Dr Mandy Nicholson

Dr Mandy Nicholson is a Wurundjeri Traditional Custodian, multidisciplinary artist, and educator, currently designing an Architecture course at University of Melbourne and undertaking a Fellowship through State Library of Victoria investigating Wurundjeri women’s culture. She recently completed her PhD (2023) researching how Aboriginal people connect to Country, off Country.

About Dr Mandy Nicholson

Dr Mandy Nicholson was born in Healesville, as a Wurundjeri-willam (Wurundjeri-baluk patriline) 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 on her father’s side, and German on her mother’s.


A multidisciplinary artist drawing upon traditional motifs of south-eastern Australia, blended with her own contemporary interpretation, Mandy is currently designing an Architecture course integrating Indigenous perspectives at University of Melbourne and undertaking a Fellowship through State Library of Victoria investigating Wurundjeri women’s culture through the archives.


She gained a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Aboriginal Archaeology in 2011, worked for the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages for 6 years and completed her PhD in 2023, researching how Aboriginal people connect to Country, off Country. She is also a cultural mentor to young Indigenous girls, an educator and advocate for culture, language, dance and ceremony, and the leader of Djirri Djirri Wurundjeri women’s dance group.

Video Transcript

How would you like to introduce yourself and your background leading to your current research?

So my name is Mandy Nicholson. I’m a Wurundjeri woman and I also have connections to the Dja Dja wurrung and Ngurai Illam wurrung language groups of Victoria, and German on my mum’s side. So in terms of where I’m at and who I am and how I fit into the world is that I’ve had a lot of trailblazers before me. I’ve had a lot of matriarchs before me that have paved the way to make it a lot easier for me to express my identity freely. When I was at school it wasn’t a nice place until I went and did a university course at Monash in Churchill – it was called Koorie Studies and it literally enabled me to study my culture, to express my identity, to really highlight who I was without fear and it was something that I hadn’t been able to do outside of my home and family circle my whole life. So that was when I was 18 and from there I there it was like a crossroad and something that really got me out of this hiding away is that one it was full of either blackfella teachers and students but also teachers that had worked with blackfellas for many years, so it was like a really good safe vibe and the first assignment that I did was a biography of my life and I wrote about my blood connections, my land, my different language group connections and how I knew them all and from that moment it’s like ‘What am I hiding from?’ Like I did the hiding because I was a a very insecure teenager and I didn’t want to be different to anyone else so that’s the reason I hid from being different but then when I wrote that biography it’s like I know exactly where I’m from I know my bloodline – I can go way way way back and they’re all proud people, proud generations, proud women. And it inspired me to get out there and research as much as I could about my culture, learn as much as I could from my elders so I lived off country in my teens but moved back on Country uh when I was in my early 20s so that enabled me to really reconnect with my family because living on and off country is very different – where I had a loving beautiful home and family and wider family which I I didn’t see that often, but outside of that bubble it was not safe uh to be who I was. So when I was back on Country I had all this beautiful connection and support from Mob and it enabled me to just hit the ground running and from that moment I started working in Aboriginal organisations. My first real proper cultural job was at Galina Beek Living Cultural Centre in Healesville, which is uh I think it’s called Nganga Ngala now, so they’re revamping it, redoing it, but that gave me my cultural footing and I started being a receptionist there but then I became the… I think like I had many titles: the tour guide, the cultural educator, the mentor and it eventually all those base skills have led me to where I am now, where I end up in this journey. I had two daughters and now I’m a grandmother so it’s that’s my my life’s journey is to create that same pathway for these next generations coming up so I’ve always worked in Blak orgs and uh I went and finished my archaeology degree in 2011 and then I handed my last essay in and I found this ad somewhere that said there’s a job going at the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages so I jumped into that and from there was another pivotal point because it it drove me in the direction of something that’s been missing in my life it was a big dark void that I I needed to fill and I did that when I was younger I filled my identity but to fill that dark hole the thing that was missing was language so I didn’t know any of my language – we knew a few cheeky words here or there – but language being able to go to uh VACCA for 6 years understand and unpack language work out the grammar pronunciation enabled me to start translating nursery rhymes and things like that uh so I can translate stories and things like that uh I can talk a little bit of language but it also enabled me to create cultural songs and chants for Djirri Djirri dance group. So we started as a collective uh back in 2013, so 10 years old this year and we started with maybe about six girls, like daughters and nieces, and it’s grown to about 15 women and about six or seven little kids and we’re a cultural support network rather than just a dance group. We really make sure that we’re friends as well as blood connections – we’re all family but we also connect in many other ways and one of them is through ceremony, so you’ll see we’re a little bit different to other dance groups you may have seen. We wear a particular style. So our style of paint up represents the little Willie Wagtail on our face and the red necklaces we wear as an honour or a homage to the necklaces that were, that used to be made and worn by men and women. So we make our own reeds, uh necklaces, and we get the girls to go through ceremony called Murrum Turrukuruk. So murrum means body, turu is the reeds that we have in our necklaces and kuruk is the female suffix. So they get their belts – we teach them how to make those belts, we teach them about cultural law and respect and things like that. So cultural Law in terms of young women, we just say it’s respect for Country, respect for others, respect most importantly for self, for body and we give them we teach them how to make their possum skin belt. So if they think they don’t want that lifestyle and they go down the wrong path we take the belt from them and have to earn it back so it’s about creating cultural foundations for our young girls. So after 185 years of it not happening we reclaimed it back in 2015 with about 20 girls going through, and I went through with two senior elders and my girls, uh my nieces and and a few of my cousins, and also girls from other language groups that came in that I’ve known their mothers for years they didn’t have access. So we continue to do that every year – we’ve just done it in the past weekend we uh had a couple of babies as well and we had um one of my cousins daughters that has watched all of her aunties and cousins go through and it was her turn this year.

Can you tell us about the focus of your research fellowship at SLV?

Well, I’ve got a research fellowship at the State Library of Victoria that started in 2019 but Covid uh put a pause to that, so I’m just in the the makings of getting it up and going again and it’s really focused around gender around gendered stars, around how language connects uh different elements and things um from that female perspective. Like there are gendered stars like the stars, the evening star for example Marbinguruk – there’s that word ending that means female, so looking at the stars the planets and things like that and how it connects to Wurundjeri women. That’s my focus here but also how there might be resources that uh shine a light a little bit more on Wurundjeri or Woiwurrung women’s song because there’s not much resources around women or Wurundjeri women’s culture – dance, ceremony and gendered language. Unless you sort of get your head around the language and understand that that guruk is found on different words – oh, that’s that’s feminine, that’s masculine and and work it out that way, so that’s my focus here at the State Library.

And how do you think the stars connect to Wurundjeri women?
I think the connection with the gendered Stars is and even when you think of the Moon as well the the main ceremonies happened when the full moon was out so when you see different uh constellations in the Milky Way, for example like you know at the moment in the northern Milky Way – not so much now – it’s sort of dipping under the horizon but you can see Bunjil [the wedge-tailed eagle] up there and you can see all these different animals connected up there and it tells you the seasonal patterns when to collect and gather food, when to, when the Emu are laying and things like that. So with the women’s uh star that’s what I really wanted to focus on that evening star to work out why exactly that star is referred to as a feminine star.

What motivated doing your PhD?

I went to America with my brother Bill – he got a Churchill Fellowship back in 2017 and I said to him if you’re going you’re not going without us! So we went, we tagged along with him and his theme was cultural tourism. The first place that we stopped was Hawaii and there was a school up on the hill and it was a massive private billion dollar school – perfect, beautiful, lots of money you can see went into it but the humble beginnings of that school were a Hawaiian lady and her husband. I think he may have been English or American I can’t remember but she saw her culture and language dying so she started the Hawaiian School and it grew from about 30 students up until like this one of the world’s richest kind of public schools that fund a lot of different programs around the place and the teacher that we met there, she goes, we can’t fight the system from the outside, you need to fight it from the inside – we’ve all got PhDs. And before I left I found an article inviting people to apply for a PhD. I said oh no, it wasn’t really… but it was in the back of my mind until I talked to that teacher and I said I’ve made my mind up I really want to do it now, so I came back – it expired the link had expired and all that so I just rang them and they said yeah it’s still open, so I thought if I want to make true change, because I do a lot of stuff outside of academia that I believe are making a lot of change with our young girls and things like that, but I wanted to make change in the institutions – the colonial institutions – and I thought no better way than to do that. So just this morning I received an email saying that my two reviewers have handed in their reports so… officially Dr Mandy, but it isn’t about that title it’s about… It also is about being heard. When you’ve got that little Dr in the front of your name uh people start to listen a bit more and it isn’t about becoming or assimilating into that colonial structure of institutions; it’s about breaking those barriers and really taking down those colonial structures of invasion and making sure that the right information, the cultural information is embedded right from the very beginning. And what I mean by that, like I’m writing a course for third year architecture students at Melbourne Uni at the moment and it’s all about getting them out of the classroom, taking them outside, teaching them about simple things like – well it’s not simple, it’s it’s really major but it’s something that’s often overlooked what’s the difference between a welcome and acknowledgement, what does it truly mean, uh how do you design on Country, how do you look at Country, how do you how do you kind of in an urban environment, how do you keep your culture alive and make sure that culture continues? And the way that I kind of say that everyone can do, is you zone out of all that mad noise that’s happening around you – all the trams and the yelling and the horns – and you focus on the important sounds so the important sound could be a little Dundun or a Rainbow Lorikeet flying across, and at the moment they’re going crazy in the city uh finding partners and nests and things like that. So even at home I’ll be having three TVs on and my niece will have music on and I can still hear that black cocky or that carrawong in the far distance because you tune your listening into nature. And another way that you can connect to Country, and anyone can, is remember Country by standing out in the wind closing your eyes, stopping and taking a breath and really feeling that wind in your hair taking your shoes off walking in the grass. Making sure you grab the little things and look at them like a little baby does – you grab a gum leaf and you look at the veins in the leaf then you compare those veins in the leaf to the veins in your arm then on the bigger picture you look at that and how it compares to the rivers over Country look like veins so that the veins of Country are the veins of blood in your body into the veins of the plants, and then you can take that even further is you crush that leaf and you smell it, so you’re smelling Country. So there’s all these different ways that everyone can connect but there are spiritual ways that we as Wurundjeri and First Nations people around the world in different variations of this, and we’ve got six identical uh like fundamental elements of country. So we’ve got Biik Ut is the Below Country where we get the ochre for our celebrations and dances. But we wear it in different ways so when the girls go through ceremony they wear it differently, we still trade it, we uh wear it when somebody’s passed away, when we’re going through sorry business we wear it differently again. So it’s all about how plants and trees also the roots go into the ground so it’s a life sustaining layer the Below Country and then we’ve got Biik-Du the On Country, where we balance our spiritual lives and our day-to-day lives making sure that this one doesn’t doesn’t outweigh this one because when we’re busy in life this one can sometimes be down here but then with this one we’ve got to make sure we don’t get that uh cultural burnout as well by giving too much we’ve got to self-care a bit more. I say that to myself – I don’t do it but I’ve got to do it more. And then we’ve got Baanj Biik which is Water Country so water forms part of our Welcomes where we get people to drink water from Country so everything’s safe while visiting. But we can’t do it anymore – rivers not healthy, uh then it’s in all different layers as well – it’s in the ocean, it’s in rain, it’s in water vapour in space (we don’t often really think about that one) but it’s in everything and then we’ve got Murnmut Biik which is Wind Country so wind blows the smoke from our welcoming fires but also carries our wurru, our voice to Bunjil and absorbs into everything around us. Uh and then other ways that like fire and smoke connect with the environment a tree will feel sense that smoke and it will trigger the tree to release flowers and seeds because it knows when the fire goes through the ground will be ready to germinate, like very fertile after the fire’s gone through. So all these different elements are all so in sync with each other and then we’ve got Wurru Wurru Biik which is Sky Country where we see Bunjil in his physical form with all the parrots and the birds – Waa (crow) – all over the place in their physical form, and then their spiritual forms up in the stars. So we’ve got the star Aquila which is uh Aquila means Eagle. The star Altaire is part of that and the two stars either side are Gunawarra the black swans, the two wives and then you’ve got the uh Southern Cross so the Southern Cross the two bottom left hand side stars are Dun Dun and Kop, so the King Parrot and uh the Rainbow lorikeet, so two of his helpers at the base there and then the two pointer stars are … and …, the Nanking Kestrel and the Black Shoulder Kite. So they’re all written up there in the the stars but they’re all physical in the Wurru wurru Biik and they’re all reflective of each other, so you can’t take one out – they’ll all collapse – but you can flip them all around because they’re all in unison.

Please tell us about your PhD.

So uh I’ve just completed my PhD and it’s the theme of it is “on Country, off Country” so what it was all about – I already knew this already because uh going to Hawaii and understanding that you need to work from the inside out to make change is that I already knew you carried Country with you, so I needed to get all this evidence to support me and it was focused on the Gunditj Mirring Organisation uh in Western Victoria – the Gunditjmara around Budj Bim. And it was around the structure that they held in terms of their Land Council because they’ve all got different titles and corporations and things like that. So at the time when I started it was a full group structure where all the members were invited to come in and have an opinion and make change in terms of the management of their Country and then halfway through that changed. Now it’s got a board of directors, so my thesis theme still remained “on Country, off Country” but how do those members – the majority lived off Country, the majority in Melbourne. I actually interviewed a few of them Covid hit so I had to actually do it online so I didn’t get as many interviews as I wanted. But the way I said fill this out freely you’re anonymous, write exactly what you feel. So there was some negative in there, some positive but the main theme was Country was I asked one of the questions: is connection to country or is country physical or spiritual, or both. There’s only a couple that said both um or just physical but some said both but most of them said uh spiritual like flat out because that incorporates everything else. So when I talk about spiritual connection to Country it’s also culture, language, ceremony; it’s something that’s embedded in you before you’re actually physically born. It’s genetic memory that you’ve got the knowledge of your ancestors. I believe babies all have it and they sort of fade a little bit and then as they get older they grasp it again because the knowledge and like even singing, things like that, it’s not coming from your physical body, it’s coming from the millennia of generations of knowledge that’s been passed in your genes. And it’s been proven that things like trauma can be inherited through your genes as well, so that knowledge, that genetic memory can also be carried with you. So no matter where you are, Country is with you and some of the uh interviewees were, they’d never been on their homelands but some most of them were saying I always need to go back to reset, be connected. But there was one that lived overseas that had never been on Country, so she still felt that spiritual connection even thousands of miles away.

Can you clarify what you mean by ‘off Country’, and how do you perceive Country in the city?

Well, I think the definition of on Country off country is both physically off your homelands but also you can almost compare that to being you can be on country but you’re in that urban environment that chokes it and that drains you. So you need to work out ways how you can still connect when you’re surrounded by concrete. So how I look at the cityscape is I imagine it before the buildings were here; I sort of take little titbits of information that was written about the place and one thing that stood out to me was where the church is uh opposite Flinders Street with all its spires and things like that, getting closer to God and stuff. I thought, they had this reference in this colonial paper or whatever, had a reference about this old Bea or red gum tree and this tree was next door to it into where there’s like a little car park now and they referred to it as a prayer tree. I said, right okay, I’m going to reclaim this tree. I’m going to reclaim this knowledge that this tree has got and I wrote a song about the Baban darang or the mother tree. So it’s along the lines of uh you have seen many generations of people and plants and animals live in harmony with each other you embraced your little seedlings to make them grow and then those little seedlings started to grow and while they were growing the mother tree was chopped down but the trunk was strong enough to keep keep it alive. The roots were deep, which is Language, the trunks the elders, the shoots that came from there are the community leaders, and the seeds of the next generations, and then the song continues about the these seeds germinating and coming up and those trees growing tall and strong and becoming the mother trees. So I reclaimed that colonial description of that tree and I look at the landscape in a not a physical way but in that spiritual way and reclaim those different layers of Country that are still present. Like even Underground… there’s a a street called Bouverie Street – it goes basically from the main sort of side entrance of Melbourne Uni down into the city. And the uh European records were like it would flood when there was heaps of rain. So when that happens that creek comes back to life and eels can be seen through the the grates the gutters so that creek is still alive with all those eels so you think about the urban environment that way and then you don’t even see the Buildings.

Can you talk about your relationship with institutions – such as universities and the library, as a First Nations person?

Well when you look through Naarm, through Melbourne you’ll see a lot of colonial or Invader Buildings, because I think Colonial the word colonial is very soft and fluffs around where basically people came here and said you can’t have your identity, your spirituality, you have to get rid of that, you have to choose ours or nothing. So these buildings represent that for Me. But in particular the State Library – there was an opportunity to do an exhibition and it was all about the stars and I was called in first to create an artwork that really just yeah decolonized that space. And the first thing that I noticed in these old buildings: there’s no natural light – you can’t touch these roofs or windows or floors cause they’re all protected. So what I did was I created an artwork that was a star that represented Bunjil as the star, the two stars either side his wives and I repeated that pattern and the colour palette was all about the twilight sky where you can just start to see those stars appear and it was ended up being a 70 odd meter wrap-around of the whole exhibition space really inviting people in and taking them to another level when they’re entering a place like this. It created an atmosphere for people coming in. And when you think about places like the State Library or Melbourne Uni where I’ve just started working, I think about those buildings and writing a course for the the architects there, I don’t want them to go and sit in a classroom, sit in the buildings. I need to get them outside and need them to teach them, need to teach them design and looking at Country from different perspectives – from a different view than they’re usually used to. And get them out away from from that um it’s almost like got a Gothic feel like very – I don’t even know how to describe – it’s not a warm feeling. Um and a lot of the buildings at Melbourne Uni were used for measuring the thicknesses of skulls and intelligence and things like that so it’s a very daunting place to be as a First Nations person but what you have to do is reclaim that space as well. So talk about the the creek – Bouverie Creek and and talk about Country even in that uh structure of that institution. There are little places that people have created little walks and things like that so it’s really about stepping outside of those buildings physically and Mentally.

Where has the PhD led you now? Do you want to tell us more about your new position?

Yeah well, the job at Melbourne Uni is all about writing a course for third-year architecture students so that incorporates like um like straight out architects or landscape architects, designers and things like that so it’s all about sharing my experience as well about working on art projects. One in particular was about cultural safety and instantly the people that were on their end made it very culturally unsafe so the processes of working with big corporates and things like that when creating spaces it’s all about, the main focus is all about collaboration, not consultation because we’re the most consulted people in the world, but we’re never put down as the first authors we very rarely get that authorship, we very rarely uh have more input than that like little bits, like you know – carrot here you go here’s a little bit to put uh your knowledge in there but we’ll take all the glory for it uh it’s happened to me you know, like uh professors and things title it as their paper but it’s all your work. And it’s all about them coming out of their degree knowing and understanding the different perspective of working with First Nations people when creating anything in the design world that uh really will change how they think and look at things before they even start projects.

How do you see the varied elements of your work fitting together?

Yeah well there’s there’s so many things that I do that they do overlap quite often. So there is the language work that I do, the art stuff that I do, the mentorship for young girls, the ceremonial stuff, the singing – never thought I’d be a singer – I still don’t call myself a singer cause cultural singing is different to like mainstream singing – can’t sing for anything mainstream but uh a dear friend of mine, Dr Lou Bennett – she is a beautiful singer and she said you don’t use your colonial voice up here, you use your ancestors’ voice from your belly and you can so hear the difference between when you have a cultural song as opposed to like a one with a melody that’s sung, that’s a popular song because it comes from a different place. So all of those different things – also a mother and a grandmother, an aunty, a ceremonial leader… oh yeah, advocate for highlighting anything to do with First Nations Victoria, making sure that our culture and the beauty of our culture is highlighted and not forgotten. And I think the aim in life is never to let our language fall asleep again and our culture not to disappear.

What kind of impacts would you like your research to have going forward?

I decided to do my theme “on Country off country” for my PhD because there was very little information out there written by First Nations people about our connection to Country and how we have to really fight to maintain that connection, even – not really fight for it because it’s a spiritual thing, but fight physically to get on back onto Country because of all these Restrictions, like many people have to work off Country or go to school off Country or they just move for their parents’ work or whatever. So that was my life and I thought I really needed to create a resource for those that may be struggling with all that and make sure that uh it was something that is a resource for them to bounce off that it is doable. It can be done, you can start a language from just a handful of words from one person, uh and really just keep moving forward and give them that that boost and that support if they’re researching the similar kind of stuff because like when I started there was really nothing out there and in the reports that my supervisors um were writing they said the same thing – there was very little First Nations authored papers on this kind of Stuff, so they encouraged me to publish far and wide.

Beyond your own research, what do you see as some of the most exciting Indigenous-led research underway in Australia?

I think the most exciting research that Blak authors, Blak academics are really looking at today is the same thing: it’s language, culture, ceremony and how that all is tied together and how it’s maintained in a modern world. Because I would not like to be a teenager today. Uh there’s so many bad influences coming from all different directions like the internet for example. They’ve got access to all this stuff that we never dreamed of when we were young, so there’s a lot of different things that can destroy a young one’s mind and heart and soul. So I think researching stuff that helps keep young ones culturally grounded in all of that stuff — language, culture uh and especially ceremony, keep that going. I think they’re really important aspects of any research project. Oh I suppose another thing that I do is I create leadership opportunities for the younger ones because I’m always out there speaking and saying oh they always hear my voice speaking, get up there and speak. An example is with my daughter, I said look it’s always the same people talking, they need a young Wurundjeri voice out there she said no, no Mom, stop pushing me. She ended up writing something and she ended up speaking at the Black Lives Matter rally in front of 10,000 people with so much staunchness and pride in her culture. So that’s what I encourage so the ceremony the Murumkuruk ceremony that happened last weekend, I stepped aside from that and I let all the others take the lead. And what it really entails is the young girls they get a belt given to them and they get their necklace put on but then they get ochre put on them then they get the ashes from the ceremonial fire that we collect every year and we put that on their feet and then we get a piece of uh bread or damper that’s made and people will grab that and they’ll chew it and then they’ll put that into the fire as a symbolic gesture that they’ll look after these young girls. So every year I was doing a major role in that like I organized it all. But I stood aside and I watched it this year, so it’s about creating encouraging the younger ones to take that lead, and I think that’s a really important thing.