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Aboriginal scar tree returned to country decades after it was taken to Melbourne Zoo

Uncle Henry Atkinson and Tuesday Browell are happy to see the tree returned to country. (ABC Central Victoria: Shannon Schubert)

A sacred Aboriginal artefact has been returned to Wollithiga country three decades after it was taken to Melbourne Zoo for protection and to be used as an educational tool. 

Scar trees are Indigenous relics that have had bark carved out to create items such as canoes, shelters, weapons or containers.

Wollithiga elder Uncle Henry Atkinson says scar trees have also been used as boundary markers or have had their wood used in burial ceremonies.

"Spirits are in everything, in everything we do," he said.

"The spirits of that tree is telling you stories of what I am, what that scar or canoe tree is.

"I can take you to places where there are scar trees of different kinds that tell a story."

Wollithiga elder Henry Atkinson says scar trees need to be protected. (ABC: Tim Purdie)

This particular tree is estimated to be more than 400 years old and its return to country was deeply emotional for Uncle Henry and the Wollithiga clan.

It will be erected on a Wollithiga burial ground where Uncle Henry's grandparents lie.

"For me, to know that something of the past has come back again ... it's finally back on country, among the spirits of the elders.

"Those spirits, once again, reconnect."

The Defence Force and Melbourne Zoo helped transport the tree to its new home. (ABC Central Victoria: Shannon Schubert)

Gathering dust in a storeroom

The tree was donated to Melbourne Zoo in the early 1990s by the family of a zookeeper who feared their property would be flooded out.

Used for several years as an education tool, it gathered dust in a storeroom after the zoo's education centre was demolished.

That is, until the zoo's educational officer, Simon Rawson, was alerted to its existence.

"I got in contact with some traditional owners and asked if they knew anyone up in Wollithiga country," Mr Rawson said.

"They put me in touch with Henry."

Working closely with the zoo, and aided by the Defence Force, Uncle Henry has returned the tree home.

One of 120 scar trees on Tuesday Browell's Torrumbarry property.  (ABC Central Victoria: Shannon Schubert)

Tree placed on protected property

The tree is being planted at a property at Torrumbarry, between Echuca and Cohuna, that is owned by Tuesday Browell.

She has long had a passion for looking after the land, with a conservation covenant on her property to protect endangered sandalwood trees that grow there.

It was one of the few spots the scar tree could be kept safe, Ms Browell said.

The tree is now at Tuesday Browell's property in northern Victoria. (ABC Rural: Tim Purdie)

"You can't just put it down in the bush on the river — it'll get annihilated, it will get chopped up as firewood or just rot.

"It will be just wonderful to have it standing proudly near that burial site."

More scar trees need protection

Mr Rawson said Melbourne Zoo would keep exploring ways to strengthen relationships with the Aboriginal community. 

"We recognise we've got a lot of opportunity to grow," he said.

"In the future, we hope to get better and better at reconciliation."

The Wollithiga people used the tree to make a canoe.  (ABC Central Victoria: Shannon Schubert)

Ms Browell said there were countless scar trees in need of protection.

"All over Australia, on every waterway, there's hundreds, thousands, if not more of these scar trees and they just sit there unattended, unadorned, unloved.

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