at Borroloola – a town in the Northern Territory of Australia. It is located on the McArthur River, about 50 km upstream from the Gulf of Carpentaria.
 A ‘Skin Name’ is kinship term that identifies one’s relationship to another.
 Songlines trace the journeys of ancestral spirits as they created the land, animals and lore. Integral to Aboriginal spirituality, songlines are deeply tied to the Australian landscape and provide important knowledge, cultural values and wisdom to Indigenous people.