Rick Nelson Interview Part 1 at Bet Bet Creek, Dja Dja Wurrung Country
Rick Nelson, Jaara descendant, interviewed by Lucinda Horrocks on the banks of the Bet Bet Creek, in Eddington, Victoria, part of the traditional land of the Dja Dja Wurrung language peoples, 9 April 2015, part 1. Produced by Wind & Sky Productions.
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Wind & Sky Productions.
In this extended audio interview Rick Nelson, Jaara descendant, is interviewed by Lucinda Horrocks on the banks of the Bet Bet Creek, in Eddington, Victoria, part of the traditional land of the Dja Dja Wurrung language peoples.
Rick talks about how Aboriginal bark canoes were made and what they were used for in the swamps and waterways of Dja Dja Wurrung language country. He talks about the impacts of colonisation and the gold rush on the landscape on the lives of Dja Dja Wurrung people. Lucinda and Rick discuss the life of 'King Tommy', an Aboriginal man who lived close by, never far from the Loddon River, in the 19th century.
Lucinda Horrocks: I'm Lucinda Horrocks, and I'm sitting with Rick Nelson, who is a descendant of the Jaara people, also known as the Dja Dja Wurrung people. Rick, where are we?
Rick Nelson: We're on the banks of Bet Bet Creek, which runs into the Loddon River, we're probably a half a K or something from the Loddon, a K from the Loddon River out at a place called Eddington, which is Central Victoria, so in between Dunolly and Maldon or Maryborough.
This would be a typical Central Victorian landscape. There's lots of Red Gums around, Eucalypts around. You can hear Waa the Crow in the background. Waa is one of the Dja Dja Wurrung moieties. Similar to a totem. There's a story of Bunjil the Eagle and Waa the Crow are brothers, and Bunjil the Eagle is a creator spirit, but his brother Waa the Crow ...
Lucinda Horrocks: ... Waa’s more the kind of trickster.
Rick Nelson: Yeah, that's right. He's actually black because he fell in the fire and got burnt.
Lucinda Horrocks: How different is the landscape now, from when it would've been when colonisation first happened?
Rick Nelson: It's hugely different. Although, when you come to little places like that, there is little areas of old growth around. In reality, most of the country has been changed. It's been wooded, it's been de-logged and cut out. Lots of this is all regrowth. The country was with big, old trees, with huge, big canopies, spaced further apart. You could canter your horse at a half gallop through the bush, you would be lucky to do that these days. Yeah, it's hugely different and changed. The gold has done a lot of damage to the surrounding country. They reckon they dug out a metre or so of topsoil off the country.
Lucinda Horrocks: Even though we think we're in quite a natural landscape, it's not.
Rick Nelson: Not entirely, no. There would've been a lot more bigger, old trees like this then, and these couple other here.
Lucinda Horrocks: Tell me about the importance of rivers and waterways, because the Loddon River was central to the Jaara people, wasn't it?
Rick Nelson: Yeah. They were in known in the earlier days as the Loddon River people or the Loddon Tribe. It was hugely important. People didn't travel too far away from water. As you know, water is a huge lifesaver and life giver. When I worked in cultural heritage protection and stuff, we found out that around 70% of cultural sites are found within 50 to 100 meters of water, people didn't travel or camp too far away from water. If you got to walk 20 miles, it's good to know where there's some water on the way. Also you camp near water. It's a base for your food and stuff, lots of food grows along the banks of the river, lots of the animals would come down to the river to get drinks. It's a life giver, the river, virtually.
Lucinda Horrocks: How was bark in particularly canoes, how did they work into that waterway life?
Rick Nelson: It was quite a big, useful factor in life. We've got instances where people used their bark canoes to go out on the swamps and get duck eggs and things like that. Even on the swamps and the rivers, people used their canoes to get food and stuff. It wasn't really the bark though. We know bark gets water-logged and actually sinks. There's a little layer of wood just under the bark, what protects that heartwood of the tree, and that's what they're after. It's called the cambium, it's a thin layer of wood under the bark. That's what the people were after.
Lucinda Horrocks: I didn't realise that! We call it a bark canoe, but actually ...
Rick Nelson: It's a little wooden canoe, yeah.
Lucinda Horrocks: The way they were made, are you familiar with the way they were made?
Rick Nelson: Only what I've seen in research. I haven't actually done that myself. Hold it over a fire and get it to flatten out or curl the little sides on it. Sometimes they'd pack the end with mud, so that water wouldn't come in. There was a little shaping thing that they done with the fire, mostly I think, what I've come across.
Lucinda Horrocks: What was the impact of when the squatters and the first colonists came for the people who were living here in the Loddon River area?
Rick Nelson: It was a huge impact. It was a virtually devastating impact. Firstly, with the settlers coming and taking up land as we know, taking up the best places that the Aboriginal people had, their familiar camping places, where the best of the waterholes are. Now we find that some of those actually were some of the big old sheep stations were, and in fact some towns were set up on some Aboriginal camping places and the best waterholes. That was a big impact, even in those early days. Then with the gold as well. Of course the gold is found on the river banks a lot and gullies. That was even a further impact again, with disease. It was a life changing impact for the people. Absolutely.
Lucinda Horrocks: Where do these stories of Aboriginal people actually working, finding a way to work into the new economy, so trading, ferrying people across on rivers on canoes, ferrying goods on canoes, how does that story fit into the story?
Rick Nelson: As we've come to find out, Aboriginal people were very adaptable or adapted to the new impact, if you'd like. We've got cases of selling possum skin cloaks to the early explorers and settlers, and the gold seekers, of course for the warmth in cold Victoria. There’s probably instances where they would charge a fee to ferry stuff across the river and people across the river. They would adapt and utilise that, perhaps make a small living from it. It would've been hard to cross some of these rivers. I know, just up in Newstead, there's examples where there was 700 Chinese trying to cross the river and their horse and carts getting stuck, and people having to help them and things like that. They would've seeked guidance from Aboriginal people very early.
Lucinda Horrocks: The thing about this country that the newcomers didn't realise that was that when a flood comes, it all changes.
Rick Nelson: Yeah, exactly. That's right, in a new land sort of thing, it would be quite unknown. Again, they would've seeked the guidance from the Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people didn't just roam around nomadically. They had particular places they could go, and things they could and could not do, go and could not go. Then they would follow food resources, that’s why they'd move around. When one place started to diminish in its food resources, they would move to another place and do things like burn off when they leave so there's all regrowth when they came back next year or next season. Of course when the weather starts to change, the climate changes, they would go a little bit north to the bit warmer places or to a bit higher country. Again, the early settlers would take note of this.
Lucinda Horrocks: One of the reasons why we chose to be here is because we found this story of a particular person who was known as King Tommy, and he is known to have formed relationships with the newcomers, the colonists and the gold miners. He chose to live here when most of his family and tribe actually were either forced out or chose to leave to go to Coranderrk. He lived here. He took his canoe to events. He worked with people. He saved the bridge just over in Eddington from fire. What do you think of his life and his story? How does it affect you personally?
Rick Nelson: It affects me in a way that it is one of the old stories that we can tell of one of the last surviving Dja Dja Wurrung people to live out his days on his tribal lands, and to actually seek out a living on the gold fields almost, if you'd like. Not so much as in looking for gold, but in utilising the non-Indigenous communities. There's stories of him going to fairs in the smaller towns. I think he was born in Maldon. I think he points out that he was born where the police camp was in Maldon. That's close by.
Where I'm from, I'm from Castlemaine. I've spent most of my life in Castlemaine, so that's only 15Ks out the road, that's an impact on how we can tell the stories, as well utilise King Tommy's stories in passing on some of the knowledge to some of our kids and some of the children. My father actually played a small role as King Tommy or Equinhup, his tribal name was, in a story about the diaries of a Welsh swagman, the Welsh swagman took him in and gave blankets and gave him food. That was just out near Maldon as well. That's a huge story to tell people around here. He did live here. They found him sick over by the bridge at Eddington, and he died not much later. There is those stories around, even with some of the Mount Franklin farmers. Tommy Farmer, who's named, because he's a farmer, his wife and children died in the Castlemaine hospital and King Tommy is buried out in Dunolly and died in the Dunolly hospital. There is these little stories that we can utilise and use to teach people.