Symbolic Objects: the boomerang

This boomerang was once owned by Daisy Bates, and was acquired by her at Ooldea, south-east of the Spinifex Peoples‘ lands, some time in the years prior to 1935.

What makes this example distinctive is not so much its connection to Daisy Bates, but how it carries signs of a provenance of another kind. Each side has been carved in distinctively different styles, suggesting that it was owned, traded, and used by more than one desert-dwelling family long before it fell into Daisy Bates’ hands at Ooldea.

In a trade of a different kind, in 1938 Bates gave it to the Carr family in Adelaide, in return for favours rendered.

By contrast, this plastic boomerang was designed and manufactured by Frank Donnellan (“Champion Thrower”) and (apparently) marketed by Stephen Silady (“Champion”) in the 1960s.

Here is Frank giving a demonstration at the Australian Pavilion of Montreal’s Expo ’67. (Life photo: Bob Gomel).

Neither Frank nor Steve was of Aboriginal descent.

If you search for more about Frank Donnellan, you’ll find “Moves to Boost Boomerang Throwing (But Do Aborigines Care?)” in Dawn (“A Magazine for the Aboriginal People of New South Wales”, published by the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board). In this article it becomes apparent that by the 1960s the “sport” of boomerang throwing was no longer an Aboriginal affair. Despite his best efforts (and challenges to famous Aboriginal boomerang makers) Frank could not get the Indigenous spectators to participate in his displays. Steve was already the champion.

Notwithstanding its non-Indigenous origins, the plastic boomerang carries a printed caricature of a “traditional” blackfella.

On the other side, one finds an official “Australian Made” label – complete with its own boomerang trademark – plus the moulded brand name (Derwent Plastics, the Silady family company) and the printed label which confirms its provenance, all of which contribute to a very particular cultural significance.

Material culture provides us with such clues to historical realities that would otherwise be lost to our cultural consciousness. Given that it was designed to be thrown away, how remarkable is it that this (injection-moulded) boomerang has survived intact?

By contrast, in the case of the artefact from Ooldea, I can’t tell you the maker’s name, nor am I able interpret the symbolic value of the complex imagery on either side. The plastic boomerang conveys more mundane messages about its origins. However we can but marvel that both artefacts have survived to the 21st century with this much of their provenance intact.


#1 ampersand duck on 02.27.10 at 7:29 pm

awesome. I love this post.

#2 Nigel F on 03.02.10 at 6:02 am

There’s nothing more sad than a plastic boomerang.

#3 HB on 03.29.10 at 3:43 pm

Well Nigel F at least it’s marbled. Perhaps the engraving on the “Daisy Bates” boomer was mundane within it’s time. Exotic to us through time.

#4 Brian on 02.23.16 at 10:47 pm

Frank was my boomerang making & throwing teacher, 1958-1969. He died in March ’69. I was sponsored by the Australian Gov. to carry on his legacy by demonstrating boomerang throwing at Expo 70 Osaka Japan. In 1974 I visited Vancouver & Fiji, to teach boomerang throwing to occupational therapists. They could include the sport in their therapy sessions, providing people in wheelchairs with alternative physical & mental stimulation. When you take the time to study the making of a boomerang, you’ll be familiarising yourself with the scientific studies of aerodynamics, physics, metrology. A knowledge of modern woods, lightweight & dense allow you to create your own styles. I’ll be celebrating 58 years as a boomerang maker & thrower when I appear at Dubai Expo 2020 & naturally 50 years since Osaka Expo 70.
I still have my original plastic boomerangs, because I always threw them correctly. If this memo about some of my 58 years experience helps someone revisit learning more about boomerangs & having a go at throwing them properly, good on you. Even as a bullied white kid (being called dark names)
I never forgot how Frank, promised me my efforts would be appreciated by people from anywhere in the world.
May good things RETURN to you.

#5 Julie on 02.21.17 at 4:17 pm

Hi Brian ,This is Julie Franks granddaughter just read what you have been upto over the years with boomerangs and very pleased . Poppy would be happy you are still involved .

#6 Brian Shattell on 02.22.17 at 10:02 am

Hi Julie,
Lovely surprise to hear from you.
Will be happy to chat more. Use my email
Best wishes

#7 Neil Kalmanson on 12.07.17 at 10:17 am

Julie and Brian –
Just thought you would like to know that I was just out this afternoon tossing the two Donnellans that I won in Ted Bailey’s boomerang auction. The name Donnellan is a legend in the boomerang community, and throwing one of his “plastic” boomerang has a lot of history riding on it!

#8 Brian Shattell on 12.08.17 at 11:36 am

Thanks for your reply message about Frank’s boomerangs.
I’ll let Julie know, she’ll be pleased. 2018 Sydney, 2020 Dubai, 2020 Tokyo, 2025 Tokyo are future international sports rehabilitation events, EXPO’s & Olympics I’m planning to introduce Frank’s plastic boomerangs in. Frank would be pleased you’ve have the privilege to own & throw his competition plastic boomerang. Good on you & enjoy your boomerang bringing pleasure back to you. Together we’ll keep Frank’s boomerang history alive.
Thanks, Brian (Julie)

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