Why Tharunka needs to change its name 

‘Tharunka’ is stolen 

In 1953, Tharunka came into being. Its birthparents, the editorial ran by Sid Dunk and Harold Spies, states in the first print edition: 

“It is with appreciation that we acknowledge our debt to Australia’s Aborigines from whom the name ‘Tharunka’ is borrowed. ‘Tharunka’ means ‘message stick’”. 

The paper’s frontpage was proudly stamped with a figure carrying a message stick. An image that remained on all the subsequent print editions for the rest of the year. The ‘message stick’ became a sort of emblem, a symbol by which Tharunka is still associated with until this day. One Google search on the publication and you’ll receive an entry from Wikipedia which states: “The name Tharunka means “message stick” in a Central Australian Aboriginal language”. However, the source of this sentence remains uncited.  

We know from Dunk and Spies (and apparently Wikipedia), that it is an Aboriginal word that means ‘message stick’, there is an important question yet addressed: From which specific region and language was the word taken from? 

To this question, I turned to the only other address on the naming of Tharunka; an Editorial by A.D. Zenere, A. Costoulas, and P.J. O’Neill  from 1955. Expanding on the choice of name, it says:  

“When looking for a name for this journal some years ago, an attempt was made to find a truly Australian technical name. To find a truly Australian word, we went to the first Australians, but, unfortunately, it was found that they were not very technically minded and, consequently had few, if any, technical words in their language. The nearest suitable name we could find was “Tharunka” or “message stick”, and as the years roll on this name becomes more and more suitable and, we hope, more widely known.” 

Although the core question of this investigation remains unanswered, it did indicate the processes undertaken in naming the publication. To start, instead of real information regarding the specific language and region the word was taken from, we’re provided with a statement of serious colonial and racial prejudice; an implication that First Nations people were “unfortunately” not “technically minded” enough. In talking to representatives from Nurra Gili, I also found that this lack of information points to a high possibility that the word was taken without appropriate permission or consultation with First Nations people.  

In reaching out to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), Lauren Reed, the Assistant Director for the AIATSIS Centre for Australian Languages said the following about the proper practice in using Indigenous languages: 

 “Aboriginal languages are part of the Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property (ICIP) of relevant Traditional Owners. Before using ICIP, permission must be sought from the relevant community or communities”. 

In other words, ‘tharunka’ is most likely stolen.  

A closer look into student publications’ history sees a pattern emerging. It was just in 2022 when the Sydney Arts Society’s Journal (SASS) was forced to change its name from ARNA to AVENUE given evidence that the original name was likely stolen from the Barngala people. The publication’s name had been ARNA since 1938, and recent evidence proves that it was incorrectly attributed to the name of ‘a sun-god’. Like Tharunka, their 1938 editorial also explains that it was chosen from an “unspecified Aboriginal language”, giving no evidence of which language group or whether it was obtained with consultation or permission.  

Earlier this year, River McCrossen, an editor from the University of Wollongong’s student magazine Tertangala, reached out to us regarding the origins of their own publication’s name. Tertangala was first published in 1962. McCrossen wrote that they believe the word ‘tertangala’ means ‘smoke signal’, and was originally assigned as a counterpart to our ‘message stick’ (Wollongong university used to be a part of UNSW). Again, there were no indication on which language group ‘tertangala’ was taken from, nor if it was used with proper consultation. In the process of our correspondences, we also found that former Tertangala editor, James Breach, wrote that in 2000 it was discovered that “Tertangala is a made-up word, not remotely to do with known Aboriginal languages”.  

It’s an unfortunate pattern. Laid out clear is that most student publications with names taken from Indigenous languages did not actually follow the correct and responsible process in order to use that name. One could then wonder if the first editors were “technically minded” in the process of naming the newspaper themselves.  I don’t know which is worse, for no one to have questioned this from the very beginning or that it’s taken us this long to finally address it.  

So, where could they have taken the word from? 

Is ‘tharunka’, then, also an invention? Throughout my research, I found it impossible to trace the word ‘tharunka’ back to any NSW language groups, or to find an equivalent of it that means ‘message stick’ in any languages at all. Asides from the Wikipedia entry or from the Tharunka website itself, there are no other sources that confirms that ‘tharunka’ actually means ‘message stick’. After weeks of trawling through archives and dictionaries, I was beginning to think that word was a sham when I stumbled upon an investigation by Rory Thomas in a 2008 issue of Tharunka

The article, published with a number of typos, found that the word ‘tharunka’ appears on a list of ‘Aboriginal words and their meanings’ compiled by Joah H. Sugden prior to 1949 (the actual list is undated). The list simply mentions that the word means ‘message stick’ and comes from a ‘Central Australian Dialect’ but fails to identify which specific language. Here is where I also suspect the Wikipedia page got its information from.  

I chose a scorching day in August to go down to the University of Sydney’s Rare Books & Special Collections Archive where they stored a (very rare) copy of Sugden’s list. The list itself shows a collection of random Aboriginal words attributed to certain regions but never the specific language group. Like Thomas has claimed, the word ‘tharunka’ does appear in the list, assigned to a ‘Central Aboriginal Dialect’.  

After taking notes of other words in the list that were also attributed to the same region, I compared them to words found in major Central Aboriginal languages. From here, I found that most of the words attributed to a ‘Central Aboriginal Dialect’ in Sugden’s list corresponded to words from the Arrernte language of Central Australia.  

Searching through various Arrernte language resources yielded me no word that’s spelt in the exact same way as ‘tharunka’. However, I did find one that comes phonetically close:  

The word ‘tjurunga’.  

Does ‘tharunka’ even mean ‘message stick’? 

Given their phonetic similarity, I wanted to find out if it was possible ‘tharunka’ was an Anglicisation of the word ‘tjurunga’. However, assuming this comes with a number of issues. The major one being that tjurunga are not considered message sticks from an anthropological context.  

The word ‘tjurunga’, also spelt ‘churinga’ and ‘tjuringa’, refers to objects of religious significance by the Arrernte people. It was originally a word referring to a particular type of sacred wooden object or stone. However, the term has now developed into a generic anthropological term used to identify a wide variety of religious objects.  

A substantive amount of research on tjurunga found that there existed terminological confusion between them and Aboriginal message sticks throughout history due to their deemed similar appearances. A paper by Piers Kelly (2019), states: 

“The material diversity of message sticks has had consequences for their historical classification by scholars and collectors… As a result, sacred tjurunga from central Australia, identifiable by a restricted set of recurrent ritual motifs (Anderson, 1995) are advertised by auctioneers as ‘message sticks’, leading to functional as well as terminological confusion.” 

Lindy Allen, in 2015 also documented similar linguistic uses of tjurunga that labelled them as message sticks. Providing further evidence on how the object could have been mislabelled by anthropologists.  

“As a linguist, my sense is that ‘tharunka’ is an Anglicisation of tjurunga or churinga (and several other similar spellings)”, Lauren Reed told Tharunka, “Tjurunga are sometimes referred to as ‘message sticks’, although this is incorrect.” 

A Central Land Council representative also provided the following comment: 

“I had a look at my Arrernte dictionary, but nothing jumps out at me. Then again, the settlers did horrible things to language words, rendering some unrecognisable.” 

Could the original editors have mistaken tjurunga for message sticks? 

Whether the original editors could have possibly mistaken tjurunga for message sticks is a complicated question. However, the answer seems more likely than not.  

During the 1940s and 50s, the false definition of tjurunga as message sticks made way beyond academia and into popular culture.  

The Australian anthropologist, Charles P. Mountford, was a key figure. In anthropological circles he was known to identify the difference between tjurungas and message sticks as between ‘ceremonial message sticks’ and ‘secular message sticks’, confounding further confusion between the two objects. Though these categories have been disproved by later anthropologists due to the objects’ difference on material and lexical grounds, Mountford’s influence as a writer and filmmaker caused for many to misidentify tjurungas as message sticks at the time. 

Mentions of tjurunga can be found in several of his influential works. Brown Men and Red Sand published in 1948, and more significantly the short film Tjurunga — the story of a stone age man in 1946 (a companion film to the famous Walkabout: A journey with the Aboriginals).  

These films were documented to be of ‘immense popular success’ and were particularly popular among students. Due to these reasons, I believe that there is a possibility that Dunk and Spies relied on information either presented by or referenced in Mountford’s work in order to name the newspaper ‘Tharunka’.  

The case for a change of name 

The end of my research marks also the approaching end of my time as a Tharunka editor. Within the last few months, I’ve shared the findings of this investigation with the Student Development Committee (SDC) at Arc with the calling for a change of name with the arguments presented above.  

Given where Australia stands today, post-the very recent referendum that Marcia Langton poignantly cemented as “whatever the outcome, reconciliation is dead”, the changing of a mere student paper’s name seems trifle. There is, however, great importance in acknowledging and correcting what has been done wrong. An importance in taking responsibility.  

In writing this, I acknowledge my limited capabilities as a non-Indigenous person and hope to extend this process and dialogue towards Indigenous students and staff at UNSW. The changing of Tharunka’s name should be carried out with great precarity and should not be done in isolation amongst the Tharunka editorial alone.  

For now, research on ‘tharunka’ will be continued by Arc and (hopefully) the next editorial with the aims of reaching a full confirmation on the origins of the name. If there’s anything to be learnt, it is that we must take the proper care, time and process.  

I hope that this investigation result in other dialogues that reassess the current practices of journalism, and to encourage students to look further into the history of the institutions from which they benefit.  

Tharunka must change its name.  

Because it is the right and smallest thing that we can do.