It seems Uncle Brien Nelson was born with passion and drive in his blood.
The Dja Dja Wurrung elder comes from a long line of activists in the Aboriginal community, including his great-grandfather Henry ‘Harmony’ Nelson, who in the late 19th century was a champion of Aboriginal rights across Victoria.
And Mr Nelson himself has made no small contribution to his people and the wider community, with a lifetime of achievement in the cultural and environmental spheres to his name.
In recognition of these numerous achievements, Mr Nelson and Boon Wurrung N’arweet (elder) Carolyn Briggs have been named among those included on Victoria’s Aboriginal Honour Roll for 2017.
The honour roll is a prestigious acknowledgement of the Aboriginal people, past and present, who have made outstanding contributions to the state.
Ms Briggs now lives in Melbourne, but in the 1980s founded two important Indigenous institutions in Bendigo: the Aboriginal Tertiary Support Unit at the Bendigo College of Advanced Education (which has since merged with La Trobe University) and the Dja Dja Wurrung Association.
An indomitable work ethic
Mr Nelson was unable to attend the honour roll ceremony for health reasons, but his son Ricky said his father would be “over the moon, he’d be proud as punch” to be inducted.
It is a sentiment his family share.
“Dad worked really hard, he worked from when he was a young man in school, he had a strong work ethic… We’re stoked,” the younger Mr Nelson said.
Mr Nelson spent 17 years working for Parks Victoria, during which time he played a significant role in liaising with Aboriginal cultural groups and facilitating cross-cultural training for staff of the then-Department of Sustainability and Environment.
During this time he helped create the department’s Indigenous Partnership Strategy and Action Plan, which established co-operative land management arrangements with Aboriginal communities.
It is this work with Parks Victoria that the younger Mr Nelson believes his father would consider among his biggest achievements.
Dad worked really hard, he worked from when he was a young man in school, he had a strong work ethic… We’re stoked.Ricky Nelson, son of Uncle Brien Nelson
Mr Nelson has also contributed extensively to the progression of knowledge of Dja Dja Wurrung culture in central Victoria.
His son said his father wanted people to know about Dja Dja Wurrung history and was passionate about his culture.
Mr Nelson established the Bunjil Park Aboriginal Education and Cultural Centre at Neilborough, housing a collection of artefacts to give visitors a greater understanding and appreciation of the history and cultural heritage of the area’s first people.
With his daughter Justice, he also formed a cultural tour company.
He was active at La Trobe University, where in 2009 he was named an honorary emeritus scholar for his contributions to education in the form of lectures about culture and country, and a series of short films made in conjunction with staff.
Mr Nelson contributed to major infrastructure projects, such as the Calder Highway duplication and the central Victorian pipeline, by providing expert advice on protecting Dja Dja Wurrung heritage.
His passion has been passed on to his family, who strive to continue his mission of educating the community about Dja Dja Wurrung culture and history.
“If we can make one person know about the Dja Dja Wurrung people and their plight, we’re doing our role as ambassadors,” the younger Mr Nelson said.
Ms Briggs has an extensive list of achievements across the state to her name, but she would be best known in central Victoria for her initiatives in Bendigo.
When Ms Briggs moved to the city and took up a teaching scholarship, she saw there was space to do something to bolster opportunities for young Indigenous students.
So she developed the Aboriginal Tertiary Support Unit, which took a holistic approach to education to give students the opportunity to move through the education process safely, with security in their identity and support when they graduated or moved on to further study.
It was an approach that Ms Briggs believed was innovative for its time.
Around the same time, she helped establish the Dja Dja Wurrung Association, which included a business hub, a museum, and workshops for Aboriginal people in the area.
It was an opportunity to bring change, demonstrate success can happen if the right supports are put in place and a community is built on strong foundations.Boon Wurrung N'arweet (elder) Carolyn Briggs
She wanted to bring change to the city but there was no funding for new Aboriginal co-operatives, so she adopted the approach of a cultural centre.
Ms Briggs said it was established to give recognition to the Dja Dja Wurrung people, the traditional owners of the land.
But it was also an agency that supported Aboriginal people who lived and moved to Bendigo.
Many successes came out of Bendigo, Ms Briggs said, adding that the city’s community did not realise the assets – in the form of people - it helped strengthen.
She said the initiatives came about not only because of her drive, but the support of others, especially Aboriginal people who also saw opportunities.
“It was an opportunity to bring change, demonstrate success can happen if the right supports are put in place and a community is built on strong foundations.”
Mr Briggs has also played an important role in reviving Tanderrum, the traditional Kulin nation ceremony of welcome, which has opened the annual Melbourne Festival since 2013.
Young people from the five countries that make up the Kulin nation, including those from Dja Dja Wurrung country, perform in the ceremony, strengthening their connection to culture.