Mandy Nicholson (Wurundjeri, Dja Dja Wurrung and Ngurai Illam Wurrung)

Who are you and where do you come from?
Mandy Nicholson, born in Healesville in 1975 identify as Wurundjeri-wilam (Wurundjeri-baluk patriline) but also have Dja Dja wurrung, Ngurai illum wurrung, German and Irish heritage. I have 2 daughters aged 16 and 20 who I have raised as a single mother. I have been a practising visual artist for over 25 years, specialising in acrylic works. In the past I have also worked in ceramics, printmaking, children’s clothing, public art and collaborative works. 

I completed a BA (honours) in Indigenous Archaeology (minoring in Geology) in 2011 after working for many years as a field representative on archaeological surveys for the Wurundjeri Council. I then worked at the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages for 5 years where I learnt how to translate revival languages, with a focus on my mother tongue, Woiwurrung. I was the language specialist for the successful Woiwurrung language program at Thornbury Primary in 2012.

In 2017, I began my PhD at Deakin University on ‘Being on Country, Off Country’, researching ways that Aboriginal people remain connected even though they are physically not on their Country. I will complete this research next year which will be valuable to all Aboriginal people, as it is an Aboriginal person, writing about Aboriginal people, not simply another academic as Aboriginal people are the most researched people in the world.

Tell us what growing up was like for you?
I have fond memories of growing up in Healesville, having both my Aboriginal and German families around me growing up. I remember going to the countless Wurundjeri Council meetings and being able to catch up with all of my cousins, they were great memories. I am always connected to the mountains and fresh water of Healesville and I always feel my spirit is free when I go back there. I have many family connections to Healesville and Coranderrk. My 3rd great grandmother Annie Borate (Barak’s sister), her son Robert Wandoon, his daughter Jessie Jemima Terrick to my grandmother Martha (Dolly) Terrick who was born under one of the old pine trees at Coranderrk.

Due to my fathers work at Loy Yang in Gippsland, we moved to a small town called Boolarra. This is where my life changed. The school I went to was full of red necks and they were not open to any diversity and my brother and I were targeted every day, especially on the bus where there was no escape from the taunts. There were no other Aboriginal kids at the school, and I was a constant target as I had lighter skin than my brother. I didn’t enjoy high school at all but did make a couple of lifelong friends that made high school life bearable. The constant taunting made my go into a shell and I was a very shy, quiet teenager and didn’t open up about my Aboriginal heritage in fear of being taunted further. 

But, in 1994 my life changed again, I went to university and did a course called Koorie Studies which was only for Aboriginal students. This enabled me to be open to who I was and not shy away. This was because all the students and teachers were so supportive, and it made me look at things and myself in a completely different way. One turning point was when my first assignment was to write my life story, this is where I realised that I was so lucky to have always known who I was, and where I came from. There was nothing to shy away from, so I hit the ground running from that day forward, and researched as much as I could from books, Elders and family about my culture, and I haven’t stopped to this day. Finding out about my rich culture has filled a massive void in my life as I didn’t have the opportunity to learn about my culture much when I was a child as my father didn’t have the opportunity to learn it himself.

Who are the women that inspire you?
My mother is the woman that inspires me the most. She was from Germany, but she was blacker than some Aboriginal women I know. She was staunch and proud of her 6 children’s Aboriginality and supported it as much as she could.  I also was in awe of my grandmother’s sister Aunty Winnie Quagliotti (Narrandjerri) as she was also a staunch woman, with such a presence that no one dare disrespect her. I remember being intimidated by her, but when she spoke to me she was kind and funny trying to make me laugh. Wurundjeri women and Aboriginal women in general of the 60s, 70s and 80s is what I aspire to be like. They were alive when there was great cultural change and recognition, things were done, changes were made due to the hard work these women did for Wurundjeri, and others. Aunty Winnie for example, helped start up the Wurundjeri Council, housing and health organisations for Aboriginal people and young ones. I see our young women with this same passion and drive.

My daughters Dharna Nicholson-Bux (20) and Ky-ya Nicholson-Ward (16) are also one of my main inspirations, they proudly share their culture through song, dance, ceremony and cross-cultural activities. They have no barriers to prevent them from shining as I did. They both have that fire in their belly to raise awareness of the richness of Wurundjeri culture and they act as mentors to the younger girls, it’s an amazing, emotional thing to observe, I am very proud of them.

I visualise all of these women, young, old and no longer physically with us as strong pillars supporting their Wurundjeri family. They all have the spirit within them from women before them. I have always had strong women around me growing up, and that is what I am doing for my daughters and nieces today, so they can say the same thing when they are adults, that they had strong women surrounding them throughout their lives. 

What does self-determination mean to you?
This phrase makes many eyes glaze over as people have become immune to what its true meaning is. The same goes for ‘discrimination’, ‘land rights’, ‘sovereignty’ and ‘treaty.’ These all mean so much to me, but to others it is just ‘another thing that Aboriginal people want.’ All of these ‘terms’ have been overused, not at the fault of the users, but to the ears of the listeners. They no longer ‘hear’ its message. 

Self-determination to me is simply about being Aboriginal. I have always been Aboriginal, but society around me has tried to tell me that I’m not, it tries to dictate to me what and how I should identify. An example of this is where we are only ‘allowed’ to celebrate ‘everyone being Australian together’, but not our survival. It tries to tell me that my spiritual connection to Country is somewhat less authentic if I live in the city. They think that my Aboriginality stops at the city limits. As a Traditional Custodian of Narrm (Melbourne), I don’t see the buildings of the concrete, I see what’s beneath, I see the layers of Wurundjeri Country that form part of both my physical and spiritual body. These 6 layers are all interconnected and rely on each other to survive, just like Aboriginal people cannot thrive on their own, they need family, community and culture.

These 6 layers include:

  • Biik-ut (Below Country): This is where we collect ochre to paint our bodies for ceremony and dance, it is also where the roots of plants bind it together.
  • Biik-dui (On Country): Is where the plants grow that we utilise for food or implements, it is where we walk, dance and perform ceremony.
  • Baanj Biik (Water Country): Is where life is sustained, represents cultural survival and renewal.
  • Murnmut Biik (Wind Country): Where we speak and sing in language that the wind carries endlessly.
  • Wurru Wurru Biik (Sky Country): Where we see the physical forms of our Creation Beings like Bunjil and Waa that watch over us.
  • Tharangalk Biik: (Bunjils’ home): Meaning the Forest Country above the clouds, a reflection of what is below. Shows that all layers are connected and if flipped are the same.
  • Baanjmin and binbeal (rain and rainbow) act as connectors of all layers of Wurundjeri Country.  

I can still feel the wind, see the earth, water, sky and stars, but I cannot see the buildings and concrete.

Aboriginal culture in Victoria has suffered so much, but it is not ‘lost’ or ‘dead’, it has been sleeping and it is our time to wake it up, it is our responsibility. We are the ones who need to make our culture relevant and present in the cityscape. Have public ceremonies and dances, but most importantly have private ceremony and dance as this is what being Aboriginal is all about, living in two worlds, but making sure our communities have a firm foundation to work from. Life may get tough and your journey may waver, but culture is always there to fall back on and remind you who you are, and that Aboriginal people have a place in these two worlds. This includes educating those who think they know Aboriginal people, to those who try and speak for us, to those who are ignorant (know but choose to ignore).

What does NAIDOC Week mean to you?
NAIDOC is well known, but how many people actually know what the acronym means and the true history behind it.  I think of NAIDOC as something that our people have fought for, our trailblazers and leaders before us. It is a celebration of this fight, it represents resilience. There has been a surge of interest from the non-Indigenous community in NAIDOC over the past years, where people ‘want’ to know, and be part of Aboriginal culture in Narrm (Melbourne). This is shown by comparing the numbers of participants for Invasion/Survival Day marches and events as opposed to ‘Australia Day’. These events are all connected to the reason why Aboriginal culture is present today, those before us began the fight and we will continue to make sure culture is not seen as something to be avoided as the Other, or looked on as something only from the past, our culture is not a relic, is it dynamic and alive and something to be treasured by all.

Can you please tell us about the work you do in Community?
My family is large and the majority of them are female. I have 3 sisters, 2 daughters and so many aunties that I cannot number. They have all inspired me to work and support young girls as I don’t want any of them to not have the opportunity to learn culture. I don’t want any them to say they don’t know their culture, history, language, ceremony, song or dance.

Throughout my years of research, I came a across a ceremony for young Wurundjeri girls called ‘Murrum Turrukurruk’, meaning Murrum/Murrum =body; Turru/Turruk/Toorak=reeds; and kurruk/grook=suffix meaning female.  It is a whole of community ceremony where young girls are put through to welcome them as women, while the young men of the community promise to protect them like brothers throughout their lives. This ceremony has been sleeping for over 180 years, we woke it up 5 years ago by putting through 20 young Wurundjeri girls and a some from other areas that don’t have access to this kind of ceremony. They were taught how to collect ochre to paint their bodies, and reeds for their necklaces. They were also presented with a possum skin belt to be worn when they dance or at ceremonies. They were taught how to be respectful, staunch young black women. If they chose to do something against what they have been taught, their belts are taken from them and they have to earn them back. It’s all about teaching them to respect themselves and culture as the same thing, if they disrespect themselves, they disrespect culture. Two of my Elders, Aunty Diane Kerr and Aunty Irene Morris also put me through the ceremony as I had no opportunity when I was a teenager.

I don’t only work with my community, I assist young girls in need of culture who are in care. One way that I do is getting them to dance in our dance group. Djirri Djirri dance group formed in 2013, after many of dancers started dancing around 2 years of age. If older girls want to dance in our dance group, they have to have gone through the Murrum Turrukurruk ceremony, and if they have gone down the wrong path they can no longer dance with us until they prove that they have changed. This is so important for our young women as it teaches them they there are consequences for bad behaviour, but that bad behaviour is not part of culture and doesn’t represent them as staunch, powerful, cultural women. 

The Djirri Djirri dance group has also enabled some of the young women to have a renewed sense of pride in their Aboriginal identity. They now have the cultural confidence to answer those ‘Aboriginal’ questions at their schools that they can be confronted with, like ‘You don’t look Aboriginal’, or ‘There’s no Aboriginal people here anymore’ etc etc.

What future would you hope for young Aboriginal women?
I see a bright future for our young woman as they are not sitting down and taking whatever negativity comes their way as I did, they are embracing it and turning it around into something positive. I tell the girls, when they get racially attacked then fight back with intelligence, don’t stoop to their unintelligent level, you will always end up on top as you have firm cultural foundations that no one can fracture, unless you let them….so don’t let them!

Many young ones that I work with have told me that there was always something missing in their lives, they always knew who they were, but…this sounds very familiar, so I am making sure that I stop the effects of transgenerational trauma in our young women, as I am proud to say that they are learning their language, culture, ceremony and dance…..because of her we can, because of me they can!

It is very hard for me to say ‘because of me’ as I live by principles that don’t allow me to want glory, as culture is not about putting someone on a pedestal, it is a whole of community movement, with a couple of community leaders driving it, sometimes only one person, but one person can make a difference.


Further Reading

Mandy Nicholson: The Matriarchs in my life (written by Georgia Capocchi-Hunter)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website may contain images, voices or names of deceased persons in photographs, film, audio recordings or printed material. To listen to our Acknowledgement of Country, click here.