Mandy, your talks, songs and performances are have been so influential and inspiring for those who have witnessed your work. Would you mind telling us a bit about your background, your family and Country?Mandy Nicholson
My background includes German on my mum’s side, Irish on my grandfather’s side and Aboriginal on my father’s side. I am a Wurundjeri woman and also have connections with two other Aboriginal Language Groups being Dja Dja Wurrung and Ngurai Illum Wurrung. All three are Victorian, and if I go even further back, I have other connections to other Victorian groups. I grew up On Country in Healesville then moved Off Country for many years and now have returned and live in the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne. My Wurundjeri traditional homelands include the Birrarung (Yarra) watershed taking in the Yarra Valley, all the way to Narrm (Melbourne). They are bordered on the north by the Great Dividing Range, by the Werribee River to the west, Gardiners Creek to the south and Mount Baw Baw to the east.DZ
As a Traditional Custodian of Narrm, could you tell us more about the layers of Wurundjeri Country and their meaning for you?MN
As a Traditional Custodian of the Greater Melbourne area, I do not see the buildings or the concrete: I see what is beneath, in and above. The six layers of Wurundjeri Country include the Biik-ut (Below Country) where we get our ochre from to decorate our bodies for ceremony and dance. The second layer is Biik-dui (On Country) where we walk, dance and conduct ceremony, this layer we can physically see but we can also feel its spirituality. The third layer is Baanj Biik (Water Country), which sustains all life, all the rivers, creeks, raindrops, mist and dew are included in this layer. Water forms part of a Welcome Ceremony, as guests are invited to drink water from Country out of a wooden bowl called a tarnuk, to symbolise that resources are safe while the visitor is on Country. The fourth layer is Murnmut Biik (Wind Country), this layer is important as it allows the smoke from Welcoming fires, and the language you speak and sing, to transcend up to Bunjil. The wind allows your ngulu (Voice), and the healing properties found in the eucalyptus oil released when smoking them, to embed into all layers. The fifth layer is Wurru wurru Biik (Sky Country), this is where the physical form of our Spirit Protectors and Creator can be seen. Our Creator is Bunjil the Eagle and Waa the Raven, his helper. The final sixth layer is Tharangalk Biik (Forest Country above the clouds) and is Bunjil’s home. Bunjil is surrounded by his helpers and two wives, the Gunuwarra (Black Swans). The Gunuwarra can still be seen in the artificial lights of the city, you just need to look up!DZ
Amongst the violence of colonisation and its continuing attempts at cultural erasure, you’ve powerfully stated that Aboriginal culture has not been ‘lost’ but is ‘sleeping’. You’ve mentioned how many of the terms that circulate today in relation to Indigenous self-determination — such as ‘discrimination’, ‘land rights’, ‘sovereignty’ and ‘treaty’ mean a lot to you but, as you’ve previously stated, are words that are ‘overused, not at the fault of users, but to the ears of the listeners’, whom you say consequently may ‘no longer “hear” its message’. Can you expand upon these thoughts with regards to the act of listening, for you, and the role of sound for waking up culture?MN
I think all of the above terms have been used for so long, and rightfully, as we are still fighting for the same things that our grandparents and great-grandparents did. However, the wider community have definitely become desensitised by such statements, which become an annoyance for them, and this is supported by the media only portraying negative things about Aboriginal people. I think that this can change by referring to Aboriginal people and culture in present tense, not past tense all the time. This is also our responsibility to make culture relevant and present for all, especially in an urban environment.
If something is dead it will never recover, but if something is asleep you can always wake it up. With ancient languages and cultures, there are ways of learning and teaching that are far from the colonial mindset of intelligence, learning and teaching. Oral learning is the only way to learn, and being out On Country is another. None of this can be learnt from a book or course. I knew this and made sure, in terms of language, that I gained the tools so I could teach others in my mob. I worked at VACL (Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages) for six years and being able to apply grammar to my language enabled me to express my language in context rather that only having a wordlist. This then enabled me to create songs for my dance group Djirri Djirri. This is a new way to get our culture out there in a positive and powerful way as no-one can challenge song and dance, like they challenge land rights, treaty, and sovereignty.
Hearing Indigenous language is very therapeutic as there are sounds made that do not exist in English. It is very tricky to learn yourself because you have to have conversations with yourself to create context. But when you put it into a song and have others singing with you, the feeling is amazing — your ears have never heard these sounds and when they are sung powerfully, your body gets chills. The healing properties of sounds are also powerful, for example, the Yidarki is well known for therapeutic purposes.DZ
As someone who learned how to translate revival languages with a focus on your mother tongue, Woiwurrung, you have been a highly respected language specialist and educator for many years. Do you mind explaining the relationship between Wurundjeri and Woiwurrung?MN
There are five language groups within the central and eastern Kulin Nation. They include Wurundjeri (Woiwurrung), Boon wurrung, Daung wurrung, Dja Dja wurrung, and Wadawurrung. As you can see they all end in the word wurrung which means mouth or language, so we are connected through our languages. Wurundjeri are the only group who call ourselves an umbrella term of Wurundjeri, as this was the only Woiwurrung speaking clan group that survived invasion out of the five Woiwurrung speaking clans. The further that you go geographically, the less in common languages and cultures are. Aboriginal Australia is a multicultural Australia, as each mob has different beliefs and customs and this is reinforced by such variances in language.DZ
You’ve been researching the ways in which Aboriginal people remain connected even when they are physically not on their Country. How do you listen, On and Off Country?MN
One important bird that we dance about is the Bulb Buln, the Lyrebird. He is the master of listening and mimicry. Our culture is the same, our dances mimic the animals, not just by watching them, but listening to them. Even if I am in the loudest environment, I will stop in my tracks when I hear the calls of birds that we are connected to. My ears are culturally attuned to their sounds, as though they are speaking to me, and I hear them above all other sounds. So, it doesn't matter if I am On or Off Country, my ears are constantly listening out for our spiritual messengers. My daughters also have these cultural ears as we often hear them at the exact same time.DZ
As there’s such shared and personal pleasures and strengths associated with expressing language, would you like to share some words in language that connect and mean a lot to you?MN
Wominjeka is commonly translated as ‘welcome’, but it has three parts: womin means to come, dji is a word-ending instructing you to come and ka is purpose. My favourite line to one of our songs is ‘Wirrigirri-al Murrup-u’ meaning ‘spirit’s messenger’, with the literal translation of Wirrigirri being ‘messenger-of’ and Murrup meaning ‘spirit’, which relates to Djirri Djirri the Willy Wagtail. Another one of my favourite words is Twaganin, which means ‘go-you’, so there’s no word for ‘goodbye’.
Photos: Keelan O’Hehir
Mandy Nicholson is a Wurundjeri-willam (Wurundjeri-baluk patriline) artist and Traditional Custodian of Melbourne and surrounds. Mandy also has connections to the Dja Dja wurrung and Ngurai illam wurrung language groups of the Central/Eastern Kulin Nation. Mandy gained a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Aboriginal Archaeology in 2011, worked for the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages for six years and is now a PhD candidate studying how Aboriginal people connect to Country, Off Country.
Danni Zuvela is a curator and writer based in Melbourne and the Gold Coast. Her research is informed by interests in feminism, activism, ecology, language and performance. With Joel Stern, Danni has led Liquid Architecture as Artistic Director, and continues to develop curatorial projects for the organisation.