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Duck decoys return home to River Murray community after decades in US

Three carefully-painted duck decoys, designed for use in hunting by the First Peoples of the River Murray and Mallee community in South Australia, have today returned home after a long absence, including more than 50 years in the United States of America.

Research by AIATSIS has established that the decoys were created by Robert Joseph Tarby Mason, known as ‘Old Joey’ or ‘Uncle Tarby’, of the Nganguruku and Ngarkat language groups. He lived alongside the River Murray at or near Waikerie and was well known for this kind of work.

Constructed from fabric, probably canvas, and stuffed with unknown material to give them their shape, the decoys were painted with natural pigments and then sealed. The bottom of each duck appears have a thin disc of wood, coated in resin. Additionally, there is a single eye in the base of each that secures an iron weight via a string.

In the 1940s local publican Donald Keith Cook purchased the three ducks and eventually passed them to his daughter, Jenifer Cook, who now lives in New York. Ms Cook, who initiated this return, recalls travelling with her father to purchase the decoys from ‘Old Joey’ and hearing him speak of his ‘secret recipe’ for creating the pigments used.

AIATSIS received the decoys in November 2021 from the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia, which had held them under a temporary loan agreement with Ms Cook. An extensive research effort by the AIATSIS Return of Cultural Heritage team led to the identification of the creator and the community to which he belonged.

Through research the maker of these three duck decoys could be identified. Returned from a private collector in the USA. Photo: D Walding, AIATSIS.

Today’s return event in Berri was organised by the River Murray and Mallee Aboriginal Corporation (RMMAC) with assistance from South Australia Native Title Services and AIATSIS. Community representatives and local figures gathered to celebrate the handover and return.

‘River Murray and Mallee Aboriginal Corporation welcome the return of significant cultural heritage artefacts to the First Peoples of the River Murray and Mallee,’ RMMAC said on behalf of the community. ‘It has been a long and exciting journey waiting for the ducks to migrate back home. Returning from overseas is significant and their story is an opportunity to share cultural knowledge to the wider community.’

From her office in Canberra the Hon Linda Burney MP, Minister for Indigenous Australians, noted the significance of the return.

‘I commend AIATSIS for the work it has undertaken with the donor Jenifer Cook and the University of Virginia, USA to secure the return of these objects,’ Minister Burney said. ‘These little decoy ducks tell a fascinating story of Indigenous hunting practices in the River Murray and Mallee Regions of South Australia. The return after more than 50 years will support the transfer of cultural knowledge for future generations.’

Members of the River Murray and Mallee community with AIATSIS staff during research that led to the return of the duck decoys

AIATSIS Deputy CEO Leonard Hill and community members at the return ceremony. Photo: Jannette Fulham, Riverland Commercial Photography.

Members of the River Murray and Mallee community at the return ceremony. Photo: Jannette Fulham, Riverland Commercial Photography.

The CEO of SA Native Title Services, Keith Thomas, said:

'The repatriation of the decoy ducks to the First Peoples of the River Murray and Mallee is a wonderful expression, which recognises the importance of returning Aboriginal cultural artefacts to Aboriginal people.'

The AIATSIS CEO, Craig Ritchie, noted that research into the provenance of the duck decoys had provided the opportunity to learn much more about the cultural history of this section of the river.

‘Community Elders shared with the AIATSIS team stories about how their ancestors found sustenance along the river,’

Mr Ritchie said. ‘The decoys are based on Pacific Black Ducks, which are very common in the area. 

‘Elders spoke about their memories of “Uncle Tarby”, who was born in the early 1900s at Manunka Mission on the banks of the River Murray and died in 1974. He is remembered as a man who enjoyed talking and sharing information about his culture and people.

‘These decoys are practical, everyday tools. But they also record local history and the culture behind that history. The return of these decoys to Country is a very practical measure for fulfilling the AIATSIS purpose in strengthening and promoting knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and heritage.’

The three decoy ducks will be displayed in the RMMAC office in Berri.

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Last updated: 14 October 2022