A yarn about local Aboriginal history

Words by Clare Nolan

Jan Aitken. Photo by Clare Nolan

When the president of the Nillumbik Reconciliation Group, Jan Aitken, stepped down from the role recently, she knew it was the right decision. “Look, I’ve been there for 15 years. I’m getting old.” 

The baton has now been handed over to vice president, Jan Mackenzie. Jan Aitken says she is delighted with this change, acknowledging that Jan Mackenzie has done a splendid job so far and has brought a “frisson of new energy, a new voice, and a new way of doing things.” 

The Nillumbik Reconciliation Group (NRG) are committed to recognising and promoting the history of the Wurundjeri people, the original inhabitants of Nillumbik. One of their key objectives is to provide opportunities for Aboriginal people to tell their stories, share their culture, and inform the local community about their complex heritage. A current focus for the group is in working towards making sure that Aboriginal people are recognised in our Constitution and that their painful history is rightfully acknowledged.

Jan says the NRG has a close working relationship with the Nillumbik Shire Council, and she has seen the relationship with the council improve a lot over the years. In the early days, the NRG took more initiative, but these days, the council is a lot more proactive. She elucidates further saying the partnership is so positive they are, “the envy of other reconciliation groups” in Melbourne. 

Each year the NRG organises events in the community celebrating Wurundjeri heritage. One of the big events they are hosting this year is the 25th anniversary of the Gayip. The original Gayip (which is a Woiwurrung word describing a ceremonial gathering of Aboriginal clans) was held in Eltham in 1998. That year, the Eltham High School band was invited to perform on stage. And this year, the school band has commissioned a special reconciliation piece that they will perform. 

Reflecting on her time as president, Jan says some of her personal highlights were the big events that attracted community interest. A few of these include: when Uncle Bill Nicholson spoke at a panel discussion at the Eltham library; when singer Jessie Lloyd performed her Mission Songs Project; and when Jan helped to create the signs along the Gawa trail. The artwork for the signs was provided by Aunty Judy Nicholson, and Uncle Bill Nicholson ensured the wording was Wurundjeri approved. 

Understandably, Jan is passionate about the Wurundjeri people’s history and language. She explains that their language is called Woiwurrung, and the word Wurundjeri is made up of two parts. ‘Wurun’ is the Woiwurrung name for the Manna gum, and ‘djeri’ is a grub-like insect that lives under the bark of the Manna. “When bark falls off you can see the little tracks made by the djeri,” she says. 

The unique landscape and character of the Nillumbik shire has been greatly influenced by the Wurundjeri people. And as residents of this area, Jan says we need to honour and respect where we live. “We are in the heart of Wurundjeri country, and we have wonderful bushland that can speak to us of the original inhabitants.” 

Whilst Jan has wrapped up her commitments as president of the Nillumbik Reconciliation Group, she will continue to be an active member of the committee, helping with events, and attending meetings. But for now, she’s enjoying life with much less responsibility, “I’ve noticed my head’s not as busy as it used to be, and I’m much more relaxed”. 

To learn more about the NRG, you can visit their website.