An important archive of sound recordings by Indigenous audio pioneer Jimmie Barker, recently gifted to the nation, will help preserve the ‘old ways’ of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, experts say.

The first Indigenous Australian to use recorded sound to preserve and document Aboriginal culture, Barker’s tapes have been donated to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) by his grandson, Roy Barker, so the public can better engage with Aboriginal heritage. 

“When no Aboriginal person had a voice, he had one,” said Leonard Hill, acting chief executive at AIATSIS.     

“He presented the Aboriginal race not as a dying one but as a living race.”

 The Muruwari man, born in 1900, and began experiments with sound aged just nine. As a resident of the Aboriginal Mission Station at Brewarrina in northwest New South Wales, he had used an Edison phonograph to make wax-cylinder recordings of Muruwari and Ngemba elders singing. 

It gave him the bug for it and he continued amassing a sound archive right up until his death in 1972. Over the years, Barker accrued 113 hours of recordings, one of the most significant examples of an ethnographic collection created within Australia.   

The recordings include memoirs and reflections, traditional Muruwari language, cultural practices, songs and dreaming stories, accounts of massacres and Aboriginal peoples’ contact experience. The recordings provided detailed descriptions of what he often refers to as ‘the old ways’ and set amidst gut-wrenching descriptions of how the Aboriginal population was institutionalised and exploited. 

Mr Hill said Barker’s work critically analysed the collective experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Straight islanders and their lifestyles. 

In times when researchers were mostly non-Aboriginal and were presenting the Aboriginal culture as dead, he was the voice to Aboriginal people.

“His recordings were collected over time. He recorded how his family were spending time and the day-to-day life of Aboriginal people in NSW. He was the first Aboriginal person to interview another Aboriginal person,” said Mr Hill. 

“In times when researchers were mostly non-Aboriginal and were presenting the Aboriginal culture as dead, he was the voice to Aboriginal people, and he gave an interesting insight into the Aboriginals’ life and their material development.” 

Barker’s work not only covers the Aboriginal culture but touches on the significant events happening then.  

“He did not only evaluate and reflect upon important aspects of Aboriginal life, but he also talked about their experiences during the White Policy times as well as the 1967 referendum that made Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples counted as part of the population and the Commonwealth,” Mr Hill said., adding Barker’s records are significantly important to Aboriginal heritage and Australian history. 

 “They give the opportunity to engage in the history and watch, improve and learn from it. It is also about learning from history and how Aboriginal people were viewed negatively,” said Mr Hill. 

“As a result of the partnership, we were given the original records under two objectives: that the Barker family and NSW public can access the Barker job to enhance and evaluate the Barker job as well as given [intellectual] property rights.” 

The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies obtained these recordings after a partnership with Barker’s family, particularly, Barker Junior.   

While Australia is heading to vote on the Voice to Parliament, Mr Hill said these records are important as the public can learn about the obstacles the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders had faced throughout history and help them make the right decision. 

“The question put to Australian people will allow them to be part of the positive change…to recognise the collective experiences of Indigenous Australians and to improve their life conditions,” said Mr Hill. 

Main image courtesy of the Barker family.