Brien Nelson is a Jaara Elder who has always remained faithful to his cultural responsibilities. He has been a leader on his own Dja Dja Wurrung country and in many other parts of Victoria and beyond.
Brien has played a significant part in building and rebuilding Aboriginal corporations, programs and employment strategies for the Dja Dja Wurrung, Kerrup Jmara, Gunditjmara, Mutthi Mutthi people and others. As a mentor and teacher, Brien rekindled Dja Dja Wurrung cultural and ceremonial practices, aiming to reconnect younger Aboriginal people with their culture and language, and to promote understanding between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. He has been a long-term leader of the reconciliation process.
Brien’s great-grandfather, Henry ‘Harmony’ Nelson, a Jaara man, was born at Majorca on Dja Dja Wurrung country in central Victoria in 1855. This was a time of great upheaval for the Jaara people as the discovery of gold in the region brought thousands of migrants to dig up the land. Henry was among the many Jaara people who were forced off their country. He was moved to the Coranderrk Reserve at Healesville and spent some time living at Framlingham Reserve in south-western Victoria, before settling on the lands of the Yorta Yorta in the 1880s.
Brien was born on the Goulburn River Flats at Mooroopna in northern Victoria in 1940, the year after residents of the Cummeragunja Mission in New South Wales had ‘walked off’ the mission in protest at the harsh conditions there. Many of those who took part in the walk-off settled on the river flats. Brien grew up in Shepparton, but later in his life, along with his family, returned to live on Dja Dja Wurrung country near the City of Bendigo.
Work with Parks Victoria
As an employee of the Parks Victoria branch of the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) for 17 years, Brien shared his skills and cultural knowledge in many different areas of Victoria, notably at Lake Condah in south-western Victoria and later, on his own country. In his work with Parks Victoria, Brien played a pioneering role in liaising with Aboriginal cultural groups, and with cross-cultural training for DSE employees. An important role was in helping to devise the DSE Indigenous Partnership Strategy and Action Plan, establishing cooperative land management arrangements between the department and Aboriginal communities. Brien acted as a mentor to new Aboriginal employees in DSE and represented DSE on the Victorian Heritage Strategy Committee.
Sharing knowledge of Aboriginal arts, ceremonies, land and culture
Brien actively shared his wealth of knowledge of Aboriginal arts, ceremonies, land and culture. Alongside his work with Parks Victoria, he acted as a mentor and teacher of young Aboriginal people in the central Victorian region, sharing knowledge of dance ceremonies to encourage pride in younger members of the community.
To preserve and pass on cultural knowledge Brian established Bunjil Park Aboriginal Education and Cultural Centre near Bendigo. The centre houses Brien’s extensive personal collection of artefacts, which he generously shared with visitors to enhance knowledge and appreciation of Aboriginal culture. Brien also established a cultural tourism enterprise — Songline Cultural Tours — in partnership with his youngest daughter, Justice Nelson, to further enhance understanding of Jaara culture and relationship with country.
Over many years Brien shared his knowledge with La Trobe University students, giving lectures about culture and country and making a number of short films in conjunction with university staff. In 2009, in recognition of these contributions, the university named him as an Honorary Emeritus Scholar. Brien played a pivotal role in ensuring that the Jaara history of the central goldfields region was acknowledged and understood in broader histories of the area. He also provided expert advice on the protection of Indigenous heritage during major projects, such as the duplication of the Calder Highway and the central Victorian water pipeline through Dja Dja Wurrung country.
Leading role in the reconciliation process in north central Victoria
Brien was involved in the movement towards achieving recognition of Dja Dja Wurrung land rights. He was instrumental in calling the first meeting of Dja Dja Wurrung descendants in 2000, at which the Jaara Jaara Loddon Aboriginal Corporation was born.
Brien has played a leading role in the reconciliation process in north central Victoria. He was a long-standing member of the City of Greater Bendigo’s Reconciliation Working Party and of the Castlemaine Reconciliation Group. Over the years, local government authorities have called upon him to perform countless Welcome to Country ceremonies at civic occasions and gatherings. Brien was even present to welcome the Dalai Lama to Bendigo in 2007. This was a prized moment in both of the respected leaders’ lives.
An unassuming and gentle man, Brien is held in high esteem by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities alike. Brien’s willingness to share knowledge of Aboriginal arts, culture and history, coupled with his warm and genuine nature, have not only made him a much-loved figure, but have helped to shape a more inclusive and united community in the central goldfields region.
Reviewed 26 September 2019