Truth-telling Muruwari Way: Inside the tape archive of Jimmie Barker (1900-1972)

Photo: Courtesy of the Barker family.

Muruwari man Jimmie Barker’s acquisition of a tape recorder in the 1960s was a natural extension of his life-long journey with sound recording. Forty years earlier, 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. Aware of the exciting possibilities opened by electronic recording, Barker began work on a tape archive that by the time of his death in 1972 had reached monumental proportions. Barker’s 113 hours of recordings are arguably the most significant example of an ethnography created from within the Aboriginal world. Memoir and reflection, traditional Muruwari language, cultural practices, songs and Dreaming stories, accounts of massacre and other contact experience, are set amidst gut-wrenching descriptions of how the Aboriginal population was institutionalised and exploited. Underlying this deeply political project was Barker’s desire to create a ‘tape dictionary’ of Muruwari, the language bounded by the Culgoa and Paroo Rivers. Roy Barker Jr (the grandson of Jimmie) joined ANU in 2021 to lead a research project on the recordings. He aims to make them publicly available through an online portal and to further the rehabilitation of Muruwari by developing the idea of a talking dictionary. This presentation will provide a journey through the Barker archive, examining how Jimmie Barker’s work as a sound recordist provides a model for the kind of historical truth-telling called for by the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Roy Barker Jr is proudly Muruwari with over 30 years’ experience promoting, celebrating, and managing Aboriginal cultural heritage throughout NSW. Growing up in Brewarrina he has a deep understanding of Muruwari cultural heritage and knowledge systems. 

Barton Staggs has, on behalf of AIATSIS, worked closely with Roy Barker on a range of projects related to his granfather Jimmie Barker’s sound recordings. Projects include: a reattribution project to restore naming and Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property rights of Jimmie’s recordings to the Barker family; the Ngulla Wellamunagaa exhibition at the National Museum of Australia; and the Alice Moyle Memorial lecture for the 2019 ASRA conference.

Martin Thomas is a writer, documentary maker, and professor of history at ANU. In the early 2000s he made award-winning radio programs, based on the Barker recordings and interviews with Roy Barker Sr and Mary Harris (both children of Jimmie).

This research is a collaboration between ANU and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. At ANU the project is supported by the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language, the School of History, the School of Music, and the School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics. We thanks the Indigenous Language and Arts program of the Federal Government for financial support.

Join Zoom Meeting

Meeting ID: 891 5045 3744 Password: 037308

Date & time

Wed 28 Sep 2022, 4.15–5.30pm


RSSS Auditorium, Ground Floor (Level 1), RSSS Building, ANU, 146 Ellery Crescent, Acton, ACT 2601, and Online


Roy Barker Jr
Martin Thomas


School of History


Filip Slaveski


Updated:  28 September 2022/Responsible Officer:  Head of School/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications