Sydney Boomerangs and the Power of Description

My blog post about how flawed collection and description of cultural heritage has informed misconceptions about First Nations Culture.

The Gadigal people of Coastal Sydney most likely did not use boomerangs before invasion. Instead, using wooden swords (pp: 128-129) along with other pieces of technology. Gadigal people adopted boomerang making in the early 1900s from the First Nations people of the Blue Mountains region. However, nationally and internationally, collections still hold “Sydney boomerangs”

Collection and description

The reason why the notion of the Gadigal Boomerang is not really challenged is because most First Nations cultural heritage material was collected by trade or theft without further enquiry about the cultural information that surrounds the material and the material’s creator. In lieu of this, many collectors took cultural heritage material at face value or made their own assumptions about the material. Usually, ignoring the complexity of the First Nations knowledges of this land mass. Undoubtably, this wilful ignorance was part of White Europeans considering themselves rational and enlightened and those who were different as inferior.

These collecting practices have informed the description of cultural heritage material once they have entered collections. Therefore, many collection records regarding First Nations cultural heritage material contain erroneous information.

Impact

Hider has previously discussed the impact of poor description of collection material, this is predominately discussed in terms of how it affects discoverability. For instance, I might want to search Wiradjuri cultural heritage material, however records and databases might not specify what Aboriginal Nation material is from, thus making my search term Wiradjuri useless.

However, there are many other effects of poor description in regards to First Nations material other than discoverability. For example, because of the effects of colonisation, much of Sydney’s First Nations knowledge is lost, this leaves the cultural heritage material in collections, like the “Sydney boomerangs” and their records being some of the only aspects culture left. The erroenous description of this material hampers research on culture and worse yet, devastatingly hinders attempts to revitalise culture.

Furthermore, the way cultural heritage is and has been described continues the simplification of First Nations knowledges by only proving simple narratives. Consequently, many cultural heritage objects are only thought of in terms of a simple application, such as throwing at animals for hunting. Despite this, many First Nations cultural heritage objects are considered multifaceted by First Nations people and contribute to First Nations’ social, moral , spiritual and scientific way of living. However, these aspects of culture and knowledge have rarely been captured and/or described in collection records about First Nations cultural heritage objects.

Additionally, this simplification of culture has assisted in dehumanising First Nations people which in turn has helped justified colonisation and the inhuman treatment of First Nations people which continues today with the N.T. intervention and our alarming overrepresentation in the Australian prison system.

In addition to the above, interesting stories of how culture has been impacted and changed and the creation of culture outside the “traditional” have not been captured and described in collections. Sydney boomerangs were being made in early 1900s, but why? Was it because boomerangs were of interest to Europeans, therefore Gadigal people starting making them for economic benefit? Or were Gadigal people desperate to adopt and learn Aboriginal culture, even if it was not their own, because colonisation forcefully separated them from their own Gadigal culture? Or both? Answers to questions may tell complex narratives about First Nations people trying to survive.

Conclusion 

The “Sydney boomerangs” are symbolic for the flawed collecting and describing practices of memory institutions. This example, along with countless others, is something which needs to be rectified in collaboration with First Nations people and something that needs to be acknowledged so to not happen again.

By Nathan Sentance

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