Mission to recover mysterious Aussie item stolen in 'violent act'

A small delegation flew out of Sydney on Tuesday, spearheading a mission to recover a cultural item removed from a ceremonial site in northeast NSW.

The Aboriginal men are heading to Switzerland to view an ancient tree, believed to have been hidden away inside a vault within the Basel Museum of Cultures since it was "purchased" from a museum by a collector in 1939 and transported out of Australia.

It’s one of a handful of intricately carved trees stolen from the Kamilaroi people living on the Boggabri side of the Namoi River in around 1917.

Two images of the carved tree have been pixellated. It sits inside a vault room at Basel museum.
Images of the carved tree have been pixellated at the request of Kamilaroi man Alfred Priestley. Source: Supplied

Its appearance must remain a mystery for now, because Kamilaroi man Alfred Priestley has requested that no images of the tree be published until it has been brought home from Switzerland.

Despite this, he is comfortable with the tree being described. Deep channels are carved into the now-dead wood. The curved lines begin at the base of the tree and reach around two metres to its top. Its natural tones contrast against the sterile grey archival room walls which are lit by fluorescent light.

Mr Priestley compares its theft to the plot of the film Avatar — invaders destroy the native Na'vi’s Tree of Souls, a giant willow that connects them to their God.

“They weren’t just trees, people have got to understand. They’re songs. They’re vibrations. They’re life. DNA travels in light through those trees,” he said. “It captures everything, our entire essence, our entire being. That’s what they destroyed.”

What was the carved tree used for?

The tree was originally used in preparation for initiation ceremonies during which boys became men. In Kamilaroi culture, this process ensures boys never live a “teenage life”. “If you let them do that their energy is out of control — adolescence is unstable,” Mr Priestley said. “I need to get those trees. Something has to be done."

An aerial shot of Boggabri (left) and a shot of the city of Basel (right).
The tree originated in Boggabri (left) and was then transported to Basel (right). Source: Getty (File)

Carved trees created by the Kamilaroi people differ significantly from scar trees which are widespread across Australia and were created by many Indigenous peoples to produce canoes and coolamons.

The Boggabri carved trees are also a seperate group from those 189km northwest in Collarenebri, which were cut down in 1947 by wealthy Adelaide collector Harry Balfour. Colour footage exists online of their removal and there are black-and-white photographs of others, but cultural sensitivities make publication of these images complex.

There are also carved boab trees in the Tanami desert which extend along a dreaming track that stretches between Broome and the Northern Territory. White settlement interrupted the practice of carving them and they are disappearing due to lightening strikes and because cattle are eating them.

What’s next for the carved tree?

Mr Priestley was asked to travel to Switzerland by Monash University’s Professor Brian Martin who is a descendant of Bundjalung, Muruwari and Kamilaroi peoples.

He and colleague Brooke Andrew have running an Australian Research Council project looking at the significance of trees in southeast Australia and the cultural items taken and held by museums.

Kamilaroi man Alfred Priestley painted up with a flag.
Kamilaroi man Alfred Priestley is travelling to Basel. Source: Supplied

He has flown to Switzerland because the Basel Museum of Cultures has asked to display the carved tree.

“We're going over there to bring ceremony and healing to the tree,” he said. “I think it's that's what's really important and that’s what (Mr Priestley) wants to do. The tree has been there for more than 70 years, so in a way, we classify it as our ancestor. The issue with that is it’s been there alone.”

Professor Martin said because the tree has been removed from its home and is “no longer in ceremony”, it cannot directly be brought back to Boggabri. “Because that's a really colonial way of doing things,” he said. “That was a violent act of removal and we don't want to redo anything like that. It's a process of healing and it's a slow process.”

With the museum keen to repatriate the tree, Professor Martin said the handover process could involve replicating the tree using 3D-scanning. “It's just not as simple as bringing it back to country, it's also leaving something there,” he said.

And the museum is very keen for repatriation, but the dynamics around the contemporary cultural practices that can intersect with that.

When will I be able to see the carved tree?

Viewing cultural items requires initiation and some can only be seen by people belonging to a specific gender. The carved tree was stolen from its home, and then sold to Switzerland around 20 years later. Kamilaroi people must now determine how and where it is settled.

“Of course it still carries that ceremony, ritual and importance with it, but it's no longer on site,” Professor Martin said.

Questions also remain about whether the tree should be left to degrade on its original site, or placed in a museum-like venue on Kamilaroi country. “When they've been removed for so long, what does that mean? There's no clarity on that. It's really complex,” Professor Martin added.

It also must be determined how the tree can help shape cultural understanding. “It's really about sharing the knowledge," he said. "If you look globally, people talk about Stonehedge, well this is what (the carved trees) present to the world as well, this is ancient knowledge, and we’re thinking about how do we show that in a contemporary way?”

Professor Martin will be documenting the ceremony and parts of it will be shown as part of a project with Museums Victoria.

Mr Priestly returns on the 15th of December and he will then launch a podcast called Dream-Katcha about repatriating the tree and Kamilaroi culture.

Basel Museum of Cultures has been contacted for comment.

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