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The Message Stick – First Nations

first nations message stick

Welcome to the first instalment of our new regular feature, The Message Stick, in the Australian version of GSM. For tens of thousands of years, First Nations peoples commonly used message sticks as a way of communicating between different groups. First Nations people painted, carved or burned messages onto a stick, using symbols and imagery. They then transported the message stick by hand across long distances to the intended recipients.

For GSM, the concept of The Message Stick is that the stick will be passed from speaker to speaker to continue our discussion about First Nations culture and traditional knowledge. These discussions are intended to provide some guidance and understanding of how First Nations culture can be applied respectfully and appropriately to what we do as creative thinkers, business owners and educators. By following this path, we have the opportunity to create a more culturally inclusive and enriched national identity.


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GSM talks to Rebecca Wessels about celebrating First Nations art, culture and heritage within the workplaces and visual landscape of all Australians – it’s all about genuine engagement.

genuine engagementRebecca Wessels, Peramangk & Ngarrindjeri, is the founder and CEO of Ochre Dawn Creative Industries, South Australia. Proud to be 100% Aboriginal owned and managed, Ochre Dawn is dedicated to celebrating First Nations art, culture and heritage within the workplaces and visual landscape of all Australians. Rebecca talks to GSM about how they achieve this through genuine engagement between First Nations peoples and non-indigenous Australians – based on trusted relationships built on mutual respect.

First Nation’s Culture to be revered & preserved

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the original inhabitants of Australia and are the oldest living cultures in the world. At Ochre Dawn, we believe that their cultures should be revered, respected, celebrated and preserved, including in the workplace. We believe that everyone has a unique and compelling story to tell. And so, we share the stories of our clients in visually captivating ways, whether they are government departments or universities, small business or not for profit organisations. We tell their stories in a plethora of ways that is not only meaningful to the business but also to the wider community, and especially to First Nations communities.

When organisations are on a journey in reconciliation, especially those with Reconciliation Action Plans, we know that it is important for those organisations to be welcoming and culturally safe spaces. That their offices and meeting rooms, and digital presence, all have an engaging and culturally respectful imagery.

Consultation and Partnership with First Nations People

When taking First Nations principles and lessons into modern design practice, it is essential that it always be done in consultation and partnership with First Nations communities.

We often talk with our clients on their Reconciliation Action Plans about the importance of fostering and maintaining really great relationships with First Nations communities, elders, businesses and other stakeholders. It is in these relationships that we learn important principles and lessons about culture. We can then bring them into contemporary design in offices, marketing collateral and the organisation’s online presence. We see these aspects come to life in all the different products and services that we offer to our clients. For example, through their Reconciliation Action Plans, printed or digital documents, their marketing collateral, their commercial furniture, carpet, office fit outs, decals for walls and windows and even in their promotional products, corporate gifts, work wear and apparel. Just a simple lanyard is an inexpensive item that can invoke conversations between strangers at the coffee shop around reconciliation and meaningful impact for First Nations communities.

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How to get started

Many of our clients don’t quite know how to get started when it comes to commissioning authentic First Nations artwork . They are not sure how to find the artist, how to engage them, how much to pay them, how to negotiate licence and royalty agreements, and even ensuring what type of artwork they should be considering and the various mediums or culturally appropriate pieces for the Nation that their office resides.

Once again, we come back to relationships. It’s so important to connect with traditional owner groups, elders, communities and specialists in the field. Our role, at Ochre Dawn, is to connect the dots between our clients and the artists and communities. We enjoy building those relationships, not just for a one-off projects, but for ongoing journeys of reconciliation and walking together. We love to see different organisations embrace First Nations culture within their organisation by using imagery and language. This is incredibly helpful in ensuring an organisation, and an office environment, feels culturally safe to a First Nations person – especially if they see their art, their culture or their language in the environment around them.

Where care needs to be taken

It is essential that the artwork has been ethically sourced, the artist has been paid appropriately and credited for their work, and that permissions have been gained from the traditional ownership groups, especially in relation to language. It is also important to ensure that the artwork, or artist, has been endorsed by their community.

There is an excess of complexities to any artwork project which need to be considered on a case by case basis, depending on the local traditional owner group of the nature of the project – far too much to cover in this article. This is why we always recommend going back to relationships. Every project is a learning journey and so connecting the elders, the community and experts ensures project delivery is executed in an appropriate way.

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GSM would like to thank Rebecca Wessels for providing her valuable insights for The Message Stick – she will be sharing more with us in the next issue of GSM.

For more information on Ochre Dawn – go to://

If you would like to continue this discussion on culture please contact